The louder he talked of his honor the faster we counted our spoons.
- Emerson, American Poet and Essayist (1803-1882)
Watching Cosmos as a young adolescent, Dr. Carl Sagan may have inspired more wonder and amazement in my mind than any one person has ever done before or since. When I hear Dr. Sagan’s voice, it brings me back to the unique way he was able to share concepts of astronomical size, the pure intellectual astonishment he brought home as you tried, really tried for the very first time, to grasp the incomprehensible size of the universe, a universe in which we are nothing more than microscopic travelers. Even now, hearing the theme music, then his opening monologue to Cosmos, it gets me every time.
In his book, Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan makes the case for humanity to continue it’s push to venture ever farther in our exploration of space. The passage that follows comes from the beginning of the book, where Sagan recounts man’s history of ever-expanding exploration and habitation of this world, how terrestrial exploration was imperative for the species then, just as the expansion out even further to other words is also imperative for the future of the species.
Like most every book I absorb now, I enjoyed this one in audiobook form, and I’m so glad that I did, because a good 60% of the book is read to us by Dr. Sagan himself. There is a bittersweet quality in hearing Dr. Sagan’s voice here and there with other sections finished by another narrator as it provides yet another reminder of how this brilliant man was taken from us all too soon. You also get a sense that as Sagan skipped around, reading different parts first, leaving other parts unfinished, that the parts he did get to were the parts of the book most important to him, certainly this part, where you can hear Sagan choke up as he recounts the tale of his immigrant roots:
Late in the nineteenth century, Leib Gruber was growing up in Central Europe, in an obscure town in the immense, polyglot, ancient Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father sold fish when he could. But times were often hard. As a young man, the only honest employment Leib could find was carrying people across the nearby river Bug. The customer, male or female, would mount Leib’s back; in his prized boots, the tools of his trade, he would wade out in a shallow stretch of the river and deliver his passenger to the opposite bank. Sometimes the water reached his waist. There were no bridges here, no ferryboats. Horses might have served the purpose, but they had other uses. That left Leib and a few other young men like him. They had no other uses. No other work was available. They would lounge about the riverbank, calling out their prices, boasting to potential customers about the superiority of their drayage. They hired themselves out like four-footed animals. My grandfather was a beast of burden.
I don’t think that in all his young manhood Leib had ventured more than a hundred kilometers from his little hometown of Sassow. But then, in 1904, he suddenly ran away to the New World – to avoid a murder rap, according to one family legend. He left his young wife behind. How different from his tiny backwater hamlet the great German port cities must have seemed, how vast the ocean, how strange the lofty skyscrapers and endless hub-bub of his new land. We know nothing of his crossing, but have found the ship’s manifest for the journey undertaken later by his wife, Chaiya – joining Leib after he had saved enough to bring her over. She traveled in the cheapest class on the Batavia, a vessel of Hamburg registry. There’s something heartbreakingly terse about the document: Can she read or write? No. Can she speak English? No. How much money does she have? I can imagine her vulnerability and her shame as she replies, “One dollar.”
She disembarked in New York, was reunited with Leib, lived just long enough to give birth to my mother and her sister, and then died from “complications” of childbirth. In those few years in America, her name had sometimes been anglicized to Clara. A quarter century later, my mother named her own first-born, a son, after the mother she never knew.
Wow . . . from such humble beginnings, eh?
Now for something totally different, an artist called melodysheep and a selection from his “Symphony of Science” Auto-Tune tribute to Dr. Carl Sagan: