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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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politics
The Secret Procedure for the Queen's Death
Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images
Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images

The queen's private secretary will start an urgent phone tree. Parliament will call an emergency session. Commercial radio stations will watch special blue lights flash, then switch to pre-prepared playlists of somber music. As a new video from Half As Interesting relates, the British media and government have been preparing for decades for the death of Queen Elizabeth II—a procedure codenamed "London Bridge is Down."

There's plenty at stake when a British monarch dies. And as the Guardian explains, royal deaths haven't always gone smoothly. When the Queen Mother passed away in 2002, the blue "obit lights" installed at commercial radio stations didn’t come on because someone failed to depress the button fully. That's why it's worth it to practice: As Half as Interesting notes, experts have already signed contracts agreeing to be interviewed upon the queen's death, and several stations have done run-throughs substituting "Mrs. Robinson" for the queen's name.

You can learn more about "London Bridge is Down" by watching the video below—or read the Guardian piece for even more detail, including the plans for her funeral and burial. ("There may be corgis," they note.)

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Nicole Garner
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History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
Nicole Garner
Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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