Women’s Voices: Meeting Carl Sagan

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Actually, I did not meet the great man, but I did talk to him.

I knew about Carl Sagan from his TV series Cosmos, and owned the heavily illustrated companion book that was published in 1980. When his fiction novel Contact appeared in 1985, I immediately bought it.  I was captivated by a scene involving the heroine, Ellie Arroway, interacting with her colleagues.

She set out to broaden her education, to take mathematics, physics, and engineering. But there was a problem with her central interests. She found it difficult to discuss physics, much less debate it, with her predominantly male classmates. At first they paid a kind of selective inattention to her remarks. There would be a slight pause, and then they would go on as if she had not spoken. Occasionally they would acknowledge her remark, even praise it, and then again continue undeflected. She was reasonably sure her remarks were not entirely foolish, and did not wish to be ignored, much less ignored and patronized alternately. Part of it – but only a part – she knew was due to the softness of her voice. So she developed a physics voice, a professional voice: clean, competent, and many decibels above conversational…every time she found herself in a new group she would have to fight her way through again, just to dip her oar into the discussion. The boys were uniformly unaware even that there was a problem.

What has stuck in my memory is how accurately Sagan, a stereotypical privileged white male, captured the essence of experiences at that time of a female student, and later a female professional in a male-dominated field. Sagan might have been looking over my shoulder when he wrote this passage.

I used to spend quite a bit of time driving to field locations as part of my energy industry job. At the time, company cars were typically stripped down Ford LTDs with manual controls and an AM-only radio.  I frequently listened to a national talk show hosted by Michael Jackson (not the pop singer).  As I returned home one afternoon, Mr. Jackson announced his guests, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, who were promoting their new book Comet. I rushed home (no mobile phones in back then) and began calling the toll-free number.  I got through.

Although the guests were there to talk about Comet, I told Dr. Sagan that I was calling about Contact, and specifically how intrigued I was that he was able to capture so accurately how women had been treated in academia and industry. He credited his wife Druyan for his insight. He asked a bit about my college education and my profession, and the conversation ended.

I got this copy the year it came out. The dust jacket is a bit ragged.

I got this copy the year it came out. The dust jacket is a bit ragged.

I think today, having read so many of Sagan’s other works like Demon Haunted World and Pale Blue Dot, I’d be a little bit more awestruck, but at the time I was talking to an author that I admired.  For some reason, I had completely forgotten about this until recently, when I cataloging my books.  I told a friend about this essay, and she commented “I was struck by one thing when I read that part you quoted in your blog.  That it is very possible that women will read Contact today and not have a clue what Sagan was talking about.  They will not be able to associate themselves with her character.  And Naomi, that is a good thing.”

(Note: This article originally was published, in slightly different format,  in JREF’s SWIFT newsletter in 2010.)

Categories: History, Women

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