“We are star stuff”

This beautiful memoir by Sasha Sagan on her father Carl Sagan is well worth the read as it blends the personal with the memorial work of archives.

Two key paragraphs. The first on contemplating the finite nature of this life:

“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.”

I love the concept of connectivity presented here, and of course, the phrase “we are star stuff” resonates with every literate part of me. We are connected to the universe on the molecular level; all of us made of the same things. And the second part is how Seth McFarlane–yes the guy who got the Oscars so wrong two years ago–worked to get Carl Sagan’s papers properly preserved at the Library of Congress:

“But there is something else Seth did for my father’s legacy that has been significantly less tweeted about: He made it possible for all the contents of the Sphinx Head Tomb — all the essays on nuclear winter, the papers on the climate of Venus, the scraps of ideas, a boyhood drawing of a flyer for an imagined interstellar mission — to be preserved in the Library of Congress.

It’s an enormous honor that makes me feel that my father has, in death, achieved a kind of immortality — albeit a tiny, human, earthly immortality. But that’s the only kind a person can hope to achieve. Someday our civilization will crumble. The Library of Congress will be ruins, someone else’s Library of Alexandria. In the biggest sense, our species will eventually die out, or transform into something else, that will not revere what we revere. And then, a few billion years later, when the sun meets its own end, all life on Earth will die with it.”

Archives are in and of themselves our own attempt at immortality, at letting the words of those who came before us speak. It’s one of the reasons I love the scholarship I do. Archives are such a profound mix of the mundane and the extraordinary. Admittedly, this article perhaps hit a little close for me as I approach the fifth anniversary of my own father’s death. I find him vibrantly present this spring. He would have adored the new series of Cosmos.

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