Quote of the day: A scientist who loved his weed


The late Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan was a phenomenon.

As a 2014 retrospective in Smithsonian Magazine described him:

No one has ever explained space, in all its bewildering glory, as well as Sagan did. He’s been gone now for nearly two decades, but people old enough to remember him will easily be able to summon his voice, his fondness for the word “billions” and his boyish enthusiasm for understanding the universe we’re so lucky to live in.

He led a feverish existence, with multiple careers tumbling over one another, as if he knew he wouldn’t live to an old age. Among other things, he served as an astronomy professor at Cornell, wrote more than a dozen books, worked on NASA robotic missions, edited the scientific journal Icarus and somehow found time to park himself, repeatedly, arguably compulsively, in front of TV cameras. He was the house astronomer, basically, on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Then, in an astonishing burst of energy in his mid-40s, he co-created and hosted a 13-part PBS television series, “Cosmos.” It aired in the fall of 1980 and ultimately reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Sagan was the most famous scientist in America—the face of science itself.

A mutually flattering encounter

We had the great pleasure of meeting him more than 40 years ago, when we were both attending a conference at Cal Tech.

We were seated at a dinner when we heard Sagan’s very distinctive voice from the next table. Turning to confirm that, yes, it was indeed the famous astronomer himself, we were seized by an impulse.

In our decades of journalism, we interviewed a fair number of celebrities and famous folk from all spheres of life, but when on our own time when we encountered famous folk in public, we left them alone, respecting their privacy.

But something that evening made us break the rule, so we got up and wandered over to Sagan.

“Excuse me, Dr. Sagan,” we said, “I just want to say that, as a writer, I am I am in awe of your work.”

Then the tables were abruptly turned.

“Richard Brenneman. . .are you the fellow who writes Psientific American?”

The publication in question was a monthly newsletter I then wrote for the Sacramento Skeptics Society, a group of scientists, academics, and lay folk devoted to the pursuit of critical thinking. The publication also featured a lengthy column I assembled monthly of idiotic headlines from major newspapers uncritically reporting pseudoscientific claims, enhanced by some satirical commentary.

We confessed that we were, indeed, the author in question.

Sagan broke out in a huge grin.

“Wonderful!,” he said. “I can’t wait to read it every month. It’s wonderful.”

Imagine that, we thought, Carl Sagan and yours truly, a mutual admiration society.

We exchanged a few more compliments, then we headed back to our own table.

That was our first and only encounter with Carl Sagan, but it’s a moment we’ll always treasures.

It wasn’t until years later that we found out that we shared another fondness with Dr. Sagan, and that for something illegal.

Carl Sagan loved his cannabis

Lester Grinspoon is one of the nation’s leading experts on psychiatry, and now serves as Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, where he taught for more than four decades, and known for, among his decades of research dispelling myths about marijuana and advocating for liberalization of laws limiting research and use of the herb.

In an 25 September 2015 interview with MintPress News, Grinspoon explained how he came to be interested in the subject one day in 1966:

During my anti-Vietnam activism I met Carl Sagan and he and I became very good friends. When I met Carl Sagan I was convinced that cannabis was a very harmful drug. Going to his house one day I discovered that he smoked cannabis and so did many of his friends. Now these were not unsophisticated people and I tried to tell Carl how harmful marijuana was but he responded in a joyful manner that it wasn’t harmful at all.

With this experience came the idea of writing a paper which would summarize the medical scientific basis for the marijuana prohibition. At that time marijuana prohibition was leading to the arrest of 300.000 people, mainly young people, a year of which 89% for simple possession. For me it became important that this prohibition was justified.

It was in the library of the Medical School that I found out that I was completely wrong about the harmfulness effects of marijuana. Not only was it not harmful it was remarkably nontoxic, and the drug itself was not causing harm to the user but the policy of arresting people did. Some went to prison for having it and others saw their career goals compromised.

One result of Grinspooon’s work was the 1971 publication by Harvard University Press of his book, Marihuana Reconsidered, which included a number of fascinating essays, including by a a rousing paean to pot by a mysterious “Mr. X,” penned two years earlier for the book.

Only after Sagan’s death in 1996 did Grinspoon reveal that “Mr. X” was Carl Sagan.

And that brings us to our quote of the day

From Carl Sagan, writing as “Mr. X” in Marihuana Reconsidered:

When I’m high I can penetrate into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, playthings, streets, smells, sounds, and tastes from a vanished era. I can reconstruct the actual occurrences in childhood events only half understood at the time. Many but not all my cannabis trips have somewhere in them a symbolism significant to me which I won’t attempt to describe here, a kind of mandala embossed on the high. Free-associating to this mandala, both visually and as plays on words, has produced a very rich array of insights.

There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day. Some of the hardest work I’ve ever done has been to put such insights down on tape or in writing. The problem is that ten even more interesting ideas or images have to be lost in the effort of recording one. It is easy to understand why someone might think it’s a waste of effort going to all that trouble to set the thought down, a kind of intrusion of the Protestant Ethic. But since I live almost all my life down I’ve made the effort – successfully, I think. Incidentally, I find that reasonably good insights can be remembered the next day, but only if some effort has been made to set them down another way. If I write the insight down or tell it to someone, then I can remember it with no assistance the following morning; but if I merely say to myself that I must make an effort to remember, I never do.

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.

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