American astronomer Carl Sagan had earned the moniker “the astronomer of the people.” During his lifetime, Sagan was able to increase public interest in astronomy. He did this by promoting astronomy through various media platforms, such as television and publication.
Born in New York in 1934, Sagan wasn’t exactly born into an upper-class family. His father was a garment worker and his mother a homemaker. Everything changed for the young boy when his parents took him to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. This sparked Sagan’s interest in science, particularly in stars and outer space. This interest was further nurtured by his parents, who bought him science books and chemistry sets. After being voted Most Likely to Succeed by his classmates and graduating valedictorian from Rahway High School, Sagan entered the University of Chicago. Sagan ended up finishing his academic career with three different science degrees.
He started to work as a lecturer, and in 1968, he became the director of Cornell University’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies and became a full professor in 1971. He remained affiliated with Cornell University for the remainder of his life.
Sagan contributed plenty to the field of astronomy. He had major contributions to the Voyager missions launched in 1977, which were set to explore the planets of the outer solar system. He also contributed insights on the atmospheric conditions of Venus and Jupiter and how seasonal changes occurred on Mars. Sagan was also known for his studies on astrobiology, the study of life outside of earth and the origin of life on earth. However, Sagan is a scientist who is best known for popularizing science.
In 1980, Sagan unknowingly started what would be a lifelong career as a scientist-celebrity. He cowrote and narrated Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The series was composed of 13 episodes, each focusing on a subject or person. The series tackled a wide variety of topics and demonstrated how everything in the universe was connected. The show had been viewed by over 500 million and had won an Emmy and a Peabody Award. Sagan was also featured on the cover of Time magazine after the show’s broadcast. Essentially, Cosmos transformed Sagan into a pop culture icon.
Sagan used his newfound status in order to increase public interest in astronomy. Aside from being published multiple times in various scientific journals for his research efforts, he was also able to publish several nonfiction books that further sparked public interest in astronomy.
In 1980, he wrote an accompanying book to the series, also called Cosmos. The book contained 13 chapters, each corresponding to an episode on the show. Sagan created the book to further explain scientific ideas and concepts to anyone who wanted to learn more. The book spent 70 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and 50 weeks on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list. Cosmos also received the 1981 Hugo Award for Best Nonfiction Book.
Sagan wrote the sequel to Cosmos in 1994. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space combines both scientific knowledge on the solar system and the philosophy on humanity’s place in the universe. The book was inspired by the Pale Blue Dot photograph, which Sagan discussed in detail in the book.
Before his popularity, Sagan had published a prominent book entitled The Dragons of Eden: Speculations of the Evolution of Human Intelligence. The book discusses the endless search to quantifying intelligence. In this book, Sagan argues that brain-to-body mass ratio is a good indicator for intelligence. Through this, he concludes that humans have the highest ratio and dolphins the second-highest. The book also discusses the evolution of the brain, the purpose of sleeping and dreaming, the ability of chimps to learn human sign language, and the purpose of myths and fears. The book won Sagan a Pulitzer Prize for Best Nonfiction Book in 1978.
In 1985, Sagan forayed into novels with the hard science fiction novel Contact. The novel contains many scientific ideas and concepts and studies the theme of humanity being in contact with more technologically advanced extraterrestrial life. The novel started out as a screenplay, which Sagan was cowriting with Ann Druyan. Sagan started converting the screenplay into a novel when the production of the film stalled. However, in 1997, it was revived and produced as a film starring Jodie Foster.
Sagan continued to work not only in astronomy but also in popularizing astronomy. He is still considered as one of the first scientists to achieve celebrity status, comparable to today’s Neil deGrasse Tyson. In 1994, he was awarded the Public Welfare Medal by the National Academy of Sciences.
In 1996, Sagan died of pneumonia, a complication following bone marrow surgeries because of myelodysplasia. Today, at least three awards are named after him: the Carl Sagan Memorial Award by the American Astronautical Society and the Planetary Society, the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science by the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences, and the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science by the Council of Scientific Society Presidents. In 2007, Sagan was awarded posthumously with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Independent Investigations Group.
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