It will be nineteen years, this coming Sunday, the 20th of December since we lost the great Carl Sagan. We are approaching two decades since his loss.
He was born November 9, 1934, in Brooklyn New York.
Even at an early age, he exhibited a keen interest and curiosity about the stars and planets, and science fiction stories of the day.
His parents both played a deep role in the makeup of his personality. They encouraged his budding interest. He was close to both parents, who were quite the opposites. A sister, Carol would follow.
His father Sam, an immigrant from what is now the Ukraine, came to the US, becoming a worker in the garment factories of New York. He was a Reform Jew, but in name only, while his mother Rachel was more traditional with her beliefs.
I wanted to write a piece on him, and the profound effect he has had on my life, and my way of thinking and seeing the world, and offer some personal reflections.
He died after several years of struggling with the disease myelodysplasia, a disease of the blood. He had several marrow transplants, which turned out to be unsuccessful. He died of pneumonia on December 20, 1996.
He is perhaps best known for his hugely successful, 1980 Peabody and Emmy award winning PBS series, “Cosmos”, an adaption of his popular book.
In addition to writing,” Cosmos”, he wrote other acclaimed non-fiction and fiction books, including, “Contact”, which was later adapted into a film, starring Jodie Foster.
He won the Pulitzer prize in 1978, for general nonfiction, for his book,”Dragons Of Eden”. He was also the recipient of multiple Hugo Awards.
His achievements and contributions are many. In his early career, he did much ground breaking work on the greenhouse effect on the planet Venus. Also at NASA’s, JPL, he was very much involved with both the Mariner probes and later the Viking probes to Mars. He also contributed to the NASA’s, Apollo program.
From his work, he was one of the first to suggest that Titan, the moon of Saturn, and Europa, the moon of Jupiter could contain oceans. He concluded that the reddish haze on Titan was due to complex organic molecules raining down on its surface. He also suggested that there could be life forms in Jupiter’s clouds. He suggested seasonal changes on Mars were due to dust storms and offered insights on atmospheric changes on Venus and Jupiter.
He started his career at the University of Chicago, moving on to the University of California at Berkeley, on to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Cambridge. For a short time, he did research and lectured at Harvard. He became a professor at Cornell in 1971 and directed the laboratory for planetary studies.
He was later co-founder of the Planetary Society and a supporter and advocate of SETI. He contributed to many other science journals and organizations and was a prolific publisher of many scientific papers.
He achieved mainstream popularity with the airing of, “Cosmos”. From the opening credits to the score by Vangelis, it was a popular and critical success. Capturing an audience, and a generation with its brilliance of presentation, the wide variety of subject matter, and the passionate and enthusiastic presentation by Carl. It was poetic and epic. The series propelled him to fame and brought him to the attention of millions of viewers who watched with wonder and awe. His love of science and curious and questioning nature were infectious to those with open minds, and imagination. They wanted to take that journey with him. when they looked up at the night skies and observed the stars, they felt certain that there was more up there.
It is a testament to Carl, that the show still maintains its beloved status, even though it has been over 35 years since its original broadcast. It is still being rediscovered by newer generations. It is a stirring journey that never ages, the words and images resonate even more so today. The series was not just about the cosmos, but a history of ourselves, our past and our future.
The series inspired many to enter various fields of science. The impact of the show can not be denied on our culture. It made the viewer feel an intimacy with the host and the subject. To me, it was an epiphany. He was one of the first to bring climate change to the attention of a wide audience, and also the threat of nuclear war. He was a visionary, and prophetic.
He would be disappointed by the fact that we are still eager to kill one another. He pointed out that we have much more in common; that the differences were largely political and religious. He pleaded that we must work together to solve the problems and overcome our differences.
He met with some criticism for his views on politics, religion and even his own science from some of his scientific colleagues. He warned against climate change years before it became a common topic. He was concerned with the direction we might take, and how our attitudes were shaped and formed for us by people that did not have our best interests at heart.
Carl awakened a yearning that we have, that is deeply instilled in us, to feel connected, to feel we are a part of something larger. Most people find this feeling in religion, and in the concept of a deity. He did not suggest that those beliefs should be abandoned, but should be questioned, and the claims be held up to scrutiny and experiment.
He knew that religious and political dogma were responsible for some of the most heinous acts committed by humans against other humans. Of course, that made many people nervous. They struggled to find meaning and purpose, they did not question or doubt what for so long had been a sacred truth. They accepted what was comfortable and easy, they did not want to be disappointed by the truth. They wanted so desperately to be reassured, that there was something more. For so long they held the view that there was more to life and death than just life and death.
His skepticism is well known, as a scientist you want to know all that can be known, you have to experiment, observe, and follow the scientific method. You can’t go with what feels good, what you would like or what you want to be. A claim has to be scrutinized and gone over with a fine tooth comb. If you make a claim: facts, data, experiments, observation, and evidence are required to either substantiate or disprove it. Science also allows for change and adaption, when new evidence comes forth. Disproving a theory is as much a part of the process, as is proving.
As Carl pointed out, science is not perfect, it is self-correcting.
The legacy of “Cosmos” would be more than enough to secure him a place worthy of admiration, but he was farsighted and realized that if we were to survive, we must leave at some point. We had conquered all there was, explored every corner of the planet, including the ocean, and the sky. The moon was just a start for our galactic journey.
It was first on the Pioneer probes, that he thought we should leave a message, in the chance that they should be discovered by an alien civilization. It would be the only proof that we had ever existed. He carried this concept further with the later Voyager missions, including a golden record, with messages, pictures, and music. It also showed coordinates to our location in the galaxy. Those probes will journey forever, further and further into interstellar space. A record and a testament to our desire to connect. They will be the only thing left of us when our home planet, our world is long gone.
To me that is one of the great achievements of our civilization, that we were able to send those emissaries to the furthest corners of the galaxy.
He is also credited with the famous Pale Blue Dot image and speech. He thought that if we could see our planet from such an immense distance, we could get a better perspective and understanding of our place in the universe, and of ourselves and how fragile we are. Fragile, but human. The only of our kind. The photo was taken in on February 14, 1990, from the distance of 3.7 billion miles.
The Voyagers were launched in 1977, and were not expected to last more than two years. Almost 40 years later they are still transmitting their weak signals back to earth. They are bound for interstellar space and will last billions of years. A pretty impressive achievement for a species that once walked on all fours and swung from trees.
You can not look at the photo and not be touched. This was, and is Carl’s greatest gift, and the words themselves are some of the most poignant ever spoken. They are as deeply profound and moving now, as when he wrote them.
I have admired Carl since I was a child, and he taught me so much. He opened my eyes to the universe and more. He made me realize I was a part of the cosmos, and the cosmos was a part of me. We are truly star stuff. We need not feel small, knowing that we are as ancient as the universe.
His legacy is enduring and secured, his ability to tell us our story and showing our uniqueness and place in the vast ocean that is space, that we are the cosmos.
Carl, you are truly missed, in the years intervening since your passing, we have learned so much more about the universe, but we, as a species are still even further apart. Your presence and wisdom would be a beacon on a dark night. You would give us hope and something incredible to aim for; the stars.
Carl was survived by four sons and a daughter. His first marriage in 1957, was to noted biologist Lynn Margulis, they divorced in 1964. This was followed in 1968, to artist Linda Salzman; notable for designing the artwork for the plaques affixed to the Pioneer space probes. They divorced in 1981. It was with his third and final wife Ann Druyan, that he was able to find his true soul mate. She continues to keep his legacy alive to this day. They married in 1981 and remained together until his death.
He said of her, “in the vastness of space, and immensity of time; it is still my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Annie”. A testament to his devotion to her.
In 2012, Seth McFarlane, creator of the Fox series, “Family Guy” provided the funds to obtain 800 boxes of Sagan’s papers, which he then donated to The Library Of Congress. He would later be a co-producer of the 2014 Cosmos reboot.
In 2014, she co-wrote, along with the co-author of the original series, Steven Soter, a new and updated version of Cosmos. Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It was met with critical acclaim and rekindled interest in Carl and his works.