Carl Edward Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996) was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science populariser and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences.
Dr. Sagan spent most of his career as a professor of astronomy at Cornell University where he directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. He published more than 600 scientific papers and articles and was author, co-author or editor of more than 20 books. He advocated scientific skeptical inquiry and the scientific method, pioneered exobiology and promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Dr. Sagan is known for his popular science books and for the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which he narrated and co-wrote. The book Cosmos was published to accompany the series. Sagan wrote the novel Contact, the basis for a 1997 film of the same name. Carl was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Samuel Sagan, was an immigrant garment worker from Russia, in today's Ukraine. His mother, Rachel Molly Gruber, was a housewife from New York. Carl was named in honour of Rachel's biological mother, Chaiya Clara, in Sagan's words, "the mother she never knew". Sagan graduated from Rahway High School in Rahway, New Jersey, in 1951.
He had a sister, Carol, and the family lived in a modest apartment near the Atlantic Ocean, in Bensonhurst, a Brooklyn neighbourhood. According to Sagan, they were Reform Jews, the most liberal of Judaism's three main groups. Both Sagan and his sister agree that their father was not especially religious, but that their mother "definitely believed in God, and was active in the temple ... and served only Kosher meat". During the depths of the Depression, his father had to accept a job as a Theatre usher.
According to biographer Keay Davidson, Sagan's "inner war" was a result of his close relationship with both of his parents, who were in many ways "opposites". Sagan traced his later analytical urges to his mother, a woman who had known "extreme poverty as a child" and had grown up almost homeless in New York City during World War I and the 1920s. As a young woman she had held her own intellectual ambitions, but they were frustrated by social restrictions: her poverty, her status as a woman and a wife, and her Jewish ethnicity. Davidson notes that she therefore "worshiped her only son, Carl. He would fulfil her unfulfilled dreams".
However, his "sense of wonder" came from his father, who was a "quiet and soft-hearted escapee from the Czar". In his free time he gave apples to the poor or helped soothe labor-management tensions within New York's "tumultuous" garment industry. Although he was "awed" by Carl's "brilliance, his boyish chatter about stars and dinosaurs", he took his son's inquisitiveness in stride and saw it as part of his growing up. In his later years as a writer and scientist, Sagan would often draw on his childhood memories to illustrate scientific points, as he did in his book, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Dr. Sagan describes his parents' influence on his later thinking:
"My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method"
Dr. Sagan was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He played a leading role in the American space program since its inception. He was a consultant and adviser to NASA since the 1950's, briefed the Apollo astronauts before their flights to the Moon, and was an experimenter on the Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo expeditions to the planets. He helped solve the mysteries of the high temperatures of Venus (answer: massive greenhouse effect), the seasonal changes on Mars (answer: windblown dust), and the reddish haze of Titan (answer: complex organic molecules).
For his work, Dr. Sagan received the NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and (twice) for Distinguished Public Service, as well as the NASA Apollo Achievement Award. Asteroid 2709 Sagan is named after him. He was also awarded the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award of the American Astronautical Society, the Explorers Club 75th Anniversary Award, the Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Medal of the Soviet Cosmonauts Federation, and the Masursky Award of the American Astronomical Society, ("for his extraordinary contributions to the development of planetary science … As a scientist trained in both astronomy and biology, Dr. Sagan has made seminal contributions to the study of planetary atmospheres, planetary surfaces, the history of the Earth, and exobiology. Many of the most productive planetary scientists working today are his present and former students and associates").
He was also a recipient of the Public Welfare Medal, the highest award of the National Academy of Sciences (for "distinguished contributions in the application of science to the public welfare…Carl Sagan has been enormously successful in communicating the wonder and importance of science. His ability to capture the imagination of millions and to explain difficult concepts in understandable terms is a magnificent achievement").
Dr. Sagan was elected Chairman of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, President of the Planetology Section of the American Geophysical Union, and Chairman of the Astronomy Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. For twelve years he was the editor-in-chief of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. He was cofounder and President of the Planetary Society, a 100,000-member organisation that is the largest space-interest group in the world; and Distinguished Visiting Scientist, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.
A Pulitzer Prize winner for the book The Dragons of Eden: Speculations of the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Dr. Sagan was the author of many bestsellers, including Cosmos, which became the bestselling science book ever published in English. The accompanying Emmy and Peabody award-winning television series has been seen by a billion people in sixty countries. He received twenty-two honorary degrees from American colleges and universities for his contributions to science, literature, education, and the preservation of the environment, and many awards for his work on the long-term consequences of nuclear war and reversing the nuclear arms race. His novel, Contact, is now a major motion picture.
In their posthumous award to Dr. Sagan of their highest honour, the National Science Foundation declared that his "research transformed planetary science… his gifts to mankind were infinite".
Dr. Sagan's surviving family includes his wife and collaborator of twenty years, Ann Druyan; his children, Dorion, Jeremy, Nicholas, Sasha, and Sam; and grandchildren.
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