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Carl Sagan Is a Busy Man in the Universe

April 03, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

Halley's Comet is coming--and so is Carl Sagan, that charismatic tour guide to the cosmos, with a book on comets. Astronomy's prolific superstar is at work, too, on a novel about the first contact with extraterrestrial life and on a book about nuclear war and weaponry.

At 50, Sagan has a toddler daughter, Alexandra, 2; an infant grandson--and a cause to which he is passionately committed--bringing about a halt to the nuclear arms race.

The seemingly indefatigable scientist-educator-author's dreams include an eventual television series, a follow-up to 1980's wildly successful "Cosmos," a 13-hour journey through space that attracted 150 million viewers around the world.

His dreams do not include a whirl through real space courtesy of NASA, for whom he has been an adviser on the Mariner, Viking and Voyager unmanned missions. "I've never really been interested," Sagan says. "To be in a tin can 200 miles up is not my idea of adventure.

'Ideal Mission'

"Oh, I think it would be a lot of fun just to sit up there and watch the clouds go by. That's an aesthetic experience. But in terms of real exploration . . . I think the ideal mission is to Mars."

Sagan was in Los Angeles recently to accept honors from Physicians for Social Responsibility for his work on the "nuclear winter" theory of a planetwide climatic catastrophe resulting from even a small nuclear war. He looked at his luncheon plate and pondered, "So what are the political implications of Physicians for Social Responsibility serving quiche?"

Then, hardly skipping a beat, he was talking once more of nuclear war, of the arms race--which in his perception is a race neither side can win--and of President Reagan's "Star Wars" proposal (for developing lasers and other technology to intercept Soviet warheads), which, in Sagan's view, is "not only foolish and ruinously expensive but exceptionally dangerous."

Sagan contends that both the United States and the Soviet Union are "transfixed" with the idea of an attempted preemptive first strike by the other side; he insists a major first strike is "self-deterring," that is, "it's an elaborate and expensive way to commit national suicide."

He has a name for those who make nuclear weapons--"senior practitioners of dark arts"--and, in his view, nuclear weapons "are not good for anything, and certainly not for preventing a nuclear war. You will have a safer world if you get rid of most of these weapons."

Sagan ponders the deadly potential of these 50,000 nuclear weapons, "the destructive equivalent of 1 million Hiroshimas," and he asks, "What are we thinking of?"

"I would be very happy," he says, "if the United States and the Soviet Union decided that they would move toward a posture of minimum deterrence . . . each side would have the capability to literally destroy the other" but the weapons in their arsenals would be perhaps 10% of the present total.

Carl Sagan's proclivity for, and adeptness at, promoting Carl Sagan annoys some of his colleagues in science, few of whom are, like Sagan, household names, let alone wealthy media personalities and recipients of both the Pulitzer prize for literature ("The Dragons of Eden," 1978) and the Peabody award for television excellence ("Cosmos," 1981).

One observer noted, "Never before in the history of science or mass media has a scientist's name, face and voice been as familiar as Brooke Shields' or Bo Derek's."

He shrugs: "It's a big mistake to spend a lot of time worrying about it. I can't tilt everything I do" to keep other people happy.

He has the credentials--a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Chicago, as well as honorary doctorates by the handfuls and numerous prizes and medals.

And, if there are those in science who think it's just not nice to make money off of science, well, Sagan says, "a number of scientists have come up to me and said, 'Thank you for making me a hero to my kids.' " Further, he says, science should not be some esoteric thing whose secrets are zealously guarded by some self-appointed "high priests" and understanding the world is not "just for funny people in white lab coats."

"In this country we use tax money to support science . . . . It's clear if we wish to keep doing science it's important that people understand what science is about."

One thing it is not about, he notes, is astrology, a view that has not endeared him to dedicated astrology buffs. "There are people," he acknowledges, "who wish to believe that their future is somehow tied to the stars. Should I say there is something to astrology? There is no connection between (their fate and) the stars rising. . . . "

And, he adds, putting labels on people according to their zodiacal signs is akin to labeling them on the basis of "racism or sexism."

(For the record, Sagan is a Scorpio, born in New York City Nov. 9, 1934.)

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