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“Sagan Day” – join in!

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m very busy in the field of “Outreach”, which is the new, fancy-trendy term for “giving illustrated lectures and presentations about space and astronomy.” Most months I visit at least one or two schools, church halls, community centres or hotels to talk to a group about space. Usually I give an hour-long Powerpoint presentation which takes the audience on a “Tour of the Universe”, or asks “Is There Life Out There?” or describes “The Wonders of Mars”, and during the Q&A at the end I’m almost always asked a question along the lines of “How did you get interested in space..”?

This is something I’ve thought about a lot. I was the classic, cliched “quiet kid” of my class, the one who would go hide in the library at breaktimes and sit in a corner devouring science books instead of running about outside with my classmates, kicking a football or pulling girls’ hair, and in those science books I saw pictures of stars and planets and was fascinated by them. My early school days also coincided with the era of the Apollo landings, and I have very vivid memories of being herded into the big school hall along with everyone else and told to sit on the floor, in front of the Big School TV to watch something “special”. These were the grainy transmissions of the Moon walks by the later Apollo crews, and to this day I can remember sitting there, on that cold, dusty, wooden floor, staring open-mouthed at the flickering pictures on the prehistoric TV, ignoring the chit-chatter ahd disruptive behaviour of everyone else around me, sensing somehow that what I was seeing was Important, Special, Historic…

But something else forged my interest in and passion for astronomy – a US TV series that aired on BBC1 in 1980 (I think it was), called “Cosmos”. Cosmos was ground-breaking stuff at the time, the first real, serious attempt to portray and share the beauty, grandeur and scale of the universe. It had special effects, a sweeping orchestral score, and every frame was like a painting, it was so beautiful. Watching it today, more than two decades later, it still has the power to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, even though much of its information is now hopelessly out of date, and its speculations about the future now look either insanely optimistic or sadly pessimistic, or both.

But the main attraction – and the absolute star – of Cosmos was its presenter, American astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan wasn’t like the other astronomers of the time. No jackets with patched elbows for him; no bushy, Gandalf beard or face set in a permanent frown of disdain. Sagan was a rock star of a scientist, a cool guy, with sharp (for the time!) suits, long hair, and – wonder of wonders – he smiled! At that time scientists didn’t smile, or show passion; science was a serious business, a serious business best left to scientists. Sagan didn’t just turn that idea on its head, he dropped it on its head and then shook it by its ankles until it blacked out. He loved astronomy, worshipped the universe, he beamed a cheshire cat smile when he talked about stars, planets and galaxies. Sagan, it was obvious to all, was a man who was in love with the universe, and wanted to share that love, that passion, with everyone else.

I watched every single epiosde of Cosmos, without fail. Admittedly, some episodes touched and excited me more than others, and some failed to connect with my young brain and soul whatsoever, but the ones that did reach out to me literally changed my life. Flitting around the universe in dandelion seed of a spaceship, in his best beige suit, Sagan showed me, for the first time, how Earth fits into the universe.  He made me understand that our species has a destiny “Out there”. But above all he opened my eyes to the beauty and glory of Mars, and made me into the frustrated martian I am today. And for that, I will always be grateful.

Years later, Carl Sagan changed my life again, perhaps even more profoundly, with his book “Contact”. I found the book in a second hand book shop in the famous “Book Town” of Hay-on-Wye. I hadn’t come across it before. I hadn’t even heard of it before, truth be told, but when I saw it on the dusty shelf there – a big hardback, slightly damaged and the worse for wear, with a picture of a crescent Earth shining against the Milky Way on its cover, and the name “Carl Sagan” as the author – there was no way I wasn’t buying it, so back home with me it came…

A week later my head was full of the amazing story of astronomer Ellie Arroway and her discovery of a signal from an alien civilisation, so full I literally couldn’t sleep for all the ideas buzzing around inside my head like angry wasps. That book was responsible for me spending countless late nights underneath the stars with a radio in my pocket and headphones on, scanning the airwaves for alien messages (but picking up only cheesy local radio stations and Radio Luxembourg instead!) and ignited my passion for SETI as violently as a lit match tossed into a pool of petrol, and although the subsequent Hollywood film, featuring Jodie Foster, was exciting and inspiring too, and remains one of my favourite films to this day, it is but a pale, watered-down version of the book upon which it is based. Every time I read “Contact” I feel like a blind man who can see again.

So, in summary, I guess a lot of who, and what I am today, is Carl Sagan’s fault.

Which is why I was so amazed, delighted and humbled to be asked to be a part of an exciting project being run by the Kepler (planet-hunting telescope) mission. They plan to celebrate “Sagan Day” – the November 9th anniversary of Carl Sagan’s birthday – by holding an essay contest with a Carl Sagan theme – and they’ve asked me to be a part of it!

Yeah, I was going to say no to that, wasn’t I..? 🙂

So what is this competition? Well, all the details you could possibly need are here:


…but essentially it’s an essay contest based around one of Sagan’s most famous Cosmos ‘chapters’, “On the shore of the Cosmic Ocean”.  So, if you were – or still are – inspired by Carl Sagan and his visions of the Cosmos, why not enter? Take a look at the website, where you’ll find full details of the dates, essay length etc, and just join in!

Here’s what Sagan wrote, and it’s this idea which is the theme of the essay contest – the Kepler team want anyone who has been inspired or excited by this text, this vision, this poetry of Carl Sagan, to submit an essay with, I guess, their own “take” on it.

So, read this and if you were inspired by it in the past, or if you’re reading it for the first time, think about joining in the competition and the celebrations of “Sagan Day” too. I know the Kepler team will be delighted to hear from you!

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980


5 Responses

  1. Another informative and appreciated piece Stu.

    My memories of childhood and space are very similar to yours and I decided age 11 that when I left school I’d work for NASA. I didn’t but the germs of those days and Carl Sagan’s breathtaking television programmes still remain.

    His other inspirational contribution was his seminal’ 1994 book ‘Pale Blue Dot – A Vision of the Human Future in Space’. For me it opened my eyes further and put me, us, the world in perspective.

    I’ll certainly join you and raise a ‘scope and a glass to the great man on November 9th.



  2. Dr. Carl Sagan, Master of Science, the Cosmos series my inspired a have love the Science and Space.

    Tanks Dr. Sagan

  3. I discovered Carl Sagan few years ago when I bought Cosmos series on dvd. Unfortunatly I haven’t chances to see it before, because I live in Poland. in early 80s Poland was behind Iron Curtain. But now with my 8 years old son I watch it and I feel like time has turned back. fantastic series. even after all this years it’s great. and last weekend we watched together Contact…
    Cosmos has inspired me to reading Sagan’s books. now I’m finishing Pale Blue Dot and Cosmos.
    lately I have bought WONDERS OF SOLAR SYSTEM by Brian Cox. and I found it as a kind of Sagan’s heritage. it’s great to see that Sagan’s work made some serious influences.

    greetings from rainy Warsaw!

    ps: due to internet and amazing nasa database now I can catch what I lost in eighties 😉
    sorry for my poor English!

  4. Sagan was one of the most lunatic authors I have ever in my life read. Anyone with a brain would give him no more credence than Kent Hovind. That is the truth. They are both equally morons. If you disagree, please read pale blue dot, and get back to me again.

    • You’re entitled to your opinion, of course. Obviously I disagree, but I don’t have to read PBD again, and I won’t be “getting back to you”.

      I take it you won’t be entering the essay contest then… 😉

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