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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Sagan Presents a Mini-Course on Earth, Mars & What’s Beyond Our Solar Sys­tem: For Kids and Adults (1977)

Carl Sagan’s Syl­labus & Final Exam for His Course on Crit­i­cal Think­ing (Cor­nell, 1986)

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

Bill Nye, The Sci­ence Guy, Says Cre­ation­ism is Bad for Kids and America’s Future

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.