15 Highlights from the Library of Congress's Carl Sagan Archive

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Library of Congress

Recently, the Library of Congress acquired and began to digitize The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, a compilation of the personal papers, books, and correspondence of noted astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Through more than a dozen books, as well as his groundbreaking 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage—soon to be remade in March featuring equally awesome astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson—Sagan used his wondrous spirit to urge people to look at the planet and our place in the universe in different, dynamic ways. Here are a few awesome things we found in the collection.

1. Home Movies of a Young Sagan

The video above shows a series of silent home movies, starting off with the young Sagan joking around while playing piano. Other clips—with appearances by his mother Rachel, his father Samuel, and his younger sister Carol—show Sagan horseback riding, on vacation, and documenting a family trip to the zoo.

2. The Evolution of Interstellar Space Flight

This wonderful drawing was created by pre-teen Sagan, and is a collage of proposed newspaper headlines from the future. One headline boasts of technological developments like atomic space ships that can travel 5 miles per second, while another imagined advertisement promotes “Interstellar Spacelines," encouraging people to travel to and inhabit a planet in another solar system called "Altair 8."

3. Wawawhack, the Rahway High School student newspaper, Vol. VI, No. 5.

This issue of Wawawhack, the Rahway High School student newspaper, contains a student spotlight section describing Sagan's accomplishments as a high schooler. “If you wish to gain information concerning anything,” the article says, “go to Carl Sagan.” The short piece also describes his ambition to become an astronomer when he grows up, lists his hobbies as reading and playing basketball, labels his pet peeve as “lettuce sandwiches,” and names his favorite song—“My Foolish Heart, the title song from the film adaptation of the JD Salinger short story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.”

4. The sounds of Earth

This is Sagan’s personal copy of the gold-plated copper record disc that NASA produced in 1977 to accompany the Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft into interstellar space for potential alien civilizations to discover. The disc includes 115 images of Earth cultures, natural sounds, music, and spoken greetings in 55 languages. The phrase “To the makers of music—all worlds, all times” is etched around the center of both sides. Also found in the archive is a 1986 birthday greeting to Chuck Berry by Sagan and his eventual wife Ann Druyan (Berry’s song “Johnny B. Goode” was included on the record), and a thank-you letter to famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax for helping compile the music for the disc.

5. The Pale Blue Dot

Sagan dictated many of his science-related thoughts and much of his official correspondence. This 4-minute audio recording is the abstract for his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot, and ponders the primary concepts gained from the famous “Pale Blue Dot” photo taken, at Sagan's request, more than 4 billion miles from earth by the Voyage 1 spacecraft in 1990. “Consider that dot,” said Sagan, “That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” The archive also includes the second of 20 drafts of Sagan’s book.

6. Diagram of all space and time

This diagram, drawn by Sagan in 1985, represents all of space and time. The X-axis illustrates past and future time, while the Y-axis illustrates scale from the minute size of electrons to the distance to the “M31” or Andromeda Galaxy. Note the relative size of the small box that represents the “Realm of Direct Human Experience” to the huge space given to the realms of Quantum Physics and Special Relativity, and also the ominously titled “Forbidden Zone.”

7. Jovian radio organisms

Throughout his later career, Sagan would keep a file composed of initial concepts for writing projects that piqued his interest that he called his “Ideas Riding” file—a play on the phrase “Ideas Writing.” In this one-page document, the astrophysicist contemplates the “very speculative idea” that large plantlike organisms on Jupiter could communicate using radio waves like “a vast sing-along or the noise leakage from an immense cocktail party.” Pretty trippy. Other documents from this file include everything from notes on the nature of the clouds on Venus to an observation about how whale songs sound like cello music to asking “why are clouds white?”

8. Briefing notes for President Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale

This handwritten note—on Watergate Hotel stationery—was used for a presentation by Sagan to brief then-President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale on concepts like the origin of life; the Voyager record; “cosmic catastrophes” like pulsars, quasars, and black holes; and CETI, or ”communication with extraterrestrial intelligence.”

9. Letter to Brown University Admissions Office

This college recommendation letter was written by Sagan and sent to the admissions office of Brown University, endorsing a student named David Grinspoon for admission to the school. Sagan declares that Grinspoon “would rank in the upper one percent of the students in my introductory astronomy course at Cornell,” and notes that the young student is an “accomplished tennis and guitar player.” Grinspoon would eventually attend Brown, and would even get a second recommendation letter from Sagan—also in the collection—when he was trying to get into graduate school at the University of Arizona. Additional correspondence between the two includes a letter Sagan wrote to the undergrad asking him to help him find an astronomy book written by sci-fi author H.P. Lovecraft.

10. Viking Lander images of the surface of Mars

These photographs are Sagan’s personal copies of the images sent back to earth from the Viking lander in 1977. Sagan was obsessed with the Red Planet, and the collection also includes a photo of Sagan with a model of the lander taken in Death Valley, California.

11. Idea for Contact video game

Sagan wasn’t content working in just literature, academia, or television. In this document, he chews over how to create a video game that could teach astronomy “in a context as exciting as most violent video games.” The premise of the video game would involve creating a young galactic civilization “in order to help it before it destroys itself—which most of them generally do.” Ever the optimist, Sagan also considered how the video game could be a tie-in to his novel Contact, which would be published in 1985. The collection also includes a dictated first draft of chapter three and a full draft of the novel.

12. Candidate list of Why? books

Sagan connected with so many people thanks to his knack for making audiences easily understand some pretty difficult scientific concepts. This list from later in his life contains about 150 potential titles for a series of instructional books for children called “Why?” Some examples include “How High is the Sky?”, “Why Don’t I Feel the Earth Spin?”, “If a Baby Was Raised by Mutes, What Language Would it Speak?”, “Could there be an Undiscovered Number Between 1 and 2?”, and “Why is it Warm in Summer?”

13. Scientists tithe time to science education

Anticipating the contemporary lack of funding and support for potentially costly scientific endeavors, Sagan proposed that scientists themselves should donate ten percent of their time towards public education in science. As a way for these scientists to contribute to a better public understanding of science, Sagan suggests they should write articles in local newspapers, give public lectures, and hold open houses at observatories.

14. Lecture notes

Though he was the most high profile astrophysicist of his time, Sagan was still a university professor with coursework, exams, and research papers to assign. The collection give us a little look into just what it might have been like to be enrolled in—or to teach—one of his classes.

One document for the “Astronomy 490” course he taught at Cornell in the '80s features lecture notes written by Sagan himself, which encourage students to push their critical thinking between “what feels good versus what is true,” and explains that the course will follow the logical idiom “Post hoc ergo propter hoc.” One of the course’s final exams features an essay question asking students to describe the ways culture may change in the years following a major event involving UFOs, while another asks students to create a thought experiment for or against sun sign astrology.

For his 1965 “Astronomy 170” course at Harvard, his lecture notes outline topics such as the possibility of life on Mars and his desire to spend class time contemplating Saturn’s rings.

15. Correspondence between Sagan and a young Neil deGrasse Tyson

Perhaps my favorite discovery in the collection is a series of correspondence between Sagan—who was at the height of his popularity—and a young Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who has now taken over Sagan’s mantle in bringing popular science to the masses.

The banter starts with a letter from Sagan to Tyson—who was a senior at The Bronx High School of Science at the time—inviting the young man to visit him at Cornell and praising his decision to major in physics. Following their meeting and some time later, Tyson responds to Sagan informing him he has decided to attend Harvard because they have a larger astronomy department, to which Sagan cheekily responds that he’s sure Tyson has “not made a serious error in going there rather than Cornell.”

The formal friendship gives way to casual communication when Tyson send Sagan a letter about his first year as an undergrad at Harvard, and how he sublet an apartment in Cambridge for the summer so he could work full time at the Center for Astrophysics until school started up again. The pièce de résistance is a letter Tyson sent Sagan asking him how he would go about finding a publisher for turning a series of Q&A articles he wrote into a full-length book. The message includes a newspaper clipping about Tyson to remind Sagan of his accomplishments. It also features Tyson wearing a particularly goofy, but great astronomy-themed t-shirt.

The digitized collection is only in the preliminary stages, and the entirety of the documents from Sagan’s estate numbers in the hundreds more. If you’re as much of a Sagan fan—or science geek—as I am, let’s hope they put them online sooner rather than later.

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February 6, 2014 - 10:30am
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