Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan died ten years ago today. Has it really been ten years? I guess I can say it has: new visitors to Ryerson Observatory often do not know who he was and miss some of the symbology of the one-hundred-and-six-year-old refractor they are peering through. What they don't realize is how important he was not to the advancement of science, but to public science education.

He was a student here at Chicago; he was, as the picture indicates, president of the University of Chicago Astronomical Society (now known as the Ryerson Astronomical Society). After his short stay in the college he went to the Astronomy department and left a Ph.D. I quote a visit from John Musgrave, a member of the Society, to Yerkes during Sagan's period there:

I remember the one Yerkes night we had that fall (1958): it was cloudy;
but if it had been clear we could have used any of the telescopes as no
one was using them for research - no one on staff greeted us - just some
"lowly grad students". Rather than observe we heard a lively spur of
the moment lecture by a post-doc introduced to us in somewhat apologetic
tones - "we don't know if he is for real or not" - unusual even by U of
C standards. It was Carl Sagan and he spoke about the possibility of
extraterrestrial life (maybe other things as well - but with Carl I
remember the performance more than the content - including waving
arms). I guess the "we aren't really sure about this guy" label haunted
him through to the end.

I often wonder what the dismal atmosphere of a coal-smoked Chicago was like for astronomy in the early fifties--and whether the old cranky telescope (fifty-two years old then, in 1952) did anything to inspire future thoughts. His logs are short, and there never seemed to be much observing or possibility of observing. See here for a scan of a sample logbook page. Or here for the entire text of the 1952-1964 logbook.

A member of the club in the seventies, when Sagan was back on campus showing off images of the new Viking landers on Mars, got him to sign the logbook yet again. I never met him, but a fellow RAS member at the time, Chris Conselice, was in attendance when they created a graduate student award in the astronomy and astrophysics department. He said he looked quite frail--this would have been 1995 or 96.

Keay Davidson in his biography, "Carl Sagan: A Life", writes:

And atop Ryerson Hall, he and a band of future astonomers learned (with the guidance of the astronomy club advisor, Guy C. Omer Jr.), how to operate equipment in the campus observatory. Other club members included Tobias Owen, who, like Sagan, would go on to a distinguished astronomical career. Sagan ran the astronomy club's "theoretical" section, and arranged speeches by famous professors such as Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

Omer "taught me how to make the right ascension and declination drives go, and gave me a key to the observatory... and so there I was: I could go and look at the stars if ever there was a clear night in Chicago," Sagan later recalled. Yet he wasn't much of a stargazer. The club's logbooks show that Owen and several other members showed up night after night, for years, to meticulously record their observations. But Sagan observed only seven nights between October 1952 and November 1953; and when he observed, he left only terse notes. One searches the logbooks in vain for early fragments of Saganish eloquence. His most vivid entry dates from 2:15 to 3 AM on November 25, 1952, during his sophomore year: "Some [cloud] openings; then clouded over. Also COLD."


"Much more important" than stargazing, he later joked, was that at Ryerson Observatory, "I could bring young women to a place where could be undisturbed--which was far and away more important than being able to look through the six-inch telescope!"

In that spirit I leave you with this cartoon from the 1957 Cap and Gown. (My notes have it mislabeled as 1953--it could be 53 or 57, it matters not):


Dean W. Armstrong said...

This is part of Celebrating Sagan and the Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-thon

keyword said...

Thanks! I have been looking for Sagan Memorial Blog. Thanks for posting the link buddy!