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Dedication of the Alpha Centauri of the Sagan Planet Walk

‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, University of Hawai’I, Hilo, HI
September 28, 2012

Remarks by Charlie Trautmann


It is with joy and a spirit of friendship that I bring greetings to ‘Imiloa and to all people of the State of Hawaii from the board, staff, and members of the Sciencenter, Cornell University, NASA, and Ann Druyan, wife and collaborator of the late Carl Sagan.

This project has been a dream for 15 years since the Sagan Planet Walk first opened in 1997, and we are excited to be here today to dedicate what is now one of the most unique exhibitions the world has ever known.

It is now also the largest exhibition in the world, stretching 8,000 km from end to end, or nearly one quarter of the way around the globe.

Many Sciencenter members were eager to express the bonds that they now feel with all of you.  During a recent members’ night, we gave them note cards, and here is a sample of the messages they asked me to share with all of you:

  • Aloha!  I hope you can come to Ithaca, NY someday to complete the Sagan Planet Walk
  • I am so excited that a new station is opening in Hawaii!  I can’t wait to see it in person
  • Thank you for being a part of this amazing exhibit. It’s so informative and to extend that display of knowledge 8,000 km away is great.  Maybe we’ll be your Alpha Centauri…
  • We are so excited for your exhibit station.  We’re telling everyone to get to Hilo to see it – Congratulations
  • Hello!  Tomorrow is the first day of autumn here. It is supposed to rain.  Dreaming of ocean beaches.  Perhaps we’ll cross paths someday. Enjoy Alpha Centauri and come see Planet Earth soon
  • Aloha, Ohana!  Have a great time discovering Science! 

So why are we all here? And what are we celebrating? We’re here to celebrate two things:

  • First, the legacy that lives on today of fearless, visionary men and women who discovered, explored, and settled a thousand islands all over the Pacific Ocean using non-instrumental way-finding methods that they developed using the time-tested tools of science: making keen observations, creating hypotheses, testing them through experiments, and sorting out what worked by using basic logic. When you think about it, we all do science exactly the same way today, do we?
  • Second, we are here to celebrate the power of science, and astronomy in particular, in helping us to grasp the scale of the universe and our place within it.

Imagine the generations to come who will stand here, next to Rocky’s artistry, looking east and imagining, as we now imagine, that 8,000 km away in the middle of New York is a tiny pale blue dot only 2.5 mm in diameter that represents the scaled size of the Earth at the correct scaled distance from Alpha Centauri.

It’s incredible – within a mere 1,200 meters of the Sun station in downtown Ithaca lie all the planets and asteroids. Still within Ithaca lies the mysterious Kuiper belt. Beyond that is the Oort Cloud, with bits of icy water, ammonia, and methane, extending perhaps one quarter of the way to Alpha Centauri. Let’s say Omaha, in our model. And between Omaha and here is not much else, just vast, unimaginably huge distances, cold, dark, and utterly empty.

So what’s the greater significance of this exhibition?

You are standing at one end of the largest exhibition on the planet.  Developed by two of the finest small science museums in the world, it is dedicated to the stewardship of our lands and oceans and the spirit of discovery. It builds on the proud history of voyaging using non-instrumental way-finding to inspire future exploration of worlds at scales we may find hard to imagine, whether at the galactic scale of billions of light years of distance and billions of years of time, or at the tiny scale of the nanometer or nanosecond.

Equally important, the Sagan Planet Walk creates a virtual connection between two cities, Hilo and Ithaca, who share much in common. Both have world class universities, the University of Hawaii and Cornell University.  Both have a strong connection with the skies through world-class astronomy and to the power of water through majestic waterfalls and experience and research on tsunamis. Both value cultural opportunities for their residents and visitors and sport excellent museums. 

And now, we are both STARS! - the Sun and Alpha Centauri - in this fantastic model of the solar system called the Sagan Planet Walk.

So as the next step in the connection of our two museums and two cities by this exhibition, I offer this token in my hand, called a “geocoin.” Each geocoin is given a mission – this one’s designated mission is to make the trip from here at ‘Imiloa to Ithaca.

In a few minutes, I will be placing this geocoin in a small box called a “geocache” that is located just a few hundred meters from where we are now standing.  Each geocoin has a unique 6-letter code, and each time it is moved to another location, its new location can be entered into an online database for anyone to track. 

We will be looking frequently to see how long it takes this geocoin to get back to Ithaca, at which point we will give it a new mission, perhaps to return back to ‘Imiloa.  Anyone can trace its progress by logging into and entering the code SGCFRY.

Many people helped to make this project possible, and from our end, I’d like to express our gratitude to the following:

  • Yervant Terzian, Professor of Astronomy at Cornell and director of the NASA/New York Space Grant Consortium.
  • Janet Huie, Project Manager on the Sciencenter staff
  • Emily Maletz, Graphic Designer for the beautiful panels you see here
  • Ali Jackson, Design Advisor on the Sciencenter staff
  • Erin Caruth, Designer for the original Sagan Planet Walk exhibition in 1997
  • Jim Bell, Professor of Astronomy at Arizona State University (formerly at Cornell), Technical Advisor for the original Sagan Planet Walk exhibition
  • Bob Orrange, Sciencenter Trustee and Project Manager during the creation of the original Sagan Planet Walk exhibition
  • Bill Nye, The Science Guy, Cornell Class of ’77 who narrated our cell phone audio tour
  • Sean Whittaker, President of INCODEMA, the Ithaca-based high-tech fabrication firm that donated materials and fabrication for the panel stands
  • Ann Druyan, Cosmos Studios, who was a steadfast advocate for this project, writing the Passport to the Solar System exhibition guide and sponsoring the Sun station.

The world and all of science lost a great friend and advocate when Carl Sagan died in December of 1996. He transformed the way the entire world views science. No longer would science be considered an arcane body of facts to be memorized and regurgitated. Carl instead inspired us to think about science as an adventure in learning, a way of comprehending the world, by showing us awe-inspiring examples from all fields of science and then weaving them together in a tapestry that showed us how they relate to each other and to us. Science became a process for leaning about the world that all of us could participate in.

Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s wife and collaborator of more than two decades, has expanded this notion herself through her visionary work in communicating the awe and majestic beauty of science. At this very moment, she is completing a 30th anniversary re-make of the Cosmos series for which Carl Sagan became so well known.

We connected earlier this week, and she asked me to send you all a heartfelt Aloha! and share with you the following words:

One of the first long voyages Carl and I ever made together was to the Big Island. Over the course of our twenty years, we returned countless times, and always found inspiration in its beauty. How fitting that our chosen hometown of Ithaca and the Big Island are now linked forever in what today becomes a truly global Planet Walk. This work of cosmic conceptual art is a perpetual teaching moment. It honors Carl by doing one of the many things he did so brilliantly -- Communicating with poetry and clarity a central revelation of the scientific perspective -- It declares that while the distances between us and the outermost worlds of our solar system may seem vast to us, they are nothing when compared to the distance between us and even the nearest star. We are very small creatures inhabiting a cosmos of space and time vast beyond our powers of comprehension. Now, thanks to everyone involved in creating the Planet Walk, people in Ithaca will be mindful of those at 'Imiloa, and you will think of us -- bound together in wonder at our hard-won knowledge of the Cosmos, and, as I know Carl would have wanted, united in concern for our fragile home, the pale blue dot.

Thank you from my heart,

And so, in the spirit of respect for our lands and oceans that inspired both Carl Sagan, the scientist, and Rocky Jensen, the sculptor, let us always remember how fragile the place that we occupy in the Cosmos really is. And let us set an example, through our actions, that inspires the next generation to respect their environment and leave the earth just a little better than they found it.