A retrospective: Carl Sagan

Carl Edward Sagan, was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934, in a region called Bensonhurst. His family practised liberal Judaism which is on the verge of secular humanism, that’s abandoned many traditional Jewish beliefs to bring Judaism in line with the modern world. His father was a Ukrainian immigrant and his mother was a native New Yorker.

Even from a young age, Carl was incredibly inquisitive and had obvious intellectual abilities, which became evident in later life. He studied at the University of Chicago, and here he earned himself a Bachelors and Master’s degree in physics, and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics. Once he’d gained his qualifications he got himself a job at Harvard University (America’s most prestigious University) and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Washington, D.C. Here his main focus was the study of atmosphere of other planets and his interest in SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and he furthered the studies of Miller-Urey, which involved amino acids (the building blocks of life) being created by a mixture of chemicals and radiation.

“Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?” – Carl Sagan

In 1968 he became director of Cornell’s Laboratory, and he was an advisor to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) since its inception in 1958, when it went through the transition from NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). In 1971, as a professor, he worked with NASA on the Viking probes which were sent to Mars, and he mission briefed astronauts on the Apollo missions. In 1972 he became associate director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research (CRSR).

In 1969 he wrote an essay under the pseudonymMr. X’ where he advocated the use of marijuana, and its positive effects, especially with the terminally ill.

“Is it rational to forbid patients who are dying from taking marijuana as a palliative to permit them to gain body weight and to get some food down? It seems madness to say, ‘We’re worried that they’re going to become addicted to marijuana.’ There’s no evidence whatever that it’s an addictive drug, but even if it were, these people are dying,” – Carl Sagan

It was only after his death that it became known that he was indeed ‘Mr. X. The advocation of legalising marijuana wasn’t his only public support, as he was a strong voice in the mission to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

His scientific research and achievements made him one of the most famous people in America, and his TV show ‘Cosmos‘ is the most viewed American TV show in history, and it was revived in 2014 by Neil Degrasse Tyson, who incidentally was mentored by Sagan. Sagan was the first to suggest that Jupiter’s moon Europa may have sub surface water that was later confirmed by NASA’s Galileo, and this led him to be convinced that it was perhaps inhabitable and fuelled his suggestion that there MUST be other life in the universe.

“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” – Carl Sagan

He also suggested that Venus was a hot planet, and due to its atmosphere, it created a hostile greenhouse effect, and Earth’s global warming was a threat we should take incredibly seriously or it could end up with the same fate.

“Sagan was chief technology officer of the professional planetary research journal Icarus for 12 years. He co-founded The Planetary Society and was a member of the SETI Institute Board of Trustees. Sagan served as Chairman of the Division for Planetary Science 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 (AAAS).” – Source

As well as Sagan doing influential research into astrobiology, in the 70s and 80s he popularised astronomy like no one before him, and he was the first scientist to make science ‘cool‘, which is something that professor Brian Cox has taken lessons from. Like Cox, Sagan’s mission was to take science to the public in a way that they could understand, and through his writing, popularity on talk shows, and co-founding of the non-profit Planetary Society, that focuses on space exploration, he succeeded in making America and other countries interested in science and the cosmos. Cosmos was not only a hugely successful TV show, but it was also a best-selling book that Sagan created with his wife, Ann Druyan.

“Much of the funding for science came from the public, and the public therefore had the right to know how the money was being spent. If scientists increased public admiration for science, there was a good chance of having more public supporters.” – Source

Sadly, Carl died at the age of 62, due to complications of a rare bone-marrow disease he was suffering from. His legacy and inspiration will live on indefinitely, and his contribution to science will never be forgotten. He was a renowned astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author and philosopher. He contributed over six hundred scientific papers and was involved in either writing or editing over twenty books.

“We are the representatives of the cosmos; we are an example of what hydrogen atoms can do, given 15 billion years of cosmic evolution.” – Carl Sagan