Space Out

Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Fan & Joint Tripper

‘The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serendipity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.’ These words are attributed to Carl Sagan, who’d be 78 years old today. Happy birthday, Mr. Cosmos.
The quote appeared on Lester Grinspoon’s 1977 book, Marihuana Reconsidered, and it’s here apropos last Tuesday’s vote legalizing weed in Washington and Colorado states, the first of its kind in the U.S., and a potential crack in the expensive, tragic, and ultimately ineffective ‘war on drugs.’ Well done, fellow Americans, others will soon join you.
The astrophysicist known for his 1970s TV series Cosmos was also a user himself, according to Keay Davison, who wrote his biography in 1996, three years after Sagan died of myelodysplasia-related pneumonia. Wikipedia reports that not long after, his widow Ann Druyan presided over the board of directors of NORML, a foundation dedicated to reforming laws concerning pot.
Even though much of the turbulent 1960s and 1970s were marked by both widespread experiments with mind-altering drugs, and with the wonders of the space race, Sagan’s importance for boosting popular interest in science and astrophysics can not be overstated. Besides his world-famous series, he also published dozens of books, including the sci-fi novel Contact, and hundreds of scientific papers.

He worked closely with NASA in several space missions, and many of his insights about the solar system and the possibility of extraterrestrial life are still current with scientific research. SETI, the radio-search for extraterrestrial life, was one of the first attempts to establish alien contact, and despite struggling for funding, is still scanning the heavens for signs of intelligent activity.
It was also his the idea of placing a gold-anodized aluminium plaque on the twin-mission Pioneer, in 1972 and 1973, with a diagram representing humans and the position of earth within the cosmos. Five years later, he compiled a recording of earth sounds that was carried throughout the solar system and beyond by the two still traveling Voyager space probes.
We now know much more about how he spent his spare time too. In 1974, Sagan wrote two letters and visit another proponent of mind-expanding drugs such as LSD and Mescaline, Timothy Leary. The psychologist and author was then spending some time at the California Medical Facility, in Vacaville, CA, which despite its name, is actually a state prison.
For Leary, the exchange with Sagan was a natural consequence of his widening interest in space travel and migration of humans to other planets, and that particular jail term was only one of the more than two dozen times he got arrested and had to live behind bars, under a variety of pretexts. Before being ousted in disgrace from the White House, President Nixon himself had called him a criminal.
Along with research into psychoactive substances, Leary’s interest in space remained central to him throughout his life. After he died in 1996, seven months before Sagan, part of his ashes was packed along those of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and other famous people, and sent aboard a rocket, which ejected them out in orbit. They remained afloat until burning up in the atmosphere in 2003.
Curiously, the boyish Sagan, whose on-camera personality helped boost the popularity of his show and books, had a hard time taking an inside joke, even one that became common currency within a then small but innovative company: Apple. In 1993, an internal memo made the rounds boasting about its not-yet released new computer, supposedly destined to sell ‘billions and billions.’
Someone must have added, ‘just like Carl,’ and when the scientist got a hold of it, all cosmos broke lose. Apparently, he thought the new computer was going to be named after him, at least informally, and it’s possible he was right. He then wrote yet (another) letter, this time to Apple, disavowing any intention to acquiesce such plans, something along the lines of ‘cease and desist.’
Apple’s now legendary ‘cooler than thou’ culture, dismissed his letter, and went further, nicknaming the new Macintosh ‘BHA,’ as in butt-headed astronomer. That must have lit a few supernovas in Sagan’s backyard as he filed a lawsuit against the company. He lost that one, and another that followed it. He appealed the decision but the parts got together first and settled out of court.
In the rare occasion a reporter coached a comment about the affair from Sagan, he always insisted that it wasn’t his intention to make a profit out of his ‘brand,’ but he was not about to let anyone to do it either. And settlement money went to charity. Apple’s nerdish, slightly pre-puberty comeback to the whole brouhaha was typical: it wound up calling its computer ‘LAW,’ as in lawyers are wimps.

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