Video: Carl Sagan Recalls How Bensonhurst Upbringing Sparked Love Of Cosmos

The internet is abuzz this morning after the big-budget debut of the reenvisioned Cosmos series last night, starring Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The original series aired in 1980 and was accompanies by a book of the same name. It’s perhaps the most lasting work by cosmologist Carl Sagan, oft-hailed as the best communicator of scientific concepts in the 20th Century.

Sagan was born in 1934 and lived with his family in Bensonhurst. Around the time of the airing of the original series, he returned to the neighborhood for a video segment in which he reflected on his first childhood thoughts about the stars and the broader universe.

“I knew my immediate neighborhood intimately; every candy store, front stoop, backyard and wall for playing Chinese handball,” he said in the video. “It was my whole world.”

The video has some fantastic shots of 86th Street and the elevated subway in the 1980s. Sagan himself lived on Bay 37th Street, and, later, Bay Parkway. The family took frequent outings to Coney Island and “old photos show Carl lolling on the beach,” notes a biography of the famed astronomer.

The video above tells an abbreviated account of what happened next – the occasion that sparked his life long search of the cosmos. But he previously shared a more detailed account:

[The stars] seemed to me different. They just weren’t like everything else.
And so I asked other kids what they were…. They said things like “they’re lights in the sky, kid.”
I could tell they were lights in the sky, but what were they—little electric bulbs on long black wires? … I asked my parents, they didn’t know. I asked friends of my parents, they didn’t know.
[His mother suggested:] “I’ve just gotten you your first library card. Take the streetcar to the New Utrecht branch of the New York Public Library and find a book…. [The answer] has to be in a book.”
I went to the library. I asked the librarian for a book on the stars. She came back and gave me a book. I opened it. It was filled with pictures of people like Jean Harlow and Clark Gable.
I was humiliated. I gave it back to her and said, “This wasn’t the kind of stars I had in mind.” She thought this was hilarious, which humiliated me further. She then went and got the right kind of book. I took it—a simple kid’s book. I sat down on a little chair—a pint-sized chair—and turned the pages until I came to the answer.
And the answer was stunning. It was that the Sun was a star but really close. The stars were suns, but so far away they were just little points of light…. And while I didn’t know the [inverse] square law of light propagation or anything like that, still, it was clear to me that you would have to move that Sun enormously far away, further away than Brooklyn [for the stars to appears as dots of light]….
The scale of the universe suddenly opened up to me. [It was] kind of a religious experience. [There] was a magnificence to it, a grandeur, a scale which has never left me. Never ever left me.

You can read more about Sagan’s childhood in this excerpt by Sagan biographer Keay Davidson.