Singing the praises of Carl Sagan

By Phil Plait | June 28, 2012 7:00 am

One of my favorite quotations of all time is by Carl Sagan: "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the Universe." The poetry and lyrical nature of that line are wonderful, and the sentiment… well. He was exactly right. Sagan was one of many people who influenced me, and of course so many of us who promote astronomy to the public owe our careers to him.

That’s why I was so pleased when I found that Kenley Kristofferson, a music teacher and composer in Canada, wrote a lovely choral suite in three movements based on Carl Sagan’s words! He has put all three on Sound Cloud, so you can listen to them for free. Each uses quotations from Sagan and weaves them into a tale of discovery, beauty, and astronomy. They’re performed beautifully by the Antiphony Music Ensemble, a group of ten young singers from Winnipeg. On his website Kristofferson has the three movements downloadable as MP3s, and also has the lyrics written out as well.

This is a very pretty piece, and I hope some choral teachers out there pick it up and perform it. I think it sends a great message, and it does so in a beautiful way.

Addendum: Producer/writer/actor Seth MacFarlane — yes, from "Family Guy" — helped the Library of Congress acquire Sagan’s personal papers. MacFarlane is a science nut, and as you may already know, is working with Neil Tyson to update and bring Sagan’s "Cosmos" back to the TV. I think this is great, and it’s fantastic to know that there are folks out there like MacFarlane willing to put their money where their brain is. Good on him.

Tip o’ the elbow patch to the wonderfully named blog It’s OK to be Smart.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science, TV/Movies

Comments (13)

Links to this Post

  1. 10,000 « Kenley Kristofferson | June 29, 2012
  1. Patricia

    Thank you! I am going to be hearing this music and the beautiful words all day!

  2. Peter

    I heard a tale that the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity house in Ithica, a neighbor of Sagan’s, invited him for dinner one day. He came and ate and gave a small speech and everyone was happy – until the bill arrived. Sagan wanted to be paid for his appearance. The fraternity decided to use a massive slingshot to launch frozen turkeys across a gorge onto his property as payment, along with Christmas lights that spelled out F-U Sagan hanging in the gorge. I cannot hear the name Sagan without thinking about this story told to me by the Fraternity members. This all happened sometime in the late eighties or very early nineties.

  3. Chris A.

    I’m so relieved. When I saw the title of this post, I feared that Auto-Tune was in the offing.

  4. Atheist Panda

    Can’t wait for my digitally-remastered DVD copy of Cosmos to arrive. 780 minute masterpiece…..

  5. Melissa

    I agree that auto-tune is a pernicious disease…but I love the Symphony of Science stuff even though it uses the Evil Device. “We Are All Connected” is one of my favorites with Sagan.

  6. LSandman24

    I just watched the Apple Pie episode over the weekend on Netflix. My girlfriend was asking how to make an apple pie from scratch, so I just had to… :-)

    ~Luke

  7. Kurt Erlenbach

    I am proud to say that I had Astronomy 102 in spring, 1975, with Prof. Sagan at Cornell. It was a tremendous class. I remember him telling us that now is the most exciting time in all of human history to be alive, because it is during our lifetimes that we will learn whether we are alone in the universe. I regret he did not live long enough to learn the answer.

    Here’s another story. I had the class shortly before Viking lifted off for Mars. He told us that he had two great fears for the mission – one was that it would land next to a plant that was just outside the reach of its arm. The other was that during the day it would photograph footprints, which would be erased by the wind. Then the footprints would reappear the next day.

  8. Gordon Davie

    What beautiful music (and words!) This is going straight onto my iPod…

    Thank you for the heads-up, Phil!

  9. John EB Good

    @Kurt Erlenbach: Now, I envy you. I think there wasn’t a bigger living Science’s Sacred Cow in my contemporaries, being borned two years after Einstein’s death.

    I guess he inspired much our own media star, French Canadian astrophysicist Hubert Reeves. But to my taste, Doc Reeves overdoes it on the poetry side and it shadows much the Hard Science inspiring it and sometimes, it even becomes confusing from the original idea. Sagan struck dead on the just balance between both and teased our brains with it. Geeks like me needs the science to feed their hyperactive brains. So, whether it’s in words, motion capture, film, photograph or astro-imagery, the poetry is like the sauce that makes the «science-steak» better tasting. But it’s not the main course in itself.

    There lied the genious and the Grand Art of Carl Sagan; to me, at least. He was the Master Chef making us litteraly taste the Universe. He’d probably have his own reality show, nowadays! :D (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, maybe?)

    Of course, Phil’s not bad either or I wouldn’t read here this often! ;)

  10. mike burkhart

    Carl Sagan made astronomy fun his book Cosmos sits on my desk and he talked seriously about extra testral life and did not leave the subject to sciencefiction and supermarket tabloids. Carl Sagan came up with the idea to put the ingraved plates on the Pioneer 10,11 and the records caried by the Voyager 1,2 two of three attemps we have made to contact ET ( the third is the message sent be the Arciebo telescope in 1974) but also he explained Astronmy so people could understand it. I think he certanly deserves a place in the Astronomers hall of fame.

  11. The tale of Carl Sagan and the angry frat house across the gorge, as posted by Peter above, is probably not at all accurate. I have heard two stories – one published and one directly from one of the pranksters (self-identified as such). I will recount as much as I am reasonably sure of:

    There were no frozen turkeys. Launched or otherwise.

    The frat invited Carl over for dinner in the early 80′s (Carl was just becoming a huge deal in the mainstream). Carl’s assistant Shirley Arden sent the frat a fee schedule (the number $500 was kicked around in several versions of the story). The frat boys, offended that their offer of dinner would be replied to with a speaker’s fee, erected a huge sign atop their roof out of Xmas lights (or painted, depending on story version) that had Sagan’s name and something unpleasant before it (“FU” is one of the popularly claimed portions of the message).

    Upon Carl arriving at 900 Stewart Ave, he sees the message across the gorge and heads over to see what the sign is all about. Everyone chills out, and Carl does indeed come over for dinner. There was no bill sent. The End.

    Cornell’s “Ask Uncle Ezra” site contains many wonderful details about Carl Sagan and Ithaca (see URL in header). Put “Sagan” into the search string gadget and enjoy! What it really needs in details on how Carl played a pivotal role in ending the nuclear brinkmanship between the US and USSR. It’s not at all a stretch to say that we may all owe our lives to this man. The young forget how dangerous the early to mid 80′s were.

  12. Roger Weeks

    I wanted to get the score. But in talking to Kenley via email, it appears that he cannot make this available for anyone to perform. Which is unfortunate given that it is a beautiful piece.

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