The sorts of scientific problems that I am involved in - the environments of other planets, the origin of life, the possibility of life on other worlds - engage the popular interest. This is no accident. I think all human beings are excited about these fundamental problems, and I am lucky enough to be alive at a time when it is possible to perform scientific investigation of some of these problems.
One result of popular interest is that I receive a great deal of mail, all kinds of mail, some of it very pleasant, such as from the people who wrote poems and sonnets about the plaque on Pioneer 10; some of it from schoolchildren who wish me to write their weekly assignments for them; some from strangers who want to borrow money; some from individuals who wish me to check out their detailed plans for ray guns, time warps, spaceships, or perpetual motion machines; and some from advocates of various arcane disciplines such as astrology, ESP, UFO-contact stories, the speculative fiction of von Danniken, witchcraft, palmistry, phrenology, tea-leaf reading, Tarot cards, the I-Ching, transcendental meditation, and the psychedelic drug experience. Occasionally, also, there are sadder stories, such as from a woman who was talked to from her shower head by inhabitants of the planet Venus, or from a man who tried to file suit against the Atomic Energy Commission for tracking his every movement with "atomic rays." A number of people write that they can pick up extraterrestrial intelligent radio signals through the fillings in their teeth, or just by concentrating in the right way.
But over the years there is one letter that stands out in my mind as the most poignant and charming of its type. There came in the post an eighty-five-page handwritten letter, written in green ballpoint ink, from a gentleman in a mental hospital in Ottawa. He had read a report in a local newspaper that I had thought it possible that life exists on other planets; he wished to reassure me that I was entirely correct in this supposition, as he knew from his own personal knowledge.
To assist me in understanding the source of his knowledge, he thought I would like to learn a little of his personal history - which explains a good bit of the eighty-five pages. As a young man in Ottawa, near the outbreak of World War II, my correspondent chanced to come upon a recruiting poster for the American armed services, the one showing a goateed old codger pointing his index finger at your belly button and saying, "Uncle Sam Wants You." He was so struck by the kindly visage of gentle Uncle Sam that he determined to make his acquaintance immediately. My informant boarded a bus to California, apparently the most plausible habitation for Uncle Sam. Alighting at the depot, he inquired where Uncle Sam could be found. After some confusion about surnames, my informant was greeted by unpleasant stares. After several days of earnest inquiry, no one in California could explain to him the whereabouts of Uncle Sam.
He returned to Ottawa in a deep depression, having failed in his quest. But almost immediately, his life's work came to him in a flash. It was to find "the ancient and legendary gods of old," a phrase that reappears many times throughout the letter. He had the interesting and perceptive idea that gods survive only so long as they have worshipers. What happens then to the gods who are no longer believed in, the gods, for example, of ancient Greece and Rome? Well, he concluded, they are reduced to the status of ordinary human beings, no longer with the perquisites and powers of the godhead. They must now work for a living - like everyone else. He perceived that they might be somewhat secretive about their diminished circumstances, but would at times complain about having to do menial labor when once they supped at Olympus. Such retired deities, he reasoned, would be thrown into insane asylums. Therefore, the most reasonable method of locating these defrocked gods was to incarcerate himself in the local mental institution - which he promptly did.
While we may disagree with some of the steps in his reasoning, we probably all agree that the gentleman did the right thing.
My informant decided that to search for all the ancient and legendary gods of old would be too tiring a task. Instead, he set his sights on only a few: Jupiter, Mercury, and the goddess on the obverse face of the old British penny - not everyone's first choice of the most interesting gods, but surely a representative trio. To his (and my) astonishment, he found - incarcerated in the very asylum in which he had committed himself - Jupiter, Mercury, and the goddess on the obverse face of the old English penny. These gods readily admitted their identities and regaled him with stories of the days of yore when nectar and ambrosia flowed freely.
And then my correspondent succeeded beyond his hopes. One day, over a bowl of Bing cherries, he encountered "God Almighty," or at least a facsimile thereof. At least the Personage who offered him the Bing cherries modestly acknowledged being God Almighty. God Almighty luckily had a small spaceship on the grounds of the asylum and offered to take my informant on a short tool around the Solar System - which was no sooner said than done.
"And this, Dr. Sagan, is how I can assure you that the planets are inhabited."
The letter then concluded something as follows: "But all this business about life elsewhere is so much speculation and not worth the really serious interest of a scientist such as yourself. Why don't you address yourself to a really important problem, such as the construction of a trans-Canadian railroad at high northern latitudes?" There followed a detailed sketch of the proposed railway route and a standard expression of the sincerity of his good wishes.
Other than stating my serious intent to work on a trans-Canadian railroad at high northern latitudes, I have never been able to think of an appropriate response to this letter.
Ftadar map of I Kc iurfa«? ni Venus, uTtSctti ty ibc tinman l)«iluJE uf the denv nlllKisphnr Bild tlini(l ewr of ihr planet. Courtrsy, Anecibc Observatory. Cdnit-ll i) niverity.
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