Friday, January 20, 2012

Exploring the high frontier

One of the things I'm slowly working my way though is a gift that made it from my wishlist into my home last Christmas: the 'Cosmos' television series hosted (and co-written) by Carl Sagan.

I've mentioned Sagan here before, in 2006, in the context of the tenth anniversary of his death.  

I remember watching the series when it was first broadcast -- in 1980 -- though I'm struck by the fact that I remembered it less for the content and more for the atmosphere (the gentle ambient music, Sagan's soothing and distinctive voice and the walk-through model of the solar system) and the look of the thing (the now primitive-looking 'spaceship' set or Sagan's trademark red turtleneck and beige corduroy blazer).

He seemed a ubiquitous figure in my youth, in many ways the most visible public face of popular science (or is there someone else I'm forgetting?). He was also, though, always just that slight bit odd and dreamy, hardly the voice of cold reason and more a scientific romantic ('We are all starstuff', etc.).

Anyway, quite by chance today I ran across a list at Io9 on '10 Scientific and Technological Visionaries Who Experimented With Drugs' and who should I find there but...Carl Sagan!

It may be that this is a generally known fact, but I have to admit that it was new to me. 

It turns out he was not only an experimenter with but, indeed, a regular smoker (and advocate) of cannabis. He even wrote an essay in 1969 (under a pseudonym) on his own experiences, which, indeed, sound more productive than those of your average stoner:

I find that most of the insights I achieve when high are into social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for. I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. Because of problems of space, I can’t go into the details of these essays, but from all external signs, such as public reactions and expert commentary, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.
This is something I'll have to keep in mind when dealing with my next bout of writer's block.

He concludes:

I hope that time [the legalisation of cannabis] isn’t too distant; the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.
I knew that there was a reason why there was something so inexplicably groovy about 'Cosmos'.

Incidentally, Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan (one of the co-writers of 'Cosmos'), I also discovered, is on the board of directors at NORML, an organisation whose goals I have long supported.

Although on quite another track, I'm currently about half way through Robert Shea's and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy, in which the convergence between drugs, science, cosmic weirdness and creativity is also a prominent theme (though with the addition of a great deal more sex, violence and conspiracy theorising than I have seen so far in 'Cosmos').

Which brings back recollections of many happy hours spent playing Illuminati in the context of my high school wargaming club. (Experiences I remembered here in commenting on the death of E. Gary Gygax.)

Taken together, all of the above adds up to an interesting...trip...down memory lane.


No comments: