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Reflections on the World of Tomorrow: Science, Carl Sagan, and Different Conceptions of the Future

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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. For teacher resources related to the new Finding Our Place in the Cosmos online collection, try the Library’s new primary source set Understanding the Cosmos: Changing Models of the Solar System and the Universe.

Our ideas about science and technology play an important role in how we imagine the future. Does new technology directly improve society? Or is it more complicated than that. We can look at a series of items from the new online collection Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and Beyond to explore how Carl Sagan’s ideas developed and changed on this topic over time.

Visiting “The World of Tomorrow” in 1939

New York World's Fair poster, 1939
New York World’s Fair poster, 1939

Carl Sagan’s parents took him to the 1939 New York City World’s Fair. The fair presented “the world of tomorrow,” a vision of a future America which left a significant impression on young Sagan. On the grounds of the fair, visitors could see a seven-foot tall robot, air conditioners, and a speech synthesizer.

The demonstrations of countless wonders showed how technology would help to bring about a better and brighter tomorrow. Our ideas about science and technology play an important role in how we imagine our future. What do you think this poster says about ideas about the future in 1939?

You might ask students to consider the following questions:

  • Identify the different places and objects depicted in the poster. Why do you think the creators of the poster chose to include these items?
  • What does the slogan “the world of tomorrow” suggest to you?
  • How would you describe the style of the drawings in the poster?

Carl Sagan’s Childhood Drawing of the Future

The Evolution of Interstellar Space Flight, by Carl Sagan
The Evolution of Interstellar Space Flight, by Carl Sagan

As a youth, Carl Sagan drew his own poster. In The Evolution of Interstellar Space Flight, likely created when he was between the ages of 10 and 13, Carl Sagan presents a vision for space flight as a collage of newspaper headlines from the future.

One of the headlines announces the invention of an atomic space ship that can travel five miles a second. In his imagination, the possibilities of space travel were enough to overcome political struggles on Earth.

Looking at Sagan’s poster, students could consider the following questions.

  • What events did the young Carl Sagan predict?
  • What trends or patterns do you see in the predicted events?
  • What kinds of connections do you see between the events the young Carl Sagan imagined in the future and the future depicted in the 1939 World of Tomorrow poster?

What do students today think the future will be like? Which of their predictions might seem strange once the future actually arrives?

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