Carl Sagan, OTHER WORLDS (1975)

Continuing my stroll through my nonfiction library, of books I’ve read that I think are worth remembering.

Carl Sagan, Other Worlds (produced by Jerome Agel). Bantam, 1975.

This is a thin little book (160pp) with text by Carl Sagan but “produced” by Jerome Agel, who apparently was an editor or designer at Bantam Books, the publisher here. He had a similar credit on Sagan’s THE COSMIC CONNECTION and, per Google, did similar support for books by Marshall McLuhan and R. Buckminster Fuller. Most famously, he “produced” without author credit the book THE MAKING OF KUBRICK’S 2001, a fat paperback full of reviews and interviews and essays about that film, a book published in April 1970 in the aftermath of the unexpected popularity of that 1969 film.

His result in the case of OTHER WORLDS is a thin paperback full of photographs and cartoons and antique graphics, large-type quotes by scientists and artists, and amongst all this paragraphs of text by Sagan. I’d guess it’s more of a product, thought up by Agel and Bantam and proposed to Sagan, rather than a book of essays Sagan wrote and pitched to Bantam. But anyway.

Yet the text is substantial enough. The theme is speculating about life on other worlds. Though it’s interesting that, along the way, as in several of his other books, Sagan spends a good chunk, a ¼ to a 1/3, dismantling pseudo-science ideas.


  • He begins with a thumbnail description of his ‘cosmic calendar’ – so is *this* the idea’s origin, here two years before DRAGONS OF EDEN? – and some ideas of the immensity of the Milky Way, and of the universe. And so therefore it should be surprising that, since humanity has only begun to search, we’ve found no evidence of other advanced civilizations.
  • Why would this be?
    1. There aren’t any;
    2. There are, but the ways we might detect them, by their moving stars around or via space flight, aren’t feasible;
    3. Perhaps such rework (of stars) has occurred, and we just can’t tell;
    4. Other civilizations take efforts to avoid detection.
  • Also, any civilization capable of sending messages must have lasted a certain amount of time. While we on Earth pursue short-term goals and ignore long-term potential disasters.
  • Interstellar messages would be in different languages; but both sides would have radio telescopes. Physics, math, etc. would be common. Learning to understand a message would be like going to school again. And that would mark the beginning of the maturation of the species. And we’ve already been sending.
  • The universe is chaotic, with no evidence of a benevolent god.
  • There were reports of the Crab Nebula supernova in 1054 in North America and Asia—but not Europe, because religious dogma was that the sky never changed, and noticing that it did would be to risk the Inquisition. We need to see the world as it really is. There are still many dogmas to this day; science requires questioning everything, making corrections.
  • The speed of light cannot be exceeded, as far as we know, but methods for spaceflight include generation ships, altered metabolism, etc.
  • The Moon’s craters show evidence of huge collisions, billions of years ago. Evidence of water. Then: summaries of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Mars’ moons, Jupiter, Saturn, Titan, etc.
  • Some ideas are considered far out not because they’re implausible, but because of lack of imagination. E.g. large animals on Mars. Excerpt from 1965 NYT editorial. Mariner 9 saw riverbeds; author and others developed theories about water in the polar caps. Rust. Dust storms. Percival Lowell’s canals. How to detect life? Two Vikings will be there next year [1976]. Later missions might return samples to Earth, carefully.
  • Climate changes of only a few degrees has killed some species and allowed others to thrive. We may gain insight into such changes from Mars.
  • The Great Red Spot on Jupiter—probably a storm system.
  • Comet Kohoutek contained simple organic molecules. Darwin and others thought/think conditions had to be very special for the origin of life. But experiments suggest otherwise.


  • In 1835 The Sun printed details of discoveries by Edward Herschel of life on the moon, in great detail. It was a hoax.
  • About UFO sightings. Books about them and ancient astronauts etc. are businesses.
  • In 1972 a fireball grazed the Earth. Dozens of witnesses provided consistent observations. Why has this never happened with a UFO? Never over large cities with hundreds of people? Example of leprechaun sightings; never any that are both interesting and reliable.
  • How a reader thought ‘they’ wouldn’t let Erich von Däniken publish his book [Chariots of the Gods? In 1968] if it weren’t true.*
  • About ancient frescoes, taken by believers as evidence of ancient astronauts.
  • Mystics who claim visits to the planets are, of course, wrong.
  • Astrology has been around for 5000 but never supported in any scientific paper. It’s evidence of the dearth of critical thinking in society.
  • Scientists are the worst people to check on frauds, because they expect the universe to play fair. Professional magicians do much better.
  • Occam’s razor isn’t perfect, but it is useful. There are three independent ways of dating rocks, all consistent, indicating the age of the earth but Immanuel Velikovsky [author of Worlds in Collision in 1950], e.g. airily dismisses these. Or perhaps the Earth was created a year ago with false indications of radioactivity. Which hypothesis is more likely?


  • Humans are deeply connected to all life on earth. But could life have come to earth from somewhere else? Perhaps, but such ideas can’t be disproved. Instead, we understand most of the steps in the development of life very well.
  • Exobiology is the study of life elsewhere. Xenophobia no longer serves a purpose. We must get over the notion that “if it’s different, step on it.”
  • There are no successful predictions of our time. Change happens too quickly. Author recalls discovering science fiction. Older sf novels seem dated, and there’s a move away from physical and biological sf to social subjects.
  • Science and technology dominate our lives, have brought about great progress. But few politicians know anything about them. Why are there no science columns in the newspapers? (While there are columns about astrology, sports, finance.) [[ The only exception I know is that the NYT has a weekly section, on Tuesdays, devoted to science. ]]
  • Discussion of science and art, and the power of sex: see quotes below.
  • Humans are an extraordinary development, but we are tied to all other life on earth.
  • Author is asked if he believes in God. His answer is to ask what the questioner means by God. Answers vary widely.
  • We are on the verge of discovering many things about the actual universe. New types of telescopes; space probes to all the planets and moons; maybe a ship into interstellar space.
  • People on earth today [in 1975]: less than 4 billion. Who ever lived: maybe 70 billion. But there are 250 billion stars in the galaxy. And our increasing population can’t go on forever.
  • And at the very end, page 157, there are obviously some words cut off: “But the trend cannot continue. Either we will be stupid and destroy ourselves or we will be wise” (sic)


Two nice quotes, that I will type out.

Page 144, about science as a supreme art:

There is another aspect of science, one that is infrequently described except among the practitioners themselves: Science as a supreme art form. The creative endeavor in science carries the same emotional exhilaration as the painting of a great work of art or the writing of an epic poem. In science we have a glimmering of the intricate elegance, awesomeness and monumental beauty of nature. It is devastating how well the parts fit together: How the atoms synthesized in the interiors of hot red giant stars are the same everywhere in the Universe; how they combined to form molecules in the same way everywhere in the Universe; how the nature of humans beings is powerfully prefigured by the nature of molecules called nucleic acids; how the change in a single small molecule determines the difference between mental health and manic depressive psychosis; between malaria and sickle cell anemia; between life and slow death by phenoketonurea; how a difference in molecules too small to be seen determines the difference between a man and a bacterium; how the same carbon atom joined to its fellows in different ways spells the difference between charcoal and diamond.

P147, about orgasmic coin:

Are we then mere DNA containers briefly employed, paid in orgasmic coin, to transmit the genetic information? I would not say “mere.” To be the temporary repository of a four-billion-year molecular tradition, threading back to the dawn of the Earth and the birth and death of the stars, is not “mere.”


*This is another example of the gullible or clueless reader, as discussed in previous post.

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