Carl Sagan Writes a Letter to 17-Year-Old Neil deGrasse Tyson (1975)

sagan letter to tyson

Carl Sagan, the turtle­neck-sport­ing astro­physi­cist from Cor­nell, was the great­est com­mu­ni­ca­tor of sci­ence of his gen­er­a­tion. Not only did he pub­lish hun­dreds of sci­en­tif­ic papers and was instru­men­tal in putting togeth­er that gold­en record on the Voy­ager space­crafts but he also wrote twen­ty crit­i­cal­ly praised best sell­ers on sci­ence, appeared reg­u­lar­ly on the Tonight Show, and even had a catch phrase — “bil­lions and bil­lions.” But Sagan is per­haps best known for his land­mark 1980 series Cos­mos: A Per­son­al Voy­age (watch it here). He took view­ers through a tour of the uni­verse, show­ing them things from the mind-bog­gling big to the infin­i­tes­i­mal­ly small and every­thing in between. The show proved to be a huge hit; close to a half-bil­lion peo­ple tuned in world­wide.

Even before the reboot of Cos­mos pre­miered on FOX in March, Neil deGrasse Tyson — who hosts the show — was already seen as Sagan’s suc­ces­sor. Not only does he serve as the direc­tor of the Hay­den Plan­e­tar­i­um in New York City and was instru­men­tal in kick­ing Plu­to out of the broth­er­hood of plan­ets, but he also authored numer­ous books, appears reg­u­lar­ly on The Dai­ly Show, and fre­quent­ly hosts AMAs on Red­dit. He’s also one of Amer­i­ca’s most vocal defend­ers of sci­ence at a time, unlike Sagan’s hey­day, when Cre­ation­ism, cli­mate change denial, and anti-vac­ci­na­tion hys­te­ria seem to be mak­ing inroads in our cul­ture.

Any­one who saw Tyson’s heart felt trib­ute to Sagan at the begin­ning of the first episode of Cos­mos knows that Sagan’s influ­ence on his younger coun­ter­part extend­ed much fur­ther than his media appear­ances. It was per­son­al. In 1975, Sagan, who was already famous at that time, was so impressed by Tyson’s col­lege appli­ca­tion that he per­son­al­ly reached out to him, hop­ing to con­vince the high school stu­dent to attend Cor­nell. He even offered to per­son­al­ly show Tyson around his lab.

You can read Sagan’s let­ter, dat­ed Novem­ber 12, 1975, below.

Dear Neil:

Thanks for your let­ter and most inter­est­ing resume. I was espe­cial­ly glad to see that, for a career in astron­o­my, you intend to do your under­grad­u­ate work in physics. In this way, you will acquire the essen­tial tools for a wide range of sub­se­quent astro­nom­i­cal endeav­ors.

I would guess from your resume that your inter­ests in astron­o­my are suf­fi­cient­ly deep and your math­e­mat­i­cal and phys­i­cal back­ground suf­fi­cient­ly strong that we could prob­a­bly engage you in real astro­nom­i­cal research dur­ing your under­grad­u­ate career here, if the pos­si­bil­i­ty inter­ests you. For exam­ple, we hope to be bring­ing back to Itha­ca in late cal­en­dar year 1976 an enor­mous array of Viking data on Mars both from the orbiters and from the lan­ders.

I would be delight­ed to meet with you when you vis­it Itha­ca. Please try and give as much advance notice of the date as you can because my trav­el sched­ule is quite hec­tic right now and I real­ly would like to be in Itha­ca when you drop by.

With all good wish­es,

Carl Sagan

Tyson was deeply moved by Sagan’s kind­ness and sin­cer­i­ty. He did ven­ture out to Itha­ca from the Bronx on a snowy after­noon. As Tyson recalled years lat­er, “I thought to myself, who am I? I’m just some high school kid.” In the end, Sagan’s per­son­al plea wasn’t quite enough to con­vince young Tyson to attend his school. As you can read in his response below, dat­ed April 30, 1976, Tyson decid­ed to go to Har­vard.

Dear Prof. Sagan

Thank you for your offer con­cern­ing the Viking Mis­sions. After long thought and deci­sion mak­ing I have cho­sen to attend Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty this Sep­tem­ber. I chose it not sim­ply because of its “valu­able” name but because they have a larg­er astron­o­my depart­ment in addi­tion to the Smith­son­ian Astro­phys­i­cal Obser­va­to­ry, so while I am major­ing in physics I will have more sur­round­ing me in the way of on-going research in astron­o­my.

I want to say that I did enjoy meet­ing you and I am very grate­ful for your hos­pi­tal­i­ty and the time you spent with me while at Cor­nell. I will through­out my under­grad­u­ate years keep you informed on any note­wor­thy news con­cern­ing astron­o­my-relat­ed work that I’m involved in. I do plan to apply again for the Viking Intern­ship next sum­mer.

Thanks again

Neil D. Tyson

You can see Tyson talk about his after­noon with Sagan. 40 years lat­er, he still seems incred­u­lous that it hap­pened.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Sagan Presents Six Lec­tures on Earth, Mars & Our Solar Sys­tem … For Kids (1977)

Carl Sagan Explains Evo­lu­tion in an Eight-Minute Ani­ma­tion

Carl Sagan’s Under­grad Read­ing List: 40 Essen­tial Texts for a Well-Round­ed Thinker

Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawk­ing & Arthur C. Clarke Dis­cuss God, the Uni­verse, and Every­thing Else

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

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Comments (11)
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  • Dellu says:

    This is actu­al­ly very inspir­ing. Hum­ble men: big respect!

  • CEH in NJ says:

    I find it curi­ous that the let­ter is not signed by Sagan…no offense, but how do we know it is authen­tic?

  • Dave Juliette says:

    Inci­den­tal­ly, Carl Sagan nev­er said “bil­lions and bil­lions”. That came from one of Car­son­’s mono­logues. Sagan took it good-natured­ly, as was his wont, but he nev­er said it. That’s just anoth­er urban leg­end that has been ele­vat­ed into “fact” in the age of Wikipedia.

    As catch­phras­es go, how­ev­er, Sagan actu­al­ly DID say some­thing over and over that was just as dis­tinc­tive, and I would argue, just as fun­ny as “bil­lions and bil­lions”. When dis­cussing some aspect of sci­ence that was par­tic­u­lar­ly unusu­al or dif­fi­cult to get one’s mind around, he would give a one-sen­tence sum­ma­tion of what he’d just described, pref­aced by the phrase “How can it be …”, drag­ging out the “how” in round, almost Cana­di­an-like tones, and crash­ing down on the “be” with a deep, breathy and very sud­den stop. He does it fair­ly often in the orig­i­nal Cos­mos series, if you want to check it out, but he used to do it all the time.

    Of course, if you actu­al­ly do check out the orig­i­nal Cos­mos series look­ing for “how can it be …” you will also take note of the fact that nowhere in the 10 hours does he say “bil­lions and bil­lions”.

  • Jonathan Crow says:

    It’s true. He says ‘bil­lions upon bil­lions’ and that’s what Car­son took, mis­quot­ed and turned into a catch phrase.

  • Doug Stead says:

    I sus­pect the unsigned copy of the above let­ter is a file copy kept by the admis­sions depart­ment of from the office files of Prof. Sagan.

    I have no prob­lem believ­ing Prof. Tyson was the ben­e­fi­cia­ry of Sagan’s pay-it-for­ward con­tri­bu­tion to life, edu­ca­tion and sci­ence. Tyson is a wor­thy peer of Sagan and hope­ful­ly those lives he touch­es will also pay-it-for­ward.

  • Brandi McDonald-Juarez says:

    It was post­ed on Face­Book by asap­SCIENCE

  • Greg Douglas says:

    Neil Degrasse Tyson sux

  • Joss says:

    More like, who­ev­er lives in that apart­ment now prob­a­bly feels awe­some.

  • Jeffrey says:

    This reminds me of anoth­er great teacher, Pro­fes­sor Arnold Som­mer­feld who left great con­tri­bu­tions to the­o­ret­i­cal physics and above all check the Nobel lau­re­ates among his stu­dents list. Great peo­ple pass their pas­sion through gen­er­a­tions to inspire the world. Carl Sagan is no excep­tion. How­ev­er, unfor­tu­nate­ly we can’t say the same for most of the Pro­fes­sors nowa­days.

  • Joseph Farrugia says:

    “ unlike Sagan’s hey­day, when Cre­ation­ism, cli­mate change denial, and anti-vac­ci­na­tion hys­te­ria seem to be mak­ing inroads in our cul­ture.”
    If any­thing the rabid zealotry of dog­mat­ic provaxxers & their vile witch-hunt on sci­en­tists around the world for din­ner demand trans­paren­cy, evi­dence and data and prop­er use of the sci­en­tif­ic method , has brought not only the world­wide sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty in dis­re­pute, bit brought need­less deaths in the mil­lions & ter­ri­ble suf­fer­ing for many.
    By remov­ing the onus of Account­abil­i­ty, Lia­bil­i­ty & above all Trans­paren­cy from the huge mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies that are now, 8 years after this arti­cle dic­tat­ing poli­cies of sov­er­eign nations around the world.
    It’s a shame that the writer of the ori­gin of this arti­cle has fall­en prey to dog­mat­ic reli­gious zealotry while dis­cussing out of all things….science.
    There is no place for dog­ma in sci­ence.

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