Two titans of astronomy met on Cornell's campus almost 40 years ago. Could there be an annual commemoration of that meeting? (Courtesy of NASA & the Hayden Planetarium)
Two titans of astronomy met on Cornell’s campus almost 40 years ago. Could there be an annual commemoration of that meeting? And what would such a commemoration entail? (Courtesy of NASA & the Hayden Planetarium)
Two titans of astronomy met on Cornell’s campus almost 40 years ago. Could there be an annual commemoration of that meeting? And what would such a commemoration entail? (Courtesy of NASA & the Hayden Planetarium)

Ithaca, N.Y. – It’s been almost 40 years since Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan first met in Ithaca, someone texted Mayor Svante Myrick via a screen set up in the mayor’s City Hall office last week.

“We should have an event and a celebration,” the text said.

We discovered the sender, and he has some clout of his own: It’s Ithaca attorney and New York State Senate candidate Howard Leib.

We called Leib – and, yes, he really is serious. But is having such a day possible?

“That depends on the community, and whether or not Svante loves the idea,” Leib said.

Leib said he got the idea after seeing the first episode of the Tyson-rebooted Cosmos that first aired on FOX on March 9, 2014. The series ran up until June 8.

In that episode, Dr. Tyson speaks of his first meeting with Carl Sagan — the legendary Cornell astronomy professor and original host of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage — who Tyson called “the most successful science communicator of the 20th century.”

At the time, Tyson — now a world-renowned astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium — was just a “17-year-old kid from the Bronx with dreams of becoming a scientist.”

Tyson sent an application to the Cornell admissions department, which forwarded his application directly to Carl Sagan. Sagan wrote a letter directly to Tyson inviting him to visit him in Ithaca.

In the letter, Sagan tells Tyson that the young scientist might be even able to do research on Viking data — data from the first spacecraft to land on Mars. Tyson agreed to visit.

The letter Carl Sagan sent a young Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Courtesy of Open Culture)

Almost 40 years later, Tyson still talks about their first meeting on a snowy day in Ithaca. It was December 20, 1975.

Sagan met Tyson at a bus stop in Ithaca, and then gave Tyson a tour of his laboratory at Cornell. Near the end of their cold Saturday together, Sagan signed one of his books with the note: “For Neil, a future astronomer.”

Sagan drove through heavy snow back to the bus stop, where he gave Tyson his home phone number and instructed him to call him should he need a place to stay in case the bus couldn’t get through.

“I already knew I wanted to become a scientist, but that afternoon,” Tyson would later say, “I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become.”

Tyson didn’t go to Cornell, instead choosing Harvard. But he has repeatedly credited Sagan as a key inspiration for him, saying that Sagan helped instill a sense of “duty to respond to students who are inquiring about the universe as a career path … in the way that Carl Sagan had responded to me.” (Sagan died in 1996 of pneumonia after suffering from myelodysplasia.)

The response sent from a young Tyson to Cornell Professor Sagan. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

That public mission is a big part of the reason Leib, the attorney, hopes Ithaca creates a day to commemorate the meeting of the great minds.

The event could be just once — or, if loved by the community, an annual event, Leib said. It would celebrate not just Sagan and Tyson’s achievements, but scientific discoveries more generally.

“We are a community that recognizes the value of science, universities and museums,” said Leib, “in this day and age, celebrating science isn’t such a bad thing.”

The celebration would be viable and potentially cheap, said Leib, who added that his state senate race has nothing to do with the event.

“Depending on when we do it, it could be a tourist attraction,” Leib said.

He also noted that the event would bring attention to Ithaca, as well as give the community a sense of pride.

“In the winter, we all know Ithaca can be a little cold; it gives people an event to look forward to,” he said.

The event could have multiple spin-offs. Leib suggested a screening of Cosmos, with the ultimate goal of getting Tyson to Ithaca to give a lecture at the State Theatre or a screening of the show at Cinemapolis.

For Leib, the possibilities — much like the Cosmos — are endless.

“Who knows,” he said, “we do all kinds of strange and wonderful things here in town.”

Kyle Friend

A senior at Cornell University, Kyle covers the affordable housing crisis for the Ithaca Voice. Reach him through e-mail: kyleafriend@gmail.com.