By Heather D’Angelo
The first time I heard the name “Carl Sagan” was somewhere along the FDR—I was around six years old, and sitting beside my dad during our usual Friday night drive from my grandmother’s house in Staten Island. The special edition of Cosmos had just come out, and my dad was instantly hooked by his fellow Brooklynite’s no-bullshit approach to explaining big ideas. He liked to try them out on me.
“Did you know you’re made of the same stuff as the stars, Heather?”
“All the stuff that makes up your body was created inside of a star!”
“I’ll tell you…”
Then he would feed me a child-sized portion of Sagan’s wisdom. My mind would grapple with these big ideas as I watched New York City’s washed-out sky deepen to New England’s black. It was like a magic show to me. I would crane my neck to count the stars through the dashboard as they appeared, one by one, trying to imagine how anything so far away could be a part of me.
Sagan’s writing process was mercurial, flitting from one subject to the next, trying to tease out truth on subjects both mundane and profound. He produced pages and pages of innocent questioning and innocent answering; each entry was like a haphazard response to a child’s incessant questioning, “Why?”
I was never too tired to listen to my dad talk like this, no matter how late it got. It might have been because I was too jacked up on my grandmother’s anisette cookies and relentless attention, but it also might have been because no one else in my world talked to me about anything besides ‘little girl’ things. I was an expert on Barbie and My Little Pony, but contemplating the nature of stars was something I didn’t think about until I was alone in the car with my dad. Sagan’s elegant explanations gave my dad the language he needed to pull me out of my narrow little girl world.
That wasn’t the last time I had heard of Sagan. His reach followed me from the cars of my childhood to the offices of my adulthood. I landed a job working with Neil deGrasse Tyson, an avid preacher of the gospel of Sagan’s life and work. During our weekly lunch meetings, Tyson entertained the other interns and myself with his own personal stories about the legendary astronomer, who was one of his undergraduate mentors. They were even pen pals, he said. Tyson told a lot of wild stories, but I always found these most incredulous of all. Sagan was a star, a big shot—why would he have taken time out of his busy celebrity schedule to discuss cosmology with a kid? That question stayed with me for a long time.
As soon as I learned of Sagan’s journals becoming publically available at The Library of Congress, I began racing through the faded scans, not knowing exactly what I was looking for. His handwriting is atrocious, illegible—it took hours to glean any meaning from them, and even still, I’m not completely certain my transcription is accurate. I had imagined that I would find essays about public outreach, or entries about meaningful exchanges he had with his students. But that’s not what I found.
Within his ramblings and messy scribbles were musings about the roots of Christmas tree ornaments, hypotheses about Freud’s psychological insights, arguments for a possible correlation between sexual excitation and tail wagging in dogs, and more. Sagan’s writing process was mercurial, flitting from one subject to the next, trying to tease out truth on subjects both mundane and profound. He produced pages and pages of innocent questioning and innocent answering; each entry was like a haphazard response to a child’s incessant questioning, “Why?”
After this exercise, the only thing I can say with certainty about Sagan is that he was driven by the kind of curiosity most people leave behind in childhood. And that he did, in fact, correspond often with Tyson. It’s all there, if you’re curious.
Heather D’Angelo is a science journalist with a background in microbial ecology research. She lives in San Francisco.