Take a Course or Two with Professor Sagan

Carl Sagan at M.I.T. Photograph by Douglas Birdwell, 1977. From the The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress.

Carl Sagan at M.I.T.
Photograph by Douglas Birdwell, 1977. From the The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress.

The following is a guest post from Trevor Owens, Special Curator for the Library of Congress Science Literacy Initiative and Digital Archivist in the Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Most Americans know Carl Sagan best as a public figure and science communicator. Alongside those roles, he taught college courses for more than thirty years, first at Harvard University and later at Cornell. He was a mentor and an educator to a range of scientists and non-scientists alike.

Materials for two of his courses have been digitized and are now available online as part of the online collection, Finding Our Place in the Cosmos.  Items from the first course on planetary science give you a sense of the rigors of this field of research. Items from the second, a course on scientific thinking, illustrate how Carl Sagan’s passion for science communication and argumentation translated into the classroom.

Carl Sagan's Astronomy 170, Harvard University : lecture notes (1965). From the The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress

Carl Sagan’s Astronomy 170, Harvard University : lecture notes (1965). From the The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress

1965 Planetary Science Course: Planetary Science is the interdisciplinary field of research focused on studying planets in our solar system and beyond. Feel free to read through the lecture notes and attempt to work through the problem sets and exam from Sagan’s 1965 planetary science course to get a feel for the field. These materials do a nice job illustrating both the range of topics in the field and the difficulty inherent in this particular course.

In the beginning of Sagan’s course notes for Astronomy 170 he explains the course is “concerned primarily with the planets, satellites and rubble and debris of our solar system.”

Here is the first problem from the homework Carl Sagan gave in his Astronomy 170 course. Even from the first problem, it’s clear that this was a challenging course. This first question also underscores the challenges inherent of making observations of the planets through optical instruments from our vantage point on Earth.

Astronomy 490, Cornell University : course materials (Carl Sagan, 1988). The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress

Astronomy 490, Cornell University : course materials (Carl Sagan, 1988). The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress

1986 Critical Thinking in Science and Non-Science Context: These handwritten course notes, likely for the first course session, include mention of the important balance between openness to new ideas and skeptical engagement with those ideas in science. This point animates much of Carl Sagan’s work as an educator and science communicator.

In anticipation of his course, Carl Sagan took a range of notes he filed away to inform the course’s design. These notes illustrates how he wanted to use student’s every day experience with things like television to prompt them to think more skeptically about how claims are made and warranted in everyday life.

Astronomy 490, Cornell University : lecture notes (Carl Sagan, 1986). From the The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress.

Astronomy 490, Cornell University : lecture notes (Carl Sagan, 1986). From The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress.

Feel free to show your work!

Take note the problem sets and exams don’t come with the answers. Feel free to work through them and share your work and thoughts on them in the comments. How do you think you would have done in Professor Sagan’s courses?

Also, if you, or anyone you know, took a course with Carl Sagan we would love to hear your reflections on the experience. Consider taking a few moments to write a comment about the experience.

- As you can image, LC Bloggers are excited about this new digital collection and we will be publishing a series of posts related to it. I will list them here once they are published: 

 

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