Cornell and Carl Sagan

26 01 2013


When I came up for the idea of this topic, I was originally a little hesitant to write an entry. Unlike A.D. White or Dear Uncle Ezra, there are probably a number of readers who can remember when Sagan was alive and active on campus (Sagan passed away in December 1996). If the number of hits I receive for his old house at 900 Stewart Avenue are any clue (~600 hits since this blog’s inception), the late astronomer and Cornell professor remains a relatively popular figure. As someone who was just a kid when Carl Sagan passed away, it’s a little harder for me to identify, and in Sagan’s place, figures such as Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson fill different niches not-too-distant from Sagan’s public role.

With all that in mind, I decided to take an approach similar to what I did with my “Founding Fathers” entries, and provide a smorgasbord of tidbits. I have no intention of delving into his interests of extraterrestrial life, agnosticism/humanism, or marijuana use, but the wikipedia entry would be a fine substitute for those interested in those topics.

-First off, the basic facts. Carl Sagan arrived at Cornell in 1968. We should only be so lucky that the high minds of Harvard decided to deny him tenure the previous year, because they were unhappy with his “pandering to the public”. Sagan became a full professor of the astronomy department in 1971, and remained so (the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences) until his untimely death from pneumonia while recovering from cancer a quarter-century later.

-Carl Sagan might have been an excellent publicist for science, but few would call him a focused academic. The filming of his Cosmos  television series in Los Angeles in the late 1970s forced the university to cancel several of his courses, and several grad students under his advisory had to move into the research groups of other department faculty. His astronomy colleagues were unimpressed with this shirking of duties and attempted to have his lab kicked out of the Space Science building.

-Things were not a whole lot better upon return to campus, the blessing and curse of the success of his television series and associated NYT bestseller. While Sagan garnered much favorable publicity and considerable wealth, he was also subject to death threats from those in vehement disagreement to his views. Police regularly patrolled his home, and his name was removed from the Space Science directory and from his front door, out of safety concerns (this policy must have relaxed late in his career). Some of his colleagues remained unenthused about him, accusing Dr. Sagan of being an egotist, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, and failing to give other scientists due credit.

-While at Cornell, Sagan began a critical thinking course (ASTRO 490). This course was under his guidance until he was hospitalized in 1996, when other faculty filled in. The course was discontinued after his death, but was brought back under the tutelage of other faculty a few years later. Under Sagan’s time, the course could only be enrolled into after completing a rigorous interview process for one of the 20 available slots.

-On the note of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sagan tried to recruit him to do his undergrad at Cornell. Unfortunately, the future Dr. Tyson chose to go to Harvard instead. Bill Nye had Sagan as a professor, so perhaps Sagan has had more of a hand in the science communication to Generation Y than we realize.

-One of the more whimsical tales of Sagan is that during the height of his popularity, he had a secret tunnel from his home to campus, where he could drive his Porsche away from prying eyes. In reality, he would walk some of the back-trails along the gorge.

-Another reason to seek anonymity – Sagan used a vanity plate inscribed with “PHOBOS”, a Martian moon. These vanity plates became a hot souvenir for anyone with a screwdriver and ten minutes, since 900 Stewart has no driveway or garage (rather, it has a deep curb). Sagan eventually caved and asked the DMV for a more anonymous plate.

-I’ve already covered Sagan’s home a couple of times previous, but a quick rehash – built in 1890 as the meeting place for the Sphinx Head secret society, who sold it their neighbors, Dr. Robert Wilson, in 1969. The home was relatively unused, and sold to Dr. Stephen Mensch in 1979, who renovated the property into a home, and actually allowed Sphinx Head to make occasional use of the property. Sagan acquired the property in the 1980s, and the house is still a part of his estate, though it is vacant. According to a 1993 DUE, Sagan likely did not live in the property towards the ends of his life.

Although vacant, it would be ill-advised to try to trespass – the property is covered with security cameras, one of which is right above the entranceway (the not-visible corner in the below photo).

On a personal note, when I had taken the photos of the former Sagan residence, I had not known this was his home. I just thought it was a highly unusual building in an area of mostly early 20th-century homes. It was not until I typed the address into my search bar when I came home that I discovered the building’s significance.


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One response

2 11 2013
The Keyword Bar XX | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] of the stories that enhances Carl Sagan’s mystique is that he somehow had a tunnel from his house to campus. That’s not feasible (there’s a gorge in the way), and perhaps some of its inspiration […]

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