Collection Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and BeyondShow Featured Items
Sagan's Youth and the Progressive Promise of Space
Carl Sagan was captivated by the cosmos from an early age. Reflecting on his youth, he identified a series of experiences that drew him to astronomy and a perspective on the social progress science and technology would bring to the future of humanity.
The stories Sagan told about his childhood offer insight into what he found engaging and powerful about science. Specifically, his experiences with science and science fiction books, and his visit to the 1939 World’s Fair helped shape his vision of science in society. The young Carl Sagan wrote about and illustrated his visions of science, technology and society.
He was an extraordinary individual, but he was also the child of a moment in the history when America’s relationship with science and technology was changing. The items in this essay contextualize him and his ideas in the culture of 1940s and 50s America.
Awestruck by Stars as Suns
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Sagan asked his parents, friends, and family, “What are the stars?” They weren’t able to give him answers that satisfied his curiosity. He remembered being told things like, “They’re lights in the sky, kid.”
On his mother’s suggestion he went to a branch public library and asked for a book about the stars. Apparently the librarian offered him a book about movie stars. After clarifying what he wanted, he was given a children’s book about the stars, quite possibly Secrets of the Stars or something like it.
From the book, Sagan learned that the stars are suns, just very far away. According to Sagan this was a pivotal moment, an almost spiritual experience. The scale of the universe was opened up to him. This experience was so important to him that he presents it as part of the introduction to episode 7 of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. You can read a draft of the script for this section online.
Visiting “The World of Tomorrow” in 1939
Carl Sagan’s parents took him to the 1939 New York City World’s Fair. The fair presented “The World of Tomorrow,” a vision of a future America which left a significant impression on the young Sagan.
On the grounds of the fair visitors found a seven-foot tall robot, air conditioners, and a speech synthesizer. The demonstrations of countless wonders showed how technology would help to bring about a better and brighter tomorrow.
This vision of technology and progress became a part of the young Sagan’s passion for science. It also shaped his idealism about the nature of life in the universe. He felt if there were extraterrestrial civilizations out there with even more advanced technology, given the progressive power of technology, they would be even more rational than humanity. Technological progress and the wisdom to make the best use of technology seemed, to many, to go hand in hand at that time.
Looking back on the experience, Sagan noted he had absorbed the “extremely technocratic” ideas of the fair in an “uncritical way.” He remembered the presentation of "The World of Tomorrow" as “sleek, clean, streamlined, and as far as I could tell, without a trace of poor people.” As Sagan witnessed the development of technology in his lifetime, and the range of persistent superstitions people held on to, he would became much more critical of technology as a force for social progress.
Sagan and the Princess of Mars
Sagan was captivated by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories of John Carter and his exploits on the planet Mars. So much so that on several occasions he tried to recreate John Carter’s journey to the red planet. Carter traveled to Mars by standing in an open field with his arms outstretched and wishing hard enough to transport him there. When Sagan tried it as a child he couldn’t quite get this method to work.
Sagan’s ultimate search for life in the solar system is part of a long story about the possibility of life on other worlds. In the 19th century many scientists and religious thinkers thought it very likely that there was intelligent life on Mars, and these ideas became part of the popular culture that spurred a range of fictional works on what civilizations must be like on Mars. Just as the scientific fact that the stars are suns had captivated a young Sagan, Burroughs tales of battle and struggle on the planet Mars captured his imagination. While science is about fact and rigor for Sagan and many others, it is also about wonder, speculation and imagination.
Imagining the Evolution of Interstellar Space Flight
The young Sagan’s excitement about the power of technology and the likelihood of life on other worlds is on display in a drawing he made, likely between the ages of 10 and 13.
In the Evolution of Interstellar Flight Sagan present’s a vision of the future as a collage of imaginary newspaper headlines from the future. One of the headlines announces the invention of an atomic space ship that can travel 5 miles a second.
In his imagination, the possibilities of space travel were enough to overcome political struggles on Earth. One of his headlines announces an agreement of mutual cooperation between the American and Soviet governments to create the “first moon ship.” Another headline celebrates the success of this mission as two Russians and two Americans land on the moon in 1959.
Going forward, the drawing predicts reaching Mars in 1960, and discovering prehistoric looking reptiles on Venus in 1961. The bottom of the drawing presents a 1967 ad for “Interstellar Spacelines”, which has identified “Altair 8” as a habitable planet, and invites men and women to sign up to travel to and inhabit this new planet. Idealism for science as a means to conquer social and political problems was a persistent part of his approach into much of his adulthood.
Space, Time and the Poet Sagan
While in high school Sagan had already decided he wanted to become an astronomer. A student spotlight article on him from his high school newspaper opened, “If you wish to gain information concerning anything, go to Carl Sagan. He is Noah Webster, Einstein, and a walking encyclopedia all rolled into one” and that his “ambition is to become a research astronomer.” Beyond astronomy, he participated in the senior play, edited the sports section for the student newspaper and served as the president of the French club.
At 14 or 15 years old Carl Sagan wrote a brief essay for his high school student newspaper that illustrated how, at a young age, he was developing the lyrical style that he is so well known for. In “Space, Time and the Poet” he explained, “It is an exhilarating experience to read poetry and observe its correlation with modern science.” In the article he comments on selections from the writings of Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Milton, Edgar Allan Poe, T. S. Elliot, Robert Frost and The Bible. After reviewing these poems and their harmony with scientific understanding of the cosmos, he closes by considering the place of humanity in the universe, “After journeying through space over the galactic hub and through time to the terminus of our puny planet, we must be impressed with a feeling of Man’s utter insignificance before the universe.”
Liberal Arts Astronomer
In the 1950s, the University of Chicago’s undergraduate program pushed students to explore a breadth of knowledge. Students studied the history of science and literature by reading the classics. In this environment, a 16-year-old Carl Sagan flourished, taking courses in philosophy, science, and literature. Retrospectively he felt his broad education played an important role in making him into a well-rounded intellectual.
Aristotle, Bach, and Shakespeare in the Hutchins Curriculum
When Carl Sagan started college in the fall of 1951 he entered a unique program. Robert Maynard Hutchins, then chancellor of the university, had instituted a set of extensive changes to the curriculum focusing on great books in the western tradition. Reflecting back on the experience later in life, Carl Sagan explained, “It was considered unthinkable for an aspiring physicist not to know Aristotle, Bach, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Malinowski, and Freud.” In this sense, the educational environment of the University of Chicago was a good fit for the young Sagan who had a few years earlier wrote about “The Astronomer and the Poet” for his high school newspaper.
The Theoretical Section of the Astronomy Club
At the University of Chicago Carl Sagan joined, and ultimately became the president of the college Astronomy club. In the club he learned the fundamentals of astronomical observation. However, he did not spend too much time making observations.
A 1953 article for the University of Chicago student newspaper noted, aside from serving as the president of the club, he was also the head of its “Theoretical Section.” At the time the theoretical section was studying Harold Urey’s recent book, “The Origin of the Planets.” Both Urey and his book would be important in shaping Sagan’s research interests. During his time at the University of Chicago Sagan was present for the Miller-Urey experiment, which suggested that life might be abundant throughout the universe. His interactions with scientists and mentors at the University of Chicago refined his interest and approach to studying the cosmos.
Sagan’s Developing Mind in his Notebooks
Sagan’s student notebooks are a testament to the variety and range of his interests as a college student. Notes on course work and random thoughts recorded in his notebooks offer an engaging way to see how the young astronomer was developing.
Turning through the pages of these notebooks one finds detailed notes on philosophy, sociology, population genetics, and economics in between pages littered with mathematical equations.
In another notebook, Sagan mixes commentary on Aristotle, astronomy, genetics, and psychology with descriptions of his dreams, commentary on particular pieces of music, drawings, and plans for what courses to take and graduate programs he might enroll in.
These notebooks show all of Sagan’s interests colliding on the page. On one page of the notebook, Sagan references to an article, “"The Tiniest Time Traveler,”, from a 1952 issue of the science fiction magazine “Astounding Stories” and suggests that Sadi Carnot’s contributions to thermodynamics were critical to industrial development of 19th century, and jots down the melody for Felix Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides.
The broad liberal arts education Carl Sagan received at the University of Chicago played an important role in his development as a scientist and intellectual. As he went on to become a prolific scientist and spokesperson for science it is clear that this liberal arts perspective is evident in his work.
Sagan's Science Mentors
Science is often thought of as a set of facts and right answers. This misconception can get in the way of understanding science as both a tradition and craft. Carl Sagan learned the craft and became a part of the tradition of science through his relationships with mentors. As a student and assistant, Sagan learned how to analyze and critique scientific arguments, how to setup, run and interpret experiments and the methods for observing the stars. Gerald Kuiper, Harold Urey, and Hermann Muller were three of Sagan’s primary mentors. Exploring the perspectives and scientific work of each of these mentors offers insight into the development of planetary astronomy and the origins of exobiology, and underscores the value of understanding science as a personal endeavor. It also provides a way to set Sagan’s work and ideas in a broader historical context. He was a child of the 1940s and a college student of the 1950s. Through his mentors, we can trace many of the ideas and values in Sagan’s science back to the turn of the 20th century.
Muller: Sci-fi, Genetics, & Socialism
Hermann Joseph Muller, born in 1890, was a geneticist. As a Nobel laureate he is most known for his work on radiation and genetic mutations. Brought up in Harlem, he went to Morris High School in the Bronx. He received his Ph.D. in 1916. Muller went on to make a series of contributions to the study of radiation, X-rays and mutation in the 1920s and 30s.
Muller was a critic of capitalism and a supporter of socialism. In the 1930s, he ran a genetics lab in the Soviet Union, until the rise of Lysenkoism, an alternate evolutionary theory that claimed organisms pass on inherited characteristics, made it increasingly difficult for him to do genetics research in the Soviet Union. Muller was forced to leave the USSR in 1935 when Stalin ordered an attack on a book Muller wrote on eugenics.
In 1946, Muller found his way to a position as a Zoology professor at Indiana University. He even won a Nobel Prize for “the discovery that mutations can be induced by x-rays." It was in Indiana where met the young Carl Sagan.
In 1952, Carl Sagan sent some of his thoughts on the origin of life to a cousin, Seymour Abrahamson. Abrahamson was, at the time, in graduate studies at the Indiana University. Impressed by Sagan’s ideas, Abrahamson showed the letter to Muller who invited Sagan to visit and discuss his ideas. Muller asked Sagan to come work in the lab for the summer and Sagan was thrilled to accept.
Sagan and Muller had many things in common. As mutual science fiction fans, they once went to a sci-fi convention in Chicago together. Muller’s political activism work to reduce the possibilities of nuclear war in the 1950s was likely formative in Sagan’s later anti-nuclear activism. Sagan thought so highly of Muller that when he thought of developing a book concept, “Profiles in Scientific Courage”, he included Muller in a list of potential subjects that included; Charles Darwin, Johannes Kepler, Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling and Hypatia.
In a 1980 letter to Abrahamson, nearly thirty years after Abrahamson had introduced Sagan to Muller, Sagan reflected on the important role Muller played in his development as a scientist. Sagan noted that Muller “encouraged my interest in the origin of life and exobiology, and introduced me to Harold Urey, wrote recommendations for my NSF Fellowships, taught me some genetics, and communicated two of my earliest papers for publication.” Muller’s mentorship helped bring Carl Sagan into the tradition of science, not only a tradition of facts, but also one engaged in the political and social issues of its times.
Urey: Cosmochemistry, Origins of Life and Planets
Harold Clayton Urey, born 1893 in Walkerton Indiana, played a key role in the development of chemistry in the beginning of the 20th Century. In 1934, he won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the element Deuterium. Subsequently, he contributed to the development of the Atomic bomb with the Manhattan Project, and after WWII he became an outspoken critic of American nuclear policy. In the 1940s, he turned his attention away from the Earth and coined the term cosmochemistry. In his opinion, it was time for chemists to turn their attention to studying objects in the heavens.
In 1953, Carl Sagan, and the other members of the “theoretical section” of the University of Chicago Student Astronomy Club were reading Urey’s The Planets: Their Origin and Development (1952). In this book, Urey suggested that the Earth’s early atmosphere was likely made up of ammonia, methane, and hydrogen. In the same year, Stanley Miller, one of Urey’s graduate students, conducted an experiment to simulate the atmospheric conditions of early Earth. The goal of the experiment was to see if the atmospheric conditions might result in the synthesis of organic compounds; often referred to as the building blocks of life. The experiment became key evidence for the chemical basis of the origin of life, and to Sagan who heard Miller present his results at a University of Chicago seminar, the experiment suggested that life was likely abundant throughout the universe.
Excited by the ideas and nature of Urey’s work, Sagan took an undergraduate honors class with him. For the class Sagan wrote an honors essay on the origin of life, which Urey told him showed signs of a naive youth. As a mentor, Urey was hard to please and he challenged Sagan to become more rigorous in his writing and thinking.
Kuiper: Observing Mars and the Back of the Envelope
Gerard Kuiper, born in the Netherlands in 1905, made a series of significant contributions to understanding today’s solar system. He discovered that Saturn’s moon, Titan, had an atmosphere, which was the first moon known to have a significant atmosphere. In the 1950s he wrote about the possibility of a disk of small icy bodies beyond the orbit of the planet Neptune, which is now generally referred to as the Kuiper belt. In WWII, Kuiper served in the Alsos Mission, part of the Manhattan Project, which investigated the German atomic bomb project. He also worked with the U.S. military to rescue or capture German scientists.
In 1956, Carl Sagan was accepted into the Doctoral Astronomy Program at the University of Chicago which was based at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. At the time, Gerard Kuiper was the director of the observatory. Kuiper invited Sagan to join him in observing Mars from McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas during the summer of 1956. Sagan had planned to take a trip to Europe over the summer, but as he explained in this draft of a Letter to Kuiper from April of 1956, “Europe will always be as far away from this country as it is now, which is not the case for Mars.” In the summer of 1956 Earth and Mars were at points in their respective orbits around the sun where they are closest to each other. This offers the ideal circumstance for observation. The weather in both Texas and on Mars did not cooperate and kept them from making useful observations.
As Sagan recalled later in his life, Kuiper introduced him to “back-of-the-envelope calculation,” which he described as “A possible explanation to a problem occurs to you, you pull out an old envelope, appeal to your knowledge of fundamental physics, scribble a few approximate equations on the envelope, substitute in likely numerical values, and see if your answer comes anywhere near explaining your problem. If not, you look for a different explanation.” For him, this technique was invaluable as it “cut through nonsense like a knife through butter.” Kuiper would go on to be Carl Sagan’s dissertation advisor and a key advocate for Sagan’s work as he made his way to a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics in 1960.
Carl Sagan: Researcher, Educator, Communicator, Advocate and Activist
The term “scientist” brings to mind a researcher in a lab coat scratching out equations on a chalkboard. In reality scientists play many other roles. Items from Carl Sagan’s papers illustrate the many facets of his career. More broadly, these items speak to the range of roles scientists play in society.
Most Americans know Carl Sagan best as a public figure and science communicator. For Sagan an interest in science communication came early. Even as a high school student he waxed philosophical on the connections between the Astronomer and the Poet. As his career as a scientist began to take off he, was frequently interviewed by the press and became a public spokesperson for astronomy on programs like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Carl Sagan remains most well known for his television program, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. In Cosmos: An Appreciation, Sagan explained why he felt it was so important for scientists to be involved in communicating science to the public; “We live in a time dominated by science and technology and yet it sometimes seems that almost no one understand very much about science and technology.” For him, “this is a clear prescription for disaster especially in a democracy.” Sagan’s belief that “we are all of us scientists” motivated a considerable amount of his work as a science communicator. His commitment to communication and education once prompted him to consider the value of making all scientists tithe 10% of their time to public outreach projects, including the creation of computer games.
Sagan was also a prolific writer of popular science articles and books. He wrote a long standing series of essays for Parade magazine. Essays like, The Gift of the Apollo, passionately made the case to the American public for the value of space exploration. In popular press books, like Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space and Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and his novel Contact, he worked to communicate the importance and values of science to the world at large
Throughout his career, Carl Sagan was engaged in basic scientific research of our solar system. He already had an impressive list of grants and publications on his curriculum vitae by 1961, including articles in the journal Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. While Carl Sagan had expressed an interest in science communication from an early age, working with his mentors he had already landed a series of major publications.
Throughout Sagan’s career he was simultaneously engaged in ongoing research as a planetary scientist alongside his work as a science communicator. For example, while gearing up to start working on the Cosmos: A Personal Voyage television program, he was also revising the scientific objectives of the Voyager mission. While working on drafts of his novel Contact in the mid 1980s he was putting together exobiology grant proposals.
As a professor, Carl Sagan taught a range of courses at both Harvard University and Cornell. Sagan was engaged in teaching both future planetary scientists and the general students about science.
Traces of his work as an educator are evident in some of the materials for his courses. His lecture notes, problem sets, and exam for a 1965 planetary science course he taught at Harvard shows the difficult work he assigned to his students.
Aside from instruction for scientists, Sagan was also passionate about teaching non-science majors about the importance of skepticism and scientific habits of mind. You can see this in the lecture notes, prompts for students, final exam and other course materials for a class on critical thinking in science and non-science contexts at Cornell in 1986 and 1988.
Encounters between astrophysicist and science communicator Neil Tyson and Carl Sagan further illustrate Sagan’s commitment to education. In 1975, Neil Tyson, then in high school, applied to Cornell. The university admissions office forwarded his application to Sagan who invited Tyson to tour the campus. While Tyson decided not to study at Cornell, they continued to occasionally correspond. At one point, Sagan passed on a copy of a popular astronomy book Tyson was working on to several of Sagan’s contacts in publishing . Though they only met in person on a few occasions, as Tyson explained in a eulogy he gave for Sagan “at every stage of my scientific career that followed, I modeled my encounters with students after my first encounter with Carl.”
Science Policy Advocate/Activist:
Sagan made direct appeals to the public on the importance of understanding and supporting science and the threats of nuclear proliferation. He also participated in public protests; in 1986 he was arrested at a protest of the detonation of a thermonuclear warhead at test site in Nevada. Along with his communication efforts and activism, he also made direct contact and appeals to policy makers. He testified to congress on multiple occasions and, on at least one occasion, briefed the President of the United States.
In 1977 Sagan had the opportunity to brief President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale. A small note on Watergate Hotel stationary Sagan took with him to that meeting offers a glimpse of what he expressed to the president. Alongside terms like “wonder” and “exploration” we find a number of topics related to the planets, the Voyager record, and CETI, an abbreviation for communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. He brought much of the message he would bring to audiences in the Cosmos series directly to the White House. In keeping with many of his mentors, Sagan felt it was necessary for scientists to be active and engaged participants in civil society.
Carl Sagan’s science was publicly minded and engaged. Alongside his work as a researcher he was engaged as an educator, public communicator and activist. In this respect, he remains an important role model for many scientists today.
Sagan's Thinking and Writing Process
The Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan archive offers a rare opportunity to explore the writing and thinking process of one of the most prolific science writers of the 20th century.
Dictation, Transcription, Hand Edited Revision
One of the most exciting things about collections of personal papers is the ability to review drafts and revisions of significant books and articles. Early drafts are a way to understand how books developed in the minds of their creators. You can read and review some of Carl Sagan’s drafts and ideas online in this collection; including The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, and his novel Contact. Carl Sagan was an extensive reviser of his work, for example, this digitized draft of Pale Blue Dot is the second of twenty full drafts in the archive. Each of those 20 drafts is heavily annotated with edits, revisions and changes.
You will notice these drafts are not hand written, but are covered with cross outs and handwritten revisions. These drafts, everything from grant proposals, correspondence, and his books and articles, were dictated to cassettes and transcribed. For example, listen to some of these digitized sections of an audio cassette that contains parts of Sagan’s novel Contact and this dictated section of an exobiology grant proposal.
Sagan’s writing process involved a constellation of technologies and people. When working on books in the 80s and 90s he would dictate sections, which were transcribed for him. He would then mark up print outs of the transcripts and edit, revise and assemble them into drafts. You can find evidence of this process in the dates in the upper corner of some of these draft pages in Pale Blue Dot.If you scan through the different sections of the draft, you will notice that the dates change throughout. The result of this constellation of composition technologies and media is a stunning level of access into Sagan’s writing and thinking process. A small number of examples documenting this process have been digitized for this online collection to provide a sense of the kinds of materials that exist around many of his writing projects.
Building Toward Books
Carl Sagan wrote a considerable amount of shorter pieces for magazines and periodicals. Many of those essays would later become sections in his books. For example, the essay the "Gift of the Apollo" becomes part of Pale Blue Dot. Collectively, the archive provides extensive access to traces of the Carl Sagan’s extensive intellectual enterprise.
A Torrent of IdeasExploring the archive reveals that Sagan was constantly developing ideas for possible projects. You can find ideas for a textbook written on the back of an American Academy of Sciences envelope, alongside a partially completed to-do list of urgent projects, ideas for more than a hundred ideas for children’s books that answer why questions, like “Why is the Sky Blue?”, as well as a hand drawn diagram representing all of space and time. He wrote, co-wrote or edited over 20 books, published a dizzying array of scientific papers and wrote regularly for Parade Magazine.
Scientist’s notebooks offer an opportunity to study their ongoing thought process. You can find a few examples of these kinds of artifacts in the collection. For example, Carl Sagan’s ongoing ideas and reflections in notebooks from his time in college, for a brief period in a notebook in the late 1960s, and on particular topics, like this notebook on Jupiter’s Moon Titan.
Sagan was not generally in the habit of keeping a notebook of his running thoughts and ideas. However, the archive does contain a fascinating recording of his running thoughts and ideas in a set of folders called “Ideas Riding.” These folders contain a running account of a range of ideas off the top of Sagan’s mind. Like most of his writing, they started out as dictated tapes. A selection from the mid-60s through the 90s has been digitized to give a sense of the diversity of his interests. These include everything from the properties of clouds on Venus, to the potential value of an astronomical observatory on Mars, to ideas for a science fiction novel involving the CIA and the NSA investigating UFOs, and musings on the possibilities of interstellar communication as music.
Reading this kind of material offers a way to get a feel for his sense of humor and scientific interests. Inside these “Ideas Riding” folders we find the origins of a number of his works, for example, in this note he suggests two different potential names for the television series Cosmos, then tentatively called "Man and the Cosmos." He considers renaming it “There" [with some subtitle] or “Cosmos" [also with some subtitle]. The final name for the series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is the name he settled on and the show that made him famous.
Together, this archive provides an intimate look at some of Sagan’s most well known works in early stages. It’s a chance to understand not only what Carl Sagan thought, but how he became one of the modern ambassadors of science to the general public. This online collection represents only a tiny fraction of the archive - it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Consult the collection’s finding aid and plan a visit to the Library of Congress to explore the rest.