Episode 4 of Bughouse Square is out! Read the Story

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Carl Sagan discusses the book "Contact"

BROADCAST: Oct. 4, 1985 | DURATION: 00:38:51


Discussing the book "Contact" (published by Simon & Schuster) with the author, astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan. Starts with clip from Arthur C. Clarke (1856688-3-1).


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Arthur C. Clarke Look at the universe: there are a a hundred thousand million suns in this galaxy of ours alone. And if only, say, one in ten has got planets, that may mean that, to every single person on this earth, there's somewhere out there an inhabited world. That's about the number of inhabited worlds in this universe, one to every man, woman, and child on this earth. Well, it seems very unlikely that on many of those won't be races that would regard us as somewhere back in the Stone Age--

Studs Terkel Superior races, you said.

Arthur C. Clarke Well I mean morally, intellectually, philosophically, technologically--

Studs Terkel No wars, [that sort of thing?]

Arthur C. Clarke Well a superior race cannot have war because war is a self-liquidating activity. And I'm optimistic about the outcome.

Studs Terkel Either to be - either to to destroy himself or to be, perhaps even more noble than ever, is that it?

Arthur C. Clarke Yes.

Studs Terkel So the choice is ours.

Arthur C. Clarke The choice is ours. And it's really a privilege to be born in this age, the most critical in the whole history of mankind. I remember the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." Well, that curse is being visited on us, but I don't think it really is a curse. It's a privilege.

Studs Terkel And it could be a blessing, too.

Arthur C. Clarke Could be.

Studs Terkel I think that's a perfect preface to, quite marvelous novel, or a challenging one by Carl Sagan, "Contact", published by Simon & Schuster. Of course you know Professor Sagan for his quite marvelous series on PBS, and also he's the professor of Astronomy and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. And I think the novel, this novel "Contact" is the very theme of Arthur C. Clarke, is pretty much what it's about, isn't it?

Carl Sagan Well, it's it's an ancient human theme. You can find it in in virtually every culture in some guise or other in religion, folklore, superstition, and now in science. The search for life elsewhere is remarkable in our age because this is the first time that we can actually do something besides speculation. We can send spacecraft to nearby planets, we can use large radio telescopes to see if there is any message being sent to us lately.

Studs Terkel And you - this question through the ages is that, is there - what? Some intelligence out there?

Carl Sagan That's right. And it touches with the - to the deepest of human concerns. Are we alone? How how common is this thing called life, this thing called intelligence? Where did we come from? What are the possible fates of intelligent beings? Need we necessarily destroy ourselves? Might there be a bright and very long future for the human species?

Studs Terkel Of course it's not accidental. You've written that at a certain time. It appears the year 1985, 15 years away from the year 2000, when for the first time in the history of our species he she can destroy him herself. All of us. So at a certain moment you've written it, too.

Carl Sagan It's true. And and the threat of nuclear war is one of the sub-themes of the book, and the approach of the millennium is another theme, because I think it's very likely that this will lead to millenarian fervor, and even religious mania as it did a 1,000 years ago when 1,000 A.D. started approaching, and people just went a little a little crazy.

Studs Terkel This is in your book: the central figure is a woman astronomer, and she asks what Bronowski would call impertinent que- Eleanor Arroway. And it's a woman, who is an astronomer, and she's caught by - with this idea, an ideal.

Carl Sagan Yes, it's true. And it was a really a great deal of fun to to do this in in fictional form, it's the first first novel I've ever attempted, and I discovered that the the novel gives you a kind of freedom that you just don't have in nonfiction - I've written on the possibility of extraterrestrial--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Carl Sagan Intelligence before, but only only in nonfiction.

Studs Terkel But with this novel we have all all the scientific information that you have and that your colleagues - I noticed that one of your colleagues, not in writing the book but in your discussion is Philip Morrison, who ironically enough worked in Los Alamos--

Carl Sagan Indeed.

Studs Terkel So we have two two aspects, here.

Carl Sagan Indeed. The the man who triggered the--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Carl Sagan The Nagasaki bomb, and also one of the absolute leading spirits in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence today.

Studs Terkel You're calling also, throughout, you have these little epigraphs, quotes from the various minds, the poets, the philosophers, and Keats - what's that Keats phrase in "Ode on a Grecian Urn"?

Carl Sagan Oh, about unheard melodies or sweet [unintelligible]--

Studs Terkel And sweet, and so it's the unheard melody that may possibly be heard. There's always this - What are, you, Carl Sagan, scientist, astronomer. [enlighten me? enlightener?] You think, you with Arthur C. Clarke, think that indeed there may be some sort of intelligence out there?

Carl Sagan May, surely surely may. But we don't yet know, and and, you know, it's important not to to decide before the evidence is in. But, there certainly is a kind of plausibility argument for extraterrestrial life and it goes something like like this: there's - we now realize an enormous number of planets, in the last few years - telescopes in Earth orbit and ground based telescopes - have found a range of planetary systems around nearby stars, some in the process of formation as the solar system was four billion years ago or so, others apparently fully fully formed. So there's a lot of potential abodes for life. That's one thing. Then there's the question of organic matter, the the molecules that make us up, the carbon-rich complex molecules that are essential for the kind of life we know about, are fantastically abundant. They litter the universe. We see them in asteroids, and comets, and the moons and the outer solar system, and even in the cool dark spaces between the stars. So the stuff of life is everywhere. And then there's time. There are billions of years for biological evolution on all those worlds. There are many worlds that are much older than ours. And so you put those together - lots of places, lots of organic matter, lots of time - and it seems very hard to believe that our paltry little planet is the only one that's inhabited.

Studs Terkel Yeah. So this is the challenge of Professor Eleanor Arroway. And there's an observatory, and she has several people working with her in this place in Puerto Rico--

Carl Sagan In in New Mexico.

Studs Terkel In Mexico. At the same time, you have many sub-themes here, themes. One is our own attitude, personal, toward her stepfather and her mother and she loved her - the guy she thought was her father, and she dislikes this guy. So, she's also at times a little nasty to somebody close to her. That's a interesting thing there. But now she's looking for the big thing. And there's a president [laughter], [president?] a woman. And now we have great deal of humor in the book, because it also deals with certain minds that deal - if we go out there, it's us versus them, the Russians, obviously.

Carl Sagan Mhm.

Studs Terkel We r e going to put a flag up there.

Carl Sagan It's true. The - and I think that that the receipt of a message from space would, at least at first, be - fall right into the the standard kinds of rivalries on the planet today. So United States and the Soviet Union would see some way to make to make such a signal redound to their particular local political advantage. I think some religions would be delighted, other religions would be severely threatened by the receipt of such a message.

Studs Terkel Well, you know you have a marvelous, several passages and pages dealing with the very thing. Some felt threatened, those that that as their turf is being trespassed upon, their special interests in military, religion, industry, all of [the right? with a right?] say, wait a minute I'm doing pretty good the way it is, with the conflicts the way they are.

Carl Sagan That's right. Any any challenge to the conventional wisdom will be opposed by by lots of people, and we can see that in all sorts of aspects of of our lives in which - You know, Einstein said, after the first explosion of nuclear weapons in 1945, that the release of nuclear energy has changed everything except, he said, our way of thinking. And it's exactly our way of thinking that has to be changed if we are to get through this period of technological adolescence. Every new discovery has a - of this sort has a great deal of resistance attached to it. You can go back to the Copernican view that the earth is not the center of the universe, that the sun and the planets and the moon and the stars don't go around the earth. That the earth goes around the sun. A lot of people were tremendously upset about that because they wanted the earth to be the center of the universe, humans to be the pinnacle and the apex of creation. Galileo was threatened with torture because he argued that the earth moved around the sun.

Studs Terkel You know, take that a step further, Professor Sagan. In the year 1985, just as we discovered that the earth is not the center of the universe, but a respected star among others around the sun, so maybe the time has come when there is no one nation that is the center of this earth anymore. And you could even bring it down that that [all?] because of the new energy in the world.

Carl Sagan Well, the res- I think that's absolutely true. The long term trend in human history is to bind up the planet to make us one species, and the threat of nuclear war works very much in that direction. I mean, it's clearly a battle between binding up the species and destroying it.

Studs Terkel And so something happens in in the novel, "Contact", and it is about contact with - out there. There's sounds, sounds I heard, all sorts of--

Carl Sagan Radio waves.

Studs Terkel Radio waves. And Professor Arroway and her colleagues heard - And now something new has happened, and now the scientists are gathering, here. What is it that - what was it that was detected?

Carl Sagan Well, the - as I imagine it--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Carl Sagan There will be a multilayered message. First there is a beacon, an announcement signal, something that says, "pay attention." This is not some natural astronomical phenomenon. This is a signal from intelligent beings. And I try to describe how how that works. Then, the next layer is one that says, this message is directed specifically to you guys on Earth. It isn't directed to anybody else. And the the third me- part of the message is is the real content, which is a very complex set of data in a new language which is also explained, and which is an invitation and the detailed instructions for building a machine of unknown purpose.

Studs Terkel And that machine to perhaps reach--

Carl Sagan Right. I mean the--

Studs Terkel Place called Vega.

Carl Sagan Right. The signals in the novel, the radio signals, come from the star Vega, and the presumption is that the instructions are to build a machine which somehow or other conveys five people to to the star Vega. I don't want to discuss too much more about what happens after that--

Studs Terkel No no I I think there's something very funny here. Now, meantime, since this is - involves the whole earth, the whole planet - there's a Soviet scientist called Vaygay Lunacharsky who joins a friend of hers, there's a Chinese guy who is interested in in the findings in the tombs of Xian, there's an Indian woman, and there's a Nigerian Nobel laure- a physicist. And they're all there. Now the question is: who are these beings out there? Are they are fooling us? Suppose the machine is a doomsday machine or a Trojan horse. So now we have doubts. Maybe they're not friendly.

Carl Sagan Right. And I think again that's that's inevitable that humans would project their hopes and fears upon the cosmos. You can see this happening in in virtually every Hollywood attempt to portray extraterrestrial life. The standard Hollywood attempts are are to portray the extraterrestrials as red of claw and fang--

Studs Terkel Pointed heads--

Carl Sagan Yeah, pointed heads and nasty dispositions as the standard Hollywood convention. I'm sure reflecting the opinions of those who make the movies. Steven Spielberg has made an important step forward--

Studs Terkel "E.T."

Carl Sagan To show "E.T." and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" to show the possibility of benign extraterrestrials. But even there, the extraterrestrials as portrayed are only slight variants on human beings when the evolutionary record is clear that extraterrestrials would be very different from us. And also they're not awfully smart. The, his his extraterrestrials--

Studs Terkel Sweet but not smart.

Carl Sagan Sweet but not smart.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Carl Sagan Sort of Pillsbury Doughboys in "Close Encounters". But I I still think he has he has done a very good thing. Step up from the usual Hollywood portrayal of this. If you look at time scales, you realize that our civilization is the most backward civilization in the galaxy that could communicate at all, because we've just invented radio telescopes just a few decades ago. We had not the ghost of a chance of communicating with anybody else. So if we receive a message, it can't be from anybody less capable than we, because anybody less capable can't communicate at all. So it has to be somebody much in advance of us and maybe as much in advance of us as we are in advance of the ants, say, or the worms. And that is very different from the standard science fiction convention of humans versus Klingons, say, who have almost exactly the same technology as we do.

Studs Terkel I think one of the scientists in in the book "Contact" of Carl Sagan has said, hey we may just about be starting high school, or someone once said, we're still living in prehistory.

Carl Sagan Yeah. Yeah, it's true. We we tend to have such a narrow view of our place in space and in time, and the the prospect of of making contact with extraterrestrial intelligence works to de-provincialize our world view. And I think for that reason the search itself, even without a success has great merit.

Studs Terkel And so since the sounds, or the waves, have been heard, now the scientists of the world [over gather?], now they have a common venture. [laughter] This is beyond Russians and beyond Americans and beyond Chinese, it's suddenly out there--

Carl Sagan Right.

Studs Terkel So now there's a common venture of building the machine, who's going to get on the machine. But in the meantime there's a governmental guy named Kitz, and he reminds you of a certain number of officials, shall we say, and on page 90 he's saying, "Doctor Arroway let me come right to the point. We're concerned [we're? working?] in the best interests of the United States [with? would?] information be generally known." Kind of reminds you of science, when the atom was split, doesn't it?

Carl Sagan Certainly many historical examples that come to mind. I guess it should be said that those those officials are doing their duty as they as they see it. But very often that duty, combined with the duty of their adversary officials in the other nation, work to the great detriment of the human species.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking, when when the atom was split, we know that science, as a brotherhood, an international brotherhood of scientists, and so there is no secret really, is there?

Carl Sagan Well in in in almost all cases there are no secrets. The physics behind the development of the fission bomb were known to scientists all over the world in 1939 after Hahn and [Strassner?] Announced in a published paper the the possibility of a chain reaction.

Studs Terkel And so we have the analogy, here, step further. And so, we have two things going on: there's a tunnel vision on the part of just officials thinking in ritualistic terms, and the scientists so suddenly, what appears to be a great discovery made. So there's a conflict right there.

Carl Sagan Right. The the scientists, as usual, are devoted to free and open inquiry--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Carl Sagan And the government officials, as not always the case, but as is often the case, wish to restrict and constrain and prohibit lines of communication. And this this tension is, in a way, inevitable.

Studs Terkel You know, there's a phrase you use here, one of your characters uses here, about what the earth, earth people us, we, are so benighted. He said, the earth is the ghetto of the universe. [laughter] We're the ghetto of the universe.

Carl Sagan Well in the sense of of being in a in an extremely backward and obscure part of of the Milky Way Galaxy. We're 30,000 light years from the center of the galaxy. We're in the galactic boondocks.

Studs Terkel Explain that again, 30,000 light years, a light year--

Carl Sagan A light year is how far - it's a distance - how far light travels in a year. Light travels 186,000 miles in a second. So in a year, it travels something like a little less than six trillion, six trillion miles. That's one light year. Six trillion miles, one light year doesn't even get you out of the solar system. That's that's still at the outer edge, probably of the belt of comets that surrounds the sun. Multiply that by 30,000. Multiply that by 30,000. And that's the distance from here to the center of our galaxy, which is composed of 400 billion suns, more or less, like our own. And this whole galaxy is only one of probably hundreds of billions of other galaxies. A useful calibration of our place in the universe.

Studs Terkel And so here is this machine, and to travel 30,000 light years to get close to this place called Vega, where somehow these waves tell us that maybe, intelligence - as Arthur C. Clarke and you both say, superior to ours--

Carl Sagan Someone or something is sending those messages.

Studs Terkel And now who's going to go? And by the way, this book is full of humor I point out. Throughout there, there's a counterpoint here, between the traditional non-thinkers not thinkers non-thinkers, those whom Einstein's talking about. Nothing's changed as far as they're concerned. Except technology. But now - so there's Eleanor Arroway. First there's a guy named Drumlin, and he was a skeptic, wasn't he?

Carl Sagan But he was converted.

Studs Terkel He was a converted.

Carl Sagan When the data became good enough that there was no alternative.

Studs Terkel And so the American finally will be. He he's blown - there's an accident. He can't make it. He can't make it. And so Eleanor Arroway is the American. And then there's her friend, [unintelligible] associate Lunac h arsky, the Russian, and there's a Chinese scholar, and a Indian, East Indian woman, and the Nigerian Nobel physicist. And so now they're in it. And now they have encounters of a sort, not of a third kind. Of a wholly different kind [laughter]. And of this, as of this we- I think we cou- we could say, without giving away the plot, that the discovery they make, when they return, is not believed because they have no evidence, because this is a spiritual kind of - as well as a - it would, the discovery--

Carl Sagan No, I wouldn't I wouldn't quite say that. I mean there is an ambiguity that is built into the plot for for reasons that I think are are hope are coherent - hold off on--

Studs Terkel Let's go further with another theme and then perhaps talk about the world today, since - and, concerning this particular novel and conjecture. There's religion and science. Now she does have - she encounters a guy you think as a fundamentalist. Oh, not Falwell, more Billy Graham-esque, I'd say. Palmer--

Carl Sagan Joss.

Studs Terkel Palmer Joss. Now here comes something involving humility on both parts. That is, they find humility - science and religion, and the arrogance in both parts.

Carl Sagan Right away. That's just what I was trying to to get across. And you're the first interviewer who said it that that succinctly. Yeah I think there is a tendency in both schools to - of thought to think that they have a corner in the truth. And it may very well be that the universe is is more subtle and complex than either imagines. But, I mean, a way to look at it is is the following: science and religion on some level are are after the same thing. Take the question of our origins. Both of, both science and religion attempt to approach this question. But the religions all contradict each other, so they can't all be right. For example the Judeo Christian Islamic religion holds, if you believe it literally, that the world is about 6,000 years old - you just count up the begats in the Old Testament, it's very clear, 6,000 years old. Well, the Hindus, in their holy books, have an infinitely old universe with an infinite number of creations and destructions of the whole universe. Now those two major religions can't both be right. The world can't both be 6,000 years old and infinitely old. Only at most one of those two views can be right. So if the religions contradict each other and the religions at least some of them have to be wrong. How do you tell which is which? How do you tell which is right and which is wrong? Well, the only way is to appeal to the natural world around us, and the natural world around us shows that the earth, for example, is about 4.6 billion years old and nothing like 6,000 years old. So a literal reading of the Bible simply is mistaken. I mean it just - some people who feel awkward about that, but it's simply wrong, it's just wrong. That doesn't mean that the Bible can't be a source of inspiration, that it isn't a great literary work, that it doesn't give a valid moral and ethical prescriptions. But as a work of science it is flawed. It's the science of the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C., which we've learned something since then. So this kind of debate goes on in in "Contact", between the scientists and the religious people, and there are excesses, suffice it to say, on both sides.

Studs Terkel Yeah. And - but the debate is very very moving, well it turns out to be quite moving in the end between Eleanor Arroway, scientist, and Palmer Joss, preacher, and both learned something from one another. Well you quote Einstein, you know, again I'm thinking that the cosmic religious feeling - he is religious in that sense - is the strongest, noblest motive for scientific research. So there's a religion of sorts that Einstein believed in.

Carl Sagan Right. But it's just - it's very different--

Studs Terkel Yeah, yeah.

Carl Sagan From most people's view of religion.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Carl Sagan Einstein, Einstein talked about God, but for Einstein God was little more than the sum total of the laws of the universe. And there was no hint of intervention in daily life of the efficacy of prayer, of life after death, or any of those accouterments of the Judeo Christian Islamic religion, in Einstein's view.

Studs Terkel There's also, if I go back to the humorous aspects of it, too, since we have this intelle- what appears to be intelligence out there, now the officials down here are worried, or those who run things, they may be seeing things down here, such as some of our television programs.

Carl Sagan Yeah something really to worry about. [laughter] I mean, if you, in a way it's such a such an ironic note that the the artifact of human culture that would first become upon by an extraterrestrial civilization is our television broadcast. Look what's in those programs. Heaven help us.

Studs Terkel And not only that, they'll be seeing oh, this is the president is asking questions of the scientists: "'you mean seeing everything - the car crashes, the wrestling, the [porno channel?], evening news?' 'Everything, Mrs. President,'" says the scientist, here, who is a close friend of Dr. Arroway. "'Does this mean,' says the president, 'as for all my press conferences, my debates, my inaugural address, are out there?' 'That's the good news, Ms. President. The bad news is, so are the TV appearances of your predecessor, and Dick Nixon and the Soviet leadership, and a lot of nasty things your opponent said about you. It's a mixed blessing.'" [laughter] And so you have that going on. And then, you - we have to include as a figure here, who I find very fascinating, someone named Hadden. Now Hadden is, he's a little beyond the others as an industrialist, he out thinks all the others. Hadden.

Carl Sagan Yeah. He's an enigmatic figure. I don't know who I I based him on, but he is hard to talk about him without giving away more than I want to give--

Studs Terkel Oh no, you don't--

Carl Sagan But he is an extremely wealthy industrialist with a sense of making new departures, which by - some of which by accident - offend a whole lot of people, and he is in a quest to do something worthy with his life. Something he will be remembered by.

Studs Terkel So he invents things, something called Adnix that does - now we know, you and I know, people who watch TV know, that the commercials are in many cases infinitely more carefully produced than the feature, whatever it might be, not that the feature's that good. But much - and the sound is louder. He's invented something that knocks out, that mutes the sound of the commercials. He sounds like a savior of sorts.

Carl Sagan [laughter] Right. But you can see the ad industry would be annoyed.

Studs Terkel And the ad industry, and now there are political presidents, and others who - and he has something called Jivenix--

Carl Sagan Well he has Preachnix, which which is a context recognition device so that so that when a particular sort of semi-religious remarks come on then the TV set mutes itself as well. And by the way, this is a technology that's by no means out of - beyond reach. The the idea that we are forced to listen to to commercials that are mind-numbing in their insignificance is of course the price for for so-called free TV. But it's perfectly possible and certainly constitutional to have a device which cuts out the commercials.

Studs Terkel Well I'm looking for Hadden [laughter] to come visit us. Is it - now we've touched on the book, because there's more, naturally there's more, and there's a there's a wind up here that's quite moving because it deals with her personal life, again, a discovery she made about herself. And indeed, she and the preacher, there's almost a modus vivendi that works out. And so which leaves us - it's not accidental you wrote this book now. And so it comes to us now. Thoughts about - Well the obvious question I ask Carl Sagan is, are we are we going to make it?

Carl Sagan Well, prophecy is a lost art, but I certainly think it is within our ability to survive the the very real world crisis that we are in right now, with 55,000 nuclear weapons in the world. But I don't think that the solution comes from sitting on our duffs. I think it is only by informing ourselves of what the actual circumstances in the world are, developing a kind of baloney detection kit, so that we can see through the the misstatements that are handed out by government leaders of various stripes and nationalities, and the courageous willingness to to enter into the debate on the main issues of our time. It's only through that that we can save ourselves. And while the prospect of extraterrestrial intelligence I think is real, I do not myself believe that anyone up there is going to save us from ourselves. I think we have to save ourselves.

Studs Terkel Now it's a question of either - well it's an old-fashioned word, activism, that is also awareness, and as against apathy - well, default. I suppose the word is default, losing by default.

Carl Sagan It's it's true, and it's it's like that old phrase that's used by both the left and the right that the eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. And eternal vigilance doesn't just mean being aware of possible military threats from the outside. It means being aware of possible governmental stupidities from the inside.

Studs Terkel Yeah. You know I was thinking, the word Pugwash is a word that is strange to many listeners, and yet there it was - has been. Do they still meet where the scientists of the world--

Carl Sagan They do. They do. They still meet, but they're are much less effective than they once were. But that that that was an opportunity for scientists in the east and west to get together to talk about the serious issues that affect the fate of their countries in the world and in the '50s and '60s they were able to to bring their nations a little bit to their senses.

Studs Terkel There's a thought hanging, of course: what next? Next is to do, to act. But mo- But you say you become aware. Now leads to a question of the media itself, doesn't it? Now you had a program, and you have, no doubt, more, on public TV--

Carl Sagan "Cosmos".

Studs Terkel "Cosmos". That's quite, you know, enlightening and exciting. So, there, to some extent there are, there's Bronowski's program and several others but there's still a long way to go as far as the means of information.

Carl Sagan I think that's true, on the other hand, radio and television are potentially such powerful means of communication, even of subtle, intricate, difficult ideas, certainly of of simpler ideas. And I can't help but be discouraged about how how little use is being made of those media, how how far short they fall of their great potential to educate and enlighten, and and sweep people up into into the great issues of our time.

Studs Terkel Yeah. I thought even, I mean I don't know science. I'm horrible in talking to a distinguished astronomer who's Carl Sagan. The Ve- radio and TV work, in a certain way, don't they, the waves you're talking about, that lead to Vega out there, are these waves that enable us to see and hear--

Carl Sagan Exactly right. Your ordinary light that we see with a naked eye, is just another kind of, is one kind of light, and radio waves are another kind of light. We just don't happen to be able to see them with the unaided human eye. We can make machines that detect, that see radio waves and they're called radio telescopes. And it's with the radio telescope that that the imagined signal is detected in "Contact".

Studs Terkel You know, as you're here, because I can't let you go just yet, because we we know that it's been mentioned often: what would happen if there were a nuclear disaster. You often spoke of nuclear winter, what would happen. Even even if all the human race were not destroyed. Perhaps you could expand on that - nuclear winter.

Carl Sagan Sure, sure. I I'll be glad to spend a few minutes on it before I go. Nuclear winter is one of those things that simply hadn't been anticipated. A kind of monster hiding in the in the nuclear arsenals of both nations, and the basic idea is very simple. It's that in a nuclear war, you you will inject fine particles into the atmosphere, you blow up a nuclear weapon on the ground to destroy some hardened missile silo, and you pulverize the ground, and vaporize in fact the ground, and the resulting fine particles are propelled to high altitude. You explode a nuclear weapon over a city and you burn the city. The fine, dark, sooty particles rise, heated by the sun, and they are propelled to high altitudes. Well, if you have a nuclear war, you make a lot of fine particles over much of the northern mid-latitude target zone. It turns out, to our great surprise, that the amount of fine particles is sufficient to darken and cool the earth, the northern hemisphere gets - in many many cases conceivable nuclear war scenarios - the northern hemisphere gets socked in, and the particles cross the equator into the southern hemisphere, and much maybe all of the world has this climatic catastrophe, which has many dreadful consequences. But one of the most serious is that agriculture is wiped out, and food supplies disappear, and massive starvation ensues, even in parts of the world that never received a nuclear weapon at all. Now, additionally, it turns out that even a tiny fraction, maybe less than one percent of the global nuclear arsenals are adequate to produce nuclear winter. So we suddenly discover that our global civilization surely and possibly even the human species is threatened by the arsenals of nuclear weapons. Now the arsenals are so obscenely bloated. 55,000 nuclear weapons in the world, almost all of which are more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 20,000 strategic weapons ready to go halfway across the world to destroy the potential adversary, and we are told nothing to worry about. They're in good hands. They wouldn't all be used, cities wouldn't much be targeted. But these are very hollow reassurances because you have to be sure of computers, you have to be sure of of the command links, the so-called permissive action links. You have to be sure that no madmen achieve high office, not just right now, not just the United States, not just civilian leaders, but civilian and military leaders in the United States and many other countries now and for all time to come. That's taking too much of a risk. It's elementary planetary hygiene to clean the world of these nuclear weapons. So that's that's nuclear winter and a little editorial comment on what you should do.

Studs Terkel You you were saying be- before I release you, [laughter] you were saying that some mad men might do it. The very nature of the 50,000 is madness in itself.

Carl Sagan I quite agree. And the thing is that these weapons developed without hardly anybody paying attention. It was just, you know, I'm I'm an ordinary citizen, this is technical. I don't know anything about it. And anyway it's very painful to think about, and I just hope those guys in Washington and Moscow know what they're doing, and I'm going to go back to mowing the lawn.

Studs Terkel I know the last question, you just gave it to me. The ordinary citizens, people out there know more than I do, which they said of course during the Vietnam War, as well. Pentagon knows more than we do. Now I don't know these things. The fact is, it's not that difficult for a person who is not a scientist to understand, is it?

Carl Sagan Absolutely. I think people start out as scientists. I see this when I talk to first grade kids, their questions are beautiful, inspiringly deep questions. And then something happens to turn them off. Maybe it's maybe it's the schools, but I think everybody can understand science.

Studs Terkel Just as you said that, you talk to first grade kids. The very opening, the first epigraph, the message of the book "Contact", by Carl Sagan. "My heart trembles like a poor leaf. The planets whirl in my dreams. The stars press against my window. I rotate in my sleep. My bed is a warm planet." Written by Marvin Mercer. P.S. 153 Fifth Grade, Harlem New York City, 1981.

Carl Sagan An example of what I'm saying.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Carl Sagan. And the book is "Contact". Simon & Schuster the publishers, and grazie.

Carl Sagan Pleasure to be here.