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Library of Congress

15 Highlights from Carl Sagan's 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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Big Questions
How Long Could a Person Survive With an Unlimited Supply of Water, But No Food at All?
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How long could a person survive if he had unlimited supply of water, but no food at all?

Richard Lee Fulgham:

I happen to know the answer because I have studied starvation, its course, and its utility in committing a painless suicide. (No, I’m not suicidal.)

A healthy human being can live approximately 45 to 65 days without food of any kind, so long as he or she keeps hydrated.

You could survive without any severe symptoms [for] about 30 to 35 days, but after that you would probably experience skin rashes, diarrhea, and of course substantial weight loss.

The body—as you must know—begins eating itself, beginning with adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and next the muscle tissue.

Google Mahatma Gandhi, who starved himself almost to death during 14 voluntary hunger strikes to bring attention to India’s independence movement.

Strangely, there is much evidence that starvation is a painless way to die. In fact, you experience a wonderful euphoria when the body realizes it is about to die. Whether this is a divine gift or merely secretions of the brain is not known.

Of course, the picture is not so pretty for all reports. Some victims of starvation have experienced extreme irritability, unbearably itchy skin rashes, unceasing diarrhea, painful swallowing, and edema.

In most cases, death comes when the organs begin to shut down after six to nine weeks. Usually the heart simply stops.

(Here is a detailed medical report of the longest known fast: 382 days.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Space
Astronomers Observe a New Kind of Massive Cosmic Collision for the First Time
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For the first time, astronomers have detected the colossal blast produced by the merger of two neutron stars—and they've recorded it both via the gravitational waves the event produced, as well as the flash of light it emitted.

Physicists believe that the pair of neutron stars—ultra-dense stars formed when a massive star collapses, following a supernova explosion—had been locked in a death spiral just before their final collision and merger. As they spiraled inward, a burst of gravitational waves was released; when they finally smashed together, high-energy electromagnetic radiation known as gamma rays were emitted. In the days that followed, electromagnetic radiation at many other wavelengths—X-rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves—were released. (Imagine all the instruments in an orchestra, from the lowest bassoons to the highest piccolos, playing a short, loud note all at once.)

This is the first time such a collision has been observed, as well as the first time that both kinds of observations—gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation—have been recorded from the same event, a feat that required co-operation among some 70 different observatories around the world, including ground-based observatories, orbiting telescopes, the U.S. LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), and European Virgo gravitational wave detectors.

"For me, it feels like the dawning of a next era in astrophysics," Julie McEnery, project scientist for NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, one of the first instruments to record the burst of energy from the cosmic collision, tells Mental Floss. "With this observation, we've connected these new gravitational wave observations to the rest of the observations that we've been doing in astrophysics for a very long time."

A BREAKTHROUGH ON SEVERAL FRONTS

The observations represent a breakthrough on several fronts. Until now, the only events detected via gravitational waves have been mergers of black holes; with these new results, it seems likely that gravitational wave technology—which is still in its infancy—will open many new phenomena to scientific scrutiny. At the same time, very little was known about the physics of neutron stars—especially their violent, final moments—until now. The observations are also shedding new light on the origin of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs)—extremely energetic explosions seen in distant galaxies. As well, the research may offer clues as to how the heavier elements, such as gold, platinum, and uranium, formed.

Astronomers around the world are thrilled by the latest findings, as today's flurry of excitement attests. The LIGO-Virgo results are being published today in the journal Physical Review Letters; further articles are due to be published in other journals, including Nature and Science, in the weeks ahead. Scientists also described the findings today at press briefings hosted by the National Science Foundation (the agency that funds LIGO) in Washington, and at the headquarters of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany.

(Rumors of the breakthrough had been swirling for weeks; in August, astronomer J. Craig Wheeler of the University of Texas at Austin tweeted, "New LIGO. Source with optical counterpart. Blow your sox off!" He and another scientist who tweeted have since apologized for doing so prematurely, but this morning, minutes after the news officially broke, Wheeler tweeted, "Socks off!") 

The neutron star merger happened in a galaxy known as NGC 4993, located some 130 million light years from our own Milky Way, in the direction of the southern constellation Hydra.

Gravitational wave astronomy is barely a year and a half old. The first detection of gravitational waves—physicists describe them as ripples in space-time—came in fall 2015, when the signal from a pair of merging black holes was recorded by the LIGO detectors. The discovery was announced in February 2016 to great fanfare, and was honored with this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. Virgo, a European gravitational wave detector, went online in 2007 and was upgraded last year; together, they allow astronomers to accurately pin down the location of gravitational wave sources for the first time. The addition of Virgo also allows for a greater sensitivity than LIGO could achieve on its own.

LIGO previously recorded four different instances of colliding black holes—objects with masses between seven times the mass of the Sun and a bit less than 40 times the mass of the Sun. This new signal was weaker than that produced by the black holes, but also lasted longer, persisting for about 100 seconds; the data suggested the objects were too small to be black holes, but instead were neutron stars, with masses of about 1.1 and 1.6 times the Sun's mass. (In spite of their heft, neutron stars are tiny, with diameters of only a dozen or so miles.) Another key difference is that while black hole collisions can be detected only via gravitational waves—black holes are black, after all—neutron star collisions can actually be seen.

"EXACTLY WHAT WE'D HOPE TO SEE"

When the gravitational wave signal was recorded, on the morning of August 17, observatories around the world were notified and began scanning the sky in search of an optical counterpart. Even before the LIGO bulletin went out, however, the orbiting Fermi telescope, which can receive high-energy gamma rays from all directions in the sky at once, had caught something, receiving a signal less than two seconds after the gravitational wave signal tripped the LIGO detectors. This was presumed to be a gamma-ray burst, an explosion of gamma rays seen in deep space. Astronomers had recorded such bursts sporadically since the 1960s; however, their physical cause was never certain. Merging neutron stars had been a suggested culprit for at least some of these explosions.

"This is exactly what we'd hoped to see," says McEnery. "A gamma ray burst requires a colossal release of energy, and one of the hypotheses for what powers at least some of them—the ones that have durations of less than two seconds—was the merger of two neutron stars … We had hoped that we would see a gamma ray burst and a gravitational wave signal together, so it's fantastic to finally actually do this."

With preliminary data from LIGO and Virgo, combined with the Fermi data, scientists could tell with reasonable precision what direction in the sky the signal had come from—and dozens of telescopes at observatories around the world, including the U.S. Gemini telescopes, the European Very Large Telescope, and the Hubble Space Telescope, were quickly re-aimed toward Hydra, in the direction of reported signal.

The telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile were well-placed for getting a first look—because the bulletin arrived in the morning, however, they had to wait until the sun dropped below the horizon.

"We had about eight to 10 hours, until sunset in Chile, to prepare for this," Maria Drout, an astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories in in Pasadena, California, which runs the Las Campanas telescopes, tells Mental Floss. She was connected by Skype to the astronomers in the control rooms of three different telescopes at Las Campanas, as they prepared to train their telescopes at the target region. "Usually you prepare a month in advance for an observing run on these telescopes, but this was all happening in a few hours," Drout says. She and her colleagues prepared a target list of about 100 galaxies, but less than one-tenth of the way through the list, by luck, they found it: a tiny blip of light in NGC 4993 that wasn't visible on archival images of the same galaxy. (It was the 1-meter Swope telescope that snagged the first images.)

A NEW ERA OF ASTROPHYSICS

When a new star-like object in a distant galaxy is spotted, a typical first guess is that it's a supernova (an exploding star). But this new object was changing very rapidly, growing 100 times dimmer over just a few days while also quickly becoming redder—which supernovae don't do, explains Drout, who is cross-appointed at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. "We ended up following it for three weeks or so, and by the end, it was very clear that this [neutron star merger] was what we were looking at," she says.

The researchers say they can't be sure if the resulting object was another, larger neutron star, or whether it would have been so massive that it would have collapsed into a black hole.

As exciting as the original detection of gravitational waves last year was, Drout is looking forward to a new era in which both gravitational waves and traditional telescopes can be used to study the same objects. "We can learn a lot more about these types of extreme systems that exist in the universe, by coupling the two together," she says.

The detection shows that "gravitational wave science is moving from being a physics experiment to being a tool for astronomers," Marcia Rieke, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who is not involved in the current research, tells Mental Floss. "So I think it's a pretty big deal."

Physicists are also learning something new about the origin of the heaviest elements in the periodic table. For many years, these were thought to arise from supernova explosions, but spectroscopic data from the newly observed neutron star merger (in which light is broken up into its component colors) suggests that such explosion produce enormous quantities of heavy elements—including enough gold to put Fort Knox to shame. (The blast is believed to have created some 200 Earth-masses of gold, the scientists say.) "It's telling us that most of the gold that we know about is produced in these mergers, and not in supernovae," McEnery says.

Editor's note: This post has been updated.

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