The material documents Sagan’s energetic career as an astronomer, author, unrivaled popularizer of science and TV star, and it ranges from childhood report cards to college term papers to eloquent letters written just before his untimely death in 1996 at age 62. Also in the mix are files labeled F/C, for “fissured ceramics,” Sagan’s code name for letters from crackpots.
And there’s this, from Johnny Carson, after Sagan declared that he’d never actually used the much-satirized phrase “billions and billions” on “The Tonight Show”: “Even if you didn’t say ‘billions and billions’ you should have. — Johnny.”
Until recently, all this stuff had been stacked in filing cabinet drawers in the Sphinx Head, a tomblike secret-society building that became Sagan’s home in Ithaca, N.Y. For years, Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, had carefully preserved her husband’s archive, hoping to find an appropriate repository. The Library of Congress had long been interested; the library owns the papers of such innovators and scientific luminaries as Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, J. Robert Oppenheimer, E.O. Wilson and Margaret Mead.
Along came Seth MacFarlane, creator of TV’s “Family Guy” (and director of the new movie “Ted”). Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson introduced MacFarlane to Druyan when Tyson and Druyan were developing a remake of the enormously popular 1980 PBS series “Cosmos” that made Sagan famous. In the process of backing the new “Cosmos,” MacFarlane provided an undisclosed sum of money to the Library of Congress to buy the archive from Druyan. The library will officially announce the acquisition Wednesday.
Now comes the arduous task of sorting through it. The boxes fill two sprawling rooms. The organization of the archive is expected to be completed by November 2013, at which point the material will be open to researchers.
“He was practically the face of science in this country for a long, long time,” said Leonard Bruno, a historian specializing in science, who recommended that the library obtain the material and who is retiring later this week. “He made science cool.”
Druyan said of her late husband, “He wasn’t a pack rat at all. But I think he had a sense of his place in cultural history. I think he knew he was corresponding with the great and the near-great both inside and outside of science.”
Library officials let a Washington Post reporter spend a couple of hours going through a few select boxes.
Sagan was, one quickly discovers, a phenom.
“If you wish to gain information concerning anything, go to Carl Sagan. He is Noah Webster, Einstein, and a walking encyclopedia all rolled into one. (There is a streak of John Barrymore in his nature, also.),” wrote the student newspaper at Rahway (N.J.) High School in 1950.