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Portraits of the Solar System: Talking with Carolyn Porco About Carl Sagan

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On Tuesday, the Library of Congress celebrated the life and work of noted astronomer and educator Carl Sagan with an event that featured a veritable who’s who of the science community. The event also launched the official opening of The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive to the public at the Library. MacFarlane himself was in attendance and joined many of Sagan’s colleagues in giving glowing remarks to a man he said had a profound influence on his life, although they never met.

One of the presenters was planetary scientist and science communicator Carolyn Porco. In the 1980s, Porco was an imaging scientist with NASA’s Voyager mission to the outer solar system. Among the best-known of these images is a 1990 image of Earth as a “pale blue dot” – an image that Sagan had encouraged NASA to take. The image itself is rather pixelated, with earth as a tiny speck in a beam of light.

The cameras on NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured this rare look at Earth and its moon from Saturn orbit on July 19, 2013.
The cameras on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured this rare look at Earth and its moon from Saturn orbit on July 19, 2013.

Coming full-circle during her presentation at the event, Porco revealed, for the first time, an updated version of the remarkable image taken by the Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn. She offered it as a tribute to Sagan.

Recently, Trevor Owens, a digital archivist with the Library’s National Digital Information and Infrastructure Preservation Program, spoke with Porco about working with and knowing Carl Sagan, in addition to discussing some of her correspondence with Sagan found in the archive.

Q: Could you tell us a little about how you met Carl Sagan? What were your first impressions of him?

A: I don’t really recall when I first met Carl, but I am clear on when I first heard him speak. I was an undergraduate in the Earth and Space Sciences Department at Stony Brook University on Long Island, and an astronomy professor from whom I was taking a class invited Carl to come to Stony Brook and give a presentation to the department. It was the spring of 1972, and the Mariner 9 spacecraft had been inserted into orbit around Mars the previous November. Carl spoke of the recent findings from this first orbital mission to Mars and, in particular, the evidence it provided that some liquid, presumably water, had once flowed on the surface, cutting distinctive channels. It was a big deal.

Before Carl’s arrival, we were assigned to read the book “Intelligent Life in the Universe,” by I.S. Shklovskii and Sagan. In brief, this eye-opening book propelled me, like Alice in Wonderland, to a whole new and fantastic place. I was completely transfixed by it.

His [Sagan’s] talk that day in 1972 had exactly the same effect on me. To paraphrase my own review article [of the book], “Whatever spell Carl Sagan had begun to cast on us all back then had surely taken hold of me.” I became an enormous fan.

Thereafter, for nearly 25 years I interacted with Carl as a graduate student and then as a professional colleague, collaborating with him on the 1990 Pale Blue Dot image of Earth and later, in 1994, at his invitation, as the character consultant to the movie “Contact.” He was a gentleman through and through, always very respectful and kind, and always ready with a word of praise. I am especially warmed when I remember his praise of my popular science writing and his encouragement of me to get into hosting science documentaries, like he had done. Coming from Carl, that was saying something!

Carolyn Porco and Carl Sagan
Carolyn Porco and Carl Sagan

Q: Reading over the idea for and draft of the “Portrait of the Solar System” paper you and Carl Sagan were collaborating on in 1992, what things strike you?  I would be particularly interested in how your ideas and perspective have developed over time and any thoughts you have on your connection to Carl in the piece you were writing.

A: The “idea” piece, which is an outline of the proposed paper, and the draft of the paper that came from this outline, were both written by me, in response to Carl’s request (or maybe my offer) to get the ball rolling. And a few things impress me now as I go over these particular documents.

The first is that I had a very clear idea of, and was surprisingly articulate about, the cultural significance of the series of pictures we had just taken, as well as the historical nature of the Voyager mission, which is of course why I proposed to take such a series of images to begin with. (Carl proposed this “Portrait of the Solar System” to the Voyager project two years before I did; others also had the same thought. It was an obvious thing to do.)

The second is how long-standing my notions about these matters have been. It reminds me that I was initially drawn to the study of the astronomy for spiritual reasons – for the way that it moved me to consider, from a very young age, my own existence and the meaning of it, and my physical place in the grand scheme of things. In proposing an image of the Earth from the outer solar system, I was merely taking these considerations and trying to convey them to others by highlighting the widening perspective of our place in the cosmos that the Voyagers’ departure from the solar system allowed. And this is why I was so drawn to Carl and his message: It was clear he felt the same things.

Q: In a letter to you on Jan. 22, 1992, Sagan situated the discussion of the images of Earth from space as going “back to the very beginning of the space program when it was argued that there was no need for imaging systems on spacecraft because imaging systems nether posed nor answered crisply formulated scientific questions and were good for something disdainfully dismissed as ‘PR.’” What do you think of this reflection?

A: You might think that a collection of some of the brightest people on the planet would be more rational about the scientific utility in placing a bunch of visual detectors, arrayed into two dimensions, at the focus of a telescope. There were some very myopic individuals – and, relatively speaking, a lot of them – in the early days of the space program who thought, essentially, that images were for kids. Carl waged this battle (among many others) with his colleagues. He lost the first one: There was no imaging system on the first interplanetary mission, Mariner 2, to Venus. But he eventually won the war. Imaging systems have been included in the core set of instruments taken on virtually every planetary mission since.

To the basic objection – that imaging systems can neither pose nor answer “crisply formulated scientific questions” – I say, take a gander at the vast number and breadth of scientific results that my team and I have produced with the Cassini cameras. Some of the most fundamental discoveries that have been made at Saturn since 2004 have been made with our cameras.

Q: Carl wrote a glowing letter in support of your promotion to full professor your tenure case, dated Dec. 2, 1996. He stresses your contributions both as a scientist and as a leader of the Cassini imaging team. I would be curious to hear your reactions to reading his recommendation now. What does it say about you, about Sagan and about how you both approach science?

A: I have had this letter in my possession for quite some time now and it is one of my most treasured items. What does it say about Carl? Note the date: Dec. 2, 1996 – two-and-a-half weeks before he died. He had only a few months earlier come out of his last bone marrow transplant ordeal and was still recuperating and catching up on his own workload when he wrote this. He couldn’t have been feeling very well. But knowing how important this letter would be to me, he wrote it anyway. So, if you want to know how I feel about Carl Sagan and why, you need  look no further than this infinite kindness, because it says it all.

Q: You served as an adviser on the 1997 film version of the novel “Contact.” As I understand it, you were a reference model for Jodie Foster’s performance of the protagonist, Ellie Arroway. What can you tell us about that experience? What are your reflections on how you are and aren’t like her character? Further, what is it about you and your relationship with Sagan that prompted him to think of you as a model for the character?

A: Being involved in this movie was a fantastic experience. It really began in June 1993 when Carl and his wife, Ann Druyan, invited me to dinner at their home in Ithaca, during a time when I happened to be at Cornell University for a Cassini imaging team meeting. The conversation was very wide ranging, as you can imagine. But Carl and Ann seemed particularly interested in my experiences as a rare female in the male-dominated world of science. I remember Carl giving me some fatherly advice, too. Looking back on it, I believe I was being “interviewed” at that dinner for the job of advising on the development of the main character in “Contact,” Ellie Arroway.

A few months after that dinner, I received a phone call from Carl, inviting me to be the character consultant to the movie. I remember distinctly his saying, “Of all the female scientists I know, you come closest to being like the character we wish to portray on the screen.” I assumed he was referring to my driven, passionate, perhaps over-zealous nature, which he had had ample opportunity to observe since we both had been members of the Voyager imaging team. Needless to say, I was enormously flattered and jumped at the chance.

It was a marvelous thing, to sit around the table with members of the “Contact” team – Carl, Ann, Executive Producer Lynda Obst, and (the first) director George Miller – and brainstorm about what the on-screen Ellie Arroway should be like.

By the end of the day, the others felt that it had been a tremendously creative and inspiring session, and I was told by the director that I would be working with Foster and tutoring her on what being a scientist is like. Unfortunately, that never came to pass.  Despite several attempts made by Warner Bros. Studio over the course of a year to coordinate our schedules, Foster and I never spent time together. But she did a brilliant job capturing the essence of the character that we all had conceived, and I was told by Lynda Obst that Foster ultimately used Carl himself as her immediate role model. So, no wonder it turned out brilliantly!  I love that movie, by the way. It’s not as good as Carl’s book but it turned out really well, and I am so proud to have played a role in it.

While we’re on this topic, I will take this opportunity to dispel a long-standing myth about the “Contact” story, because I know Carl would want the truth to be known:  The main character, in the movie and even in the book, is not based on any single individual. How do I know this?  Because I asked Carl directly!

It’s pretty obvious that the voice of Ellie – the scientific musings, the outlook on science versus religion, the reasoned thinking – is unmistakably Carl’s; he himself stated this to me. And the rest of the character – her life, her experiences, her personality, her behavior, what she looked like – was cobbled together from bits and pieces taken from the real women that Carl had around him at the time. I can name at least four different women, maybe five including myself, from whom Carl “borrowed” in constructing the fictional life and characteristics of Ellie. (In fact, as the book and movie were under development, I remember Carl asking me about my long hair and why did most female scientists cut theirs short but I hadn’t. I’m sure he questioned others about things like this.)

This is, no doubt, why so many of us can look at Ellie and see ourselves in her:  It’s because there ARE bits of us in her. The truth is, she’s a composite character and wonderfully rich and fascinating because of it.

Q: I would be interested in any final thoughts or reflections you have about Carl Sagan and how he continues to inform your perspective and your work?

A: It’s hard to describe the influence that Carl and my interactions with him had on me. It’s been deep and so monumental, really. I’m not referring to the “big cosmic picture” and humanity’s place in it that he’s famous for bringing to the public, or his calling attention to the spirituality inherent in a scientific perspective. These are elements of Carl’s message that were firmly established in my own mind before I even heard his name. I’m instead referring to his professional and personal conduct and integrity, which I was fortunate to see up close.

Carl was always the most reasoned and most kind person in the room, the one who could gently guide a dispute to a rational conclusion or bring calm to a group when emotions had flared up. And he graciously withstood pointed criticism from his peers for presenting himself to the public.

Of course, I best remember the times when he felt someone had been particularly vicious or disrespectful to me and either actively came to my defense or took me aside to shore me up. I came to feel that the man had my back. I tell you, you could do worse than have Carl Sagan looking out for you!

I had, of course, been very much looking forward to showing him our images of Saturn’s moons. It would have been beyond wonderful to hear what he would have had to say about the never-ended stretches of equatorial dune fields made of organic materials, or the liquid hydrocarbons dotting the polar regions on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan – a moon he spent a lot of time thinking about. Or how overjoyed he would have been to see what we have found at the south pole of the small moon, Eneladus, the most accessible extraterrestrial habitable zone in all the solar system. It’s not completely crazy to say it could be snowing microbes at the south pole of Enceladus. No doubt, that would have delighted him.

Today, when I think of Carl, I think of grace, kindness, uncommon integrity and great internal strength, and I have used in the course of my life his example as my guiding principle – something to reach for even if I never seem to get there myself. I’ve said many times, many places: I’ve led a charmed existence and having had the chance to know Carl as well as I did was a very bright light in it.

Comments (3)

  1. I was lucky enough to hear Carl Sagan give the commencement speech at Skidmore College in 1976. A great speech by a great scientist and communicator!

  2. Just came across this when browsing around to see what has recently been going on with some of my favourite scientists, Carolyn being one. I’m 59 now and always had a keen amateur interest in most scientific subjects, but my earliest loves are physics and space. I guess my greatest hero is Feynman, but Carl Sagan and Carolyn are definitely up there for me. So nice to hear about their professional and very human relationship over the years, I love that they both lived a life that was dedicated to communicating their passion for their subject. May Carolyn do that for many years to come

    • What a lovely note…thanks for posting!

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