Carl Sagan and Timothy Leary


In celebration of the new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Joel Achenbach wrote a feature for Smithsonian about Carl Sagan's enduring impact on the popularization of science. Achenbach visited the recently-available Sagan archive at the Library of Congress and highlighted some great bits, including details of Sagan and astronomer Frank Drake's 1974 visit with bOING bOING patron saint Timothy Leary while Tim was incarcerated. Sagan had enjoyed Tim's excellent (and now scarce) book Terra II, a philosophical manual for space migration.

On April Fools' Day, 1974, Sagan and the astronomer Frank Drake visited Leary at the state mental hospital in Vaca­ville, California, where Leary had been locked up on drug possession charges.

Drake, a frequent Sagan collaborator, was a pioneer in the search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations and was also known for the Drake Equation, which estimates the abundance of communicative aliens. Leary was a Harvard professor-turned-counterculture-guru who had become a proselytizer for the spiritual and mental benefits of hallucinogens. Lately, inspired by Sagan's Cosmic Connection, he'd become obsessed with the idea of building a space ark to carry 300 carefully chosen people to another planet orbiting a distant star.

In this curiously emblematic meeting—which has been incompletely described in Sagan biographies but is now plain to see in the archives—Leary asked which star he should aim for. Sagan and Drake broke him the bad news: We don't have the technology. All the stars are too far away. But true believers are not easily deterred. In a subsequent letter to Sagan, Leary reiterated his desire to "imprint the galactic point-of-view on the larval nervous system," and said we just need fusion propulsion, longevity drugs and "exo-psychological and neuropolitical inspiration."

"I am not impressed by your conclusions in these areas," Leary wrote. "I sense a block in your neural-circuity[sic]."

Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable

For the full text of the Sagan/Leary letters and analysis, check out Lisa Rein and Michael Horowitz's post at the Timothy Leary Archives: "Inner Space and Outer Space: Carl Sagan's Letters to Timothy Leary (1974)"