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Finding Our Place in the Cosmos with Carl Sagan

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(Trevor Owens, digital archivist with the Library’s National Digital Information and Infrastructure Preservation Program and special curator for the Library of Congress science literacy initiative, contributed to this blog post.)

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” once said American astronomer Carl Sagan. Profoundly interested in the universe and our place in it, the celebrated scientist, educator, television personality and prolific author was a consummate communicator who bridged the gap between academia and popular culture. The Library of Congress acquired his papers last year thanks to the generosity of writer, producer and director Seth MacFarlane.

Today, the Library has launched an online collection showcasing selected items from the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, along with elements from other important science-related collections at the Library.

Online visitors can view some 300 items, including rare books, manuscripts and celestial atlases, early science fiction books and pop-culture items and such personal items of Sagan’s as journals, loose notes, letters and a full draft of his science fiction novel, “Contact.” The website includes three primary sections. The first presents the Library’s models of the cosmos throughout history. The second explores the history of the idea of life on other worlds. The third focuses on Sagan’s life and works as part of the tradition of science, his education, his mentors and the scientists he mentored.

Sagan’s notes on Rene Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy.
Sagan’s notes on Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy.

Featured in the collection are Sagan’s University of Chicago undergraduate notebooks, which offer a rare opportunity to gain insight into his studies and thoughts. Together they are a testament to the variety and range of his interests as a college student. Notes on course work and other random thoughts offer an engaging way to see how the young astronomer’s ideas and approaches were developing.

For instance, turning through the pages of Sagan’s notes on Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, one finds detailed notes on philosophy, sociology, population genetics and economics in between pages littered with mathematical equations. Sagan mixes commentary on Aristotle, astronomy, genetics and psychology with descriptions of his dreams, commentary on particular pieces of music, drawings, and plans for what courses to take and graduate programs he might enroll in.

Sagan's list of courses and programs to enroll in.
Sagan’s list of courses and programs to enroll in.

These notebooks show Sagan’s diverse interests colliding on the page. On one page, he makes references to an article from a 1952 issue of the science fiction magazine Astounding Stories called “The Tiniest Time Traveler,” suggests that Sadi Carnot’s contributions to thermodynamics were critical to industrial development of 19th century, and jots down the melody for Felix Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides.”

The broad liberal arts education Sagan received at the University of Chicago played an important role in his development as a scientist and intellectual. As he went on to become a prolific scientist and spokesperson for science, it is clear that this liberal arts perspective is evident in his work.

Mendelsson’s "The Herbrides" joins notes on thermodynamics and popular science fiction.
Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” joins notes on thermodynamics and popular science fiction.

Also included in the online presentation are a set of short narratives explicating the history of astronomy, notions of life on other worlds and Sagan’s place in the tradition of science.

Through the selected items in this presentation, visitors can explore connections between some of Carl Sagan’s work communicating about the cosmos and the possibilities of life on other worlds and the extensive diversity of collections of the Library of Congress.





To read more about the online collection, Carl Sagan and his profound effect on the science and education community, make sure to read these stories by these Library of Congress blogs. 

Inside AdamsTake a Course or Two with Professor Sagan

Folklife Today: Alam Lomax and the Voyager Golden Records

From the Catbird Seat: Space, Time and the Poet Sagan

Teaching with the Library of Congress: Reflections on the World of Tomorrow: Science, Carl Sagan and Different Conceptions of the Future

Comments (3)

  1. thanks for everything

  2. Well placed blog, on this popular astronomer. Specifically like the excerpt on his course studies, he was pretty busy.

  3. Isaac Asimov described Sagan as one of only two people he ever met whose intellect surpassed his own. The other, he claimed, was the computer scientist and artificial intelligence expert Marvin Minsky.

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