As an interviewer, I often think about how I might interview influential figures from throughout history and get their reaction to current events. What would be the perfect question to ask?
Take, for instance, famed scientist Carl Sagan. If I could talk to Carl Sagan now, what would I ask? What would be the perfect topic, and the perfect question?
Sagan was a tremendously influential voice for science in the 70s and 80s, and his insights would be just as interesting and meaningful today as they were then.
Sagan ushered science into popular culture with this 13-part series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which aired in 1980. At a time when he felt science and critical thinking were threatened –particularly by religious fundamentalism — he became our national tour guide into the wonder of the world around us, and the universe beyond.
Viewers responded in a big way to Sagan’s critically-acclaimed series, and it became one of the most-watched programs to ever air on public television.
My questions for Sagan would be obvious. Do you think the state of scientific education is better or worse today? What changes would you make? Have you toured the Ark Encounter yet?
I’m guessing I’d know the answer to that last question, and perhaps the others, as well. Sagan was a skeptical of religious claims around science, and his opposition didn’t sit well with some. Sagan had the moxie to take on his critics with grace and clarity.
But those wouldn’t be the perfect questions. Many scientists can speak to these issues today, with influence and authority. I’m sure Sagan’s insights would be interesting, but perhaps not surprising.
Sagan was far more than a celebrity scientist. He was a real astrophysicist who dedicated his life to studying the planets.
His study helped us understand conditions on Venus, and helped us understand the greenhouse effect in heating planets and changing the atmosphere.
I’d certainly ask him to share his thoughts about climate change here on earth. What would he think of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord?
Again, I think I can predict his answers here. Interesting, but not surprising. Probably wouldn’t change hearts and minds.
Sagan was far from a dispassionate scientist, observing the universe with detachment. People were central to his exploration. He didn’t simply make cosmic connections, he made human connections, too.
“You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other,” Sagan said.
Near the height of his fame, Sagan reached out to a promising 17-year-old student. He brought him to his lab at Cornell, gave him a tour, even offered him a place to stay if a snowstorm cancelled his bus ride home. That young student was Neil deGrasse Tyson, who went on to become a famous scientist in his own right, even taking on a reboot of Sagan’s Cosmos series.
The encounter had a profound impact on Tyson, who later said, “If I am ever as remotely famous as this man, then I am duty-bound to treat students who show an interest in the universe with all the respect and dignity he showed me.”
Reaching out with kindness and genuine interest was a hallmark of Sagan’s life.
“He worked very hard for his students, got them jobs, worried about their education, many of them very well placed now,” says William Poundstone, author of Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos. “If you talk to the people he inspired, who knew him, they are uniformly effusive.”
That’s why I think if I had the chance to interview Carl Sagan today, the most interesting things to ask him about might not be the origins of the universe, but about human connections and why they matter. The perfect questions to ask him would be around his thoughts about people and how we should engage one another, not planets.
What would you ask Carl Sagan?