The Cosmic Tour Guide
By Renee James
Renee James is an associate professor in the Physics Department at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas, USA. She is an astronomy educator and science writer inspired by Carl Sagan.
As a child, I was drawn to it as a tale of longing, grandeur, sadness, and playfulness. I was swept up in its images, whirling galaxies rising above an alien horizon, conceptions of bizarre life forms amid Jupiter’s clouds, billions of years of evolution taking shape against a background of simple music. First was the television show. One episode. Another. Soon I felt a craving for Sunday evening. Then came the book. And when that one’s index began falling out from overuse and abuse, another copy. Then came the soundtrack, a vinyl disk with the minds of musicians from Vangelis to Vivaldi scratched into it. I played it endlessly as I attempted to burn the static images of the book into memory before I forgot which music was supposed to accompany which pictures. And still sehnsucht, made all the more poignant by the closing theme of the last episode. The cosmos called. It beckoned. It taunted. In the days before YouTube and on-demand streaming rentals, I could only wait until PBS aired it again, if ever. Meanwhile, dreams of a galaxy rising over my backyard willow tree kept the connection alive.
Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was life-changing. It was what every fable promises. A simple street urchin is, in fact, long-lost royalty. Only it wasn’t a fable. I was connected to the cosmos. Me! The material in my body was ancient and painstakingly forged over billions of years, even if its particular organization was only 11 years old at the time. I was kin to the stars. No – I was even more privileged. My mind could grasp something about them, but they were powerless to understand me. I was, in Sagan’s own words, “a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
And I wanted to know more about myself. “If only,” I thought. “I could be like Carl Sagan when I grow up.” Yes, that would be fine. I would become a famous astronomer who understands everything (although I probably would lose the turtlenecks and tweed jackets). I would sail from the shores of this cosmic ocean, exploring – at least mentally – places and processes unknown to most. That would require hard work, a competitive spirit, and sacrifice. But where to go first? Everywhere, of course. The entire cosmos beckoned like a map with giant swaths of unknown regions. “I’m afraid you’ll have to specialize,” came the Voice of Reason. Specialize!? That would mean missing out on so much! Still, I chose a direction and promised myself that I would go farther than anyone had before.
With my compass in hand and a slightly heavy heart, I charted a course and headed out to sea. But as I set sail, an odd thing happened. I stole a last look at the shore. Countless people milled around on the beach, digging little moats, sniping at each other, and complaining about their impending sunburns or sandy sandwiches. Few gazed out in awe of that vast expanse of uncharted ocean on the horizon. Few contemplated the wonder of it all.
Then it hit me. Carl Sagan was an explorer, to be sure. But he was also a tour guide, taking people to some of the more fantastic places within easy reach of the shore. No matter how many times he showed people the same coral reef, he never seemed to tire of pointing out the colorful fish darting around it. More distant, exotic locales might have been accessible to him had he not spent so much time and energy on local tours, but he was driven to introduce this amazing cosmos to his siblings. Some of them would even be inspired to explore the cosmos in ways Sagan could have hardly imagined. What would he have thought about string theory? What would he say about the fact that we build the esoteric concepts of relativity into everyday GPS devices? How would he have reacted to discoveries of not just a handful, but hundreds of planets, some even potentially suitable for life?
My guess is that he would have reveled in these and more. Then he would have set about organizing tours to the newly charted lagoons so that others could share in his wonder. You see, Carl Sagan was not an inspiration because he left everyone behind as he explored the farthest reaches of this universe. He was an inspiration because he invited us to accompany him on his journey, so that we could all get a small glimpse of that great cosmic ocean. And he convinced me that being a cosmic tour guide is as important as exploring a distant corner of the universe.
For that I want to say thank you. And happy birthday, Carl.