Monday, 27 February 2017
March / April 2014
The Sagan Files
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1988  By his twentieth year in Ithaca, Sagan was growing frustrated by what he called "the almost imperceptible level of Cornell financial support for my work." In a confidential memo to the director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research and the chairman of astronomy, Sagan pointed out that between May and December, he had contributed $31,995 to cover costs associated with office equipment and a senior research associate. "By comparison, my half-time salary at Cornell for academic year 1987–88 is only $29,500. I am in the absurd situation of contributing more money to Cornell than Cornell pays me." Sagan proposed that "an equitable solution" would be for the University to increase non-salary funds to support his research and other activities by an additional $35,000 a year—though even that "would not equal the level of non-salary support that other universities and institutions continue to offer me."

letterSagan's discontent got the attention of Day Hall. In a letter from Provost Robert Barker, the University offered an additional $30,000 in honoraria in exchange for two public lectures a year. That summer, Sagan delivered the freshman orientation talk in Bailey Hall. " "I think if you play your cards right you can have an excellent educational experience at Cornell," he said. "And it's even possible that it can be a character-building experience, but that's a much iffier prospect—much more up to you."


1994  To honor Sagan's sixtieth birthday, Cornell sponsored a symposium on October 13–14. (Sagan was born on November 9, but the event was scheduled a month earlier to avoid problems with Ithaca's notoriously fickle weather.) A galaxy of scientists, diplomats, artists, and journalists converged on the campus. Also in attendance were Sagan's five children from three marriages, one born in each decade from the Fifties to the Nineties.

Bailey Hall was standing-room-only for Sagan's keynote lecture on "The Age of Exploration." As the lights dimmed, he pointed to a tiny pixel of light projected on a giant screen above him. He identified it as a photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager spacecraft as it departed the solar system. Sagan had persuaded NASA to adjust the cameras for this final, backward glance.

The auditorium was hushed except for Sagan's signature, cadenced voice. That night, he delivered one of his most memorable lectures, one that struck some in the audience as almost biblical in tone and message:

Look again at that dot. . . . On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. . . .

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner; how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another; how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. . . .

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

1995–96  Just weeks after his sixtieth birthday, Sagan was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a rare bone marrow disease. On March 13, 1995, he took leave for treatment, and on April 7 he underwent a bone marrow transplant at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Word of his illness sparked an outpouring of well-wishes from around the world, including notes from Cornell colleagues, President Bill Clinton, a sixth-grade science class in New Mexico, and fans bearing chicken soup recipes. Sagan tried to respond to each one.

Carl SaganSagan continued working feverishly, completing The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The book was a passionate defense of rationality against a rising tide of pseudo-science—and a prescient warning that the increasing power of science, combined with widespread ignorance about it, "is a prescription for disaster." Despite health setbacks and a new round of radiation treatments in the summer of 1996, Sagan expressed optimism about coming back to Cornell in October. The Daily Sun reported on November 11 that he was planning to teach Astronomy 202 in the spring.

On December 4, Sagan was interviewed on ABC's "Nightline" from his home in Ithaca. Host Ted Koppel, concerned by his guest's gaunt appearance, opened by inquiring about his health. Sagan replied: "I'm terrific. I've been very, very lucky and it looks like I'm out of the woods." Then: "We won't be sure for another year, a year and a half, but things couldn't look better." As time was running out on the seven-minute segment, Koppel asked for some final thoughts. Sagan smiled. "We live," he said, "on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of billions of other galaxies. . . . That is a perspective on human life and our culture that's well worth pondering."

It would be Sagan's last message to a national audience. Within days of the "Nightline" interview, he contracted pneumonia and again returned to Seattle for treatment. This time, however, there would be no recovery. In the early morning hours of Friday, December 20, with his wife and collaborator Ann Druyan and other family members at his side, Sagan drew his last breath. One of his noted astronomical observations—"even the stars must die"—also served as a personal epitaph.

Carl Sagan was buried three days later at Lakeview Cemetery in Ithaca, in a hillside family plot protected by a copse of evergreens. A memorial was held on February 3, 1997, in Bailey Hall, a short walk across the parking lot from Sagan's old office in Space Sciences. Perhaps the most eloquent tribute was delivered by President Emeritus Frank Rhodes. Sagan, he said, "asked the big questions that others had given up. He confronted the painful issues that others sidestepped. He leapt over conventional boundaries by which others were constrained. Not for him was the pursuit of science an activity of a closed and inward-looking guild: for him, science was a means of public understanding and enlightenment."

Bill Sternberg '78 is deputy editorial page editor of USA Today and a member of the Cornell Alumni Magazine Committee. He took Sagan's Astronomy 102 class in Spring 1975 and interviewed him for the Daily Sun about the Viking landers' search for life on Mars.