Reminisces of Carl Sagan

By Neil deGrasse Tyson

Eulogy for Carl Sagan, The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City

What follows is a Eulogy for Carl Sagan delivered at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City, February, 27 1997 during a memorial service entitled “A Celebration of Carl Sagan’s Life.” Other speakers among the dozen in the program included Sagan’s Widow Ann Druyan, two of Carl Sagan’s children, Stephen Jay Gould, and Vice President Al Gore. The program also contained live musical interludes selected from the classical music that Carl Sagan placed on board the Voyager mission to the planets.

Mr. Vice President, Annie Druyan, distinguished guests, friends, and loved ones, what can I say about Carl Sagan that has not already been said?

Carl Sagan was at the helm of many ships. But the one I have in mind contains people, who, as part of life’s priorities, seek to enlighten the public about the beauty of science. Collectively, all of us on this ship deliver lectures, write books, and give interviews with the media. But for each engagement, somehow we know that Carl had been there before—if not in person then in spirit. He made our work easier by having painted the landscape that now frames our efforts to reach the layman. I cannot count the number of times I have jump-started an encounter with the public by directly or indirectly referencing a jeweled quote from one of his many literary or media expositions on the universe. With Carl’s passing, I now feel that sense of insecurity reminiscent of when you first leave home. I feel not only the loss of a friend but the loss of a leader.

I first met Carl when I was in high school in the mid-1970s. My letter of application to Cornell University was dripping with an interest in the universe. The admission office, unbeknownst to me, forwarded the application to Carl Sagan’s attention. Within weeks I received a personal letter from Carl inviting me up to Ithaca to visit him. Was this, I asked myself, the same Carl Sagan that I had seen on Johnny Carson? Was this the same Carl Sagan that had written those books on the universe? Indeed it was. I visited Carl on a snowy afternoon in February (I later learned that many winter afternoons in Ithaca are snowy). He was warm, compassionate, and demonstrated what appeared to be a genuine interest in my life’s path. At the end of the day, he drove me back to the Ithaca bus station and jotted down his home phone number—just in case the buses could not navigate through the snow and I needed a place to stay.

I never told him this, but at every stage of my scientific career that followed, I modeled my encounters with students after my first encounter with Carl.

Although I did not ultimately attend Cornell University, Carl and I re-met several more times over the years: On Carl’s invitation (after he had written a jacket blurb for my second book) I attended a special workshop convened by Dan Goldin, the head of NASA, to discuss the agency’s future relevance to the heart and soul of Americans. Assembled were a few dozen of the most prolific and visible science writers, educators, and administrators in the Nation. Carl must have known that I would be the youngest in attendance—it was an honor to take part. With this invitation, Carl had brought me on board the ship.

I last saw Carl at his 60th birthday celebration at Ithaca. An entire evening was spent by friends, loved ones, and colleagues, heaping praises upon Carl. Each testimony was grander than the next. There was the undergraduate who majored in science after a single encounter with Carl. There was the graduate student who shifted his thesis focus to planetary atmospheres upon becoming excited by the science that Carl had described to him. There was the letter to Carl Sagan (read by the Astronomy Department Chair) from a student in Africa who launched an astronomy club in his home village after reading his book Cosmos. Topping that moment, the Department had actually flown the student to Ithaca for the occasion and introduced him to Carl in person. Then there were the letters read from top officials of international governments. And then there was the announcement that an asteroid would be named after Annie Druyan, whose orbit was in eternal resonance with another asteroid that had already been named for Carl.

The conflagration of praise seemed unending, which led me to ask myself whether the life of any human being could be worthy of this much praise. The next evening, Carl gave a public talk to a standing-room only crowd in Cornell’s Uris auditorium. His topic was inspired by the contents of his recent book Pale Blue Dot. During the hour of his talk, and the hour that followed of questions he fielded from the audience, I realized that the praise I had witnessed the night before was only the beginning of the praise that he truly deserves—and will continue to receive.

I will miss him.