Carl Sagan: In Memoriam

Today is the 10th anniversary of the passing of the great astronomer and educator, Carl Sagan.

To memorialize this day, Joel Schlosberg has organized a blog-a-thon of articles about Dr. Sagan. Here is my contribution.
12/20/06 Update. Here is the link to Joel Schlosberg’s meta post concerning this event.

I have no terribly inspiring words about Carl Sagan; I only heard him speak once. I am aware of his contributions to astronomy, but I wasn’t an adherent. I do, however, have an amusing anecdote that might leave you wondering what it would be like to be his grad students.

In 1995, while I was an undergraduate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Carl Sagan gave an invited lecture concerning the probability of devastating (or otherwise) meteor impacts on the Earth. The event was announced about a week beforehand and campus was in an uproar. The lecture took place in a large lecture hall and by the time people were allowed inside for seating, triple the capacity of the room had assembled outside. I had arrived two hours early and I sat in one of the last empty seats. The aisles were packed; people had to be escorted out to merely violate the fire regulations, rather than shred them.

Dr. Sagan was an excellent public speaker. Everything I expected came true. Unfortunately, the student in the technician’s booth must have had a copy of the transcript. He was advancing the powerpoint slides whenever Dr. Sagan intoned, “Next slide, please,” Once, he changed the slide without Dr. Sagan’s cue.

Silence reigned for five seconds. Dr. Sagan said, calmly, “Excuse me. I did not ask for the next slide yet.”

You could feel the chagrin emanating from the booth as the slide switched back.

Dr. Sagan waited a moment, then said, “Thank you. Next slide, please.”

Carl Sagan was many things to many people, but I will always remember those words.

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