Forty years have passed since Carl Sagan and I met.
He was the truest Citizen of the Galaxy that ever was.
In early 1972 I wrote him a fan letter motivated by the launch of NASA’s Pioneer missions, the first to reach Jupiter and Saturn. They were the first spacecraft to leave the solar system, containing the now iconic plaque of interstellar greeting devised by Carl and Frank Drake, featuring humans beautifully drawn by Linda Salzman Sagan, then Carl’s wife. Nobody knows whether the message will ever reach extraterrestrials, but it certainly reached me. I was thrilled and inspired by the idea that real astronomers, not UFO loonies, were attempting interstellar communication, attempting to log onto the Encyclopedia Galactica (that’s what Carl called it then; today I guess we’d speak of the Galactic Internet.)
One of the first paintings I did in homage to Sagan’s vision was titled Encyclopedia Galactica. It shows the user interface of a search engine to find galactic civilizations—and how our own entry might read in English translation. Thia was the first painting of the Milky Way Galaxy that I ever did.
In 1972, shortly after I had moved to Toronto, I wrote Carl a letter of appreciation for his words and deeds, trying to express how powerfully I had been affected by his ideas and by their manifestation in the Pioneer plaque. He wrote back an enthusiastic letter in which he said some nice things about my paintings. And he invited me to meet him in the Toronto airport, where he was making a flight connection on his way back from Nova Scotia. He had been there to observe the solar eclipse on July 10, as a guest of the Canadian industrialist and philanthropist Cyrus Eaton.
Carl had told me the day and approximate time he would arrive, but neglected to mention the airline, flight number, or which city he was flying in from. It was actually remarkably similar to the central problem of interstellar communication: How do you find someone you are looking for when you haven’t pre-arranged a meeting place? The problem is the same whether you are searching the vastness of New York City or the electromagnetic spectrum. You could search at random, with little chance of success. Or you might concentrate your search on landmarks known to you both, such as the Empire State Building (in the case of New York) or the natural emission frequency of interstellar hydrogen (in the case of the radio spectrum).
The airport was a simpler case. I could position myself so that most of the disembarking passengers from domestic Canadian flights would have to walk past me. But neither Carl nor I knew the other’s appearance. What landmark would both of us recognize? The solution I came up with was the Drake Equation, written N=R*FpFlFiFc x L. Carl had discussed this formula at great length in Intelligent Life In The Universe, a groundbreaking book he co-authored with the Russian astrophysicist Iosep Shklovskii. I reasoned that on that particular day in the Toronto International airport he, and only he, would be able to recognize and understand it. [Frank Drake invented the equation that bears his name as a way of calculating the number of civilizations in the galaxy as a function of various factors such as the fraction of stars that have planets, the fraction of planets that have life, and so forth. It was one of the most well known equations among scientists interested in extraterrestrial life.]
I wrote the equation in black magic marker on a big piece of paper, taped it to the outside of my portfolio, and went to the airport. I wandered around the gates as planes arrived. Many people eyed me suspiciously, wondering what cult I was hawking, until a tall, dark-haired man came towards me with a big grin and outstretched hand saying, “Hi, I’m Carl. That was a great method for finding me. I thought you’d have me paged, but this is far more elegant”
We talked for two hours in the airport about astronomy, science fiction, art, and the Encyclopedia Galactica. Then he had to catch another plane back to Ithaca. “Look”, he said” I’ve just signed a contract with Doubleday to write a book for a popular audience. Would you like to illustrate it? Yes? Good! Can you come down to Ithaca within the next few weeks and we’ll talk about it?”
Shortly afterward I drove down to Ithaca, New York, home of Cornell University and Sagan’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies The back of my car was filled with artwork I wanted to show him.
When he saw the Encyclopedia Galactica painting, Carl’s reaction was “I’ve been waiting to see this painting my whole life!” He asked to use it as the cover for his book Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence [MIT Press, 1972 the proceedings of a now-classic international conference held in 1972 in Byurakan, Soviet Armenia.]
Carl bought the painting and he paid me in something far more precious than money—he gave me a back-up Pioneer plaque, one of the spares they had left over. He, Frank, and Linda all signed the back of it. It was like receiving a signed home run baseball from the World Series. It hung in my home for years, then spent 15 years on display at the National Air and Space Museum, part of the gallery Where Next Columbus?, for which I was commissioned to paint my Portrait of the Milky Way.
In the years that followed I did several more paintings in this series, most of them after discussions with him or Frank Drake. The concept of the Encyclopedia Galactica eventually found its way into the COSMOS series as title of Episode12. I’ll post others in the series on this blog from time to time. Would that be of interest to you, reader?
It has been 40 years since my journey with Carl began, and I like to think of it continuing still, beyond even our deaths, as our Voyager Record cruises towards the stars.