Carl Sagan

b. 9 November 1934 Brooklyn, New York

d. 20 December 1996 Seattle, Washington

 

Carl Sagan is perhaps the most beloved and well-known scientist of the 20th century. His book Cosmos (accompanying the Emmy- and Peabody-winning television series of the same name) was the best selling science book ever published in the English language. During his lifetime, Sagan received the Pulitzer Prize and eighteen honorary degrees from American colleges and universities for his contributions to science, literature, education and the preservation of the environment. Sagan played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking and Voyager spacecraft expeditions, for which he received NASA Medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and Distinguished Public Service. Dr. Sagan was widely recognized not only for his scientific achievements, but also for sharing his love and enthusiasm for science with millions.

 

In his fascinating book The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (1977), Sagan presents an analogy made by Robert Ornstein of the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute in San Francisco, namely that our awareness of right hemisphere brain function is like our ability to see stars in the daytime. "The sun is so bright that the stars are invisible, despite the fact that they are just as present in our sky in the daytime as at night. When the sun sets, we are able to perceive the stars. In the same way, the brilliance of our most recent evolutionary accretion, the verbal abilities of the left hemisphere, obscures our awareness of the functions of the intuitive right hemisphere, which in our ancesters must have been the principal means of perceiving the world."

 

Sagan adds as a footnote: "Marijuana is often described as improving our appreciation of and abilities in music, dance, art, pattern and sign recognition and our sensitivity to nonverbal communication. To the best of my knowledge, it is never reported as improving our ability to read and comprehend Ludwig Wittgenstein or Immanuel Kant; to calculate the stresses on bridges; or to compute Laplace transformations. Often the subject has difficulty even in writing down his throughts coherently. I wonder if, rather than enhancing anything, the cannabinols (the active ingredients in marijuana) simply suppress the left hemisphere and permit the stars to come out. This may also be the objective of the meditative states of many Oriental religions."

 

He continues: "The left hemisphere processes information sequentially; the right hemisphere simultaneously, accessing several inputs at once. The left hemisphere works in series; the right in parallel." Sagan proposes that the dream state may be the unleashing of the right hemisphere of the brain and the suppression of the left, and notes that while dreams are nonlinear they can be surprisingly perceptive. He writes, "There are occasional but reliably reported instances of difficult intellectual problems solved during sleep" [thus the expression, "I'll sleep on it"]. The most famous was the dream of German chemist Friedrich Kekule von Stradonitz in 1865 in which a string of dancing atoms attached its head to its tail, revealing the non-linear benzene ring structure (which is contained in THC, by the way).

 

Sagan writes, "In dreams we are sometimes aware that a small portion of us is placidly watching; often, off in a corner of the dream, there is kind of observer. ...In psychedelic drug experiences--for example, with marijuana or LSD--the presence of such a 'watcher' is commonly reported." He continues, "In one marijuana experience, my informant became aware of the presence and, in a strange way, the inappropriateness of this silent 'watcher,' who responds with interest and occasional critical comment to the kaleidoscopic dream imagery of the marijuana experience but is not part of it. 'Who are you?' my informant silently asked it. 'Who wants to know?' it replied, making the experience very like a Sufi or Zen parable. But my informant's question is a deep one. I would suggest the observer is a small part of the critical faculties of the left hemisphere, functioning more in psychedelic than in dream experiences, but present to a degree in both."

 

Sagan quotes Plato's Phaedrus, the Socratic dialogue in which the Egyptian god Thoth (a Prometheus equivalent who invented writing) is rebuked by the god-king Thamus (aka Ammon) in these words: "This invention of yours will create a forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. ...[your disciples] will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscent and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without its reality."

 

"I am sure there is some truth to Thamus' complaint," writes Sagan.

 

Later in the book, Sagan writes that a friend of his who spent time with the Pygmies told him that "for such activities as the patient stalking and hunting of mammals and fish they prepare themselves through marijuana intoxication, which helps to make the long waits, boring to anyone further evolved than a Komodo dragon, at least moderately tolerable. Ganja is, he says, their only cultivated crop. It would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization."

 

In Contact, his 1985 novel about interplanetary communication set around the year 2000 that was made into a film just before Sagan died in 1997, Sagan describes an afternoon in Paris spent by Dr. Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster in the movie) and her Indian counterpart Devi Sukhavati. After commenting on the ethnic diversity apparent in the city, Sagan writes, "Outside a tobacconist's there was a long, orderly, and polyglot line of people attracted by the first week of legalized sale of cured cannabis cigarettes from the United States. By French law they could not be sold to or consumed by those under eighteen years of age. Many in line were middle-aged and older. Some might have been naturalized Algerians or Moroccans. Especially potent varieties of cannabis were grown, mainly in California and Oregon, for the export trade. Featured here was a new and admired strain, which had in addition been grown in ultraviolet light, converting some of the inert cannabinoids into the 1-delta-isomer. It was called 'Sun-Kissed.' The package, illustrated in a window display a meter and a half high, bore in French the slogan 'This will be deducted from your share in Paradise' [the phrase Dr. Jacques Joseph Moreau used when he gave Theophile Gautier his dose at Les Clubs des Hashishins]."

 

It turns out the visionary Sagan had help with his visions, and may have been the unnamed "subject" in his writings. It was recently revealed that, using the pseudonym "Mr. X'', Sagan wrote about his pot smoking in an essay published in the 1971 book Marihuana Reconsidered. The book's editor, Dr. Lester Grinspoon, disclosed the secret to Sagan's biographer, Keay Davidson, a writer for the San Francisco Examiner. Davidson revealed Sagan's marijuana use in an article published in the newspaper's magazine on August 20, 1999, picked up the following day by AP.

In the essay, Sagan said marijuana inspired some of his intellectual work. "I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves,'' wrote the former Cornell University professor. Sagan also wrote that pot enhanced his experience of food, particularly potatoes, music and sex.

Grinspoon, Sagan's closest friend for 30 years and best man at two of his weddings, said in an interview on January 8, 2011 that Sagan smoked pot daily and that the two smoked together "more times than you can remember."

Sagan's marijuana use is evidence against the notion that marijuana makes people less ambitious. "He was certainly highly motivated to work, to contribute,'' said Grinspoon, a psychiatry professor emeritus at Harvard University. Ann Druyan, Sagan's former wife, is a director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

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