Carl Sagan was a multifaceted scientist who left his mark in astronomy, astrophysics, Extra-Terrestrial Science, the space and natural sciences and cosmology. Sagan wrote several scientific papers and popular articles and edited many books. Sagan introduced ‘sceptical inquiry’ and the ‘scientific ‘method in his studies. Sagan’s works became popular and he became renowned worldwide as he had narrated and co-written the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Another novel written by him, ‘Contact’ was adapted into the 1997 film of the same name. Carl Sagan had been instrumental in reaching science to the masses. He was a great communicator and popularized science brilliantly. Sagan’s scientific studies formed the base for the discovery of planet Venus’s high surface temperatures. Carl was a visiting scientist to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory where his major contribution remains with the ‘Mariner program’ for Venus where Carl played an integral role in the design and management of the project.
Carl Sagan Childhood
Carl Sagan was born on 9 November 1934 in Brooklyn, New York to Russian Jewish parents. Carl’s father Sam Sagan, was a Russian immigrant garment worker while his mother Rachel Molly Gruber was a housewife. Carl got his name in honour of his mother Rachel's biological mother, Chaiya Clara whom Carl referred to as “the mother she never knew”.
Sagan received his graduation from Rahway High School in Rahway, New Jersey, in 1951. Sagan’s family lived a modest life in a mediocre apartment near the Atlantic Ocean, in Bensonhurst which was in the Brooklyn neighbourhood. Sagan family were reformed Jews who were considered the most liberal of the three main Jewish groups. According to Sagan and his sister’s accounts Sagan’s father was not a very religious person whereas their mother was a pious lady spending her time in Godly things and temple visits. The family witnessed the Great Depression during which Sagan’s father took up a job as a theatre usher.
Sagan got a very difficult and different upbringing full of inner turmoil as his parents were different in their approaches and beliefs. According to Sagan his parents did not in any way represent or initiate scientific interest in him but his curious nature, scepticism and wonder (that helped him in his later scientific quests and formation of scientific methods) were inculcated in him due to his parents’ influences and upbringing. It was in 1939 New York World's Fair where Sagan’s parents had taken Sagan when he was a young boy of 4 or 5. Sagan accounts the visit to the fair as one of his best experiences as a child. The exhibits are believed to have changed Sagan’s life completely. His parents grew his interest in science by buying him chemistry sets and reading materials. Since childhood, Sagan had remained deeply interested in space. He extensively read science fiction stories by writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs which brought him into the imaginary world of life on other planets, such as Mars.
Sagan was a genius to have educated himself in all the fields of arts, science and science specializations. He enrolled himself in the University of Chicago from where he earned his bachelor of arts with general and special honors in 1954, a bachelor of science in 1955, and a master of science in physics in 1956. Sagan went on to receive his doctor of philosophy in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960. While in his graduating days, Sagan actively participated in the Ryerson Astronomical Society at the university. Sagan had worked in the laboratory of the geneticist H. J. Muller while he was an undergraduate. Sagan remained a Miller Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley from 1960 to 1962.
Sagan started his career working at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts from 1962 to 1968. Sagan continued with his research and gave lectures at Harvard University until 1968. It was after this that he moved his base to Cornell University in New York where he was appointed as the full time professor 1971. He was in Cornell when he started to direct the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. Sagan turned the Associate Director of the Center for Radio Physics and Space Research at Cornell which he served from 1972 to 1981.
The American Space Program is proudly indebted to Sagan for its birth. Sagan was a key figure from the start of the American space program. He had started working as an advisor to NASA from the 1950s itself. Sagan had the role of briefing the Apollo astronauts before their flights took off for moon. Sagan was integral in designing and taking part in various robotic spacecraft missions exploring the solar system. Sagan contributed on several experiments on many of the expeditions. He created and conceived the idea of formulating an universal message, on spacecraft destined that was leaving the solar system which could possibly be understood by any extraterrestrial intelligence who might find the spacecraft.
Sagan was the initiator behind the first successful physical message that was sent into space - a gold-anodized plaque, attached to the space probe Pioneer 10, which was launched in 1972. Sagan continued with his designs of scripted messages sent along with the spacecrafts. He became successful in 1977 when he developed an elaborate message and helped in assembling the Voyager Golden Record that was sent out with the Voyager space probes in the same year.
Sagan had been vocal about the decisions to fund the Space Shuttle and Space Station which he felt were unnecessary as he felt further robotic missions held more importance and relevance. He taught at Cornell University where he had a course on critical thinking which he taught till he died in 1996 from pneumonia.
Scientific Ideas, Achievements and Contributions
Sagan believed in the existence of high temperatures on the surface of the planet Venus. Even till the early 1960s no one was sure about Venus’s basic surface conditions. With Sagan’s massive contributions it was discovered that planet Venus had very high surface temperatures. Sagan submitted his report on the possibilities which later depicted for popularization in a Time-Life book, ‘Planets’. Sagan extensively investigated and recorded radio emissions from Venus and concluded that there was a surface temperature of 500 °C (900 °F) which confirmed his previous belief that Venus was dry and very hot contradicting the existing belief that the temperature was pleasant. Being the visiting scientist to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Sagan played a leading role in the first Mariner missions to Venus in which he took part in the design and management of the project. It was in 1962 that Mariner 2 confirmed Sagan’s conclusions on Venus’s surface conditions.
Sagan studied on Mars and its surface colour variations. Sagan noticed and recorded that the changes were not due to seasonal or vegetation changes as widely believed but was the result of shifts in surface dust caused by windstorms.
On 16 November 1974 Sagan helped Dr. Frank Drake write a radio message, Arecibo message which was sent into the space from the Arecibo radio telescope. The message was targeted at informing extraterrestrials about the existence of Earth.
Sagan was a great Science Communicator as he splendidly conveyed his ideas which made people easily understand the cosmos and the worth of the human race. Sagan explained how earth was unimportant in entity when compared with the vast universe. In 1977 Sagan gave his series of speeches ‘Royal Institution Christmas Lectures’ in London. Sagan became the host, co-writer and co-producer with Ann Druyan to present the thirteen-part PBS television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage modeled on Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man” which went on to become very popular.
Sagan became widely popular for his studies and extensive researches on his theories and records confirming the existence of extraterrestrial life. Sagan’s studies include experimental demonstration of the production of amino acids from basic chemicals by radiation. He was the proponent of scientific communities working on ET (the Extraterrestrial). Sagan approached and requested the scientific community to intently listen and record signals from intelligent extraterrestrial life-forms with the help of radio telescopes. It was in 1982 that Sagan’s ET quest took brilliant shape as he got to form a petition which was affirmed and signed by 70 scientists advocating SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) published in the journal Science. These scientists included seven Nobel Prize winners. This was a great achievement for Sagan. His field of study was considered controversial and with such massive response Sagan got to rise high.
Sagan received the Public Welfare Medal which is considered the highest award of the National Academy of Sciences in 1994 for his “distinguished contributions in the application of science to the public welfare” according to the Academy. Sagan was excluded from the Academy’s list of members for his growing media activities that made him unpopular with many other scientists.
Sagan served as the chief technology officer of the professional planetary research journal ‘Icarus’ for twelve years. He was the co-founder of ‘Planetary Society’ which was regarded as the largest space-interest group in the world boasting of more than 100,000 members in 149 countries and above. Sagan was also a member of the SETI Institute Board of Trustees. Sagan was the Chairman of the Division for Planetary Science of the American Astronomical Society and the President of the Planetology Section, American Geophysical Union. Sagan also served as the Chairman of the Astronomy Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In January 1991 Sagan stated that huge amount of smoke emitted from 1991 Kuwaiti oil fires “might get so high as to disrupt agriculture in much of South Asia…” However, Sagan’s prediction did not come true, but in 2007 it was found (through a study) that smoke from fires that covered large areas, like forest fires or burning of cities which are usually expected to follow a nuclear strike, would most likely loft significant amounts of smoke into the stratosphere.
Sagan had studied to find Earth objects that might impact the Earth. Sagan had become popular for his frequent appearances on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ for his role in ‘Cosmos’. Sagan was associated with the catch phrase “billions and billions” which he had denied of using, but he talked of “billions upon billions” in his book ‘Cosmos’. By billions on billions Sagan allegedly referred to the large cosmic quantities present in the universe which are the cause of wonder and the vastness arouses amazement.
Sagan married biologist Lynn Margulis in 1957. His second marriage was with artist Linda Salzman in 1968. Sagan got married to author Ann Druyan in 1981. Isaac Asmimov had described Sagan as the only person having an intellect much higher than Asimov’s. Sagan criticised religion but denied being an atheist. He often replied to questions about his religious beliefs with “I'm agnostic”.
Sagan had won several awards and honours throughout his life. Some of the notable ones are listed here:
Miller Research Fellowship – Miller Institute (1960–1962)
Klumpke-Roberts Award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific – 1974
Annual Award for Television Excellence – The Ohio State University for PBS series ‘Cosmos’ - 1981
Hugo Award for ‘Cosmos’ – 1981
Isaac Asimov Award – Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal – 1994
John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award – American Astronautical Society
NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal – National Aeronautics and Space Administration (twice)
SF Chronicle Award for ‘Contact’ – 1998
Sagan suffered from myelodysplasia (a blood disease) for a long time. His suffering included three bone marrow transplants. Sagan died 20 December 1996 after suffering from pneumonia at the age of 62. He breathed his last at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington after which he was buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Ithaca, New York.