How Carl Sagan Described Death To His Young Daughter

A new essay from Sasha Sagan shows how a great popularizer of science answered his own kid's big questions.

Sagan on Cosmos

Publicity photo of Carl Sagan, made by PBS

When your dad is Carl Sagan, your first lessons on death aren't sugar-coated. But they are nevertheless sweet and compassionate. That's how Sasha Sagan, Carl's daughter, describes them in a recent essay in New York magazine. Throughout his career, Carl worked as a science popularizer and as a professor of astronomy and critical thinking. He stayed true to his understanding of the world even in tough times—like when his little girl asked him if he would ever get to see his dead parents again:

He considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason—and no evidence—to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn't give in to the temptation. 'Why?' Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don't question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that's truly real can stand up to scrutiny.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Later in the essay, Sasha describes how her father tried to impart upon her the wonder of being alive. "We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way," she writes. It sounds like Sagan was a great teacher at home as well as at work.

Sadly, Sasha would soon have to apply Dad's life/science lessons. Carl died when she was 14, leaving behind a legacy that's only been organized recently, with the introduction of the new Cosmos show and the opening of an archive in Washington, D.C., for Carl's papers.

Check out New York for the rest of the essay, including bits about Sasha's parents' relationship and some of the thinking that went into the new Cosmos series.