“We’re in the galactic boondocks,” said Carl Sagan of our own neighborhood, the Milky Way, in a newly resurfaced radio interview about extraterrestrial life with WFMT host Studs Terkel.
The Cornell professor and NASA advisor was unmatched in his ability to make the esoteric concepts of astronomy and astrophysics understandable to millions of people around the world. Not only did he inspire a whole new generation of scientists, he instilled an admiration and curiosity for the natural world in many who were exposed to his words.
A new PBS Blank on Blank series, The Experimenters, is dedicated to “uncovering interviews with the icons of science, technology, and innovation.” As part of their initiative, Blank on Blank discovered this rare conversation between Sagan and Terkel about mankind’s place in the universe and our ongoing search for extraterrestrial life.
The interview was conducted in 1985, the same year as the release of Contact, the science fiction novel (and later inspiration for the Hollywood film Contact) that Sagan wrote with his wife, author Ann Druyan. Coincidentally, Sagan mused about the misguided representations of aliens in blockbuster movies as humanoid monsters and predatory xenomorphs. According to Sagan, only Steven Spielberg came remotely close to portraying what he considered to be a believable extraterrestrial in his film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. (Though, he did fault E.T. for being “sweet but not smart.”)
“It’s inevitable that humans would project their hopes and fears upon the cosmos. The standard Hollywood attempts are to portray the extraterrestrials as red of claw and fang, with pointed heads and nasty dispositions,” he said.
Sagan also shared his thoughts about humanity’s hubris regarding our dominant place in the universal food-chain, and how although we consider ourselves a highly-advanced species, it’s likely that any alien life we eventually meet will be as sophisticated to us as we are to the ants on Earth.
“If we receive a message, it can’t be from anybody less capable than we, because anybody less capable can’t communicate at all,” he added.
The interview closes with one of his favorite topics for debate, which is that of religion versus science. Sagan, while never confessing to being an atheist himself, once said this of religious belief and the lack of it: “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no God.”
Likewise, in his interview with Terkel, Sagan said that when attempting to discern the truth about our universe and how it came to exist, one should defer to known facts about the natural world around us. If religious doctrine contradicts fact, then that religious belief cannot be true. “A literal reading of the Bible is mistaken. It’s wrong. It’s just wrong.”
If you’re in the mood for the soothing sounds of Sagan explaining just how miniscule we humans are in this mighty large universe, I recommended setting aside six minutes to take a trip into outer space with one of history’s greatest astro-enthusiasts. And who knows, you might just come away with a sense of kid-like wonder for the world again.