The papers of famed astronomer Carl Sagan, now open to the public at the Library of Congress, range over topics as majestic as outer space and as mundane as office space.
A voyage through the famed astronomer's archive, now at the Library of Congress
By Bill Sternberg
D uring his nearly three decades at Cornell, Carl Sagan became the best-known scientist on the planet. Unlike previous celebrity researchers, Sagan didn't achieve fame from a singular breakthrough such as Jonas Salk's polio vaccine or Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. Sagan made significant contributions to planetary research, but his renown derived from his extraordinary ability to communicate the wonders and complexities of science to his students—both in Cornell's lecture halls and in the wider world he made his classroom.
Sagan's papers, open to the public at the Library of Congress since November, range over topics as majestic as outer space and as mundane as office space. (If you took Astronomy 102/104 in 1977, your grades are in Box 254.) A sampling of the academic files sheds light on Sagan's years in Ithaca, from the story of how he came to Cornell to his transformation into the finest science educator of the Space Age generation to his courageous battle against the rare disease that claimed his life at sixty-two.
1967–68 Sagan, who had joined the Harvard faculty as an assistant professor in 1962 when he was twenty-eight, was seemingly on the fast track when he received the stunning news that he would not get tenure. The reasons weren't clear; there were murmurs that his overriding passion—exobiology, the search for extraterrestrial life—was a discipline without a subject matter. Regardless of why, Sagan began looking for employment elsewhere.
After being rebuffed by MIT, he found himself recruited by Tommy Gold, director of Cornell's Center for Radiophysics and Space Research. Gold, who was trying to build a world-class astronomy department, was impressed by Harvard's brash young astronomer, but then-Provost Dale Corson had reservations. "Dale, you will not ever regret this," Gold assured him.
Sagan's lack of negotiating leverage didn't prevent him from spelling out what it would take to bring him to Ithaca. "For me to accept your kind offer to come to Cornell, I would require some firm assurance that the level of staffing, space, and support be slightly above the level outlined," he wrote in a four-page letter in June 1967. Six months later, Gold responded with the offer of an associate professorship, with tenure and an initial salary of $15,000 a year. Gold helped seal the deal by bringing him to Treman State Park, where Sagan was impressed by the area's natural beauty.
On January 22, 1968, the Board of Trustees formally appointed Sagan an associate professor in the Department of Astronomy. He responded on Valentine's Day that he was "delighted to accept" and looked forward to a long period of association with Cornell.The relationship would last nearly half his life.
It wasn't until five years later that Sagan learned why he'd been snubbed by Harvard and MIT. One of his mentors at the University of Chicago, Nobel laureate Harold Urey, had given him negative references, characterizing Sagan's research work as wordy, often useless, and not to be trusted. Urey later changed his mind and apologized, asking for forgiveness and friendship. "I have been completely wrong," he wrote on September 17, 1973. "I admire the things you do and the vigor with which you attack them." By then, of course, Cornell had already pulled off the greatest Massachusetts-to-New York exchange of talent since the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920.
1973 Sagan quickly gained a reputation as an unusually engaging lecturer. In spring 1973 he taught Astronomy 102 with Frank Drake '51, known for devising an equation to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way. "The room is overflowing," Drake wrote to him, "and we are oversubscribed." That April, a discussion on "Science and Science Fiction"—featuring Sagan, Gold, Isaac Asimov, and Fred Hoyle—attracted so many people that hundreds got stuck in the hallway, including astronomy chair Martin Harwit, who publicly apologized for the "fiasco."
With the publication that year of Sagan's new book, The Cosmic Connection, his star continued to rise. He went on Dick Cavett's TV show to talk about the possibility of contact with intelligent life on other planets. Johnny Carson, a knowledgeable amateur astronomer, happened to catch the show and was impressed. Sagan was invited to appear on "Tonight"—but as a relative unknown he was relegated to five minutes at the end of the show, following a talking crow and harmonica-playing hillbillies.
He used the time well, and Carson invited him back three weeks later for a half-hour segment. Sagan's topic this time was nothing less than the history of the universe. "Fifteen billion years ago, the universe was without form," he began. "There were no galaxies, stars, or planets. There was no life. There was darkness everywhere." A New York magazine reviewer called it "one of the great reckless solos of late-night television."
Sagan would go on to make two dozen more appearances on the Carson show, spreading his gospel of science to its 10 million viewers. Back in Ithaca, students would greet his return to the classroom with Ed McMahon-like shouts of "He-e-e-e-re's Carl!" Carson later introduced a Sagan impression, donning a black wig, turtleneck sweater, and corduroy jacket and intoning "bill-yuns and bill-yuns." Thus Sagan, in one of the many ironies that marked his life, became perhaps best known for something he insisted he never said. When Carson heard about Sagan's denial, he sent a "Dear Carl" note to his Cornell office: "Even if you didn't say ‘billions and billions' you should have."
1977 It was perhaps inevitable that Cornell's most famous scientist and its most famous dropout, both best-selling authors, would cross paths. Kurt Vonnegut '44, who had spent three years on campus trying to become a scientist before leaving to serve in World War II, had given a favorable review to Sagan's first book, Intelligent Life in the Universe, written in 1966 with Soviet scientist I. S. Shklovskii. In 1977, Sagan sent Vonnegut a copy of The Dragons of Eden, his excursion into the origins of human intelligence that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. "I'm so glad to have The Dragons of Eden, a shapely companion for The Cosmic Connection," Vonnegut wrote back. "You make it so easy for a lazy person like me to have some inkling, all the same, of what may really be going on. All this new information is going to have to be incorporated into sermons by and by." Vonnegut went on to discuss plans for a new work of science fiction, which opened with a message to Earth from the planet Tralfamadore.
Sagan thanked Vonnegut for the message from the Tralfamadorians and wondered whether there is "any chance of you visiting your old Alma Mater—say, to give a university-wide lecture?" To which Vonnegut replied: "We might come up there to look around sometime. I'd like to steal my transcripts and burn them, if possible. As for lecturing: It makes me feel seasick, so I don't do it any more."
1980–81 Although Sagan was already well known beyond Cornell, it was "Cosmos," seen by more than 500 million people in sixty countries, that propelled him into the stratosphere and earned him such sobriquets as "the prince of popularizers" and "the cosmic explainer." In thirteen hour-long episodes, Sagan served as a telegenic tour guide to the universe, with an engaging sprinkling of philosophy, religion, music, art, and history along the way.
When Sagan returned to Ithaca after a two-year leave to make "Cosmos," his international celebrity attracted a deluge of appeals for interviews, invitations for speaking engagements, requests for career advice, fan mail, and letters from crackpots (which were placed in bulging files labeled "fissured ceramics"). To protect Sagan and Shirley Arden, his dedicated and swamped assistant, a special alarm system was installed in the Space Sciences Building.
In January 1981, Harold Urey died of heart disease at age eighty-seven. Sagan wrote a long obituary for the journal Icarus hailing him as one of the founders of modern planetary science. Deep in the obituary was this cryptic sentence: "I remember his willingness to change his mind in a case where he had blocked the advancement to tenure of a young scientist at another institution and then later asked to be forgiven."