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Lessons of Immortality and Mortality From My Father, Carl Sagan

Lessons of Immortality and Mortality From My Father Carl Sagan The Cut


One day when I was still very young, I asked my father about his parents. I knew my maternal grandparents intimately, but I wanted to know why I had never met his parents.“Because they died,” he said wistfully.“Will you ever see them again?” I asked.He considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason — and no evidence — to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn’t give in to the temptation.“Why?”Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.As far as I can remember, this is the first time I began to understand the permanence of death. As I veered into a kind of mini existential crisis, my parents comforted me without deviating from their scientific worldview.“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.

Stashed in: Interconnectedness!, Science!, Sadness, @ifindkarma, The Universe, Awesome, Death, Meaning of Life, Stories, The Internet is my religion., Carl Sagan, Seth MacFarlane, Stars!, Cognitive Bias, Letters

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Actually, the last part of Sasha Sagan's story really stuck with me:

But there is something else Seth did for my father’s legacy that has been significantly less tweeted about: He made it possible for all the contents of the Sphinx Head Tomb — all the essays on nuclear winter, the papers on the climate of Venus, the scraps of ideas, a boyhood drawing of a flyer for an imagined interstellar mission — to be preserved in the Library of Congress.

It’s an enormous honor that makes me feel that my father has, in death, achieved a kind of immortality — albeit a tiny, human, earthly immortality. But that’s the only kind a person can hope to achieve. Someday our civilization will crumble. The Library of Congress will be ruins, someone else’s Library of Alexandria. In the biggest sense, our species will eventually die out, or transform into something else, that will not revere what we revere. And then, a few billion years later, when the sun meets its own end, all life on Earth will die with it.

Growing up, I had learned all the reasons why real immortality is impossible from my father, yet I could not help but imagine 23rd or 24th century schoolchildren looking at my dad’s penmanship under glass and feel his life was really extended in some tangible way.On the brisk, gray day this past November, during the week that would have been his 79th birthday, my family, our friends, and many of my father’s colleagues and former students gathered in Washington D.C. to celebrate the new Seth Macfarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive.

But when I entered the massive cathedral to the history of the country, I was overcome not with a sense of immortality but its antithesis. In front of the famous original copies of the Gutenberg Bible and the Gettysburg Address it hit me: This was not a monument to eternal life but a mausoleum.

In the way couples sometimes renew their vows, we renewed our grief. And in that moment my father was both so alive in the minds of those who loved him and so painfully gone. The conundrum of mortality and immortality was crystallized for me in the Library of Congress that day, but it’s the same paradox of our small place in the enormous universe that my parents first taught me in the Sphinx Head Tomb.

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