Carl Sagan? Newsweek Reporters? Sharon Begley? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Today on the website of a software developer I saw an inspiring quotation that was credited to the famous astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan:
Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
I would like to use this quotation also, but I have not located it in the books by Sagan that are on my shelves. Could you tell me when he wrote or said this?
Quote Investigator: QI has not found any substantive evidence that Carl Sagan crafted this quotation. The ascription was based on a misreading of text printed in Newsweek magazine. On August 15, 1977 the magazine published a cover story with an extended profile of Sagan titled “Seeking Other Worlds”. Four reporters participated in the creation of the report: David Gelman with Sharon Begley in New York, Dewey Gram in Los Angeles and Evert Clark in Washington.
The article began by noting that the young Sagan had been entranced by the adventure tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs which were set on a fantastical version of the planet Mars referred to as Barsoom. Canals and fifteen-foot-tall green warriors with four arms were present in this romanticized setting.
The end of the profile discussed the topic of hypothetical life forms on other planets. Sagan was in favor of funding serious efforts to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life by scanning the skies for electromagnetic signals. He contended that obtaining positive or negative results in a comprehensive search would be interesting and valuable. The ellipses in the following passage are present in the original printed text: 1
“A serious search with negative results says something of profound importance,” Sagan argues. “We discover there’s something almost forbidden about life … if it turns out we really are alone.” But clearly, Sagan is looking for a happier result. There may be no galumphing green Barsoomian giants to satisfy the fantasies of a romantic Brooklyn boy. But no doubt, there are even stranger discoveries to be made . . . some totally new phenomenon perhaps . . . Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
The final sentence was not placed between quotation marks. If Sagan had spoken the final compelling phrase it would have been placed within such marks. Instead the final statements were written using a reportorial voice.
On January 13, 2015, QI was contacted by Sharon Begley who worked on the team that created the Newsweek article. Begley is now the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters. She stated that the words in the final sentence of the article were her words and not Sagan’s. She also told QI about a stylistic guideline that was adhered to by the writers at the magazine: 2
A nearly ironclad rule at Newsweek back then was that it was lazy and unacceptable to end a story with a quote. Writers/reporters were paid to come up with an original, thought-provoking kicker, and that’s what we did, or tried to. The words were not Sagan’s.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1982 a columnist in a newspaper in Illinois published a diverse group of quotes including the one above which he credited to Sagan without a citation: 3
“SOMEWHERE, SOMETHING incredible is waiting to be known.”—Carl Sagan
In 1988 a syndicated newspaper feature from the Associated Press called “Today in History” presented the quotation and credited Sagan without a citation: 4
Thought for today: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”—Carl Sagan, American astronomer
In October 2009 a ceremony awarding the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for the U.S. was held, and President Barack Obama delivered a speech which included the saying: 5
Carl Sagan, who helped broaden the reach of science to millions of people, once described his enthusiasm for discovery in very simple terms. He said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” (Laughter.) Thank you all for the incredible discoveries that you have made, the progress you’ve invented, and the benefits you’ve bestowed on the American people and the world.
The expression remains popular, and in March 2013 it was included in a newswire story from McClatchy: Tribune Business News: 6
The late astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
That’s never been easier to believe than now, arguably the golden age of astronomy.
In conclusion, based on current evidence Sagan did not create this quotation. Instead, the reporter Sharon Begley constructed the phrase. The quotation has been ascribed to Sagan because the passage at the end of the 1977 Newsweek profile article has been misinterpreted.
Update History: On January 13, 2015 the date of the Newsweek article was changed from “April 15, 1977″ to “August 15, 1977″. The April date was incorrect. The correct date was given in the bibliographical note, but the incorrect date was given in the main body of the article. On February 6, 2015 information from personal communication with Sharon Begley was added to the article.
- 1977 August 15, Newsweek, Volume 90, Seeking Other Worlds (Profile of Carl Sagan), Start Page 46, Quote Page 53, Newsweek, Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- Personal Communication via email between Sharon Begley and Garson O’Toole, Message sent from Begley to O’Toole on January 13, 2015. ↩
- 1982 March 4, Rockford Register Star, ‘Thinking only leads to confusion’ by Pat Cunningham, Quote Page A8, Column 5, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1988 July 29, Mobile Register, Today in history by The Associated Press (Syndicated by AP), Quote Page 9-D, Column 5, Mobile, Alabama. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 2009 October 7, Congressional Quarterly Transcriptions, President Barack Obama Delivers Remarks at a Ceremony Awarding the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, (Corrected Copy), As Released by the White House. Record Number: f10070003.s23. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2013 March 13, Newswire: McClatchy – Tribune Business News, Celebrating 20 years of exploring the universe by Jim Borg, Washington, D. C. [Copyright Honolulu Star-Advertiser] (ProQuest ABI/INFORM) ↩