Carl Sagan’s Letters to Timothy Leary

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    It will probably surprise a lot of people that the great American astronomer, astrophysicist and cosmologist, Carl Sagan, advocate of space travel and extra-terrestrial communication, visited Timothy Leary in the California Medical Facility, a state prison in Vacaville, California.[imgl=red][/imgl]

    Two letters from Sagan in the Leary Archives, from February and March of 1974, confirm this. Their tone is very friendly and enthusiastic. Sagan was clearly as eager for the visit as Tim most surely would have been.

    Similarities between Leary and Sagan abound. They were both scientific explorers and political activists – men of ideas and action. They were geniuses at communication, not only in their books and talks, but as showmen, with extraordinary abilities for communicating their theories and beliefs to a mass audience. Tim, with psychedelic theatrical events and multimedia lecture tours in a variety of venues, and Carl, with his hugely successful television show (Cosmos) and NASA projects. They were prolific writers. Both knew how to use the media to illuminate big ideas about inner space (Tim) and outer space (Carl).

    Though space travel to another galaxy is not yet possible, simply sending radio signals and actual artifacts to distant star systems is. Sagan, with Frank Drake, creator of the Drake Equation, who came along on the prison visit, pioneered SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). SETI was the first scientific attempt to communicate with intelligent entities in other galaxies, by sending messages via radio signals into deep space, in the hope of establishing contact.

    The subject that most connected them at the time of their meeting, in April 1974, was the question of whether intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe could be contacted. Leary, a lifetime devotee of science fiction, became interested in space travel and space colonies after he was captured and returned to prison in 1973. During the first year of his new prison term, inspired by reports of the approach of Comet Kohoutek, he collaborated with two other prisoners on the book Terra II, which Joanna Harcourt-Smith Leary published privately, in January 1974...

    Here are the letters from Sagan:

    Letter #1:

    February 19, 1974

    Dear Tim:

    Thanks for your last note and the book TERRA II. I have no problems on chance mutations and natural selection as the working material for the evolutionary process. In fact, with what we now know about molecular biology, I see no way to avoid it. But I loved your remark about the "transgalactic gardening club." Of course, if extraterrestrials are powerful enough, they can do anything, but I don't think we can yet count on it. I'm enclosing an article on "Life" that I did for the Encyclopaedia Britannica which you might like.

    On the basic requirements for interstellar exploration, I doubt if a manned expedition to Mars could be done within the next 25 years for less than $300 billion. Try really costing your spacecraft and see what it would cost. In fact, maybe the reason we haven't been visited is that interstellar spaceflight, while technically possible, would beggar any planet which attempted it.

    If we can do it, how would you like a visit from us in the last week in February? I have no idea what the visiting privileges are, but if your and my schedules permit, Linda and I would love to visit you in Vacaville on the morning of Thursday, February 28. Frank Drake has also expressed an interest in such a visit, as has our mutual acquaintance, Norman Zinberg of Harvard Medical School. What's your feeling about it? Write to me at the St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco, where I'll be staying beginning Sunday, February 24, and I'll try to firm up the visit, if it seems possible, shortly thereafter.

    With best wishes,


    Carl Sagan

    P.S. The enclosed poem, "The Other Night" by Dianne Ackermann of Cornell, is something I think we both resonate to. It's unfinished so it shouldn't yet be quoted publically.

    Letter #2:

    March 20, 1974

    Dear Tim:

    I also am very much enjoying our exchange of letters.

    Note that the noble gases were called noble in the mistaken belief that the nobility did not "mix" with the peasantry. My view on interstellar spaceflight is not the one you quote. That was a statement originally made by Purcell at Harvard. Frank did repeat it in his AAAS speech. I think it's possible for a society only a century or two more advanced than we, but "out of sight" for us. Here I'm talking about relativistic interstellar spaceflight: that is, at speeds more than 99 percent the speed of light, so that the Lorentz time-dilation becomes important. I don't know of any scheme -- including Orion -- which gets us up to relativistic velocities with any feasible technology of the immediate future. It's a glorious dream -- just a century or two too early.

    I loved your sentence "You are a true profit". I'm not sure if that is a conscious or accidental pun, but I'm trying to figure it out! I think you're probably right about the mixture of elements in the last proposed visit to Vacaville. It was just too complex, plus the fact that I had been, the few days before, flat on my back with some particularly unpleasant virus.

    In any case I hope to be able to see you on the morning of April 1, either alone or with Frank. I'll be in Berkeley the night before, and intend to call Joanna then to arrange for the trip.

    I have shown your letters to Linda, and she would very much like to meet with you and Joanna. Sometime soon, I hope.

    See you on April Fool's day ....


    Carl Sagan

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