Nick Sagan on ‘Cosmos,’ Carl, and his “strange childhood”

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Carl Sagan with his son Nick.

Carl Sagan with his son Nick. Photo courtesy Nick Sagan.

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Carl Sagan's son Nick talks with RNS about his father's impact, memories from his "strange" and "surreal" childhood, the new "Cosmos," and what it was like to record a greeting for potential extraterrestrials at six years old.

  • Conundrum

    I enjoyed this article very much Chris, thanks for posting.

  • Atheist Max

    Wonderful. Awesome. Inspiring. Thanks for this!

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  • Ted

    I am glad to hear he isn’t an atheist, agnostic is better although unfortunate. The wonder of the Cosmos should invoke awe, wonder and move our spirit. I would like to think that our creator took his Dad’s hand and showed him his creation from the beginning of time.What a thought! May we keep our minds and hearts open to our creator rather than insult and spurn him. If you don’t know, like even Aristotle didn’t, be humble enough to say it. It isn’t a weakness, prideful arrogence is.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Very interesting article. It was good to see Nick not fall into the trap of being anti-religious or bigoted against religion because he is not, apparently, “religious” himself.
    However, I made note of some things he said that others have similarly said and later and slowly, found themselves becoming drawn to a faith in God and even an “organized” religion. I refer to his comments about feeling awe in the presence of nature, revering the natural beauty of the world, while he does NOT see spirituality as a dirty word, and has had many experiences he considers spiritual.
    What he said has echoes of observations made by some Catholic saints and some modern Catholic theologians.

  • J.C. Samuelson

    Awe and wonder belong to all of us, Ted. Those of us who don’t believe what you believe have as legitimate a claim to having deeply moving experiences as you. I can’t count how many such experiences I’ve had in my encounters with nature, and I’ve never needed a belief in gods to have them.

    As for agnosticism versus atheism, neither is better. Did you know you can be an agnostic Christian (i.e., doubt the actual existence of god)? Did you know that most atheists – including the “infamous” Richard Dawkins – are technically agnostic (i.e., we admit that the existence of gods is at least possible)? If not, I suggest learning more about the labels people apply to themselves and others. People seem to have endless capacity for mixing & matching.

  • J.C. Samuelson

    Deacon – The reason his words “echo” the observations of others is because awe, reverence, and yes, even spirituality are not the sole purview of religious folk. These things belong to everyone. I’m continually amazed at those who seem to think they own (or have a special understanding of) these things because of their particular belief in a particular ancient book!

    In terms of awe, wonder, joy, a sense of connection, etc. what we’re really talking about is a positive emotional response that arises in certain situational and cognitive contexts. A dry, uninspiring description perhaps but apt, I think (though I’m not a professional). On this view, non-theists, skeptics, and many others who might be described as irreligious have been expressing “spirituality” since the earliest days of natural philosophy, and probably before that.

    Yes, some people who do not believe do eventually gravitate toward a belief in gods or higher powers. And some people who believe drift away from those beliefs. However, it should not be mysterious as to why everyone has the capacity for these emotions and experiences. We are human, and it is a part of being human to have what might be termed “spiritual” experiences. Some of us simply prefer more precise, less loaded qualifiers.

  • Jon

    Wow, what a moving and poignant interview!
    Nick, if you read this, thanks. Thanks to Chris too.
    I find it interesting that the Humanist child of this Humanist family has a “Godfather” (and what a person Frank Drake is!).
    Our family too has people in that role for our kids, with no supernatural beliefs implied or expected.

  • Atheist Max

    @J.C. Samuelson,


    First of all, Carl Sagan referred to himself as an “Agnostic” so I am not surprised his son would do the same. Very few people seem to understand that Agnosticism is about knowing and Atheism is about believing.

    Atheist – “I do not believe in a god”
    Agnostic – “I do not know if there is a god”

    There is no real difference between the two because neither “believes”.
    So the Agnostic is just more diplomatic.

    The churches are full of Atheists and Agnostics who don’t want to admit it.
    Even many preachers are just going through the motions.

  • Atheist Max

    “I am glad to hear he isn’t an atheist”

    But he is an Atheist. He doesn’t believe in God. That is all Atheism is.

    “…be humble enough… isn’t a weakness, prideful arrogance is.”

    Your preening pride and ego are the first ingredients required to accept the extraordinarily solipsistic claims
    that the great Creator of all of the Universe is at your service. And with a few ‘humble’ incantations and propitiations the laws of nature can be changed…IN YOUR FAVOR! Some humility.

    I don’t know if there is a god, as such I don’t believe in it – That makes me an Agnostic AND an Atheist.

    Just like Nick Sagan

  • Piledriver

    “The churches are full of Atheists and Agnostics who don’t want to admit it. Even many preachers are just going through the motions.”

    That’s a pretty spurious claim.

    As an atheist (small a, unaffiliated non-Humanist) myself, I feel I take the subject pretty seriously and would not want to lie about where I stand. What kind of person could tolerate themselves living such a fundamental lie?

    Sure, I know that even Mother Theresa (a Catholic Saint) admitted doubts and struggles over her faith. But I think it would be dishonest for anyone of any persuasion not to admit questioning themselves and their views in the course of life; that’s just how human intelligence works.

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  • Chris Stedman, thank you for your fascinating interview of Carl Sagan’s son Nick Sagan. I was intrigued to learn that Nick’s godfather is Dr. Frank Drake, director of Project Ozma at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia and founder of SETI. I wrote a letter to Dr. Drake when I was a junior in high school in Iowa in 1960, telling him of my interest in extra-terrestrials and the possibility of life in outer space. When Dr. Sagan came to Park College (now Park University) in Parkville (suburban Kansas City), Missouri in 1962, I caught up with him in the science center and asked him for a quote for the college newspaper and, of course, told him of my own interest in the possibility of life in space.

    It seems appropriate that today Google has an image of the robotic lander Philae touching down on a comet after being sent there on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission from its Mission Control Center in Darmstardt, Germany.

    And today also, my husband’s and my daughter who is a nurse in an oncological chemotherapy lab at Georgetown University Medical Center took our 28-months-old granddaughter to visit her mother’s place of work on one of her days off. A robot carries chemo infusions from a pharmacy to the lab. Natalie said, “The robot is coming. The robot is coming and I’m not scared.”

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