COSMOS: When Carl Sagan sent me a letter
One of the nice surprises in last night’s Cosmos reboot with Neil deGrasse Tyson was the show’s tribute to Dr. Carl Sagan at the end of the program.
Standing on the same seaside cliff in Northern California where Sagan filmed some of his scenes from the original series, deGrasse Tyson pulled out a 1970s ledger to show that Sagan had scheduled a day to meet with a then 17-year-old Neil, a kid from the Bronx who had applied to Cornell.
DeGrasse Tyson had his own artifact from that day — Sagan had given him a copy of one of his paperbacks, The Cosmic Collection, and had signed it to him, encouraging the aspiring scientist. DeGrasse Tyson explained how important that day was (even though he decided to go to Harvard instead)…
At the end of the day, he drove me back to the bus station. The snow was falling harder. He wrote his phone number, his home phone number, on a scrap of paper. And he said, “If the bus can’t get through, call me. Spend the night at my home, with my family.”
I already knew I wanted to become a scientist, but that afternoon I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become. He reached out to me and to countless others. Inspiring so many of us to study, teach, and do science. Science is a cooperative enterprise, spanning the generations.
The moment was moving and powerful, and a terrific way to launch the new series.
And it reminded me of my own small, fortunate encounter with Sagan’s kindness, and an artifact that I treasure like deGrasse Tyson treasures his.
In the early 1990s, I was a grad student in Santa Cruz, California, studying literature at UCSC, but I had another passion — I loved the night sky.
On the Friday night closest to the First Quarter Moon each month, a friend and I would set up telescopes on the corner of an empty lot across the street from the city’s landmark rock venue, the Catalyst, and show people the moons of Jupiter or the rings of Saturn or craters on the Moon.
My partner in crime, Gerard Pardeilhan, worked at the university’s optics lab that supplied Lick Observatory with instruments, and years earlier he was one of the original San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers — the band of crazies who evangelized the Bay Area with the man famous for bringing large amateur telescopes to the masses, the former Vedantan monk and astronomy popularizer John Dobson, who passed away in January at 98.
Dobson had been an inspiration for me as well, and the telescope I hauled out to the city street corner each month was a 10-inch Newtonian my grandfather and I had originally built on the Dobson model several years earlier, and then rebuilt with a more complex equatorial mount.
Over the months on that corner, I had developed a quick patter to help people understand what they were seeing in the eyepiece. With a telescope of that size, they could see the gap separating the rings around Saturn and cloud bands on Jupiter, and it stunned the unfamiliar to realize that those details were hiding in what appeared to be a bright star over their heads.
We got asked the funniest questions, some of them downright bizarre. (And yes, some of the people coming out of the Catalyst were flying pretty high.) It was the best part, answering those questions, and I took the opportunity to knock down a lot of pseudoscientific nonsense.
I ended up writing an article about the experience in a column for Sky & Telescope magazine in March 1996 — by then, I had moved away from Santa Cruz and had started a new career as a reporter for a newspaper in Phoenix.
When the story came out, for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to send a copy to Carl Sagan at his Cornell address, with a note thanking him for being such an inspiration. I had been a huge fan of his books, and of Cosmos, and I guess I thought, in my small way, I had made some slight contribution to the effort he had dedicated his life to, sharing a love for nature and chasing away anti-science ignorance.
To my utter surprise, I soon received a brief note from Sagan, on his Cornell letterhead.
Dear Mr. Ortega:
Many thanks for your excerpt from Sky & Telescope, which I much enjoyed. You might want to take a look at my just published book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House) 1996.
With every good wish,
It was dated March 19, 1996.
Nine months and a day later, on December 20, he succumbed to pneumonia after fighting myelodysplasia, a blood disorder. He was only 62.
And last night, Neil deGrasse Tyson reminded us all how much we lost.