This is how Carl Sagan managed to stop what everyone believed was an inevitable nuclear holocaust
Carl Sagan is known as an astronomer and as a popularizer. Well known, almost mythical. “Cosmos“it was for a long time the gateway of the new generations to the mysteries of the Universe And, despite the time that has passed, for many he has been the figure of the scientist par excellence.
But it is something else. The people of Radio Skylab (a podcast, by the way, highly recommended) has reminded me of an anecdote about the life of Carl Sagan that comes from pearls to remember now that it is 20 years after his death. This is how Carl Sagan “saved” the world from the nuclear holocaust.
On March 23, 1983, Ronald Reagan announced that he was going to launch the ‘Strategic Defense Initiative‘(better known as “Star Wars”). Basically, it was a huge “missile shield” that was intended to defend the United States from any nuclear attack. The most curious novelty was that it was not only a ground-air system, but Reagan’s intention was to bring weapons into space, to militarize it.
It was a toast to the sun: the American Physical Society concluded in 1987 that not only was it not possible to carry it out at that time; but it would take more than ten years to find out if it was really possible. But that was experienced as an almost indescribable blow.
From afar, it becomes very difficult to understand how hard the Cold War years really were for many people. Perhaps the social reaction to Trump’s victory (perceived midway between drama and tragedy) can give us an idea of the sustained “hysteria” that crushed many people during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Although it seems strange, many people came to build their lives around that fear. But in the 80s, that permanent threat of “mutual assured destruction” was starting to take a toll on everyone’s spirits (if you haven’t already).
The appendicitis that brought down the Cold War
It is said that Carl Sagan learned of Reagan’s ad while he was in the hospital recovering from an appendix. Y it felt like a kick to the stomach. He was deeply horrified and decided, with the help of his wife (the also mythical Ann Druyan), that they had to do something.
Sagan was a specialist in planetary sciences. His thesis in astronomy and astrophysics (which he read in 1960 at the University of Chicago) focused on things like the biological contamination of the Moon or the atmosphere of Venus. In ’61, he published a brutal article in Science in which he used the available radio astronomical information to correctly interpret that on Venus there was a colossal greenhouse effect.
Before 1983, Sagan and Golitsyn had already studied dust storms on Mars. Just as saying “dust storms” does not quite understand the monstrous and disproportionate dimension of Martian storms that we met thanks, in large part, to Viking probes. Something that many associate directly with the idea of nuclear winter and the truth is that it may well be.
And in 1982, Paul Crutzen and John Birks wrote “The atmosphere after a nuclear war: twilight al Noon“in which it was already alerted about the global cooling that would cause the accumulation of dust, smoke and soot after a nuclear war. But none of this was relevant until Reagan pulled the blanket over his head and announced that he was going to militarize space.
Between 1983 and 1984, Sagan, Turco, Toon, Ackerman and Pollack prepared a report in which it was defended that any Nuclear War would inevitably end in the TTAPS hypothesis (the initials of the names of its authors) also known as the ‘nuclear winter’.
In 1984, Sagan, Ehrlich, and Kennedy published “The Cold and the Dark“A very popular book in which they analyzed what would happen to the world after a World War. And it was not a good thing. The statements of the scientists followed in the United States Congress and Sagan himself traveled to the Soviet Union to explain the problem.
The “nuclear winter” proved a very powerful weapon: The idea was that after nuclear war, dust reaching higher layers of the atmosphere would lead to such a cooling that there would be no winners under any circumstances. This struck two key ideas: on the one hand, nobody would win that war and, on the other, a nuclear conflict would not only affect the great powers, but would reach the entire world.
In other words, it created – or helped create – a global awareness of the problem of nuclear weapons like never before. It would be absurd to think that it was only a thing of Sagan and four scientists (activists, politicians and the military had an irreplaceable role) and if perhaps it is an excess to speak of “saving the world from the nuclear holocaust.” But, with the perspective of time, it can be affirmed without a doubt that without the push of science the global conversation would have been very different.
We need other worlds, but they are in this
In ’73, Sagan published “The Cosmic Connection“. The book deals fundamentally with the UFO phenomenon from a rational point of view and that is why it is remembered. But, as explains Pablo Francescutti, there is a very interesting and little known idea: the idea that, as happened with the discovery of the canals of Mars in the 19th century. we see in space (and in the future) what concerns us today.
Without doubting the scientific weight of the TTAPS report and other work, there is no doubt that Carl Sagan’s intention was not merely scientific. Sagan endorsed the famous phrase of Margaret Mead (“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. In fact, they are the only ones who have achieved it”) and wanted to change the world, stop the apocalypse clock and illuminate a better future. Because, although sometimes it seems distant and conceited to us, science, real science, is also good for that.
Images | Big Up Japan