When 17 Year Old Neil deGrasse Tyson Met Carl Sagan

[Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: Neil DeGrasse  Tyson visits NASA Goddard]

I know I’m really late to this party, (especially since we’re an astronomy family) but Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is literally one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I started watching it on Netflix last week, and it is stunning.

I expected to feel a certain level of awe and wonder while watching it. After all, it’s an exploration of the UNIVERSE with Neil deGrasse Tyson. The universe has not disappointed in that regard.

But in addition to feeling general wonderment at its size, scope, and mystery, Cosmos has really evoked emotions in me. The visuals and simulations are truly gorgeous, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is a skilled storyteller. He weaves together some of history’s most wonderful stories of scientific discovery with an exploration of the cosmos – demonstrating the incredible immensity of its largest astronomical bodies and the utter complexity of its smallest particles and organisms.

In the first episode, after already being so impressed and moved by all of these things, Neil deGrasse Tyson brought me to tears. He concluded the episode by pulling out an old planner and showing it to the audience. It was Carl Sagan’s calendar and planner from 1975.

On December 20th, it reads, “Neil Tyson.” That is the date that Carl Sagan invited the 17 year old Neil deGrasse Tyson to Cornell, where he spent time with him, talked about science, and welcomed him in a way that changed the trajectory of deGrasse Tyson’s life. During that visit, Carl Sagan pulled one of his own books off the shelf, and autographed it, saying, “To Neil, a future astronomer.”

This story really moved me. Carl Sagan had not even started his own Cosmos series yet, but it would come, then someday down the road, this young teenager would continue in that tradition — not only continuing such a series, but becoming another well-known astrophysicist and science communicator to the general public.

As I mentioned above, this series highlights the incredible existence  of the largest astronomical bodies and the tiniest particles and organisms of the cosmos. After experiencing that in the first episode, I also began to ponder how tiny moments in our lives can lead to huge impacts.

It was just one day in time – December 20, 1975 – but Carl Sagan welcomed Neil deGrasse Tyson with such warmness and intention, that it changed the direction of his life. Neil deGrasse Tyson says he thinks of this moment quite intentionally when he welcomes youth, young adults, and prospective students. Carl Sagan’s actions cascaded into many small moments of intentional welcome.

This is a reminder that small connections matter, especially when we welcome people purposefully and with intention.

In our nation right now, many of are pondering how to initiate and grow large-scale movements for safety, equity, and justice. When we see their opposites – violence, inequity, and injustice – it is easy to lose heart. One of my concerns is that people will become demoralized and inactive.

These large scale movements and visions are utterly crucial and necessary, but the tiny encounters we cultivate also matter. So if you’re feeling demoralized, I want to say this: Look for the tiny moments and relational connections too. We might just experience or cultivate a sense of welcome that changes lives.

Renee Roederer

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