Stephen Ramsden on Carl Sagan

Posted by David Eicher
on Monday, July 01, 2013

Dr. Robert Boxer and the 1981 summer science camp in Georgia: Stephen Ramsden is standing in the back row, 4th from the left. // Credit: Stephen Ramsden
My recent story in Astronomy magazine and blogs on Carl Sagan have unleashed a volley of folks contacting me about their thoughts and memories of Carl. Here is one such submission, from Stephen Ramsden, who operates the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project. Stephen is a fixture at amateur astronomy events and also drew his early inspiration from Sagan. So I present a guest blog from Stephen:

“I was a run-of-the-mill student at one of Atlanta’s worst high schools in the late ’70s. My science teacher, Bobby Jaber, noticed one day as I was reading the chemical bottle labels on his shelf out loud to myself that I had an interest in science. He immediately focused me on to learning Earth sciences, astronomy, and physics, which I absolutely loved and seemed to naturally excel in, much to everyone’s surprise!

Mr. Jaber had me enter a National Science Foundation essay contest to win attendance at a four-week summer science camp at Georgia Southern University in 1981. I was extraordinarily fortunate to win a seat at this camp and was sent off as an awkward 10th grader to this college for my first away from home trip. Dr. Robert Boxer ran the camp on his own time during the summer semester and had us doing chemistry, astronomy, and computer science. One day during this camp, a man with jet black hair and a soft spoken voice walked in to the chemistry class and introduced himself as Carl Sagan. He told us all that we were going to study computer science on a new style of personal computer, a Commodore 64! We were all very excited, although I had no idea who he was. I was just looking forward to getting my hands on this advanced computer with its cassette tape storage. Dr. Sagan had given up this time in his summer right after the release of the Cosmos TV series to come down to south Georgia to teach a bunch of little kids about computers.  

Long story short, he went right to business, no bragging about his accomplishments, no ‘professor’ stuff. Just straight-up teaching and inspiration for us to become all that we could. We had a contest at the end of the class to see who could write the best BASIC language computer program. I remember every “GOTO” and “IF, THEN” line of code like it was yesterday. I wrote what I thought was the best video game ever made that summer. It generated a random number between 1 and 10 and then had the user try and guess it. If you got it right, it shot off a little pixelated firework and immediately started over. It was awesome!

I won the contest and was presented a copy of Cosmos signed by Dr. Sagan himself. No photos, no ceremony, just him and me and a handshake and congratulations. I was on top of the world. My outlook on my future completely changed that summer because of Dr. Boxer and Dr. Sagan’s encouragement. I felt like I could do something with my life, and I just knew I would be living on Mars by the time I got out of college. I signed up for the U.S. Navy after high school and went into its nuclear physics program as there was no way that my family or I could afford college. After a brief stint in the military, I  went to college and was certain I would be an astrophysicist, just like Carl Sagan.  

Alas, life intervened and I got distracted for a few years and became an air traffic controller. The money was good, and I spent a few years accumulating stuff and being self-absorbed.  

In the early 2000s, a very close friend killed himself, and my mother died suddenly from brain cancer. I took a look around me at my expensive home and fancy cars. I became completely disgusted with myself for all the materialism that my life displayed and decided to take stock of my life and where it was going. The very first thing I looked back on was that summer with Dr. Sagan and Dr. Boxer at Georgia Southern and all the dreams I had then. Being in my 40s really gave me a new perspective on how much this event altered my existence, so I decided to dedicate all of my resources, time, and energy to making this same thing happen for other young students.

I spent my retirement savings on state-of-the-art solar viewing equipment and began setting up my stuff at local parks. Living in Georgia, where we still have a 35 percent high school dropout rate, there was no shortage of willing schools, and I soon found myself going to two schools per week on my days off from air traffic controlling to deliver the awesome science of our Sun to anyone who would listen. I started the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project in 2008 as a nonprofit entity and have been doing two solar astronomy events per week for almost six years. I just completed my 400th event and administered the program to the 400,000th student, and as I am writing this, I am about to leave for a local library to do another event. I feel that I owe so much to these men who sacrificed their time to introduce me to science that I can never repay them. I can only try my best to continue their spirit of freely sharing science with people who would otherwise never be exposed to it. My outreach program requires lots of hard work and all of my resources to keep it going, but like many will say, the smile on a kids face as he/she begins to understand the vastness of our universe and the magical mysteries that lie before us is worth everything you have to do to make it happen. It’s really inspiring.  

The more I read of Dr. Sagan’s life and his works, the more I understand all the things he had to say about amateur astronomers, the government, life in general, and our fragile place in the cosmos. Dave, your writeup in the July issue of Astronomy magazine about your personal experiences with Carl Sagan really put into words the immense respect I have for him and the incredible transformation his willingness to share his passion with me and millions of others had on my life. David J. Eicher, I thank you for publishing this article, and Dr. Sagan, I salute you and hope that I can do a small fraction of the good you have done for society. We desperately need it.”

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