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.