Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute & Weekly Webzine Site
Since 1996 ~ Over 15,000 Web Pages In Archive
Volume 1384
Carl Sagan acknowledged that Burroughs' imaginative tales 
were the wellspring from which 
his career and those of many fellow scientists and writers arose. 

Father of Popularized Astronomy
Dr. Carl Sagan
1934 - 1996
The universe shines a little more dimly now. -- Dave Eicher

EXPLORATIONS - July 20, 2003: Carl Sagan
Updated: May 30, 2006
VOA News: Special English: 
Carl Sagan Helped People Understand English


This is Shirley Griffith.

And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program, Explorations. Today we tell about American scientist Carl Sagan. He spent much of his life helping make space travel possible far out in the universe. He also helped people understand science.

The year is nineteen-forty-seven. Twelve-year-old Carl Sagan is standing outside a small house in the eastern city of Brooklyn, New York. It is dark. He is looking up at the sky. After a few minutes, he finds the spot for which he has been searching. It is a light red color in the night sky. Carl is looking at the planet Mars.

Carl has just finished reading a book by American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. It is the story of a man who travels from Earth to the planet Mars. He meets many strange and interesting creatures there. Some of them are very human. The name of the book is “The Princess of Mars.” It is just one of many books that Mister Burroughs wrote about travels to Mars.

In “The Princess of Mars,” the man who travels to Mars can make the trip by looking at the planet for several minutes. He then is transported there by a strange force.

Carl Sagan stands watching the red planet. He wishes he could travel across the dark, cold distance of space to the planet Mars. After a while, young Carl realizes this will not happen. He turns to enter his home. But in his mind he says, "Some day. . . Some day it will be possible to travel to Mars. "

Carl Sagan never had the chance to go to Mars. He died in December, nineteen-ninety-six. However,much of the work he did during his life helped make it possible for the American Pathfinder vehicle to land on Mars. It landed on July fourth, nineteen-ninety-seven. It soon began sending back to earth lots of information and thousands of pictures about the red planet.

Carl Sagan's friends and family say he would have been extremely happy about the new information from Mars. They say he would have told as many people as possible about what Pathfinder helped us learn.

Carl Sagan was a scientist. He was also a great teacher. He helped explain extremely difficult scientific ideas to millions of people in a way that made it easy to understand. He made difficult science sound like fun.

Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn, New York in nineteen-thirty-four. Even as a child he wanted to be a scientist. He said it was a child's science book about stars that helped him decide to be a scientist.

Mister Sagan said he read a book that told how our sun is a star that is very close to earth. The book also said that the stars in the night sky were also suns but very far away. Mister Sagan said that suddenly, this simple idea made the universe become much larger than just Brooklyn, New York.

It should be no surprise to learn that Carl Sagan studied the stars and planets when he grew older. He did this at the University of Chicago. Later he taught astronomy at Harvard University and Cornell University.

In the nineteen-fifties, Mister Sagan helped design mechanical devices for use on some of the first space flights. He also published two important scientific theories that were later confirmed by space flights. One theory was that Venus is extremely hot. The other was that Mars did not have a season when plants grew as scientists had believed. He said that the dark areas on Mars that were thought to be plants were really giant dust storms in the Martian atmosphere.

Mister Sagan was deeply involved in American efforts to explore the planets in our solar system. He was a member of the team that worked on the voyage of Mariner Nine to Mars. It was launched in nineteen-seventy-one. Mariner Nine was the first space vehicle to orbit another planet.

Mister Sagan helped choose the landing area for Viking One and Viking Two, the first space vehicles to successfully land on Mars. He also worked on Pioneer Two, the first space vehicle to investigate the planet Jupiter. And he worked on Pioneer Eleven, which flew past Jupiter and Saturn.

Carl Sagan was a member of the scientific team that sent the Voyager One and Voyager Two space vehicles out of our solar system. He proposed the idea to put a message on the Voyager, on the chance that other beings will find the space vehicles in the distant future.

Mister Sagan worked for many months on what to say in the message. It was an extremely difficult task. When the Voyager space vehicles left our solar system they carried messages that included greetings from people in many languages. They carried the sound of huge whales in our oceans. And they carried the sound of ninety minutes of many different kinds of music from people around the world. Carl Sagan had created a greeting from the planet Earth.

Carl Sagan was an extremely successful scientist and university professor. He was also a successful writer. He wrote more than six-hundred scientific and popular papers during his life. And he wrote more than twelve books. In nineteen-seventy-eight, he won the Pulitzer Prize for one of them. It is called “The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence.” He even helped write a work of science fiction in the nineteen-eighties. The book is called “Contact.” It is about the first meeting between beings from another world and the people of Earth. It was made into a popular movie.

Perhaps Carl Sagan may best be remembered for his many appearances on television. He used television very effectively in his efforts to make science popular. He first became famous in nineteen-eighty when he appeared on a thirteen-part television series about science. The show was called “Cosmos." It explored many scientific subjects--from the atom to the universe. It was seen by four-hundred-million people in sixty countries. Mister Sagan wrote a popular book based on his television show.

Millions of people saw Carl Sagan on television in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties. He especially liked to talk about science and scientific discoveries on the late night television program "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." Mister Sagan said he always tried to accept invitations to “The Tonight Show” because about ten-million people watched it, people who were not usually interested in science.

On television, Mister Sagan was a good story-teller. He was able to explain complex scientific ideas in simple ways. He believed that increasing public excitement about science is a good way to get more public supporters. He said much of the money for science and scientific studies comes from the public, and people should know how their money is being spent.

Some scientists criticized Carl Sagan because of his many appearances on television. They said he was not being serious enough about science. They said he was spending too much time appearing on television trying to make science popular. Other scientists valued his efforts to explain science. They said he communicated his message with joy and meaning.

One of Carl Sagan's last books is called “The Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human in Space. Mister Sagan said he got the idea for the book from a picture taken by the Voyager One space vehicle. As it passed the planet Neptune, Voyager turned its cameras back toward the distant Earth.

Mister Sagan said. . . . “And there it was. Very small. The small blue dot in space with all of us. And you can't tell the difference between one nation and another. You can't even tell the difference between continents and oceans.

He said, "I thought it had a great deal to say about the foolishness of the issues that divide us. I thought it said we need to care for each other. And we have to also preserve this small dot in space. It is the only home we have ever known. "

Carl Sagan died December twentieth, nineteen-ninety-six in Seattle, Washington. He was being treated at a medical center there for a bone marrow disease. Carl Sagan was sixty-two years old.

This Special English program was written by Paul Thompson and Nancy Steinbach. It was produced by Paul Thompson. This is Shirley Griffith.

And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another Explorations program on the Voice of America. 

Mosiac Image of Carl Sagan using 185 images taken with/of the Hubble Telescope

By Carl Sagan ~ May 28, 1978
By the time I was 10 I had decided — in almost total ignorance of the difficulty of the problem — that the universe was full up. There were too many places for this to be the only inhabited planet. And, from the variety of life on earth (trees looked pretty different from most of my friends), I figured life elsewhere would seem very strange. I tried hard to imagine what that life would be like, but despite my best efforts I always produced a kind of terrestrial chimaera, a blend of existing plants or animals.

About this time a friend introduced me to the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I had not thought much about Mars before, but here, presented before me in the adventures of John Carter, was another inhabited world, breathtakingly fleshed out: ancient sea bottoms, great canal pumping stations and a variety of beings, some of them exotic. There were, for example, the eight-legged beasts of burden, the thoats.

These novels were exhilarating to read. At first. But slowly, doubts began to gnaw. The plot surprise in the first John Carter novel which I read hinged on his forgetting that the year is longer on Mars than on earth. But it seemed to me that if you go to another planet, one of the first things you check out is the length of the day and the year. Then there were incidental remarks which at first seemed stunning but on sober reflection proved disappointing. For example, Burroughs casually comments that on Mars there are two more primary colors than on earth. Many long minutes did I spend with my eyes closed, fiercely contemplating a new primary color. But it would always be something familiar, like a murky brown or plum. How could there be another primary color on Mars, much less two? What was a primary color? Was it something to do with physics or something to do with physiology? I decided that Burroughs might not have known what he was talking about, but he certainly made his readers think. And in those many chapters where there was not much to think about, there were satisfyingly malignant enemies and rousing swordsmanship—more than enough to maintain the interest of a city-bound 10-year-old in a long Brooklyn summer.

The following summer, by sheerest accident, I stumbled upon a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction in a neighborhood candy store. A glance at the cover and a quick riffle through the interior showed me it was what I had been looking for. With some effort I managed to scrape together the purchase price, opened the magazine at random, sat down on a bench not 20 feet from the store and read my first modern science fiction short story, “Pete Can Fix It” by Raymond F. Jones, a gentle account of time travel into a postnuclear-war holocaust. I had known about the atom bomb — I remember an excited friend explaining to me that it was made of atoms — but this was the first I had seen about the social implications of nuclear weapons. It got you thinking.

I found I was hooked. Each month I eagerly awaited the arrival of Astounding. I read Verne and Wells, read, cover-to-cover, the first two science fiction anthologies that I was able to find, devised scorecards, similar to those I was fond of making for baseball, on the quality of the stories I read. Many ranked high in asking interesting questions but low in answering them.

There is still a part of me that is 10 years old. But by and large I'm older. My critical faculties, and perhaps even my literary tastes, have improved. In rereading L. Ron Hubbard's “The End Is Not Yet,” which I had first read, breathless, at age 19, I was so amazed at how it had declined in the intervening years that I seriously considered the possibility that there were two novels of that title, by the same author, but of vastly differing quality. I can no longer manage credulous acceptance as well as I used to. The plot of Larry Niven's “Neutron Star” hinges on the astonishing tidal forces exerted by a strong gravitational field. But we are asked to believe that hundreds or thousands of years from now, at a time of casual interstellar space flight, such tidal forces have been forgotten. We are asked to believe that the first probe of a neutron star is a manned rather than an unmanned spacecraft. We are asked too much. In a novel of ideas the ideas have to work.

In Douglas Trumbull's technically proficient science fiction film “Silent Running,” the trees are dying in vast, spaceborne, closed ecological systems on the way to Saturn. After weeks of painstaking study and agonizing searches through botany texts, the solution is found: Plants, it turns out, need sunlight. Trumbull's characters are able to build interplanetary cities but have forgotten the inverse-square law. I was willing to overlook the portrayal of the rings of Saturn as pastel-colored gases, but not this.

I have the same trouble with “Star Trek,” which I know has a wide following and which some thoughtful friends tell me I should view allegorically and not literally. But when astronauts from earth set down on some far distant planet and find human beings there in the midst of a conflict between two nuclear superpowers — which call themselves the Yangs and Coms, or their phonetic equivalents — the suspension of disbelief crumbles. In a global terrestrial society centuries in the future, the ship's officers are embarrassingly Anglo-American. In fact, only two of 12 or 19 interstellar vessels are given non-English names, Kongo and Potemkin. And the idea of a successful cross between a Vulcan and an earthling simply ignores what we know of molecular biology and Darwinian evolution. (As I have remarked elsewhere, such a cross is about as likely as the successful mating of a man and a petunia.) I have similar problems with films in which spiders 30 feet tall are menacing the cities of earth: Since insects and arachnids breathe by diffusion, such marauders would asphyxiate before they could savage their first metropolis.

I believe that the same thirst for wonder is inside me that was there when I was 10. But I have since learned a little bit about how the world is really put together. I find that science fiction has led me to science. I find science more subtle, more intricate and more awesome than much of science fiction. It also has the additional virtue of being true. Think of some of the scientific findings of the last few decades: that there are particles which pass effortlessly through the solid earth so that we detect as many of them coming up through our feet as dewn from the sky, that the continents are moving on a vast conveyer belt with the Himalayas produced by a collision of India with Asia; that Mars is covered with ancient dry river valleys; that chimpanzees can learn languages of many hundreds of words, understand abstract concepts, and construct new grammatical usages; that all life on earth runs off one particular molecule that contains all the hereditary information and is able to make identical copies of itself; that in the constellation Cygnus there is a double star, one of whose components has such a high gravity that light cannot escape from it (it may be blazing with visible radiation on the inside but it is invisible from the outside). In the face of all this (and there is much more, equally fascinating), many of the standard ideas of science fiction seem to me pale by comparison.

I see the relative absence of these findings in science fiction, and the distortions of scientific thinking often encountered in science fiction as terrible wasted opportunities. Real science is as amenable to exciting and engrossing fiction as fake science, and I think it is important to exploit every opportunity to convey scientific ideas in a civilization based upon science but somehow unable to communicate what science is about.

However, the best of science fiction remains very good indeed. There are stories that are so tautly constructed, so rich in the accommodating details of an unfamiliar society that they sweep me along before I have even a chance to be critical. Such works include Robert Heinlein's “The Door into Summer”; Alfred Buster's “The Stars My Destination” and his “The Demolished Man”; Jack Finney's “Time and Again”; Frank Herbert's “Dune,” and Walter M. Miller's “A Canticle for Leibowitz.” You can ruminate over the ideas in these books. Heinlein's asides on the feasibility and social utility of household robots exceedingly well over the intervening years. The insights into terrestrial ecology that are provided by hypothetical extraterrestrial ecologies, as in “Dune,” perform, I think, an important social service. “He Who Shrank,” by Henry Hasse, presents an entrancing cosmological speculation which is being seriously revived today, the idea of an infinite regress of universes — in which each of our elementary particles is a universe, one level down from the previous one, and in which we are an elementary particle in the next universe up. 

A rare few science fiction novels combine a standard science?fiction theme with a deep human sensitivity. I am thinking, for example, of Algis Budrys's “Rogue Moon,” Ray Bradbury's “The Martian Chronicles” and many of the works of Theodore Sturgeon — including “To Here and the Easel,” a stunning portrait of personality dissociation as perceived from the inside. Isaac Asimov's story “Breeds There a Man” provided a poignant insight into the emotional stress and sense of isolation of many of the best theoretical scientists. Arthur Clarke's “The Nine Billion Names of God” introduced many Western readers to an intriguing speculation in Oriental religions.

One of the great benefits of science fiction is that it can convey bits and pieces, hints and phrases, of knowledge unknown or inaccessible to the reader. Heinlein's “And He Built a Crooked House” was, for many readers, the first introduction to four-dimensional geometry that held any promise of comprehensibility. One science fiction work offers as a ditty the mathematics of Einstein's last attempt at a unified field theory; another presents an important equation in population genetics. L. Sprague de Camp's “Lest Darkness Fall” is an excellent introduction to Rome at the time of the Gothic invasion, and Asimov's “Foundation” series, although this is not explained in the books, offers a useful summary of some of the dynamics of far-flung imperial Rome. Time-travel stories — for example, the three remarkable efforts by Heinlein, “All You Zombies,” “By His Bootstraps” and “The Door Into Summer” — force the reader into contemplations of the nature of causality and the arrow of time. These are all works you ponder over as the water is running out of the bathtub or as you walk through the woods in an early winter snowfall.

Science fiction ideas are widely dispersed, and found today in somewhat different guises. For one, we have science fiction writers such as Asimov and Clarke providing, in nonfictional form, cogent and sometimes brilliant summaries of many aspects of science and society. Some contemporary scientists are introduced to a vaster public by science fiction. For example, in the thoughtful novel “The Listeners” by James Gunn, we find those directing a major radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence 50 years from now comparing their progress with the ideas of my colleague Frank Drake: “Drake! What did he know?” A great deal, it turns out. We also find straight science fiction transmogrified into a vast proliferation of writings, belief systems and organizations. One science fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard, has founded a successful cult called Scientology.

Classic science fiction ideas are now institutionalized in pseudoscientific U.F.O.s and ancient-astronaut belief systems — although Stanley Weinbaum (in “The Valley of Dreams”) did it better as well as earlier than Erich Von Daniken (author of “Chariots of the Gods?”). In “Wine of the Dreamers” by John D. MacDonald (a science fiction writer now transformed into one of the most interesting contemporary authors of detective fiction), we find the sentence “And there are traces, in Earth mythology, ... of great ships and chariots that crossed the sky.” R. De Witt Miller in his story “Within the Pyramid” manages to anticipate both Von Milliken and Immanuel Velikovsky, and to provide a more coherent hypothesis on the supposed extraterrestrial origin of pyramids than can be found in all the writings on ancient astronauts and pyramidology.

The interweaving of science and science fiction sometimes produces curious results. It is not always clear whether life imitates alt or vice versa. For example, in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s superb epistemological novel “The Sirens of Titan,” a not-altogether-inclement environment is postulated on Saturn's largest moon. When in the last few years some planetary scientists, myself among them, presented evidence that Titan has a dense atmosphere and perhaps higher temperatures than expected, many people commented to me on the prescience of Kurt Vonnegut. But Vonnegut was a physics major at Cornell University and naturally knowledgeable about the latest findings in astronomy. In 1944, an atmosphere of methane was discovered on Titan, the first satellite in the solar system known to have an atmosphere. In this, as in many similar cases, art imitates life. (Many of the best science fiction writers have science or engineering backgrounds; for example, Pool Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke and Robert Heinlein.)

In fact, our understanding of the other planets has often changed faster than their representations in science fiction. A clement twilight zone on a synchronously rotating Mercury, a swamp-and-jungle Venus, and a canal-infested Mars, while all classic science fiction devices, are all, in fact, based upon earlier misapprehensions by planetary scientists. But as our knowledge of the planets has changed, the environments in the corresponding science fiction stories have also changed. It is satisfyingly rare to find a science fiction story written today that posits algae farms on the surface of Venus. (Incidentally, the U.F.O. contact mylhologizers are slower to change, and we can still find accounts of flying saucers from a Venus which is populated by beautiful human beings in long, white robes inhabiting a kind of Cytherean Garden of Eden. The 900-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures of Venus give us one way of checking such stories.) Likewise, the idea of a “space warp” is a hoary science fiction standby, but it did not arise in science fiction. It arose front Einstein's General Theory of Relativily.

The motivational connection between science fiction depictions of Mars and the actual exploration of that planet is so close that, subsequent to the Mariner 9 mission of 1971-72, we were able to name a few Martian impact craters after deceased science fiction personalities. Thus there are on Mars craters named after H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stanley Weinhaum and John W. Campbell Jr.—a debt to science fiction that scientists have now in part repaid. No doubt other sciencefiction authors will be added after they die.

The great interest of youngsters in science fiction is reflected in a demand for science fiction courses in high schools and colleges. My experience is that such courses can be fine educational experiences or disasters, depending on how they are taught. Properly planned science fiction courses, in which real science or real politics is an integral component, would seem to have a long and useful life in school curriculums.

The greatest human significance of science fiction may be as thought experiments, as attempts to minimize future shock, as contemplations of alternative destinies. This is part of the reason that science fiction has so wide an appeal among young people: It is they who will live in the future. No society on earth today is well adapted to the earth of 100 or 200 years from now (if we are wise enough or lucky enough to survive that long). We desperately need an exploration of alternative futures, both experimental and conceptual. The stories of Eric Frank Russell were very much to this point. We were able to see conceivable alternative economic systems, or the great efficiency of a unified passive resistance to an occupying power. In modern science fiction can also be found useful suggestions for making a revolution in an oppressive computerized society, as in Heinlein's “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.”
Such ideas, when encountered young, can influence adult behavior. Many scientists deeply involved in the exploration of the solar system (myself among them) were first turned in that direction by science fiction. And the fact that some of that science fiction was not of the highest quality is irrelevant. Ten-year-olds do not read the scientific literature.

In all the history of the world there has never before been a period in which so many significant changes have occurred in so short a span of time. Accommodation to change, the thoughtful pursuit of alternative futures, is the key to the survival of civilization and perhaps of humanity. Ours is also the time of the first generation that has grown up with science fiction. I know many young people who would, of course, be interested, but in no way astounded, were we to receive a message tomorrow from an extraterrestrial civilization. They have already accommodated to that future. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that, if we survive, science fiction will have made a vital contribution to the continuation and benign evolution of our civilization




The Hillman Reason and Free Thinkers Series

In Memory of Carl Sagan
Sagan Links
More Sagan Links
Cosmos Episodes
Audio Files: Interviews on CBC Morningside
Gore, scientists, religious leaders celebrate Sagan's life

Carl Sagan 1934-1996
Astronomer and Scientist

The Fantastic Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs
ERB Companion Sites Created by Bill Hillman
ERBzine Weekly Webzine
Danton Burroughs Website: Tarzana Treasure Vaults
Burroughs Bibliophiles
John Coleman Burroughs Tribute Site
Tarzine: Official Monthly Webzine of ERB, Inc.
John Carter of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs
ERBzine Weekly Webzine
Weekly Webzine
Danton Burroughs Weekly Webzine
Weekly Webzine

John Carter Film

ERB, Inc. Corporate Site

ERB Centennial