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Collection Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and Beyond

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.

Notes comparing John Stewart Mill, Aristotle and Plato's philosophical perspectives on happiness, human nature, and society from Carl Sagan's undergraduate notebooks. These notebooks offer many examples of the breadth of the liberal arts and sciences curriculum he engaged with at the University of Chicago. 1950s.  Carl Sagan’s University of Chicago undergraduate notebook
In the draft of the introduction Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan explains the important role the Hutchins curriculum played in his intellectual development. 1994. D. Draft of Demon Haunted World, Manuscript Division Manuscript Division
An illustration of Carl Sagan, then an undergraduate student, and two other students and their advisor, Guy Omer, in the University of Chicago Astronomy Club. March 6, 1953, Astronomers view heavens and Urey, The Chicago Maroon, Manuscript Division.
Carl Sagan's undergraduate notes on Rene Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy. 1950s, Carl Sagan’s University of Chicago undergraduate notebook,, Manuscript Division.
A sequence of notes on science fiction stories, thermodynamics and music from Carl Sagan's college notebook. 1950s, Carl Sagan’s University of Chicago undergraduate notebook,, Manuscript Division.
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