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September 23, 1987 - Image 30

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1987-09-23

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Sagan teaches on campus and off
Carl Sagan may be Cornell's David Duncan Professor of
Astronomy and Space Sciences, but he is really Amer-
ica's Scientist. Sagan-who also directs the Labora-
tory for Planetary Studies at Cornell-is that rarest of
celebrities, an academic known worldwide for doing what
he does. Ask many people to name the world's greatest
living scientist, and they will mention Sagan-and stop.
Scientists are dead people. Last year's Nobel Prize winners
will register with the popular mind, if ever, only when they
appear in the next generation's textbooks. Folks at Cor-
nell, whether they love Sagan or hate him, are inclined to
indulge him because they understand he's on a Promethe-
an mission: stealing science from the lab and taking it
where people live. "He's about the most recognizable face
at Cornell," says Thak Chaloemtiarana, acting director of
admissions for the College of Arts and Sciences.
Not that the face is seen in Ithaca all that often. Students
are most likely to view Sagan on "The Tonight Show,"
testifying before Congress or demonstrating against nucle-
ar weapons. Sagan had his own hit TV show, the "Cosmos"
series, on PBS in the autumn of 1980 (plus repeats). And
now he's enjoying the ultimate celebrity tribute-being
parodied in a nationally televised commercial for Pepsi.
That's famous.
The spot works because Sagan even has his own catch
phrase, as every dorm mimic knows. And even though he
insists he doesn't really say "billions and billions," Sagan
seems to enjoy his mass appeal. "When you're in love with
something, you love to talk about it."
The response still surprises him. This July he attended a
Peter Gabriel concert in Washington and was mobbed as if
he were another rock star. "You've got to be made of wood
not to be happy about that," he allows. There are also the
quieter moments: students who write and say they want to
attend Cornell or study astronomy because of him; people
who tell him to keep fighting for a more sensible world; a
scientist who told Sagan he had made him a hero to his
kids. All that, he says, is "encouraging and energizing."
From Mars to 'Cosmos': He has never lacked energy. Raised
in Brooklyn and New Jersey, Sagan went off to the Univer-
sity of Chicago at 16 and came away with four degrees,
including a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics. He then
taught genetics at Stanford's School of Medicine and as-
tronomy at Harvard before moving to Cornell in 1971. By
that time he had published several books, made his first
appearance with Johnny Carson and spent several years
working on virtually every NASA interplanetary mission.
It was the failure of the networks to cover the Viking
landing on Mars in 1976 that inspired him to create
"Cosmos," which was eventually seen by 250 million peo-
ple in 60 countries and helped make him, according to one
of his multitudinous awards, "the most visible spokesman

Centrally isolated: In his study at home in Ithaca
of the scientific community of the planet Earth."
The cost is that Sagan has come to be seen as something of
a recluse at home. On the lobby directory of the Space
Sciences building, a relatively obscure campus building
recently rendered nearly inaccessible by construction, Sa-
gan's office number is unlisted. Upstairs on the third floor,
his modest corner office is the only one without a name.
His secretary's door has a peephole. Reid Thompson, one of
Sagan's senior research assistants, explains that Sagan is
subjected to a constant barrage of letters and phone calls
from anyone who has a scientific theory or who claims to
have been in contact with extraterrestrials.
Sagan used to teach a hugely popular introductory astron-
omy course but stopped after "Cosmos" because he felt the
program said it all. In addition to his graduate seminars
such as The Physics of the Planets, Sagan teaches only one
undergraduate course, Critical Thinking, a senior seminar
offered to 25 handpicked students with assorted majors one
semester a year. (Sagan has a half-time teaching appoint-
ment.) The course, says Sagan, is designed to equip stu-
dents with "a baloney detection kit" to expose what he
calls "pseudoscience."
Christopher Chyba, one of two graduate students on Sa-
gan's small research team, recalls taking his graduate
course in satellites and comets of the outer solar system.
That experience, says Chyba, helped him decide he wanted
to work with Sagan. "He is wildly enthusiastic as a teach-
er," Chyba says. "Lots of gesturing and walking around the
room." Still, many students perceive Sagan as aloof and
arrogant. According to one long-legged campus legend,
students from a fraternity house once invited him to
dinner; he said he would come only if they paid his $300
speaker's fee. The story is "absolutely false," says Sagan,
who has been hearing it for years. It bothers him, he says,
because it makes him seem not only greedy but stupid. He
gives more than half a dozen free talks on campus each
year. The most recent was for seniors during the week
before graduation.
Sagan always draws a crowd, as well as a cadre of passion-




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