Some Personal Thoughts
By Nick Gautier
Nick Gautier is a senior scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Project Scientist for the Kepler Project, NASA’s mission to detect Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of other stars. Nick has worked with space telescopes since 1978 mainly pursuing research on the interstellar medium and young stars. He has worked on detection of extra-solar planets with Kepler since 2002.
Carl Sagan illuminated the lives of millions of people by bringing ideas of science and philosophy to the public and inspiring people to think about humanity’s place in the universe. His gift for explaining important concepts of science in understandably lucid ways and making deep ideas accessible to ordinary people carried us on journeys that explored the evolution of human intelligence and the place of humanity in the Universe. Along the way he demonstrated how rational thinking and observation of the world around us can lead to true understanding of how the universe works. With his influential television series, Cosmos, we were carried off on his dandelion seed spaceship of the imagination to engage cosmic questions of human origins and whether or not humanity is the lone intelligent life in the universe.
This stuff is important. Ideas about other worlds and other intelligences, speculations on the scale of the universe and man’s place in it ground us and provide perspective on how to make societies work in the present world. We often take too parochial a view of our situation and problems and can benefit from considering our place in the larger universe. We stand on the brink of serious problems with our planet, chief among them climate change and overpopulation. A rational scientific understanding of how our planet works is essential to finding the means to control our destiny. These ideas also feed a deep human need to understand humanity’s place in the Universe. All cultures have questioned the origins of the Earth and of man and interest in whether we are alone in the universe is at least as old as the ancient Greeks, some of whom speculated that intelligent life might exist among the stars. The current rapid rate of progress in discovering extra-solar planets and the continued search for signs of intelligent life among them may signal our approach to an answer as to whether we are alone. As humanity faces the dangers of the modern world knowledge that another species has survived problems similar to ours, or not, could have a significant effect on humanity’s future conduct. In any case definitive evidence of extraterrestrial life will have significant spiritual impact on humanity. Throughout his career Carl Sagan carried the torch and spread the fire of curiosity concerning these significant questions.
Carl’s work had direct effects on my personal life as well. From an early age I was enthralled with the ideas of space travel, other worlds, and other intelligent beings. How boring it would be if we were alone. But, it’s difficult to make real progress in space exploration as a nine-year-old so I proceeded with the usual process of growing up and getting an education. A timely inspiration for me was Carl’s 1966 book with Iosif Shklovskii, Intelligent Life in the Universe, which helped lay the foundation for rational, scientific study of my childhood fascination. Bordering on heretical at the time, it was heady stuff for a young college student trying to figure out what to do with his life. The idea that I might help discover the truth about other worlds and extraterrestrial life pushed me in the direction of astronomy as a career. Carl’s tireless exposition of ideas surrounding space exploration and extraterrestrial intelligence helped inspire serious searches for signs of extraterrestrial life and extrasolar planets. So, I have ended up working on Kepler, the coolest project ever, actually being able to discover those other worlds I dreamed of as a kid and perhaps some of the answers to Carl’s cosmic questions as well.
So, on this occasion of Carl’s birthday I write this personal note of thanks for what he did for me and for all people. Carl, I hope you’re on that dandelion seed spaceship of yours really seeing all those things you speculated about. Thank you.