For as long as human kind has existed, we have searched for answers in the stars. Answers for everything from how our daily lives will flow, to the very meaning of life.
Throughout the ages, great minds have worked to dispel these mysteries and share their discoveries with all, but few have done it as effectively as Carl Sagan: the man who gifted us all, young and old, with the cosmic perspective.
Carl Edward Sagan was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 9th of 1934. His parents – Samuel, a garment worker from the Ukraine, and Rachel, a New York homemaker with unrealised intellectual ambitions – were binary opposites in many ways.
The diversity of their ideals, attitudes, and traits would come to shape the man Sagan would become. He was close to both Samuel and Rachel, the latter of whom dreamt of giving her son the kind of life she as a poor Jewish woman during the Great Depression could only wish for.
It was Samuel, however, that Sagan claimed instilled in him a sense of wonderment. He saw the young boy’s curiosity as a gift, and fed it however he could.
“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.”
One of Sagan’s earliest memories is also one of his most important. It was the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and he was only four years old. The exhibitions were thrilling, the technology on displaying riveting. He experienced television for the first time, saw sound translated into visual data, and was witness to the burial of a time capsule. In years to come, he would create his own capsules, but instead of burying them understand, he would be sending them off into the galaxy.
World War II arrived soon after. Though his parents shielded him from the most horrific stories – some of which detailed the fates of relatives caught up in the Holocaust – the family struggled with the news arriving from Europe. Sagan would later write about his experience as a child of the era in his book The Demon-Haunted World, in which he tries to come to terms with his ignorance of the atrocities being committed against people much like himself.
In 1940, Sagan entered elementary school. Keen to learn, particularly about space, his inquisitive nature soon led to him asking questions that nobody he knew could answer. So it was that Rachel gave him a library card, and let him make trips to the library on his own.
He describes his time amidst the shelves as “…a kind of religious experience”. Soon, he was visiting the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium, his addiction to science and the stars ever-growing. He purchased textbooks and chemistry sets, magazines, and sci-fi novels.
In 1947, mass hysteria erupted over UFO sightings in America. Sagan speculated these ‘flying saucers’ may in fact be alien spaceships. Though he was still young, his desire to find alien life in the galaxy had been sparked.
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
Sagan’s high school education was uninspiring for one such as curious as him, but that did not stop the gifted student from receiving all As. Faculty members were convinced he should be sent to a school for the gifted, but the cost was impossible for his family to cover.
Instead, Sagan focused on teaching himself through experiments in his home laboratory, and inspiring others as president of the school’s chemistry club. His interest turned almost entirely to astrology, however, when he realised that astronomers were being paid to do the kind of things he did as a hobby.
Shortly before graduating and being named ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ by his classmates, Sagan won a controversial essay contest with a piece questioning whether human contact with alien life forms would be as destructive as when Europeans made contact with Native Americans.
Sagan entered the University of Chicago at age 16, and would complete his Bachelor of Arts degree in what he proclaimed as “nothing”, before completing special honours and a Bachelor of Science in physics. He would earn his masters in physics at the age of 22, and his Ph.D at 23, all the while working with esteemed scientists such as chemist Melvin Calvin, geneticist H.J. Muller, and planetary scientist Gerard Kuiper, who he joined on a secret military project to detonate a nuclear warhead on the moon.
Continuing his work as an astronomer in the 60s, Sagan worked with NASA on a range of projects – including the briefing of Apollo astronauts before their flight to the moon – and published a range of articles across an incredible amount of fields. Perhaps one of his most important was a report that was central to the understanding of surface conditions on Venus. He then went on to become an assistant professor at Harvard (he was offered a lecturer position, but declined) until 1968, while pursuing otherworldly interests at the Smithsonian observatory.
That same year, he was shocked to discover he would not receive tenure at the university, due to his broad interest in a number of scientific fields, and his increasing reputation as one of the leading scientific advocates in America.
He would move to Cornell University, where he would remain for the next three decades. It was to his office here in Ithica that he would invite a young, eager scientist named Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
“I already knew I wanted to become a scientist. But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become,” Tyson would reflect.
Cornell’s scientific staff were mostly modest people, contrasting wildly with the persona that Sagan was continuing to develop outside of the community. Beyond his astronomical endeavours – which saw him win the 1977 NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal – he would write or co-write 20 books in both fiction and non-fiction. One of the latter, Dragons of Eden, would result in Sagan winning the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.
Sagan’s most definitive work though was unarguably the PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage in 1980. Seen by 500 million people in 60 different countries, the show introduced audiences to the marvels of life on Earth, and the complexity of the universe in a way that had never been done before. It won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and Sagan became a pop-culture icon overnight. A sequel to the series would be made in 2014, hosted by none other than Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
A group within the science community began to argue that Sagan was using the discoveries of his peers to gain attention through the show, but they were quickly dismissed. Cosmos revealed science to the general population in ways the classroom or a textbook could not, and in so doing inspired generations of budding scientists.
It did more than promote science too. The show advocated critical thinking, as Sagan did himself. “I don’t want to believe. I want to know,” he famously said.
In the years following, Sagan remained active as a figurehead for his industry. He spoke out against Reagan’s Star Wars program, protested against the testing of nuclear weapons, and championed the theory of testosterone poisoning, arguing that the hormone inspires violence, even genocidal thoughts in more severe cases.
After suffering from myelodysplasia, a type of cancer of the blood, Carl Sagan died at the relatively young age of 62.
In death, his name still resonates amongst us, and even if the younger generation do not yet know his name, they are benefiting immensely from the groundbreaking way in which he proved the scientific world could, and should, be shared with everyone.
He ultimately reminded us of our own context in this expansive, marvellous universe, gifting us greater understanding of this pale blue dot on which we thrive than we could ever hope to find on our own:
“On it, everyone you ever heard of…The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. . . .
Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”