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

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself”- Carl Sagan

According to Wikipedia, Carl Sagan was an American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, science popularizer, and science communicator in astronomy and other natural sciences. His achievements include contributions to the discovery of the high surface temperatures of Venus, hypothesized that Saturn’s moon Titan might possess oceans of liquid compounds on its surface and that Jupiter’s moon Europa might possess subsurface oceans of water, and he is also known for his research on the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. Sagan’s life and work are the connecting factor in Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and Beyond.This online collection, which can be located on the Library of Congress’ website, explores “changing models of the universe through time, ideas of life on other words and Carl Sagan’s place in the tradition of science.” This collection consists of a few hundred digitized items which include manuscripts, rare books, celestial atlases, newspaper articles, sheet music and movie posters. The thematic collection includes three primary sections which I will discuss below:

1.“The Cosmos: Its Structure and Historical Models”

“This section showcases rare books, manuscripts and celestial maps from the Library of Congress collections illustrating the history of modeling the cosmos. Starting with ancient Greek astronomy, then following developments in the Islamic world, this collection depicts the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, as well as Descartes and Newton’s developments. 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.”

The screenshot above depicts “The Cosmos” front-page- the page the user see’s after clicking on the link. From here, one can read the related articles and essays, find “teaching resources”, as well as continue one’s research through “expert resources”.

2. “Life on Other Worlds: History of the Possibility”    

“This section showcases early science fiction books and pop-culture items like sheet music, movie posters and trailers alongside newspaper articles, astronomy books and items from Carl Sagan’s papers. Through these materials, the section explores the relationship between imagination and science in how our ideas about life on other worlds have developed over time. The primary 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.”

The screenshot above depicts the page the user arrives at after clicking one of the links under “teaching resources”. Here, the user is taken to a blog entitled “Teaching with the Library of Congress”. The Library of Congress does not control what is posted, however they monitor the posts as well as the comments. This specific guest post comes from Trevor Owens.

3. “Carl Sagan and the Tradition of Science”

“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, and concludes by exploring the many roles Sagan played as a mentor and role model to scientists, science communicators and the public at large.”

The screenshot above depicts what can be viewed after clicking on a specific article under one of the three primary sections. This image depicts part of the table of contents from the second Draft of Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot. This image offers a point of entry for understanding Sagan’s writing process. Additionally, you can read and review some of Carl Sagan’s drafts and ideas online in this collection. As noted on this page, Sagan was an extensive reviser of his work, for example, this digitized draft of Pale Blue Dot is the second of twenty full drafts in the archive.  Each of those 20 drafts is heavily annotated with edits, revisions and changes.

Finding Our Place in the Cosmos provides an array of options for its users, such as viewing its’ featured content, finding lesson plans under the “teaching resources”, and continuing one’s studies with the help of the “expert resources”. However, this online collection is only a fraction of the archive’s contents. It is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead it is intended to view various topics and serve as a point of entry to a wide array of primary source.

One Reply to “Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and Beyond”

  1. Hi Olivia, thank you for the thoughtful and informative post! I am loving this resource and think that it’s an amazing learning tool! I am particularly interested in the section about “Life on Other Worlds” and its exploration into how our ideas of life in the universe has changed.

    What I find most important about this is collection are its resources for teachers and emphasis in examining primary documents. Teaching students how to study primary documents is very important, so I can really see a teacher using this in their lessons. I also think it’s helpful that this collection is introducing a small portion of the larger collection and structuring content and interpretations around those chosen documents- this will be especially helpful for individuals learning about primary sources.

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