American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, science popularizer, and science communicator in astronomy and other natural sciences, Carl Edward Sagan was born November 9, 1934. Sagan First became interested in science and astronomy when parents took him to the 1939 New York World’s Fair when he was four years old. The exhibits became a turning point in his life. He later recalled the moving map of the America of Tomorrow exhibit which showed beautiful highways and cloverleaves and little General Motors cars all carrying people to skyscrapers, buildings with lovely spires and, flying buttresses. At other exhibits, he remembered how a flashlight that shone on a photoelectric cell created a crackling sound, and how the sound from a tuning fork became a wave on an oscilloscope. He also witnessed the future media technology that would replace radio: television.
Soon after entering elementary school he began to express a strong inquisitiveness about nature. Sagan recalled taking his first trips to the public library alone, at the age of five, when his mother got him a library card. He wanted to learn what stars were, since Nobody else could give him a clear answer. He and a close friend took trips to the American Museum of Natural History across the East River in Manhattan. While there, they went to the Hayden Planetarium and walked around the museum’s exhibits of space objects, such as meteorites, and displays of dinosaurs and animals in natural settings. His parents bought him chemistry sets and reading materials. His interest in space, however, was his primary focus, especially after reading science fiction stories by writers such as H. G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, which stirred his imagination about life on other planets such as Mars. In 1947 he discovered Astounding Science Fiction magazine, which introduced him to more hard science fiction speculations than those in Burroughs’s novels. That same year inaugurated the “flying saucer” mass hysteria with the young Carl suspecting the “discs” might be alien spaceships.
Sagan lived in Bensonhurst where he went to David A. Boody Junior High School. He had his bar mitzvah in Bensonhurst when he turned 13. In 1948, his family moved to the nearby town of Rahway, New Jersey for his father’s work, where Sagan then entered Rahway High School. He graduated in 1951. Sagan was made president of the school’s chemistry club, and set up his own laboratory at home, teaching himself about molecules by making cardboard cutouts to help him visualize how molecules were formed and also remained interested in astronomy.
Sagan attended the University of Chicago. Its Chancellor, Robert Hutchins, structured the school as an “ideal meritocracy,” with no age requirement. The school also employed a number of the nation’s leading scientists, including Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller, along with operating the famous Yerkes Observatory. Sagan worked in the laboratory of the geneticist H. J. Muller and wrote a thesis on the origins of life with physical chemist Harold Urey. Sagan joined the Ryerson Astronomical Society, received a B.A. degree in self-proclaimed “nothing” with general and special honors in 1954, and a B.S. degree in physics in 1955. He went on to earn a M.S. degree in physics in 1956, before earning a Ph.D. degree in 1960 with the dissertation “Physical Studies of Planets” submitted to the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. From 1960 to 1962 Sagan was a Miller Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. he also published an article in 1961 in the journal Science on the atmosphere of Venus, while also working with NASA’s Mariner 2 team, and served as a “Planetary Sciences Consultant” to the RAND Corporation.
After the publication of Sagan’s Science article, in 1961 Harvard University astronomers Fred Whipple and Donald Menzel offered Sagan the opportunity to give a colloquium at Harvard, and they subsequently offered him a lecturer position at the institution. Sagan instead asked to be made an assistant professor. Sagan lectured, performed research, and advised graduate students at the institution from 1963 until 1968, as well as working at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, both located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cornell University astronomer Thomas Gold then asked Sagan to move to Ithaca, New York and join the faculty at Cornell. and remained a faculty member at Cornell for nearly 30 years until his death in 1996. Following two years as an associate professor, Sagan became a full professor at Cornell in 1970, and directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies there. From 1972 to 1981, he was associate director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research (CRSR) at Cornell. In 1976, he became the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences.
Sagan was associated with the U.S. space program from its inception. From the 1950s onward, he worked as an advisor to NASA, where one of his duties included briefing the Apollo astronauts before their flights to the Moon. Sagan contributed to many of the robotic spacecraft missions that explored the Solar System, arranging experiments on many of the expeditions. Sagan assembled the first physical message that was sent into space: a gold-anodized plaque, attached to the space probe Pioneer 10, launched in 1972. Pioneer 11, also carrying another copy of the plaque, was launched In 1973. He continued to refine his designs; the most elaborate message he helped to develop and assemble was the Voyager Golden Record that was sent out with the Voyager space probes in 1977. Sagan often challenged the decisions to fund the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station at the expense of further robotic missions.
He became known for his work as a science popularizer and communicator. His best known scientific contribution is research on extraterrestrial life, including experimental demonstration of the production of amino acids from basic chemicals by radiation. Sagan assembled the first physical messages sent into space: the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record, universal messages that could potentially be understood by any extraterrestrial intelligence that might find them. Sagan argued the now accepted hypothesis that the high surface temperatures of Venus can be attributed to and calculated using the greenhouse effect.
Sagan published more than 600 scientific papers and articles and was author, co-author or editor of more than 20 books. He wrote many popular science books, such as The Dragons of Eden, Broca’s Brain and Pale Blue Dot, and narrated and co-wrote the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The most widely watched series in the history of American public television, Cosmos has been seen by at least 500 million people across 60 different countries. The book Cosmos was published to accompany the series. He also wrote the science fiction novel Contact, the basis for a 1997 film of the same name. His papers, containing 595,000 items, are archived at The Library of Congress.
Sagan advocated scientific skeptical inquiry and the scientific method, pioneered exobiology and promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). He spent most of his career as a professor of astronomy at Cornell University, where he directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. Sagan and his works received numerous awards and honors, including the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal, the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book The Dragons of Eden, and, regarding Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, two Emmy Awards, the Peabody Award and the Hugo Award. He married three times and had five children. After suffering from myelodysplasia, Sagan died of pneumonia at the age of 62, on December 20, 1996.