From Aliens to the End of the World: Nick Sagan Answers YOUR Facebook Questions!
By: Nick Sagan
A: In “Alien Encounters” one of the many excellent points Neil deGrasse Tyson makes is that we can barely get along with ourselves, so how are we going to get along with aliens? We’re not ready, he says, and looking at our history to this point, he’s probably right. That said, one can imagine scenarios where first contact brings out the best in us. And perhaps we’ll find a civilization that’s faced similar challenges in their own history, a people who know how to conduct themselves in a way that maximizes the chance that the experience will be positive for all involved.
A: It’s hard to predict extraterrestrial motivations but I would imagine an advanced civilization would gain as much from making contact with us as we might upon discovering an intriguing but primitive new species of life. We’d be a subject of curiosity, perhaps expanding their understanding of how life develops on worlds other than their own. On the other hand, we may be so far behind them in our development that we’d be utterly uninteresting to them (which may explain why we’ve yet to hear from anyone.)
A: I have enormous admiration and respect for Dr. Hawking. I'm particularly swayed by his call to establish self-sustaining off-world colonies, so our civilization can survive whatever catastrophes might ensue from unleashing dangerous new technologies (advancements in germ warfare, etc.) On the subject of aliens, I feel he’s a touch alarmist, but it’s true that first contact carries a risk. We may not want to “shout into the cosmos” as David Brin puts it, and while spacecraft like Pioneer and Voyager are unlikely to attract attention, directing radio transmissions to other star systems might be ill-advised. First, let’s listen. Should we detect an extraterrestrial signal, we can then figure out whether or not to respond.
A: I grant you there’s no shortage of terrestrial problems to solve but searching for life is neither wasteful nor unworthy. “Are we alone?” is one of the most fascinating questions we can think to ask, along with “How did we get here?” and “What’s to become of us?” Consider how these questions may be interlinked--knowing about other species would be tremendously useful to our understanding of how we evolved and of what our future might hold. Likewise, discovering different beings from us with different ways of thinking would expose us to a wealth of new ideas, quite possibly including ideas that could solve many or all of the problems we’re currently grappling with down here on planet Earth.
A: “How did you survive your technological adolescence?” is the question I’d most like to know the answer to, but in the heat of the moment, I imagine you’d more likely hear me stammering, “What the **** is going on?!” or “Holy ****, are you really from another world?”
A: It’s all relative. Here on Earth, yes, we’re the big fish in a small pond. Admittedly, cetaceans give us a run for our money, as do our fellow primates, and we tend to underestimate certain other terrestrial animals (pigs, for example, are much brighter than most of us realize.) But look at how our intelligence has allowed us to dominate the planet--by that standard, no other earthly creature can challenge us. Still, the cosmos is mind-bendingly vast: the Milky Way alone appears to have a ratio of over 50 planets for every human that lives on Earth. When you consider how many worlds are out there, and how very old the universe is, it’s entirely possible that we share the universe with civilizations far more advanced than ours, beings with intellectual capabilities so beyond us that we can scarcely imagine how embarrassingly dumb we are by comparison.
A: I’d say I’m into cosmology in much the same way as an army brat is into the army. I grew up around it, I’m passionate about it, and while I have the utmost respect for the field, I’m not a cosmologist and have no desire to become one. That’s fortunate because I don’t know that I’d make a particularly good scientist. Dreaming up stories is more my speed--hopefully, some of those stories will inspire young minds to enter the field, as has been the case with science fiction since the genre began.
A: That’s very flattering! Alas, you’re too late —I’m happily married.
A: I’m certainly intrigued by the idea of it. Life on Earth didn't necessarily have to begin on Earth. Panspermia is a hypothesis that has yet to be ruled out and the existence of polyextremophiles like Deinococcus radiodurans suggests the possibility that microbial life might potentially be resilient enough to survive journeys between worlds. Life could have been seeded here for all we know. But I’ve yet to see the solid evidence that proves *any* extraterrestrial being exists, much less one who had a hand (or, let’s say, tentacle) in our evolution. As Dad was fond of saying, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We’re simply not at that point. Tangential to this question, I wonder why some are so willing to believe aliens are responsible for the pyramids and every other wonder of the world. Again, no solid evidence to support this. We’re an enormously resourceful species and I wish we’d stop selling our ancestors short.
A: As a science fiction writer, I love it. “How might the world end?” is one of my favorite questions to ask and eschatology makes for wonderful creative fuel. On the other hand, from a scientific standpoint, there’s no credible evidence to suggest December 21 st will be the last day for planet Earth. Dad lost his battle with cancer on a December 20th — so that time of year always brings me down. But this year, I’ll grieve his passing and then wake to celebrate the world not ending.
A: While he’d be disappointed that we’re not funding space exploration more robustly, he’d be very excited about some of the developments on the horizon. Case in point: Next-generation telescopes like the James Webb, which will look farther into outer space than we’ve ever looked before and find the first galaxies of the early cosmos. Similarly, he’d be thrilled by our investigation into dark matter and dark energy, the mysterious forces that comprise 96% of the mass of the universe. This is a terrific time to be a cosmologist. My father may no longer be with us, but with every new discovery, I can imagine the joy he'd feel.
A: No, he made the prospect of contact with alien life exciting and full of possibility. He wasn’t blind to the risk of it but he objected to how often we portray otherworlders as monsters to be feared. I remember watching Aliens with him and afterwards he said, “Why do the extraterrestrials always have to be so ghastly?”
A: It’s great to be one of Carl Sagan’s kids. He was an inspiring human being and a wonderful dad and I got to spend 26 years with him. I’m very fortunate and deeply grateful. There are minor drawbacks: my childhood was a bit surreal, for one, and the fantastic example he set can sometimes feel daunting. I know he’d be enormously proud of “Alien Encounters” and the show I wrote for the Adler Planetarium. Some of my other work is darker in tone and perhaps less to his taste but he’d be supportive of that as well. Both he and Mom (she’s the artist behind the Pioneer plaque) contributed tremendously to my becoming a science fiction writer. When I was 6, they invited me to come up with a greeting for aliens who might someday discovery the Voyager spacecraft — after that, the die was cast!
A: This is a great question but an impossible one for me because I can’t compress all his wisdom into a single answer. I could write about his passion for learning or his appreciation of civility and compromise or his extraordinary work ethic or his inherent optimism or the bravery he exhibited when facing his death. Here, I’ll pick one that’s been on my mind lately: Critical thinking. He taught so much more than that but I’ll always be grateful for his admonition to vigorously apply skepticism to unproven claims, to question arguments from authority, and to employ the scientific method when looking to winnow nonsense from truth.
A: I can remember some fantastic times stargazing. With clear skies and relative lack of light pollution, Ithaca, New York has terrific, dark nights with plenty of stars, and we once saw a meteor shower together that was especially cool. As for bedtime stories, Dad introduced me to the science fiction of Asimov, Bradbury and Heinlein, and to the Edgar Rice Burroughs “John Carter” books that first got him thinking about Mars back when he was a boy. At the same time, Mom was introducing me to the fantasy stories of Oz , Narnia , Wonderland , etc. I’m very lucky to have had parents who read to me and nurtured my love of books. Oh, and it wasn't quite bedtime stories but Dad would sometimes pretend to be an alien from one of Jupiter's moons. He had a condition called achalasia that forced him to hop around so he could digest his food. He made a game out of the hopping, pretending to be an alien so I wouldn't be frightened by his condition.
A: Basketball, for one. He’d played center in college and had cultivated a darn good hook shot. We’d play out front: 1-on-1 or games of H-O-R-S-E. We were NBA fans, unsuccessfully rooting for Patrick Ewing to lead the Knicks past the Bulls, admiring Michael Jordan’s spectacular talent even as he broke our hearts. We’d watch movies together--my father was a fan of David Lean but also shared some of my passion for the films of Stanley Kubrick (who had consulted with Dad during the making of 2001 .) Also, as he was often traveling, we went on some magical trips together--the South Pacific, the Netherlands, Panama. Such good times. I miss him like crazy.
Q: Would you support sending volunteers out into space on one-way missions? Assuming we had the ability to keep them in completely self-sustaining craft capable of traveling at near-light speed. Would you consider going at some point just to see what's out there?
A: If we’re talking about just seeing what’s out there, then in most cases machines can accomplish that objective very efficiently and you don’t need to risk a human crew. But I’m in favor of crewed missions where appropriate--I would love to see us set foot on other planets. Would I consider going? I’d be thrilled by the possibility. But I can get dizzy sick from video games--I can take about 15 minutes of camera whips and spins before having to lie down for an hour with a splitting headache and green complexion. No way I’d make it through astronaut training. I dream about it, though.
A: Thanks! Yes, I’ve got two novels percolating in my brain right now, one unrelated to anything I’ve done before and one that’s shaping into a fourth book in the Idlewild series. It may be quite some time before either is complete (I’ve got projects in other media that are currently keeping me busy), but I’m excited about both books. When there’s news to report, I’ll be sure to post it on nicksagan.com, Facebook and Twitter. Also, for fans who are looking for the Idlewild ebook, I’m told it will be available shortly, and in the meantime the audiobook is available on iTunes.