Carl Sagan is a modern-day hero of science. He inspired millions of people to ponder the beauty of the universe, and to understand that we are a tiny, precious fragment of the cosmos. But he also implored them to be skeptical, to resist superstition and pseudo-science. Sagan told everyone to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.
Now comes a bit of news that just about knocked me out of my chair. Joe Firmage, a Silicon Valley millionaire who became a highbrow UFO guru after he was visited in his bedroom by "a remarkable being clothed in brilliant white light," has signed a deal with Ann Druyan, head of Carl Sagan Productions--and Sagan's widow--to start a new company that will have a Web portal and produce science-based entertainment.
I want to resist the urge to start babbling hysterically about how wrong this is. But I do think the name "Firmage" does not belong in the same sentence as the name "Sagan" unless separated by an extremely elaborate clause. Sagan, who died in 1996, promoted science and scientific thinking. Firmage talks about a bunch of bizarre stuff that Sagan would have rejected in a heartbeat.
Sagan said aliens probably aren't here. Firmage says they probably are. It's not a trivial philosophical distinction.
To be fair, the 29-year-old Firmage is a cut above 90 percent of the folks who work in the field of "anomalies." He's incredibly smart. He's successful, having started the Internet services firm USWeb before leaving to pursue his UFO interests. He's not crazy. He doesn't scream or rant. He's a perfectly genial fellow.
He's also ambitious. Firmage has said he wants to start a movement. Two years ago he pounded out a rambling book, modestly called "The Truth," and put it up on the Internet, but he has since taken it down, which means we can't link to the part where the mysterious entity in his bedroom emits an electric blue sphere that enters Firmage's body and triggers "the most unimaginable ecstasy I have ever experienced, a pleasure vastly beyond orgasm."
Druyan has been a fierce defender of her husband's legacy. She's passionate about scientific reasoning. Why would she go into business with Firmage? How could she do it?
Her answer: The new venture will not allow Firmage to advance his fringe theories. There is a specific legal agreement that prevents Firmage from doing so, she said.
"It unequivocally states that if I feel that Carl's legacy has in any way been besmirched by any statement made in the name of our company, then I walk and I'll take everything with me. Nothing less than that can protect the legacy," Druyan told me.
I asked her if this was an unholy alliance. She said no.
"Carl and I worked with a lot of people over the last few decades who had conventional religious beliefs that in some ways are as remote from what I believe as what Joe Firmage believes," she said. "I think we should give Joe Firmage a chance. That's what I'm going to do."
Firmage said, "I want to tread lightly." But he made clear that his new media company--he'll run the Web portal and Druyan will head the production studio--will deal with the kinds of theories that interest him.
"Will I use this media company to inequitably promote my view? No," he said. But he said it would "absolutely" deal, responsibly, with "science anomalies."
The "historic joint venture," as the press release puts it, is code-named Project Voyager. It has $23 million in venture capital behind it. I will admit that, despite reading the press release and talking to Firmage and Druyan, I remain a bit fuzzy on what this company will actually do. The press release calls it "a new kind of media network that intends to transform entertainment and learning drawn from the rapidly expanding knowledge base of science." The production studio will make TV shows and movies, which will be promoted on the Web site alongside news articles and other educational material. In the press release, Druyan says, "There is a hunger for myths, images and dreams that do justice to our radically altered sense of who, where and when we are . . . and where we might go and who we might become."
Firmage will be tempted to use his new company to promote his theories about breakthrough physics. He appears to believe that a small group of scientists has discovered a secret property of the universe that will someday allow us to extract limitless energy from the "vacuum" of space, build faster-than-light spaceships, and zip around the cosmos at the snap of a finger.
That imminent breakthrough could explain why aliens are here, snooping around, checking us out. They know we're about to go galactic. They want to give us the ground rules, maybe.
It's hard to know how much of this Firmage really believes and how much of it he is merely entertaining with his very open mind. But if humans and aliens get together soon in a formal way, Firmage wants to be at the table.
"I believe that the most economical explanation for some number of UFOs is extraterrestrial visitation," he said. "Ann disagrees with that view. Both of us agree to let science arbitrate."
Firmage has also been talking with the Planetary Society, which was founded by Sagan in 1980 to increase public support for space science. Some kind of business deal could be announced at any time. Firmage offers one thing to the keepers of the Sagan flame: money. He has been able to raise tens of millions of dollars in venture capital. What they offer Firmage, in turn, is a big shot of credibility.
The SETI Institute, meanwhile, said no to Firmage. All these groups need the kind of money Firmage has, but they need their good reputations, too, and SETI, which takes on the already rather spectacular goal of detecting alien civilizations through scientific techniques, doesn't need to get mixed up with a UFO person.
Sagan's longtime friend and colleague Frank Drake, head of the SETI Institute, told me that a deal with Firmage's firm could have meant sizable streams of revenue coming into his organization. But it wasn't the right thing to do.
"Any connection with Firmage, no matter what disclaimers you put on your site, people will take this as an endorsement of the views of Firmage. This would damage our image in the minds of many of our scientific colleagues and members of the general public, including major donors who support us," Drake said.
There is a thought I've clung to as I've ruminated about this latest move by Firmage. It is that Sagan's legacy isn't up for grabs, no matter who strikes what deal. Sagan's name can't be bought. He put his ideas on the record. He wrote books. The books had readers, and those readers are not stupid.
We know the difference between Carl Sagan and Joe Firmage.
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