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Wit and Lucidity: Carl Sagan’s Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution

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Today’s post is from science reference librarian Margaret Clifton.

In light of recent discussions about ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering, and math) education floating in and around government lately it is worth noting that scientific educational outreach, that is, science communication from the scientific community to the public (or at least to a captive youthful audience) goes back probably as far as science itself. Few have had as long a continuous existence as the Royal Institution in Great Britain.

Michael Faraday portrait from the Matthew Brady Studio. Daguerreotype collection, Library of Congress, created between 1844-1860.
Michael Faraday portrait from the Matthew Brady Studio. Daguerreotype collection, Library of Congress, created between 1844-1860.

Brief History of the Royal Institution & Background of Lecture Series

One of the first institutionalized venues for science communication in the Western world was founded in 1799 in Great Britain by the American-born scientist and statesman Sir Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford (also known as the inventor of a drip coffeemaker, but that’s another blog post).

The Royal Institution (RI) was created to provide lectures and scientific advice to support agriculture, industry, and the British Empire; to be a center for

diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life.

A great success right from the start, the RI housed lecture theaters, laboratories, libraries and other facilities, all for the express purposes of practicing and communicating science, and in 1800 they began hosting afternoon lectures; these and the scientific exhibitions were always well attended. One of the greatest scientists of all time, Michael Faraday, was appointed Director of the Laboratory in 1825, succeeding Humphry Davy, also a brilliant scientist, and soon after were initiated a series of holiday lectures. The original intent of these events was to provide “a set of Twenty two Lectures on Natural Philosophy suited to a Juvenile Auditory, during the Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide recesses.”  From 1827 onward, the Juvenile Lectures, as they were originally titled, were only given around Christmas and quickly became known as the Christmas Lectures.

A brilliant lecturer, Faraday delivered nineteen Christmas Lectures series at the RI. Each series came to be comprised of six lectures on successive evenings, eventually spreading out over a two-week period.  It was not long after they started that their enormous popularity was realized. Publishers were extremely eager to turn the lectures into print works — a challenging proposition for a lecture and experiment-demonstration format. Eventually Faraday agreed to have his lectures published, and the most well known of these is the Chemical History of a Candle, which was his last lecture. Published as a book in 1861, it is one of the most successful popular science books of all time, and has hardly been out of print since. The form of the title was frequently imitated, as in George Porter’s lecture The Natural History of a Sunbeam . Just over one quarter of all of the lectures have been published in book form since the 1860s. The anthology volume, Christmas at the Royal Institution, (Hackensack, N.J.,World Scientific, c2007), provides a sample of Christmas Lectures from the 1860s until the 1990s.

Royal Institution's Christmas Lecture, 1976. Used under Creative Commons from the Royal Institution
Royal Institution’s Christmas Lecture, 1976. Used under Creative Commons from the Royal Institution

Many famous and now-forgotten scientists have delivered these lectures, continuously over the years, with the exception of the period during the Second World War. Following Faraday’s precedent, many lecturers delivered more than one series. Television broadcasting of the Christmas Lectures began with the 1966-1967 series, following the founding of the BBC2 television channel in 1964, when its controller was David Attenborough (who gave the series in 1973 titled “The Language of Animals”). The early televised lectures were subject to very little editing, making for some very exciting “live” television, considering that actual scientific experiments, frequently of a chemical nature, were conducted in the lecture theater with a live audience.

Carl Sagan at the Royal Institution

One of the leaders in the ranks of the greatest science communicators of all time is Carl Sagan. In 1976, when he was invited to give the Christmas Lectures at the RI, Sagan was David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University, where he was also the Associate Director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research (CRSR). He was active in helping to plan the American program of spacecraft planetary exploration, and was involved in the Mariner, Viking, and Voyager missions to the planets. He had already authored over 350 scientific articles and 14 books, two of which, The Cosmic Connection and The Dragons of Eden, were best-sellers, and had received the Joseph Priestley award for “distinguished contributions to the welfare of mankind.” He was responsible for the plaques aboard the Pioneer I & II spacecraft, and for the records aboard Voyager I & II, mankind’s first “messages to the stars.”

Sagan with Viking lander model. Photographed by Bill Ray, Death Valley, 1980.
Sagan with Viking lander model. Photographed by Bill Ray, Death Valley, 1980.

Sagan was a well-established research scientist, a brilliant ideas person, and a visionary. He made television appearances and published popular articles in mainstream media such as Readers’ Digest, that shared his energy and passion for science, particularly for planetary exploration, with the general public. At the time he was beginning work on his 13-part television series on PBS, Cosmos, which was the most widely watched public television program until 1990.

According to the Royal Institution Archivist, Professor Frank James, discussions about the possibility of Sagan delivering the Christmas lectures began in February 1976 and on May 14 of that year he was formally invited to deliver them by then RI Director Sir George Porter. Making these arrangements a year and a half in advance was and remains unusual, but Carl Sagan was a busy man and very in demand, not to mention the fact that he was based in New York. Sagan remains one of only two Americans to have delivered the series (the other being Philip Morrison).

In 1973, after publishing, to rave reviews, The Cosmic Connection, which received the John W. Campbell award for best science book of the year, Sagan began appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where he quickly captivated both his host and the American television audience with his infectious enthusiasm for science. At a time when America’s venture into space was front-page news, Carl Sagan provided a narrative that everyone could understand, and brought a sense of wonder that everyone could feel.

In 1977, after receiving the invitation from the RI, Carl Sagan took his unique style of presentation to the Christmas Lectures, offering six lectures on the solar system in a series titled The Planets.  The first two talks, The Earth as a Planet and The Outer Solar System and Life,  were a broad overview of the planetary system beginning with Earth.  The next three presentations were The History of Mars, Mars Before Viking, and  Mars After Viking.  The last was Planetary Systems Beyond the Sun. These lectures, which are available online from the BBC — RI Channel, put our more recent Mars missions into a broader historical context.

Program flyer for Carl Sagan's "The Planets" Christmas Lecture series 1977-78. From the Letter to Carl Sagan from Mrs. Carla Baumgart-Markham. From the The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress.
Program flyer for Carl Sagan’s “The Planets” Christmas Lecture series 1977-78. From the Letter to Carl Sagan from Mrs. Carla Baumgart-Markham. From the The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress.

The series evolved conceptually from a focus on extraterrestrial life – the scientific term at the time was ‘exobiology’ – to the broader topic of the planets of our solar system, the “wanderers in the sky,” as Sagan dubbed them. In a letter expressing his delight at Sagan’s agreement to give the series in 1977, Director Porter wrote “Incidentally, as far as the subject and title are concerned, please do not feel tied to exobiology or extraterrestrial life, if you would prefer to talk about the planets. My own feelings is that this would be a better topic and you could, of course, work in all the exobiology that you want.”

These lectures describe one of Sagan’s major intellectual arcs, reflecting his work in astronomy and space sciences in that special moment in time when we, the dominant species of the planet, were just at the beginning stages of reaching out into the universe, starting to look beyond our own solar system, developing technology to search for and collect information about life elsewhere and knowledge about our own planet and its relation to the rest of the Universe. All of these were themes that preoccupied Sagan his entire career.

Watching these lectures is to fall in love with Carl Sagan (if you aren’t already), as the young audience of British schoolchildren do, and as did the rest of the British public that avidly watched this lecture series. He charms them with his droll wit, his lucid explanations and his clear and patient presentations. In his inimitable speaking style, he engages the children — they are willing and delighted participants in the little voyages of discovery he takes them and the rest of the television audience on. From the perspective of our 2013 PowerPoint online presentation technologies these lectures have simple, even crude means of displaying concepts, but they are effective and they are charming in their naïveté. Though the ideas were big, the style of presentation was very much that of the RI series that had begun over 100 years before in the same lecture theater.

The process of developing the models and displays used to illustrate the scientific concepts and specific points in Sagan’s lectures were designed primarily for the youthful audience in the theater but also for the larger television audience consisting of potentially the entire British television-watching public. Developing these involved many hours of work and discussion between Sagan, Bill Coates (the legendary technician and Lectures Superintendent for nearly 40 years at the RI, who designed and built most of the displays and models used in the lecture series), and Karl Sabbagh, Executive Director of the Science & Features Dept., BBC Television.  At one point in their discussions Coates suggested that “Carl might like to use an old orrerey that he could get – a very beautiful one with ivory spears [sic] which moved round when the handle was turned – so that the children could handle it. Sagan and Karl agreed that this was an excellent idea.”  This orrerey (a mechanical model of the solar system device that illustrates the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons according to the heliocentric model) can be seen at the very beginning of the first lecture, “The Earth as a Planet.”

Following the series Sir George Porter sent a letter of thanks in which he wrote “The response from everybody has been very favorable but I am afraid you are going to be inundated with letters for the next few weeks most of which will, I have no doubt, make this very clear to you.”

Indeed, hundreds of letters were sent to Sagan following his series; most were answered in turn with a personal note of thanks. The fan mail was voluminous, from self-described ‘pensioners’ to schoolchildren, mostly handwritten, occasionally typed, many on the folding blue airmail stationery we rarely see these days. His responses included comments such as: “You do me a great service …. Such letters sustain me in my efforts to popularize science” and “Enclosed is a picture for your Mum’s kitchen wall as you requested. She is very lucky to have a daughter like you.”

Letter to Carl Sagan from Simon Lindsey, Jan.9, 1978. The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress.
Letter to Carl Sagan from Simon Lindsey, Jan.9, 1978. The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress.

These letters, along with other documents recording all of the planning that went into this very special Christmas Lectures series are now collected and part of The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive  at the Library of Congress, opened to the public for research in November 2013.

Some excerpts from the fan mail:

I like to think that when we finally contact life elsewhere in the universe, we shall greet them with open arms (or however extra-terrestrials greet one another).  – Letter from Miriam Bibby, April 12, 1978

Not only I but many of my colleagues at my place of work found ourselves completely enthralled by them; so much so that planned evening activities at that festive time of year were modified in order that we could be near a television set. -Letter from Simon Lindsey, January 9, 1978.

And as a science librarian, this in one in particular struck close to home:

As a librarian I see an endless stream of ‘spacemen were here’ type books, some so outrageously silly that reading the blurbs aloud has the cataloging department in hysterics. -Letter from Pamela S. Dale, April 10, 1978, who also enclosed photocopies of two short articles from Radio Times, dated January 28, 1978, in Letters to the Editor, which noted a connection between Dr. Who, Carl Sagan, and the “Time Lords in the BBC’s planning department.”

Finally, Mrs. Carla Baumgart-Markham offered a long and deeply personal letter, concluding with this postscript:

Letter to Carl Sagan from Mrs. Carla Baumgart-Markham. From the The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress.
Letter to Carl Sagan from Mrs. Carla Baumgart-Markham. From the The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, Library of Congress.


Comments (5)

  1. Brilliantly written. A pleasure to read. My mother was a big fan of Carl Sagan’s and I have his complete series on VHS tape, which my mother left to me.

  2. I have a feeling that Carl Sagan, now among the billions of stars, is probably thinking of this remembrance and saying to the authors: “You do me a great honor.” As Sagan hoped that after his death he would live again, this shows that he lives on and on in our memories.

  3. very awesome !

  4. I love it! I feel like I was there! Thanks for this.

  5. I was the producer of the Sagan RI Christmas Lectures, and remember how resistant Carl was to supplying scripts in advance so that we could plan the visualisation of the series for television. In his most charming way, he listened to the timetable I laid out on our first meeting at his house near Cornell nodding as if he understood and agreed with what I was saying and then after I went back to London, resisted all attempts by me to get him to supply much more than a few scribbled notes about each topic. Bill Coates, the RI technical head who was charged with making the necessary equipment for demonstrations, was as frustrated as I was, but in fact, Sagan knew very well that if no preparation had been done at all he could stand up and wing it for an hour or six. In fact, once he arrived in London for preparation and rehearsal, the three of us sat down for several days while he talked through the topics he wanted to cover and we devised the series ‘on the fly’ with Bill then going off and conjuring up the necessary demonstrations. There was only one other presenter that I worked with who took the same devil-may-care approach to providing scripts ahead of time and that was someone equally charming and equally confident in his own abilities, Jaque Monod the Nobel Prize-winning French biologist.

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