Just Sagan

Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan.  The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books.  When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery.  There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead.  It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard.  We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.

When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods.  The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new.  Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground.  H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about.  Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer.  After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.

I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead.  Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded.  Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top.  Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses.  The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed.  One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not.  There’s a simple elegance to it.  Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison.  We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited.  When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.

Zombie Wars

I suppose, rationally considered, most monsters can’t possibly exist. Maybe that’s the psychological relief required to enjoy the movies made about them. We can imagine the thrill, but we know we’re safe once we leave the theater. Culturally, monsters fight for supremacy. The early 2000s belonged to the vampire. They were everywhere. I once heard a literary agent advise wannabe authors to write on vampires since the publishing industry was showing no signs of slowing down on them. Then came the zombies. They’re still with us. World War Z came to my attention as a movie, but as one I never saw. I’ve watched many zombie films and none has lived up to the status of the spectacle that launched the genre, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It remains a classic to this day. Still, I was curious and so I read Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

Let alone the chapter after chapter of tough-talking, cool-sounding reminiscers, I have trouble buying zombies. Yes, I get the scare factor, but maybe I’ve read too much science even to visualize myself into a fantasy world where a creature with no digestive system would be driven to eat. It just makes no sense. Human bodies can function with missing parts, of course, but without the integration of muscles, ligaments, digestion, and brain, it seems difficult to accept that they’d keep coming after you when they’ve been decaying for years. It’s all I can do to get out of bed most mornings, even as a healthy, living body. Analysts, I know, talk about zombies as metaphors, but with over 300 pages of stories in no way believable, I had to wonder about the limits of credulity. Maybe Carl Sagan was right after all.

I hope I’m not unsophisticated enough not to realize that the real point in Brooks’ novel is how the surviving humans treat each other. There is a moral to the story. We develop new and “better” weapons to kill one another. We’re smart enough to have world peace and prosperity, but wars are constantly erupting. We have a nation with many brilliant people and yet we elect a Trump. Self-destruction, it seems, is written into our genes. We consume one another. Even when the enemy is completely imaginary we find ways of believing. So I read World War Z, appreciating the irony. I still can’t get over, however, the trope that all you need is a human brain to want to destroy others.

Candles vs Demons

Among scientists who write Carl Sagan has always struck me as one of the more open minded. Dedicated to the scientific method, he nonetheless admits that there are some things scientists don’t know. The last time I was in Ithaca, therefore, I picked up a copy of his tour de force, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I wasn’t really sure what to expect—I’ve been researching demons and I supposed they would be addressed in his book, since they feature in the title. Although that is indeed the case, the book is a collection of essays vindicating in various ways the practice and teaching of science. It is quite a scary book. It was also Sagan’s final book published in his lifetime.

Reading this just after Gabriele Amorth’s An Exorcist Explains Demons, noteworthy for its credulousness, The Demon-Haunted World was like whiplash into reality. Back into the realm of observable facts and testable hypotheses, it was indeed like a candle in the dark. Sagan admits that science can’t speak definitively on the supernatural—something that sets him apart from other science writers—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply scientific thinking anywhere it’s appropriate. And that includes the universe of politics. Published some two decades before the rise of Trump, the book is surprisingly prophetic when it points to the possibility of the rise of fascism in a nation that distrusts science. Indeed, the book shows Sagan clearly worried that an authoritarian, totalitarian government was on the rise. It’s almost preternatural in its accuracy.

The tome is large enough to dissuade a full summary within the word-limits I set for myself on these daily posts, but I can say that this book is necessary now more than ever. Sagan was a celebrity in his lifetime, a “rock star” scientist. Even so he worried about the deplorable state of science understanding among political leaders he met. For many years America has been mired in conservative causes that distrust science implicitly. Another strain that runs throughout this book is the need for education. Not only has America catered to anti-science groups, it has fallen behind much of the rest of the world in science education. Those who claim to make America great again can’t see that their very tactics have made our nation fall behind the rest of the world when it comes to education, across the board. Surely Sagan was right that a good grounding in scientific thinking is the equivalent of lighting a candle. As for the rest of the country it has been getting darker and darker, and our “leaders” have no idea even how to strike a match.

Literary License

Whenever I orient myself to a new place, I tend to do so by the writers who’ve lived there. As a family we used to take “literary trips” to visit locations associated with famous writers. While in the Midwest it was often Laura Ingalls Wilder, and once, Mark Twain. Here in the east there has been considerable diversity. Several locations associated with Edgar Allan Poe have informed our travel plans. H. P. Lovecraft (although, to be honest, we always had other reasons to be in Providence) naturally followed on from Poe. We visited the property of Edna St Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York, and later in the same trip Sleepy Hollow, to find the haunts of Washington Irving. Famous writers can be found in just about any major city and many small towns. Now that Ithaca is in our regular orbit, I’ve begun to consider the implications.

Carl Sagan is probably the most well-known of the city’s past celebrities. His premature death added an almost Gothic element to his fame. Certainly among the sphere of his fellow academics known for fiction is Vladimir Nabokov. An entomologist by trade, Nabokov turned to writing and teaching. His lasting renown in this field was for the novel he tried to burn before it was published, Lolita. Before I knew Ithaca would be in my future, and indeed, before I knew that Nabokov was either a former resident or an entomologist, I read the novel. It’s a challenging book. Humbert Humbert is as flawed a protagonist as one might find, and any character guilty of child molestation is difficult to read even in the protection of fiction. Perhaps that’s why the novel won such acclaim. The experience of men and women who read it, I suspect, is very different. It’s a novel of moral urgency.

In perhaps a more innocent time, E. B. White attended Cornell. Apart from The Elements of Style, his book-length oeuvre was mostly in the realm of literature for children. This brings the the focus back to youth. Our childhoods—whether we acquiesce to what fate seems to demand or challenge our lot hoping to improve it—make us who we are. As the years increase in number the memories become more fiction and less fact, they nevertheless remain the touchstone for anchoring our understanding of self. Some of us constantly measure ourselves against the future we clawed for as a child, like those pencil marks on the doorpost showing our physical progress. Having been unable to afford the luxuries of travel when I was young, I add a notch to my literary belt every time I travel to Ithaca, knowing full well that only the slimmest of minorities could find my very obscure hometown on a map. If I remember correctly.

A Kind of Contact

I find myself in Ithaca, New York. Places have a resonance with people, and this is one of those places I feel like I belong. The feeling may not be mutual, but that makes it no less real. At least on my part. Dominated by the presence of Cornell University, this town of waterfalls and free spirits represents everything I value. Education, creativity, and an easy familiarity with nature all have a place here. And Carl Sagan. No doubt astrophysics is far more sexy than religious studies. I didn’t watch Cosmos when it aired, but I knew of Sagan as its driving force. Before being daunted by the math, I had considered astronomy as a career; Denied tenure at Harvard, Sagan came to be associated with Cornell, to Ithaca’s enduring benefit. His house above Ithaca Falls is still pointed out by the locals.

Star status for academics, so I’m informed, is a mixed blessing. Accusations of being a popularizer are flung somewhat liberally at those who know how to explain things to non-specialists. Part of the ivory tower mystique is to remain inaccessible and impenetrable. Teaching, at the same time, is expected to open lost worlds to the curious. Sagan, like Bill Nye—another Cornell star—wasn’t afraid to take his knowledge to the streets. And such receptive streets there are in Ithaca. It’s a place a child of the sixties can feel at home. Looking for fossils in the many gorges, I’m reminded that the old and new are not so different in a universe billions of years old.

The sense of place, while scientifically dubious, is nevertheless real. Part of my ancestral heritage lies in upstate New York. My grandfather, while not a college man, took a couple of courses at what was then Cornell College to launch his teaching career. Following in grand-dad’s footsteps, my own teaching career (which, however, never included Cornell) didn’t last long. Yet somehow we both ended up passing through Ithaca. People on the street. Waiting to be enlightened by stars that shine brighter than my own. Life is a series of places. All, it turns out, are temporary. Rod Serling once said, ”Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.” He left the nearby town, but he has remained there ever since. Places are that way. I’m in Ithaca right now, but the stark reality of New Jersey awaits at the end of the day.

The New Neighbors

Apartment dwellers often ponder new neighbors. If anything gives the lie to being in control of your own destiny, renting your domicile does. Still using the old, aristocratic terms landlord or landlady, we know that we are under someone else’s authority. “As long as you’re under my roof,” my bully of a step-father liked to huff, “you’ll obey my rules.” When you rent, you can’t choose your neighbors. Those who own the property have final say. If they play the stereo too loud (“game” is probably the modern equivalent, but I was born before Pong even came alone) and won’t listen to your plea for a more monastic setting, you throw yourself on the mercy of your lord or lady. We got new neighbors this week. Not just us, but the whole galaxy. Seven new earth-like planets—surely ruled by Trump-like dictators—have been discovered. Let’s hope they’re early to bed, early to rise types.

During the Bush administration I often fantasized about the aliens landing on the White House lawn. I thought, with a president so obviously lacking intelligence, what would our new neighbors think of us? Would they complain to the landlord? You’d think that after that long trip across cold, vast interstellar space they’d maybe have the right to expect to find the brightest and the best in charge, right? Mission accomplished. The sign says so right there. Or to put it in a modern key, “Earth first, Earth first.” If they’ve got their intergalactic television on, I hope it’s switched to a different channel.

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Contact, the novel by Carl Sagan, suggested the first contact from the aliens would be of Adolf Hitler. Among the first poisoned radiation this planet flung off into space was the fascist propaganda of 1930s Germany. Earthlings, not yet tempered by the Trump brand, were shocked. Surely this is a sign of hostility! Unless, of course, you control both the legislative and executive branches. Then you can just decide not to show up at the town hall and tell everyone you’ve got more important things to do. So, what will our new neighbors think? Do they just want the bodies of their compatriots from Roswell back, or is it a more serious discussion to be held behind closed doors? After all, African slaves were merely chattels in a negotiation between a more powerful culture and unhuman indigenous dullards with nothing better to do. On the spaceship back to their extraterrestrial slave mines, I do hope they have the common decency to keep the music down to a reasonable level.

Possessed by Work

Now that I’m safely ensconced back in the daily work routine, I spend some time thinking of the scary movies I had time to watch during my “free time.” Well, I actually thought about them then, too, but I had so many other thoughts to write about that I kept putting it off. That, and the fact that some of the movies were about demonic possession and the juxtaposition of holidays and demons just didn’t seem to fit, kept me from expounding. Why watch such movies at all? It’s a fair question. I tend to think of it as part of a larger thought experiment—wondering what such movies might tell us about being human.

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A few weeks back I wrote about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, based on the true tragic story of a young woman who died after a prolonged exorcism. After that I watched The Last Exorcism, The Rite, and The Possession. (I’m such a cheerful guy, as you can see, and this may be why I inhabit an isolated cubicle at work.) This array of movies, held together by the common chord of the reality of demonic possession, also brought together the standard sociological division of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. The Last Exorcism is a Protestant-based treatment of what is generally considered to be a Catholic subject. That connection is affirmed in The Rite. The Possession, however, gives us a Jewish demon and a rare representation of a Jewish exorcism (acted by Matisyahu, no less!). What emerges from watching all of these films together is that demons are an inter-denominational problem, even in a scientific world. Carl Sagan wrote about the demon-haunted world, and it continues to exist, it seems.

But these are movies we’re talking about. Not reality. Nevertheless, The Rite and The Possession are also said to be based on true stories. We do live in a mysterious world. Evolution has developed reasoning as a practical way of dealing with life in a complex ecosystem. It is a survival mechanism. So is emotion. We sometimes forget that both thought and feeling are necessary for survival in our corner of the universe. Neither one is an end in itself. We can’t quite figure out how these two features of the human brain work together. There are, in other words, some dark corners left in our psyches. I suspect that’s why I find such movies so interesting. They’re not my favorites, but they do serve to remind us of just how little we know. And that’s a scary thought, given how we’ve learned to possess this planet.