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Remembering Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan passed away 15 years ago today. Sagan was a gifted astronomer, astrophysicist, writer, and evangelist of science; he was best known for his TV series Cosmos, and his novel Contact, which was later made into a movie. Both dealt with the big questions of science (including are we alone?), and humanity's place in the cosmos -- about finding meaning through the scientific method, and experiencing wonder in the process. Sagan was a tremendously humane man, whose warmth and generosity of spirit exude a comforting glow that has inspired a generation of scientists, and now a generation of artists. In the years since Sagan's death, the rise of the internet and tools to remix and share media have led to hundreds of videos based on Sagan's work. Here, I'll collect some of the best, along with some of my favorite clips from Cosmos. Be warned, this is a very long post -- the man inspired a tremendous amount of creative work.

Earth: The Pale Blue Dot

By director Michael Marantz, using time lapse photography and narration from Sagan's 1994 book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space:

We were hunters and foragers. The frontier was everywhere. We were bounded only by the Earth, and the ocean, and the sky. The open road still softly calls.

Our little terraqueous globe is the madhouse of those hundred thousand millions of worlds.

We, who cannot even put our own planetary home in order, riven with rivalries and hatreds; are we to venture out into space?

And here's a short film by David Fu, using more source narration from Pale Blue Dot mixed with clips from classic movies and TV and music by Mogwai:

The Symphony of Science

The Symphony of Science is a project featuring scientists' words set to music. The series is wonderful, though this first installment called "A Glorious Dawn" is still the best:

Here are a few more good Symphony of Science videos featuring Sagan:

We Are All Connected:

The Unbroken Thread:

The Sagan Series

Reid Gower has been assembling videos featuring Carl Sagan, primarily using Sagan’s narration from Pale Blue Dot and assorted documentary footage. The first video started out as a plea for NASA to do a better job at marketing itself, so the public would support increased funding. From there, Gower created The Sagan Series, a bunch of short films of various topics, all using Sagan's voiceover. You can watch the whole series here; check out the first video for a taste:

Carl Sagan and the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions

In this beautiful Sagan "Pale Blue Dot" remix, Torrey Meeks combines footage of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, time lapse footage, and Sagan's increasingly famous "Pale Blue Dot" intro narration. Beautiful, touching, and well-made.

Images and Sounds on Voyager's Golden Record

The Voyager 1 probe was launched in 1977. Among other things, it carries a golden record (actually, gold-plated copper) onboard, containing songs, sounds, and images from Earth, all selected by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan. In the video below from NPR, we see a montage of images and sounds on the record.

Carl Sagan Interviewed by Ted Turner

In 1989, Ted Turner interviewed Carl Sagan for CNN. The resulting discussion touched on the environment, nuclear warfare, space, time travel, SETI, and many other topics. You can watch the entire interview here; here's the first bit to get you started:

Cosmos as Choose-Your-Own-Adventure

Accountant and Cosmos aficionado Callum Sutherland has remixed the landmark Carl Sagan documentary Cosmos into a "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" style video series called Imagination. Read more about this project, or check out the first installment below:

Cosmos: The Fourth Dimension

In this clip, Sagan explains how to think about the fourth dimension -- including the notion of tesseracts. Read more in my blog post from 2009, or just watch:

Cosmos: The Drake Equation

In this clip from Cosmos, Sagan explains the famous Drake Equation -- a proposal for a way to estimate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. You can read more about this equation, or just enjoy the clip below:

Watch Cosmos for Free, Online

The entirety of Cosmos is available online, for free: watch it on Hulu. (It has ads.) You can also buy it on DVD from Amazon, but it's over a hundred bucks. (I have the DVD set, and personally I think it's worth it.) If you want to learn more about the series, read Documentaries I Like: Cosmos. Rest in peace, Carl.

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Weird
The Long, Strange Story of Buffalo Bill's Corpse
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You probably know William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, as the long-haired Wild West icon who turned the frontier experience into rip-roarin’ entertainment. But the story of Buffalo Bill’s body and its many burials is almost as outrageous as the man himself.

When Cody died of kidney failure in January 1917, his body ended up on a mountain outside of Denver, Colorado—a counterintuitive choice given his close ties to the town in Wyoming that bore his last name. Cody, Wyoming was founded in the 1890s with help from Buffalo Bill, who employed many of its residents and was responsible for its tourism business. It might seem natural that he’d be buried in the place he’d invested so much in, but he wasn’t. And that’s where the controversy began.

Though Cody spent much of his time in the town named after him, he also loved Colorado. After leaving his family in Kansas when he was just 11 to work with wagon trains throughout the West, he headed to Colorado for the first time as a 13-year-old wannabe gold prospector. During his short time in the area, he chased the glittery fortunes promised by Colorado’s 1859 gold rush. Even after leaving the territory, his traveling vaudeville show, which brought a glamorous taste of Wild West life to people all over the United States, took him back often. Later in life, he frequently visited Denver, where his sister lived. He died there, too—after telling his wife he wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain.

The mountain, located in Golden, Colorado, has a commanding view of the Great Plains, where Buffalo Bill experienced many of his Wild West adventures. It was also a place to contemplate the giant herds of buffalo that once roamed the West, and from whom Cody took his nickname. (Denver still maintains a small herd of buffalo—direct descendants of original American bison—near the mountain.)

But weather almost thwarted Cody’s burial plans. Since he died in January, the road to Lookout Mountain was impassable and his preferred burial site frozen solid. For a while, his body lay in state in the Colorado Capitol building. Governors and famous friends eulogized Cody in an elaborate funeral service. Then his body was placed in a carriage that moved solemnly through the streets of Denver, where thousands showed up to say goodbye. Afterwards, his body was kept in cold storage at a Denver mortuary while his family waited for the weather to change.

Meanwhile, Colorado and Wyoming started a heated feud over one of America’s most famous men. Wyoming claimed that Cody should be buried there, citing an early draft of his will that said he intended to be buried near Cody. Colorado cried foul, since Cody’s last will left the burial location up to his widow, who chose Lookout Mountain. Rumors even began to circulate that a delegation from Wyoming had stolen Cody’s body from the mortuary and replaced it with that of a local vagrant.

In part to stop the rumor mill, Cody was finally buried in an open casket on Lookout Mountain in June 1917. Twenty-five thousand people went to the mountaintop to bid him farewell before he was interred. To prevent theft, the bronze casket was sealed in another, tamper-proof case, then enclosed in concrete and iron.

Pennies on Buffalo Bill's grave
V.T. Polywoda, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Yet his rocky grave was anything but safe. In the 1920s, Cody’s niece, Mary Jester Allen, began to claim that Denver had conspired to tamper with Cody’s will. In response, Cody’s foster son, Johnny Baker, disinterred the body and had it reburied at the same site under tons of concrete to prevent potential theft [PDF]. (Allen also founded a museum in Wyoming to compete with a Colorado-based museum founded by Baker.)

The saga wasn’t over yet. In 1948, the Cody, Wyoming American Legion offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could disinter the body and return it to Wyoming. In response, the Colorado National Guard stationed officers to keep watch over the grave.

Since then, the tussle over the remains has calmed down. Despite a few ripples—like a jokey debate in the Wyoming legislature about stealing the body in 2006—Buffalo Bill still remains in the grave. If you believe the official story, that is. In Cody, Wyoming, rumor has it that he never made it into that cement-covered tomb after all—proponents claim he was buried on Cedar Mountain, where he originally asked to be interred.

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crime
Exhumation Confirms Gravesite of World's Fair Killer H.H. Holmes
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It’s a sordid true crime tale that has few peers. By 1893, the year of the Chicago World’s Fair, a man named H.H. Holmes had converted a sprawling property into an amusement house of murder, filled with secret passages, gas chambers, ovens, and the bodies of young women who made the mistake of booking a room.

Holmes eventually confessed to over two dozen murders and was sentenced to death by hanging in 1896. His body was tossed into a plot at Holy Cross Cemetery near Philadelphia. But ever since then, there has been speculation that Holmes somehow cheated death and may not have been buried there at all. Those rumors can now officially be laid to rest as researchers have confirmed that the remains buried at Holmes's gravesite do in fact belong to the serial killer, according to the AP.

In May, NBC Chicago 5 reported that two of Holmes’s great-grandchildren had persuaded a Pennsylvania court to allow the inspection of their relative’s body in the hope that DNA testing would settle the issue of whether Holmes faked his own death once and for all.

According to newspaper accounts of the era, Holmes requested that his coffin be laid over cement, then topped off with more of the same. That led to a belief that Holmes had somehow eluded his appointment with the noose by offering bribes to law enforcement and had his tomb sealed to prevent any investigation into the matter. Other accounts, including one from the Chicago Tribune on May 8, 1896, appeared certain it was Holmes (real name: Herman Webster Mudgett) who was hung by his neck.

The definitive answer came with assistance from the University of Pennsylvania's Anthropology Department, which agreed to assist Holmes's descendants. The results of that testing were confirmed earlier this week on the series finale of American Ripper, a History Channel series that documented the exhumation and the scientists' search for the truth.

University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Samantha Cox, who was part of the team, said it was a difficult job. Even though his body had decomposed, because of Holmes's very specific burial requests, his clothes were almost perfectly intact, as was his ever-present mustache.

“It stank,” Cox said. “Once it gets to that point we can’t do anything with it. We can’t test it, can’t get any DNA out of it.” Instead, Cox and her colleagues had to use Holmes's teeth to identify him.

[h/t AP]

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