LC – Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and Beyond

by Sabrina I. Pacifici on February 8, 2014

“Like our ancestors, we look up at the heavens and wonder. What is the structure of the universe? How significant are we? Are we alone? In Carl Sagan’s words, “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” To commemorate the acquisition of The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, the Library of Congress presents an exploration of these questions across the breadth of its collections and offers a first glimpse into Carl Sagan’s papers. This online collection includes three primary sections.

  • Models of the cosmos throughout history
  • History of the possibility of life on other worlds
  • Carl Sagan’s life and contributions to science and society

The Structure of the Cosmos

This section showcases rare books, manuscripts and celestial atlases from the Library of Congress collections illustrating the history of modeling the cosmos. Starting with ancient Greek astronomy and following developments in the Islamic world, these essays also highlight the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and others. The section continues by exploring Descartes and Newton’s development of a mechanical model for the universe, the realization that the stars are suns and ultimately that the Milky Way is one galaxy among many in the universe. The goal of this section is to provide a general overview of the history of our understanding of the universe and offer a view of how our knowledge of nature develops over time.

Life on Other Worlds

This section showcases early science fiction books and pop-culture items like sheet music and movie posters alongside newspaper articles, astronomy books and items from Carl Sagan’s papers. Through these materials, the section explores the interplay between imagination and science in how our ideas about life on other worlds have developed over time.  Starting with the notion of life on the moon from the 1630s, essays also look at the history of interpreting the geography and alleged canals of Mars. From there, we consider how scientists and science fiction writers imagined civilization on Mars and examine Americans’ persistent belief in UFO’s. It ends by presenting work on the Voyager record and ideas about the possibility of life on other worlds in the novel and film Contact.  The key goal of this section is to illustrate the important connection between imagination and rigorous science and present how our ideas about life in the universe have developed over time.

Carl Sagan, Science and Society

Primarily showcasing items from The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive this section contextualizes Carl Sagan in the tradition of science. It starts by presenting how Sagan became interested and passionate about the universe as a young child and then follows the development of the depth and breadth of his interests in high school and college. From there it focuses on his connections to mentors like Harold Urey, Gerard Kuiper and Hermann Muller. This section concludes by exploring the role Sagan played as a mentor and role model to scientists, science communicators and the public at large.”

Previous post:

Next post: