Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan Differ on Drugs and Creativity

Two well-known astrophysicists. Two very different views of the role that drug use can play in artistic creativity.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, who hosted last year’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s legendary “Cosmos” series, says in a new interview that “if you’re in an altered state, you can think something is good that you just created, but it really isn’t.”

That contrasts sharply with Sagan’s view. He wrote, “I am convinced that there are genuine and valid levels of perception available with cannabis (and probably with other drugs) which are, through the defects of our society and our educational system, unavailable to us without such drugs.”

The new Tyson comments come from a video Reddit published this month after the scientist participated in an “Ask Me Anything” session with the site’s users, one of whom asked, “How much of an impact do you think drugs (psychedelics) have had on art over the centuries?”

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Before opining on how drug use can make you think your work is better than it actually is, Tyson made clear that he doesn’t have much personal experience in the area, at least when it comes to illegal substances. “I don’t count myself among those who are active recreational drug users.”

On the other hand, Sagan wrote that his own use of cannabis “produced a very rich array of insights” and that those revelations stayed relevant even when he wasn’t high any more:

“The cannabis experience has greatly improved my appreciation for art, a subject which I had never much appreciated before. The understanding of the intent of the artist which I can achieve when high sometimes carries over to when I’m down. This is one of many human frontiers which cannabis has helped me traverse.

“A very similar improvement in my appreciation of music has occurred with cannabis. For the first time I have been able to hear the separate parts of a three-part harmony and the richness of the counterpoint. I have since discovered that professional musicians can quite easily keep many separate parts going simultaneously in their heads, but this was the first time for me. Again, the learning experience when high has at least to some extent carried over when I’m down.”

Tyson, for his part, gave an example from his own life of why he doesn’t mix drugs and work:

“For me, the least altered state of awareness I can achieve is the one that I seek, because that one is most likely to be closest to reality.

“I used to write a question and answer column while I was drinking a bottle of wine. And I was thinking, you know like Hemingway, with his bottle of whatever he drank. You know, the alcohol and the writer. This is like almost a trope. And I thought I wrote some awesome stuff. And then a few years later I looked back at what I wrote then and I said, ‘No, that’s not awesome.’ I thought it was awesome at the time. In the state of mind that I wrote it, I thought it was awesome. Later on I was like, ‘No, I write better than that not drinking wine while I’m writing.’”

Sagan once gave a young Neil deGrasse Tyson a tour of Cornell University, where the older cosmologist taught and the younger was considering enrolling, and the two corresponded fairly regularly until Sagan’s death, in 1996. But Tyson’s new interview makes it seem unlikely that the two ever shared a joint.

Whereas Carl Sagan wrote that “the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight,” Tyson’s views on legalization are not publicly known.

To learn more about Carl Sagan’s views on marijuana, as unearthed by a Marijuana.com review of his papers archived at the Library of Congress, click here.

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