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Carl Sagan

(November 27, 2006)

On June 6, 1990, as the NASA spacecraft Voyager I passed the orbit of Pluto, 3.8 billion miles from Earth, it looked back, and took a photo of our home planet. Caught in a beam of refracted sunlight, the mighty Earth that has hosted the sound and fury of the Human species for their entire existence is nothing more than a tiny pale blue dot, lost in the lonely darkness of space.

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On October 13, 1994, the famous astronomer Carl Sagan presented this photo to the world in an historic speech at Cornell University. Here is an excerpt from that speech:

We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

While I was researching the November 13 Pale Blue Dot article, I discovered something amazing. It seems that the most famous and beloved of all modern astronomers, the late Carl Sagan, was a closet pot smoker. Naturally, I doubted this information at first. Probably just another internet fallacy, I thought. A rumour started by some aging hippie, trying to bolster the movement to decriminalize the stuff.

But I was wrong. After extensive investigation, it became clear that this was no fallacy. Carl Sagan did indeed derive much of his inspiration and insight from that much maligned little herb, the Cannabis plant.

cannabis_leaf (76K)

It seems to me that this is no small thing, because Carl Sagan was no ordinary man. He held Ph.D's in both Astronomy and Astrophysics, and taught at Harvard and Cornell. He was a leading advisor to NASA since its inception, and was directly involved in almost all major NASA missions. In a very real way, Carl Sagan became the ambassador of planet Earth, and all who inhabit her, when he conceived and designed the gold plaques on the two Pioneer spacecraft, and the gold discs aboard the two Voyager spacecraft, all right now way out at the edge of our solar system, many billions of miles from Earth, drifting toward interstellar space (at 37,000 mph) - each one a message in a bottle, to any passing aliens, from a primitive species stranded on the third planet of a star called Sol.

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But Carl didn't stop there. He formed The SETI Institute, now a huge world wide organization dedicated to the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence through analysis of radio telescope data. Then he co-founded the Planetary Society, the largest space-interest group in the world, with over 100,000 members in more than 140 countries. He was also the first to bring to everyone's attention the concept of nuclear winter.

And while all this was going on, he was also writing books, including The Dragons of Eden which won him a Pulitzer. He also wrote a book called Cosmos, which became the best selling science book ever published in English. Then there was the thirteen part Cosmos mini series, which was seen by 600 million people in over 60 countries. He had a great gift for being able to explain complex scientific processes not just in terms anyone could understand, but also in a way that fascinated, and inspired, and left one wanting to learn more. It is fair to say that Carl Sagan provided the impetus for a great many young people all over the world to enter the professions of science and astronomy, to the ultimate benefit of our entire species.

cosmos (63K)

And he did all this and a great deal more while smoking pot. But wait a minute! How can that be? Marijuana is supposed to be a dangerous drug that leads to harder drugs. It's supposed to ruin your life, not inspire you to greatness. What gives? Could it be we are not being told the entire truth? Could it be there are ulterior motives behind all the negative propaganda? Or is it just rampant ignorance? Could it be that marijuana is in actual fact - dare I say it - a good thing?

Isaac Asimov, who is a member of Mensa (the most intelligent 2% of our species), and arguably the most prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction the world has seen, has referred to Carl Sagan as one of the only two men he knew of that was just plain smarter then he was. There is no doubt that Carl Sagan was a genius. Perhaps, then, we should pay attention to what he has to say on the subject of marijuana...

I am convinced that there are genuine and valid levels of perception available with cannabis (and probably with other drugs) which are, through the defects of our society and our educational system, unavailable to us without such drugs.

Cannabis brings us an awareness that we spend a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds.

Cannabis enables nonmusicians to know a little about what it is like to be a musician, and nonartists to grasp the joys of art.

Sometimes a kind of existential perception of the absurd comes over me [when high] and I see with awful certainty the hypocrisies and posturing of myself and my fellow men.

I hope that time [when cannabis is legalized] isn't too distant; the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.

The above quotes are from an article written by Carl Sagan under the pseudonym "Mr. X". You can read the entire article at the site of Carl's good friend, Dr. Lestor Grinspoon.

Carl Sagan (19K)
Dr. Carl Sagan ... 1934 - 1996

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