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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4 Responses to Carl Sagan: In Memoriam

  1. Zerj says:

    Heh. I remember that. However my most memorable moment came in the hallway waiting to get in. I was also there several hours early I must have been there before you becase I was pretty close to head of the line. After sitting for 3 hours my party was tired of sitting and decided to stretch my legs. (this was about 15 minutes before they actually opened the doors). Much to my surprise everyone else behind me must of gotten tired of sitting at the same time and they stood up as well.

    We sat back down shortly after but this time the crowd did not follow suit.

  2. Schiec says:

    This is just about the first thing that I ever think of when thinking of Mr. Sagan. This is probably one of my favorite stories to tell to academics.

  3. RM says:

    Someone else who remembers! Considering it’s the 10th anniversary of Sagan’s passing, I just did a search for “Carl Sagan RPI”, because I was at this lecture.

    As a HUGE fan of Sagan’s, growing up watching his legendary Cosmos series I was blown away by his “dressing-down” of the poor fellow who innocently advanced the slide during one of his long pauses.

    The second time the student advanced the slide early, I vividly remember Sagan commanding the student to go back to the previous slide (purely to make a point and embarrass the fellow, treating him like a child in front of 500 other students), then telling him OK…now you can go ahead.

    Unfortunately I took nothing positive or humorous from his attitude and my view of him forever changed in those moments. My friend (who also attended his talk) and I spoke afterwards. He was as disgusted as I and summed up what we witnessed with one word: hubris.

    It is, unfortunately, my only memory of Dr. Sagan in person.

  4. Bill says:

    Hubris? Possibly. I like to think of it as the actions of a man who is a successful senior professor, and who’s public speaking engagements hinged upon a measured delivery. And I doubt you can be a professor at an engineering college as long as Carl Sagan was without occasionally yanking a student’s chain. They are a pain, after all.

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