Next month marks ten years since the death of one of science’s most well loved public figures. Astronomer and author Carl Sagan, perhaps best known from his much lauded 1980 PBS Series Cosmos, is still looming large in the public eye. The series, which has been broadcast in over 60 countries and seen by an estimated 600 million people is looking for even more viewers as it moves (digitally re-mastered) to The Science Channel this month in honor of the 25th anniversary of its inception.
In addition, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, a collection of lectures written by Sagan and edited by his wife Ann Druyan, was released this month by Penguin Press to glowing reviews.
My first exposure to the late Carl Sagan came in 1997, with the film Contact, starring Jodie Foster. I was mesmerized by the film’s depth, its portrayal of a pure love of science, and the debate at the heart of it: Faith in God vs. Faith in Science. As the lights came up and the words “For Carl” scrolled up the screen, I was both educated and intrigued. The film went on to win the 1998 Hugo Award and I went on to talk about it ad nauseam to more or less everyone I met.
The film, an adaptation of his best selling science fiction novel of the same name, was just one of over 600 scientific papers and popular articles and over 20 books written or edited by Sagan during his prolific career. Included in that mix was the Pulitzer Prize winning Dragons of Eden: Speculations of the Evolution of Human Intelligence as well as the best-selling science book ever published in English, Cosmos.
Dr. Sagan, who earned degrees in Physics, Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Chicago, pioneered the science of exobiology (the study of extraterrestrial life) and promoted the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI). He taught at both Harvard and Cornell, where his course on critical thinking was so popular that he poured through hundreds of application essays each term to choose the 20 or so students that would fit in his class.
Along the way he worked with NASA in every capacity from pre-flight briefing of the Apollo astronauts to design of the first universal physical message to be sent into space. He contributed, in fact, to most of the unmanned missions to explore the solar system, and placed experiments on many robotic space expeditions.
He also helped solve mysteries such as the cause of high temperatures on Venus, the appearance of seasonal changes on Mars, and the reddish haze visible on Saturn’s moon, Titan. He was rewarded with the naming of Asteroid 2709 Sagan in his honor.
But his real talents seemed to lie in his ability to explain difficult scientific concepts in understandable terms, igniting an interest in science throughout the globe. The Science Channel noted, “his charming delivery and abundant charisma propelled him into the ranks of pop culture phenomena and brought the wonders of science into a realm where the rest of us could marvel at them.”
He was also an outspoken advocate on issues of nuclear winter, global warming and environmental as well as social and political concerns. He was among anti-nuclear peace activists arrested in 1986 and 1987 for civil disobedience while taking part in a series of protest actions at the Nevada Test Site, and was a vocal opponent of Reagan’s “Star Wars” program.
By the time of his death on December 20, 1996, to a rare form of bone cancer at age 62, Sagan had co-founded The Planetary Society and garnered a mountain of awards and accolades. He was beloved for his popularization of the sciences, his opposition to both restraints and reactionary applications of science, and his defense of democratic traditions, and humanism.
We can’t help but wonder what this visionary man would have to say about the progress of the world in the past ten years. His wife, Ann Druyan, recently voiced her opinions on the subject in an article entitled Where Would We Be With Carl, published in the latest issue of the Planetary Society’s Planetary Report.
In it, she waxes poetic on what might have been his thoughts on everything from the Mars missions to the September 11th attacks on the United States. She speaks of the last week of his life and his desperate wish to participate in the December White House Conference on the Future of Space Exploration, in which he had been invited to give the keynote address. As he lay dying, he managed with great effort, at least to dictate the speech which was delivered to the conference by Vice President Al Gore. “He smiled at the news,“ Druyan said. “What I saw in those hazel eyes was…a sense of relief that he had been able to communicate with space science decision makers, and a flicker of concern about the future.”
His concerns about the future were no doubt unfounded. And thanks to the students and words he left behind, the ideas and values of the man who was Sagan continue to inspire change and hope for the future, and his influence will continue to be felt in the scientific community and the world at large for many more decades to come.