I loved Carl Sagan; his enthusiasm for science was more infectious than gastroenteritis at a daycare. I didn't start watching Cosmos till high school when my local public television station rebroadcast the episodes and my first comment was "THAT's who Carl Sagan is!"
He'd been part of the household lore, you see.
Everywhere we'd ever lived, we kept a Jim Beam bottle first on top of the refrigerator then on top of the china cupboard. Although that’s a very common place for spirits we kept the drinking booze in the cupboard: this bottle was filled with water from the Caribbean as a souvenir from my mother’s trip to Jamaica. I was the other souvenir; my mother was adamant about the fact that I was conceived when she went on that research trip with my father.
After quitting medical school but before becoming an auto mechanic my father got a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Oklahoma. His thesis had something to do with coral; he took several trips to Jamaica to gather data. The trip on which my mother tagged along involved taking a dive boat out all day for him to snorkel while she read. As she tells the story, one morning at the dock another individual wanted to tag along. A young very eager grad student in full wetsuit with his own scuba gear…who was interested in learning about primitive life in the ocean because it might be germane to the development of primitive life on other planets.
In addition to the diving, this fellow was interested in the book my mother was reading—some fairly heavy anthropology as I recall. She mentioned the title every time the story was told but I can’t remember it. Anyhow, he was so enchanted with the book he asked to borrow it for the night, read it that night and returned it to her the following day along with much animated discussion.
By now you will have deduced that the young man in question was Carl Sagan and you would be correct…but only partially. The point of this oft-told story was not just that my mother had met Carl Sagan but had met him "when he was still Carl Say-GAHN." Yes, accent on the last syllable. My mother would then go on to explain that he was "really Carl Say-GAHN but Johnny Carson botched his name on the Tonight Show and that’s why it’s been ‘SAY-gan’ ever since." She occasionally further opined that "it must have been short for ‘Saganovitch'" again with the accent on the "gahn" part.
That story was part of the family lore I’d heard since birth and wasn’t even the strangest thing in current circulation at the time so I never thought to challenge it…till I started watching Cosmos regularly. It was hard not to notice that Our Protagonist referred to himself not as "Carl Say-GAHN" but as "Carl SAY-gan." My mother didn’t take it at all well when I pointed out that fact and insisted that the good Dr. Sagan had just "given up" getting anyone to pronounce his name properly after the Johnny Carson incident(s).
Naturally that put the legitimacy of the entire story into question.
Once I was an adult living on my own, I read just about everything written by or about Carl Sagan. I also read an essay one afternoon that caused me to think "wow, this guy gets excited about weed the same way Carl Sagan gets excited about the universe" which gave me a huge laugh a few years later when "Mr. X" was posthumously outed. Nowhere was there any reference to any pronunciation of his name other than the one upon which we all, including the man himself, agreed. I couldn’t find any proof he’d been to Jamaica in January of 1966 either, but neither did I find proof he hadn’t.
None of which changes how wonderful his enthusiasm for science was nor how much I enjoyed that enthusiasm. He was an atheist as I am so instead of requiscat in pace I will close with "you are missed but your works and dreams live on."
Now go read something about what he really did.