“I wanted to be a scientist from the moment I first caught on that stars are mighty suns, [and] it dawned on me how staggeringly far away they must be to appear to us as mere points of light.”
That is Carl Sagan who was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934. He was interested in science from the very beginning and he was particularly fascinated by the stars.
He spent many nights of his childhood in a field, situating himself so he couldn’t see any buildings, trees, or anything else and he would sit there and watch the sky.
He graduated from high school and won a scholarship to the University of Chicago when he was only 16. He then went on to become a professor of astronomy at Cornell University.
At a time when most other astronomers were focusing on distant stars, other galaxies, and the history of the universe, Sagan focused his research on the planets in our own solar system. He was particularly interested in the possibility that there might be life beyond the planet Earth.
Because he had done extensive research on nearby planets, NASA hired him as an advisor for a mission to send remote-controlled spacecrafts to Venus. Sagan said: “It was just a dream come true. We were actually going to go to the planets!”
In preparation for the mission, Sagan was shocked to learn that there would be no cameras on the robotic spacecrafts, called Mariner I and Mariner II.
The other scientists thought cameras would be a waste of valuable space and equipment. They wanted to measure things like temperature and magnetism. Sagan couldn’t believe they would give up the chance to see an alien planet up close. He said, “Cameras are important precisely because they could answer questions we are too stupid to ask.”
Sagan lost the argument that time, but he won over NASA eventually. The Mariners were the last exploratory spacecraft ever launched by NASA without cameras.
He contributed to the Viking, Voyager, and Galileo planetary exploration missions, and his insistence on the use of cameras helped us get the first close-up photographs of the outer planets and their moons.
Sagan understood that in order to get the public to care about science and be willing to give tax dollars to science, he would have to appeal to their sense of wonder.
He created the TV show Cosmos, which attracted an audience of more than half a billion people in 60 countries. It was the most popular scientific television program ever produced. The book, also called Cosmos, that Sagan wrote alongside the TV series spent more than 70 weeks on the bestseller list.
He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Dragons of Eden (1977), about the evolution of human intelligence, and he was also the author of the best-selling novel Contact (1985), which was later made into a movie.
Sagan wrote 20 popular books and hundreds of scientific studies. Nevertheless, his fame brought him criticism from other scientists and a snub from the National Academy of Scientists, when he was nominated for membership but not accepted.
Carl Sagan was the most well known American scientist of the 80’s and 90’s, but he was more than a just a TV presenter, author and celebrity. He was a serious scientist who wanted to make the wonder and mystery of science available to everyone. His work has inspired many a young scientist and this is perhaps his greatest legacy.