Carl Sagan was an astronomer, educator, and author. Perhaps unlike any other noted figure in science, Sagan helped a lay public understand the concepts of astrophysics and the mysteries of the universe in a down-to-earth, personable fashion. At the same time, his views on topics such as nuclear weaponry and religion were quite controversial.
In addition to being an astronomer and a professor at Cornell University, Sagan was also involved in the US Space Program. He briefed the Apollo astronauts before their flights to the moon and contributed to experiments on the Mariner, Voyager, Galileo, and Viking unmanned missions.
He determined that Venus experienced a massive greenhouse effect, which explains the planet’s extremely high temperatures. He also found that seasonal changes on Mars were attributed to dust storms and that Saturn’s moon Titan contains complex organic molecules that cause its reddish color. He initiated the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project involving a massive array of radio telescopes aimed at the heavens. His work in planetary science resulted in a Masusky Award from the American Astronomical Society. In fact, many prominent planetary scientists today were either students or associates of Sagan.
Sagan also wrote many bestselling books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dragons of Eden: Speculations and Origins of the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Cosmos, and even a science fiction novel entitled Contact. Cosmos is by far Carl Sagan’s best-known work. The book was made into a television miniseries, and it is estimated that half a billion people in 60 countries have viewed the program. Cosmos received both an Emmy and Peabody award. Contact was also made into a major motion picture starring Jodie Foster.
Born Carl Edward Sagan on November 9, 1934 in New York City, his fascination with the stars began during boyhood. He studied Astronomy at the University of Chicago and eventually earned his doctorate there in 1960. Sagan held many positions at different prestigious universities before becoming director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and David Duncan Professor of Space Science and Astronomy at Cornell University in 1970.
The height of Carl Sagan’s popularity was realized during the decade of the 1980s after Cosmos was first published and then produced for television. In 1983, another popular television miniseries entitled The Day After depicted the devastating effects of nuclear war. At the end of this show, a group of scientists, including Sagan, described what would happen following such a catastrophe, and the term Nuclear Winter was born. This helped to change the minds of many who previously favored the increase of nuclear weapon stockpiles.
Sagan continued to be a very busy man until his death on December 20, 1996 of pneumonia brought on by an unusual bone marrow disease that was a precursor to leukemia. He was just 62 years old. His accomplishments in space and planetary science, as well as his pleasant and oftentimes humorous personality, will be remembered for ages to come.