Carl Sagan (Carl Edward Sagan) was born on Nov. 9, 1934, in Brooklyn, New York. He attended college at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960, at the age of 26.
The Sagan files remind us how exploratory the 1960s and ’70s were, how defiant of official wisdom and mainstream authority, and Sagan was in the middle of the intellectual foment. He was a nuanced referee. He knew UFOs weren’t alien spaceships, for example, but he didn’t want to silence the people who believed they were, and so he helped organize a big UFO symposium in 1969, letting all sides have their say.
Space itself seemed different then. When Sagan came of age, all things concerning space had a tail wind: There was no boundary on our outer-space aspirations. Through telescopes, robotic probes and Apollo astronauts, the universe was revealing itself at an explosive, fireworks-finale pace.
The adult Sagan always sounded like the smartest person in the room, but in the papers we encounter this interesting note in a 1981 file, right after “Cosmos” hit it big: “I think I’m able to explain things because understanding wasn’t entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand. I can remember what I had to do to figure it out. The very brilliant ones figure it out so fast they never see the mechanics of understanding.”
After completing postdoctoral work, he taught at Harvard University. When that school declined to grant Sagan tenure status in 1968, he took a position with Cornell University in New York, serving as the director for the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and the associate director of the Center for Radio Physics and Space Research.
Diagnosed with the rare bone-marrow disease myelodysplasia, Sagan underwent three bone-marrow transplants over the course of his life. Due to complications from the disease, he contracted pneumonia, which led to his death on Dec. 20, 1996, at age 62.
The Key Roles
Carl Sagan played a leading role in the American space program since its inception. He was a consultant and adviser to NASA beginning in the 1950s, he briefed the Apollo astronauts before their flights to the Moon, and was an experimenter on the Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo expeditions to the planets. He helped solve the mysteries of the high temperature of Venus (a massive greenhouse effect), the seasonal changes on Mars (windblown dust) and the reddish haze of Titan (complex organic molecules).
For his work, Dr. Sagan received the NASA Medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service twice, as well as the NASA Apollo Achievement Award.
Asteroid 2709 Sagan is named after him. He was also given the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award of the American Astronautical Society, the Explorers Club 75th Anniversary Award, the Konstantin Tsiolokovsky Medal of the Soviet Cosmonautics Federation, and the Masursky Award of the American Astronomical Society:
“…for his extraordinary contributions to the development of planetary science… As a scientist trained in both astronomy and biology, Dr. Sagan made seminal contributions to the study of planetary atmospheres, planetary surfaces, the history of the Earth, and exobiology. Many of the most productive planetary scientists working today are his present and former students and associates.” He is also the 1994 recipient of the Public Welfare Medal, the highest award of the National Academy of Sciences for “distinguished contributions in the application of science to the public welfare.”
This award reads as follows:
“Carl Sagan has been enormously successful in communicating the wonder and importance of science. His ability to capture the imagination of millions and to explain difficult concepts in understandable terms is a magnificent achievement.”
Dr. Sagan served as Chairman of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, as President of the Planetology Section of the American Geophysical Union, and as Chairman of the Astronomy Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
For 12 years he was Editor in Chief of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. He was the co-founder and first President of The Planetary Society and a Distinguished Visiting Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.
A Pulitzer Prize winner, Dr. Sagan was the author of many bestsellers, including Cosmos, which became the best-selling science book ever published in the English language. The accompanying Emmy and Peabody award-winning television series has been seen by 500 million people in 60 countries. He received 20 honorary degrees from American colleges and universities for his contributions to science, literature, education, and the preservation of the environment.
At the time of his death on December 20, 1996, he served as the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. Dr. Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark was released by Random House in March 1996. A collection of writings called Billions and Billions was published posthumously. He was co-producer and co-writer of the acclaimed Warner Brothers movie Contact, based on his novel.
Notable Carl Sagan quotes and excerpts from his books
“Advances in medicine and agriculture have saved vastly more lives than have been lost in all the wars in history.” — “The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark” (Ballantine Books, 1997)
“The significance of a finding that there are other beings who share this universe with us would be absolutely phenomenal. It would be an epochal event in human history.” — Quoted in CNN obituary, December 20, 1996
“At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes — an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.” — “The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark” (Ballantine Books, 1997)
“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.” — Interview in the magazine Psychology Today (January 1996)
“For myself, I like a universe that includes much that is unknown and, at the same time, much that is knowable. A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull, as boring as the heaven of some weak-minded theologians. A universe that is unknowable is no fit place for a thinking being. The ideal universe for us is one very much like the universe we inhabit. And I would guess that this is not really much of a coincidence.” — “Can We Know the Universe?” in M. Gardner (ed.), “The Sacred Beetle and Other Great Essays in Science” (Plume, 1986)
“In a lot of scientists, the ratio of wonder to skepticism declines in time. That may be connected with the fact that in some fields — mathematics, physics, some others — the great discoveries are almost entirely made by youngsters.” — Interview in the magazine Psychology Today (January 1996).
“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.” — “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” (Ballantine Books, 1997)
“It is the responsibility of scientists never to suppress knowledge, no matter how awkward that knowledge is, no matter how it may bother those in power; we are not smart enough to decide which pieces of knowledge are permissible and which are not.” — Quoted in Lily Splane’s “Quantum Consciousness” (Anaphase II Publishing, 2004)
“It is the tension between creativity and skepticism that has produced the stunning and unexpected findings of science.” — “Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science” (Ballantine Books, 1986)
“Our passion for learning … is our tool for survival.” — “Cosmos” (Random House, 1985)
“The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.” — “The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark” (Ballantine Books, 1997)
“The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” — “Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science” (Ballantine Books, 1986)
“If the dinosaurs had had a space program, they would not be extinct.” — Quoted by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin in a NASA press release
“The job is by no means done. We will look for the boundary between the solar system and the interstellar medium, and then we’ll voyage on forever in the dark between the stars.” — Quoted in CNN obituary, December 20, 1996
Sagan readily acknowledged that he did not have evidence of extraterrestrial life, much less intelligence. It is a measure of his devotion to scientific reason that he was willing to admit, to the end of his days, that he still didn’t have the goods, that he still hadn’t found what he’d been looking for.
“When we explore other worlds, what once seemed the only way a planet could be turns out to be somewhere in the middle range of a vast spectrum of possibilities…” – Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.
- Carl Edward Sagan Biography and Profile (Space / Planetary / Smithsonian)