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.
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.