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

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.

Contact chapter three: Dictated section of novel

This audio recording is part of the first draft of Carl Sagan's novel Contact. Sagan dictated most of his writings. You can see the next stage in his process in this draft of Contact he annotated and revised. Contact chapter three: Dictated section of novel. 1984. Manuscript Division.

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 Ideas

Exploring 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.

Ideas Riding

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.

This image of part of the table of contents from the second Draft of Carl Sagan's book Pale Blue Dot offers a point of entry for understanding Sagan's writing process. The document was transcribed from a dictation, and the chapter "The Gift of Apollo" is a revised version of an essay he previously wrote. 1993. Manuscript Division.
To illustrate the range of items documenting Carl Sagan's writing and thinking process here are some notes he wrote for a textbook idea on an AAAS envelope. The backbone of darkness: An introduction to the natural sciences : notes on envelope. Undated. Manuscript Division.
This partially finished to-do list of Carl Sagan's urgent projects gives you a sense of the things Sagan was working on and thinking. Urgent projects to-do list. C. 1982. Manuscript Division.
Section from the hand drawn diagram that represents all of space and time. Diagram of all space and time. 1985. Manuscript Division.
In this note from Carl Sagan's writing ideas, or "ideas riding," Sagan explains the value that an astronomical observatory on Mars could provide. An astronomical observatory on Mars : note. 1966. Manuscript Division.