The impact of a skilled teacher can go deep into the Cosmos

Posted: January 15, 2012

"The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky." - Carl Sagan

Chris Gibbons

is a Philadelphia writer

The recent news of NASA's incredible discovery streamed across the Internet on Dec. 20: "The First Earth-Sized Planets Found Beyond Our Solar System."

I have to admit that I wasn't surprised. My former teacher predicted that discoveries like this would be commonplace someday. It was ironic that this announcement was made on the 15th anniversary of my teacher's death.

That night I thought about him as I gazed up into the sky. The clouds had finally broken, and the stars shimmered like jewels in the clear, crisp winter air. They reminded me of a tapestry of Christmas lights adorning the velvety-black background of space. It was an awe-inspiring sight, and as I gazed up, I could still hear the familiar and distinct voice of my former teacher:

"The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be."

The simplicity and power of his words still rivet me, and it's during moments of great scientific discovery that I especially miss him. Although he's been gone now for 15 years, his effect on my life, as well as the lives of millions around the world, continues to resonate to this day.

Considering that I never met Carl Sagan or sat in one of his Cornell University classrooms, some people might find it odd that I refer to him as my former teacher. But when the groundbreaking PBS series Cosmos premiered in September 1980, I became a student in a Sagan classroom that had dramatically expanded to encompass millions of American living rooms.

Although he was a relatively well-known public figure before the series, primarily because of his books and frequent appearances on The Tonight Show, Sagan's popularity soared through Cosmos. The critically acclaimed 13-part series featured Sagan as narrator and presenter of a diverse range of topics, such as philosophy, religion, history, astronomy, and physics.

Sagan's skills as a teacher were clearly evident as he helped the general public understand such complex scientific concepts as time dilation, quantum mechanics, and the theory of relativity. But the heart of the series was Sagan's unique ability to effectively communicate why these various subjects were important to humanity's understanding of, and future within, the Cosmos.

Inspired by Sagan and Cosmos, I finally enrolled at Drexel University, something I'd been putting off for more than two years. I pored over the Cosmos companion book, acquired a telescope, and joined Sagan's newly formed Planetary Society.

Although my career path gravitated to financial services, I felt that I could still make a difference by becoming an outspoken advocate for space exploration. I wrote several op-ed articles that rigorously defended NASA and espoused the need to continue our exploration of space.

After Sagan died, the Planetary Society posted a wall on its website where members could comment on the effect that Sagan had on their lives. I was amazed to find that there were hundreds of stories like mine, and as I read them, I couldn't help but think of the Henry Adams quote: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."

Unfortunately, Sagan's influence, while extensive, was limited, and lately it seems that other voices are growing louder. I'm hearing the familiar cries to curtail space exploration, or prohibit the teaching of evolution in our schools. There are the loud rants of the religious fanatics who declare that God personally told them the date of the world's end, and the shouts of the pseudoscientists who claim that the Apollo moon landings were faked.

When the voices of ignorance become too loud, I know what I have to do - I'll gaze up at the Cosmos and listen for the voice of my former teacher rising above the din. The numerous stars will remind me that millions of my classmates continue to hear his voice as well, and we're prepared to defend the ideals that Carl Sagan taught us.

E-mail Chris Gibbons at