“My parents taught me that even though it’s not forever —because it’s not forever— being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful. If we lived forever, it would not be so amazing.”
Carl Sagan passed away on December 20, 1996 after a life dedicated to discovering and presenting the mysteries of the cosmos. During the last years of his life he shared writings, research, and his greatest passions with his wife, Ann Druvan, while he cared for and showed the world to his young daughter, Sasha.
He was champion of critical thinking, a scientific atheist, an activist for the legalization of marijuana, as well as a consultant for NASA’s Apollo, Viking, Pioneer, and Voyager programs. His passion was spreading science to the general public and writing Science Fiction. He inspired millions across the world through simply and concise language that never diluted scientific knowledge.
Carl Sagan’s contributions to the dissemination of science are invaluable, as well as his message motivating future generations to dedicate their lives to the study of the mysteries of the universe through the best method available. This is no exception when it comes to his daughter.
One winter afternoon, six-year-old Sasha walked up to Carl, and true to the innate curiosity of our species, especially as children, she asked about his grandparents. She knew her maternal grandparents and had a close relationship to them. However, she never had the same experience with her paternal grandparents. She proceeded to ask her father why this was.
For the daughter of a man dedicated to making the public aware of scientific knowledge, there was nobody better to explain why there was rain, why she had to go to school, or how a rainbow was formed. All the questions that feed a child’s interest to discover their world would be answered by him in a loving way, and with that characteristic fascination for nature that her father showed his whole life.
At Sasha’s sudden question, Sagan (who would pause for thought when coming up with the best answers and tailor them for his child’s comprehension) looked at his daughter and answered with a sad tone: “Because they died.”
Young Sasha noticed her father’s changed demeanor, who, after a deep breath, smiled as he saw his reflection in his daughter’s eyes. She observed him with the same careful attention overflowing with curiosity that he possessed throughout his life.
According to Sasha, “He considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason —and no evidence— to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn’t give in to the temptation.”
Not fully understanding, Sasha was quick to respond why this was. Her father, convinced she would be able to understand what he meant, explained how dangerous it could be to believe things only because we’d like them to be true. “You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.”
Young Sasha experienced something resembling her first existential crisis. The confusion created by the revelation got to the point where both of her parents approached her to talk. Her father began: “You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing.” Then the scientist went on to say:
“When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA —and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.”
Throughout her life, Sasha had hear the phrase “we are star stuff” plenty of times, but she had never understood the entirety of its meaning. She knew her father had penned the phrase, as it had been underlined in notebooks and loose pages, but it was until that moment when she comprehended the magnitude of such statement.
A few years later, when she was 14, her father passed away, and she began to discover the immensity of his work. Carl Sagan left this Earth without any religious promise. His heart stopped beating in a bed at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington.
His mortal remains were sent to his hometown in New York, but it is the same elements of his body the one that make up the fuel for the stars to shine, the pieces that will help them continue on their way through the vastness of time and space. All this reminds us that, just like he said, “we are star dust.”
You can read more of Sasha's memoirs here.
Translated by María Suárez