Carl Sagan Returns to His Old Sixth-Grade Classroom to Turn a New Generation of Kids On To Science

All throughout his career, Carl Sagan cited the events in his formative years that set him on the road to becoming, well, Carl Sagan: the introduction to "skepticism and wonder" provided by his parents; his visit to the 1939 New York World's Fair; his first trips to the public library, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Hayden Planetarium; his discovery of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine and its fantastic visions undergirded by genuine knowledge. That last happened around the same time he entered the sixth grade at David A. Boody Junior High School, where he would eventually return, decades later, to teach the lesson seen in the video above.

"As a child, it was my immense good fortune to have parents and a few teachers who encouraged my curiosity," Sagan says in voiceover. "This was my sixth-grade classroom. I came back here one afternoon to remember what it was like." Anyone watching him handing out the "breathtaking pictures of other worlds that had been radioed back by the Voyager spacecraft" and addressing the excited students' questions will understand that, in addition to his formidable hunger for knowledge and deep understanding of his subjects, Sagan also possessed a quality rare in the scientific community: the ability and willingness to talk about science clearly and engagingly, and transmit his excitement about science, to absolutely anyone.

The clip also provides a sense of what it was like to learn directly from Sagan. In the interview clip above, no less a science guy than Bill Nye talks about his own experience taking Sagan's classes at Cornell in the 1970s. "If you saw his series Cosmos — the original Cosmos — his lectures were like those television shows," says Nye. He goes on to tell the story of meeting Sagan again, at his ten-year class reunion. "I said I want to do this show about science for kids. He said, 'Focus on pure science. Kids resonate to pure science.' That was his verb, resonate." And so, when Bill Nye the Science Guy debuted a few years later, it spent most of its time not on the fruits of science — "bridges, dams, and civil engineering works and gears" and so on — but on science itself.

Carl Sagan co-founded the Planetary Society in 1980. Nye, drawn by its mission of "empowering the world's citizens to advance planetary science and exploration," joined that same year. After speaking at Sagan's memorial a decade and a half later, Nye found himself on its board of directors. Then he became Vice President, and then "there was a dinner party, there was wine or something, and now I'm the CEO." In that way and others, Nye continues Sagan's legacy, and Nye hardly counts as Sagan's only successor. "This is how we know nature," as Nye puts Sagan's view of science. "It's the best idea humans have ever come up with." That view, whether expressed in Sagan's own work or that of the countless many he has directly or indirectly influenced, will surely continue to inspire generations of learners, inside or outside the classroom.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Ancient Astronomy of Stonehenge Decoded

The summer solstice draws nigh, and many of us will spend it bemoaning the fact that we have yet again failed to make it to Stonehenge to view the sun rising over its massive Heel Stone.

Don’t beat yourself up too badly.

According to Vox’s Senior Editorial Producer Joss Fong, above, it’s likely that the winter solstice was actually a far bigger deal to the Neolithic builders who engineered the site.

While much of it is now in ruins, archeologists, historians, astronomers, and other experts have been able to reconstruct what the ancient monument would have looked like in its heyday. The placement of the massive stones in carefully arranged concentric circles suggest that its feats of astronomy were no accident.




As Fong points out, the builders would not have known that the earth travels around the sun, nor that it tilts on its vertical axis, thus effecting where the sun’s rays will strike throughout the year.

They would, however, have had good cause to monitor any natural phenomena as it related to their agricultural practices.

The summer solstice would have come at the height of their growing season, but if this year’s sunrise celebrants spin 180 degrees, they will be facing in the same direction as those ancient builders would have when they arrived to celebrate the winter solstice with a sunset feast.

These days, the winter solstice attracts a sizable number of tourists, along with neo-druids, neo-pagans, and Wiccans.

Bundle up and join them, take a virtual tour, or at the very least, try your hand at assembling the nifty Aedes-Ars Stonehenge Model Kit Fong glues together like a pro.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female characters hits the lecture circuit to set the record straight opens June 12 at The Tank in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Carl Sagan’s “The Pale Blue Dot” Animated

Back in 1990, Voyager 1 snapped a photo of planet Earth from a record distance – 3.7 billion miles away. And there we saw it, our home, Planet Earth, a small blue dot almost swallowed by the vastness of space. This image inspired the title of Carl Sagan's 1994 book, The Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Spacewhich captivated millions of readers then, and still many more now.

A quarter century later, The Pale Blue Dot continues to give creative inspiration to many, including filmmakers who have produced animations that sync with Sagan's narration of a famous passage from his book. The latest animation comes from a class of students at the Ringling College of Art and Design, located in Sarasota, Florida. Give it a watch. It will help you put everything in perspective.

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NASA Lets You Download Free Posters Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Voyager Missions

A quick fyi: Last year, NASA released 14 Free Posters That Depict the Future of Space Travel in a Captivatingly Retro Style. Now, on the 40th anniversary of the Voyager missions (Aug. 20 and Sept. 5, 1977), the space agency has issued three attractive new posters to celebrate our "ambassadors to the rest of the Milky Way." All are free to download and print here. Writes Space.com: "One of the Voyager posters is an image of a starry night sky [see above], and another advertises the mission using the flamboyant design style of the 1970s, the decade when the probes launched. A third poster honors the probes' 'grand tour' of the planets, on their way to the edge of the solar system." Happy downloading!

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Neil deGrasse Tyson is Creating a New Space Exploration Video Game with the Help of George R.R. Martin & Neil Gaiman

Although Neil deGrasse Tyson is somewhat hesitant to go in on plans to terraform and colonize Mars, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like a good ol’--yet science-based--video game. Several outlets announced recently that the videogame Space Odyssey, spearheaded by deGrasse Tyson--one of America’s main defenders of logic and Enlightenment--has surpassed its Kickstarter funding goal. The game promises to send players on “real science-based missions to explore space, colonize planets, create and mod in real time."

In the game, according to deGrasse Tyson, “you control the formation of planets, of comets, of life, civilization. You could maybe tweak the force of gravity and see what effect that might have.” It will be, he says, “an exploration into the laws of physics and how they shape the world in which we live.”

The game has been forming for several years now, and most importantly to our readers, has called in several sci-fi and fantasy writers to help create the various worlds in the game, as they have aptly demonstrated their skills in doing so on the printed page. That includes George R.R. Martin, currently ignoring whatever HBO is doing to his creation Game of Thrones; Neil Gaiman, who creates a new universe every time he drops a new novel; and Len Wein, who has had a hand in creating both DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Wolverine. Also on board: deGrasse Tyson’s buddy Bill Nye, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, and astrophysicist Charles Liu.

The idea of world/galaxy-building is not new in video games, especially recently. No Man’s Sky (2015) features “eighteen quintillion full-featured planets” and Minecraft seems limitless. But Space Odyssey (still a temporary title!) is the first to have deGrasse Tyson and friends working the controls in the background. And a game is as good as the visionaries behind it.

 

According to the Kickstarter page, the raised funds will go into “the ability to have this community play the game and engage with it while the final build is underway. As the Kickstarter gaming community begins to beta test game-play and provide feedback, we can begin to use the funds raised via Kickstarter to incorporate your modding, mapping and building suggestions, together building the awesome gaming experience you helped to create.”

DeGrasse Tyson will be in the game himself, urging players onward. There’s no indication whether Mr. Martin will be popping up, though.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Carl Sagan Sent Music & Photos Into Space So That Aliens Could Understand Human Civilization (Even After We’re Gone)

A popular thought experiment asks us to imagine an advanced alien species arriving on Earth, not in an H.G. Wells-style invasion, but as advanced, bemused, and benevolent observers. “Wouldn’t they be appalled,” we wonder, “shocked, confused at how backward we are?” It’s a purely rhetorical device—the secular equivalent of taking a “god’s eye view” of human folly. Few people seriously entertain the possibility in polite company. Unless they work at NASA or the SETI program.

In 1977, upon the launching of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, a committee working under Carl Sagan produced the so-called “Golden Records,” actual phonographic LPs made of copper containing “a collection of sounds and images,” writes Joss Fong at Vox, “that will probably outlast all human artifacts on Earth.” While they weren’t preparing for a visitation on Earth, they did—relying not on wishful thinking but on the controversial Drake Equation—fully expect that other technological civilizations might well exist in the cosmos, and assumed a likelihood we might encounter one, at least via remote.




Sagan tasked himself with compiling what he called a “bottle” in “the cosmic ocean,” and something of a time capsule of humanity. Over a year’s time, Sagan and his team collected 116 images and diagrams, natural sounds, spoken greetings in 55 languages, printed messages, and musical selections from around the world--things that would communicate to aliens what our human civilization is essentially all about. The images were encoded onto the records in black and white (you can see them all in the Vox video above in color). The audio, which you can play in its entirety below, was etched into the surface of the record. On the cover were etched a series of pictographic instructions for how to play and decode its contents. (Scroll over the interactive image at the top to see each symbol explained.)

Fong outlines those contents, writing, “any aliens who come across the Golden Record are in for a treat.” That is, if they are able to make sense of it and don’t find us horribly backward. Among the audio selections are greetings from then-UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, whale songs, Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 2 in F, Senegalese percussion, Aborigine songs, Peruvian panpipes and drums, Navajo chant, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” (playing in the Vox video), more Bach, Beethoven, and “Johnny B. Goode.” Challenged over including “adolescent” rock and roll, Sagan replied, “there are a lot of adolescents on the planet.” The Beatles reportedly wanted to contribute “Here Comes the Sun,” but their record company wouldn’t allow it, presumably fearing copyright infringement from aliens.

Also contained in the spacefaring archive is a message from then-president Jimmy Carter, who writes optimistically, “We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit planet Earth. We human beings are still divided into nation states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization.” The messages on Voyagers 1 and 2, Carter forecasts, are “likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed.” The team chose not to include images of war and human cruelty.

We only have a few years left to find out whether either Voyager will encounter other beings. “Incredibly,” writes Fong, the probes “are still communicating with Earth—they aren’t expected to lose power until the 2020s.” It seems even more incredible, forty years later, when we consider their primitive technology: “an 8-track memory system and onboard computers that are thousands of times weaker than the phone in your pocket.”

The Voyagers were not the first probes sent to interstellar space. Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched in 1972 and 1973, each containing a Sagan-designed aluminum plaque with a few simple messages and depictions of a nude man and woman, an addition that scandalized some puritanical critics. NASA has since lost touch with both Pioneers, but you may recall that in 2006, the agency launched the New Horizons probe, which passed by Pluto in 2015 and should reach interstellar space in another thirty years.

Perhaps due to the lack of the departed Sagan’s involvement, the latest “bottle” contains no introductions. But there is time to upload some, and one of the Golden Record team members, Jon Lomberg, wants to do just that, sending a crowdsourced “message to the stars.” Lomberg’s New Horizon’s Message Initiative is a “global project that brings the people of the world together to speak as one.” The limitations of analog technology have made the Golden Record selections seem quite narrow from our data-saturated point of view. The new message might contain almost anything we can imagine. Visit the project's site to sign the petition, donate, and consider, just what would you want an alien civilization to hear, see, and understand about the best of humanity circa 2017?

via Ezra Klein/Vox

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch a Star Get Devoured by a Supermassive Black Hole

Likely, in a moment of quiet downtime, you've wondered: Just what would happen if a star, burning bright in the sky, wandered by a black hole? What would that meeting look like? What kinds of cosmic things would go down?

Now, thanks to an artistic rendering made available by NASA, you don't have to leave much to imagination. Above, watch a star stray a little too close to a black hole and get shredded apart by “tidal disruptions,” causing some stellar debris to get "flung outward at high speed while the rest falls toward the black hole."

This rendering isn't theoretical. It's based on observations gleaned from "an optical search by the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN) in November 2014." The “tidal disruptions” witnessed above, writes NASA, "occurred near a supermassive black hole estimated to weigh a few million times the mass of the sun in the center of PGC 043234, a galaxy that lies about 290 million light-years away." It's a sight to behold.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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