Few of us at Newscripts relish the reminder that we’re not the center of the universe, but we’ll make an exception to celebrate a scientist who changed the world with a shift in perspective. The Senate of the Republic of Poland has declared 2023 the Year of Nicolaus Copernicus to commemorate the revolutionary astronomer’s 550th birthday. Polish universities with ties to Copernicus’s work will host events throughout the year as part of the World Copernican Congress. And the Polish postal service has issued a new stamp with a portrait of Copernicus to celebrate the occasion.
Born on Feb. 19, 1473, Copernicus is best known for putting Earth in its place. Though 16th-century convictions stated that all heavenly bodies orbit our home planet, Copernicus toppled Earth’s celestial supremacy with the heliocentric model of our solar system. Yet this rebellious revelation didn’t reach prominence until the posthumous publication of his treatise Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs. Legend has it that Copernicus was presented a copy of the manuscript in print while on his death bed. “He awoke long enough to realize that he was holding his great book and then expired, publishing as he perished,” historian Robert S. Westman writes in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It’s an anecdote that may seem dramatic even by today’s standards. But for this year, at least, it’s all about Copernicus.
Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University, was tidying up when he found something odd in a box of old papers. The box belongs to Dessler’s father, Alexander Dessler, who recently retired from an illustrious career as a space scientist and asked his son to help sort through his academic archive. As the younger Dessler riffled through the contents, he found a photocopied manuscript titled “Carl Sagan and the DPS: Stories about Carl Sagan and His Interactions with Fellow Scientists.” Dessler’s father had known the celebrity astronomer Carl Sagan before his death in 1996, so Dessler says he wasn’t surprised by the find at first. Upon closer inspection, he realized he might have uncovered something special.
The document’s introduction explains that the following 30 or so pages contain more than a dozen anecdotes from Sagan’s colleagues at the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, collated just 1 year after Sagan’s death. The stories include thoughtful recollections of Sagan as a mentor and comical tales of his brilliant sense of humor. In one such yarn, retired NASA researcher and author of Astronomy for Dummies Stephen Maran shares that after name-dropping Sagan during dental surgery, the dentist offered him extra novocaine. When Maran told Sagan this story later, Sagan responded, “Anytime it will reduce your pain, use my name freely.”
The book was full of Sagan stories penned by astronomy greats, so Dessler took to social media to find the star-studded document a new home. “I thought people on Twitter would get a kick out of it. But it’s sort of had more resonance than I anticipated,” Dessler tells Newscripts. He posted a digital copy of the book online (cenm.ag/carl-sagan-dps) to share the joy of its discovery. For Dessler, this manuscript is just one example of the treasures hidden among the belongings of family, friends, and colleagues. And Dessler’s father, who is now in his 90s, still has many fascinating stories of his own to tell. It’s an important reminder of the tremendous history that we can all help preserve, Dessler says.
Please send comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.