Space, Time, and the Poet Sagan

The following in a guest post by Trevor Owens, special curator for the Library of Congress Science Literacy Initiative, as part of a series of Library-wide blogs about Carl Sagan — to read more visit “Finding our Place in the Cosmos with Carl Sagan.”

Today the Library celebrates the launch of a new digital collection, “Finding our Place in the Cosmos: from Galileo to Sagan.” This collection brings together newly available materials from Carl Sagan’s papers, with items related to the history of astronomy and life on other worlds from across the Library’s collections.

Watching space-time-poetan episode of Carl Sagan’s television series Cosmos: A Personal Journey, one can’t help but get caught up in the poetic and lyrical style of its presentation. When and where did Sagan develop that style and voice? Among a range of clippings Sagan kept inside his high school yearbook, we can find documentation of just how long he had been taking a poetic approach to talking about the cosmos.

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 begins, “It is an exhilarating experience to read poetry and observe its correlation with modern science.” He follows with selections of astronomically-themed poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edgar Allan Poe, John Milton, Helen Hunt Jackson, T. S. Eliot, Karl Shapiro, John Gould Fletcher, Robert Frost, and George Santayana, as well as a selection from 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.” And he includes the following under “Suggestions for Further Study”:

  • Poems—William Butler Yeats
  • The Pocket Book of Verse—Speare
  • The Collected Verse of T. S. Elliot
  • Poems—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Poems—John Donne
  • The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam—Fitzgerald
  • On the Nature of Things—Lucretius
  • Paradise Lost—Milton
  • Poems—George William Russell (“A E”)
  • The Bible

Science is as much about rigorous tracking of facts as it is about imagination and creativity. You often see the bibliography and citations in scientific journals, but the article shows the literary material that informs Sagan’s scientific work—a rare glimpse into the connection between two cultures that scientist and novelist C. P. Snow famously argued were becoming increasingly distinct. Snow’s lecture came out in 1959; by contrast, almost a decade earlier a childhood Sagan was able to bridge that cultural gap—the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that would become a hallmark of his career.

One Comment

  1. C L Couch
    January 31, 2014 at 11:29 am

    How wonderful that the works–the ideas, the lyricism–of Carl Sagan are now newly collected and celebrated. Thank you!

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