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September 23, 1987 - Image 32

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

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The best-known face: Testifying in Washington
ate defenders. Dina Vitkauskas, an '87 grad who majored
in Biology and Society and wants to become a science
writer, is a self-avowed Sagan groupie. She came to Cornell
because of him, crashed a graduate seminar her first
semester (Sagan let her stay in the class) and covered him
for the Cornell Daily Sun. "He's in his office more than
most people think," says Vitkauskas, who trained herself
to spot his car. "I always found him approachable-if
you're reasonable about your request. He's a very interest-
ing person to talk to. His love for what he does is obvious.
And he loves to teach."
Scientific 'goofballs': Not all colleagues are so generous.
"Anyone who is closely associated with Carl takes the
brunt of the strong stigmas people have built up against
him," says Thompson. "They may think his research is
superficial and therefore you must be superficial, too. I
hadn't anticipated that. I had an idyllic naivete, thinking
that scientists really did behave in a logical way. Some act
like locker-room goofballs." Yervant Terzian, chairman of
the astronomy department, does not admit to the sort of
problems Thompson alludes to. "There are no disadvan-
tages to anyone having Carl Sagan associated with them,"
he says. "He is a first-rate teacher and a vital member of
the department faculty. There is
absolutely no tension or friction."
Terzian also notes that Sagan's Promethean mission:
name-recognition factor may be a
big deal to "laymen in the street
and politicians" but has little im-
pact on colleagues.
Asked how he answers colleagues
who say he shouldn't pander to the
masses, Sagan replies, "I've never
understood the argument. The idea
that science is a 'priestly art' is
elitist nonsense." But, he concedes,
it's well-entrenched nonsense. He
points to the Pythagoreans who,
when they discovered that the
square root of two is an irrational
number, classified the information;
they didn't think people would be

able to understand, and so they didn't bother to tell them.
"Now," he says, "we have a situation where there are
almost no scientists in government, but many policy is-
sues are scientific issues. If we don't do those issues
right, we've compromised the world of our children and
To many of today's collegians, Sagan is a curiosity because
he insists on discussing nuclear attack with the same
passion that he brings to Halley's comet. "If we survive, we
will go to the planets, if not this century then in the next
century," he says. "If we don't survive, we'll never go. If I
look up one day and see that flash, I don't want my last
thought to be that I could have done something to prevent
it and didn't."
If that were all there was to him, in fact-a peace activist
who bad-mouths Star Wars-Sagan would probably be as
much an embarrassment to the university these days as a
drawing card. He remains a celebrity because he made his
popular reputation talking about exciting things in an
exciting way. "It's always useful in a larger PR sense to
have Carl Sagan and Cornell's name in the national news,"
says Duane Davis, the acting director of development.
"Alumni who are interested in what he's doing tend to be
more involved in the life of the university and sometimes
increase their support." Officials are reluctant to give the
impression that Sagan is the star attraction; in truth, for
most, he isn't. But Thompson wryly notes that "on tours
they make no bones about saying this is the building where
Carl Sagan works-and maybe he's there today."
Sagan does not engage directly in recruitment or fund
raising for the university. But he says he is dedicated to
Cornell and Ithaca, where he lives with his wife, Ann
Druyan, who is a writer, producer and antinuclear activist,
and their four-year-old daughter (Sagan has three sons by
two earlier marriages). Sitting on a lawn chair outside his
home, he gestures out over the magnificent view of the gorge
and the countryside beyond. "I love the physical environ-
ment," he says and cites a favorite local 'slogan: " 'It's cen-
trally isolated.' It helps me get my work done. And in the
kind of sciences I'm interested in-astronomy, physics,
chemistry, biology, geology-Cornell is excellent. I've had a
lot of offers, but none good enough." The arrangement
seems appropriate. Secure in his orbit around the universi-
ty, Sagan is able to keep his face turned to the world-and
Cosmic chat with Carson on 'The Tonight Show'



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