Carl Sagan Memorial Planet Walk and Grave

March 20, 2009 — In Ithaca, NY, they’ve dedicated the entire solar system to Carl Sagan. Sort of.

The Carl Sagan Memorial Planet Walk is a series of 11 interactive stone monoliths, each one representing an item in the solar system, that are distanced throughout the city over the span of three quarters of a mile to an exact 1:5 billion scale of said solar system.

Not that dedicating the entire solar system to Carl Sagan is that outlandish of an idea. I mean, sure, there are definitely people on the roster of humanity who have done much greater things than mere astronomy in support of the human cause, men and women who have stopped wars, established order, cured disease, or faithfully sewed the button eyes back on the ragged teddy bears of paraplegic orphans. These men and women might deserve an honor so grand and so many degrees above mere statues, sainthood, or namesake middle schools, but, man, put on a cosmic scale, those good deeds have as much pull in the universe as a sun-incinerated dust mote. Probably.

But Sagan, well, he seems supremely eHarmony matched for such an honor, were we to bestow it. In perusing his work, it’s easy to get the feeling that the man rarely looked anywhere but straight out past the atmosphere, shoe laces and shirt stains be damned. I guess Kepler, Galileo, and Copernicus have decent claims, too.

However, in addition to Sagan’s many notable scientific achievements in the sphere, he was absolutely evangelical about the universe and was able to communicate its vastness and importance to humanity in simple, heartfelt terms that instilled more humility, awe, and awareness in us unwashed gravity-bound than the Sermon on the Mount, the Grand Canyon, and the Jerry Lewis Telethon combined. What can I say? I like space advocates...I don’t know why, exactly. I also don’t know why I speak in superlatives of everybody I mention on this site, so I hope you’ve evolved a defense against that in the two years this project has been going.

Carl Sagan entered his life through his mother and my life and others’ through such books as Cosmos, Contact, Pale Blue Dot, and The Demon-Haunted World. He also created and hosted a madly popular 13-episode PBS series entitled Cosmos that aired in 1980. On the science side, he advised NASA during its most adventurous years, accurately predicted various planetary conditions in the solar system, and influenced a generation of planetary scientists.

The coolest bon mot about him, though, is that he helped design and choose the information imprinted on the gold discs aboard some of our space probes, including the two V’gers, which were both launched more than 30 years ago and are, as I write, about to approach interstellar space. The discs were carefully developed as simple, hopefully universal introductions to humanity for any otherworldlies that might stumble across the ever-hurtling spacecraft millions of years and miles hence. Bad-assery all around.

Of course, despite his cosmic career, Sagan’s biography ends like everyone else’s, with him his particular case in 1996 at the age of 62.

So certainly he needs to be memorialized. Multiple times in multiple ways, probably. And certainly each time he needs to be memorialized in a way that reminds us of the terrifyingly empty vastness to which he dedicated his life. No punch line for that. But the Carl Sagan Memorial Planet Walk is an example of such aptness.

Sagan was a resident of Ithaca, NY, teaching at Cornell University and involving himself in other Sagan-worthy enterprises. So once the Sciencenter [sic], of which Sagan was a board membber [my bad], finished the planet walk the year after his death, dedicating it to Sagan was a no-brainer…or multi-brainer, I guess, considering the way boards work. Then the Sciencenter rested.

The concept of a planet walk is a great one, and used throughout the country, so I don’t know who to give credit to. As a result, I’m giving it to Val Kilmer circa Real Genius. Thanks, Val. In Ithaca’s version, as I mentioned, 11 pillars are set up throughout the town over the course of three quarters of a mile, starting with the sun itself at the downtown pedestrian mall known as the Ithaca Commons and meandering like an pixel-eating Atari viper through the city to end up at the Sciencenter itself and the station dedicated to the sadly but deservedly downgraded dwarf planet Pluto.

The stations are spaced out in that aforementioned ridiculous 1:5 billion scale based on how far away the planets are from the sun. That’s one-five-billionth of its actual size. Holy everything, Batman. As a result, the Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars stations are mere steps away in the same pedestrian mall as the sun station, while the stations for the gas giants and Pluto are blocks away.

Each monolith features information about its planet and is topped by its planetary symbol and a clear circular window in scale to the sun, with the relevant planet set in the Plexiglas to show the size relationship (always tiny). In addition, a phone number with a unique phone code for each planet allows you to call up and listen to Bill Nye the Science Guy, who was apparently once a student of Sagan’s, as he tells you more about the planets in his endearingly gangly way.

Most of the pillars are made of unimpressive-looking concrete and are honestly pretty unnoticeable on their random street corners. Pluto’s station is made of blue granite, but is still pretty plain. However, the station you’re going to want to see is the one for the sun. Like Pluto, it’s carved from ominous, elegant dark blue granite, but the sun station is more massive and decorated. It’s set on a stepped pedestal, inset with a dedication placard to Sagan, sun flames, and a caption, as well as being incised all over with icons such as a V’ger probe and a spiral galaxy, along with seemingly less relevant emblems such as a bat, a cannon, an umbrella, an alarm clock, and others that I’m sure Bill Nye explains at some point.

It looks like it belongs on some desolate alien planet, the last reminder of a long forgotten race, culture, and god. Like maybe a shopping mall map.

Speaking of maps, if you’re a bit weak on knowing your way around the solar system, the Sciencenter provides a pretty helpful map of the walk online. However, what has been inexplicably omitted from the map (just kidding, I’m sure it’s explainable), is that between the monuments for Jupiter and Mars is a station dedicated to asteroids. The station is located here because in the real solar system, that’s where most of the asteroids in the solar system are located, in a belt that acts as the perfect fashion statement to tie the whole solar system ensemble together. Most notably, though, this station features an actual, exposed meteorite (which it explains are pieces of asteroids) that you can touch with only a minimal number of the horrific effects that such artifacts cause in movies. I gotta be honest, a real meteorite feels a whole lot like what a fake meteorite must feel like.

Anyway, starting at the sun and then strolling pleasantly through town until you arrive at Pluto and the Sciencenter while listening to B-B-Bill is what you’re supposed to do, and certainly sounds like a good time.

But here’s how we did it.

We started at Pluto and worked our way backwards, the way any extraterrestrial visitor probably would, and then drove to each station, parking for pictures and neglecting the phone tour. You see, it was cold outside, we were only in Ithaca for a little bit of time, Pluto always seems so far away, and you can only half-ass something since there’s no such phrase as “whole-ass.” I got the spirit of it, though, man. Totally.

And even though I didn’t listen to Bill Nye then, it’s no big deal. I listened to a couple of his tracks just before writing this, from the comfort of my uncomfortable couch. You can, too. His number is 703-637-6237. I’m not sure why it’s a Virginia area code. Don’t tell me if you do know. Or you can get it off iTunes or podcasted at the already-linked Sciencenter homepage. But that’s not as funny as calling him up from your house. If you redial the number, and then hit any number from 1 to 11, you’ll get information about the individual stations.

Another, more classic-style memorial to Carl Sagan can also be found in Ithaca…his gravestone. Which, of course we visited. I might only rarely have access to celebrities in life, but when they die, they’re mine and I can see them when I want.

His grave is in Lakeview Cemetery, which appeared to be kosher ground. Its Eastshore Drive address (almost right beside the impressive Ithaca Falls) takes you to the back entrance where the office is and which is only an exit, so you need to loop around on a perpendicular road, where you’ll find a tiny gate and sign that’s easy to miss. So I guess you might not find it. When we visited, it was locked, but you can circumvent the gate by just walking around it. Most of the cemetery is on the side of a relatively steep slope, and you’ll come out on top of that slope from the gate. Sagan’s grave will be on your right just a few steps down the hill.

His headstone is a little black plaque inset flat into the ground...the opposite of prominent. Behind it, a small loop of chain strung between posts is the closest you’ll get to a landmark, although similar dividers are erected elsewhere in the cemetery. Various-sized and -colored glass marbles were pressed into the soil around his stone, which either represented celestial bodies, was some Jewish tradition I’m unaware of, or was an attempt to grow something pretty cool.

As you can see and as is my usual custom for an author, I brought one of his books with me. He wasn’t signing autographs, though. Maybe next time.

Oh, and if repetition comforts your sweet autistic soul, I set up an online photo album of all 11 planet walk stations.