"Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." -- Carl Sagan
Carl Edward Sagan (; November 9, 1934 — December 20, 1996) was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, author, cosmologist, and highly successful popularizer of astronomy, astrophysics and other natural sciences. During his lifetime, he published more than 600 scientific papers and popular articles and was author, co-author, or editor of more than 20 books. In his works, he advocated skeptical inquiry and the scientific method. He pioneered exobiology and promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence .
Sagan became world-famous for his popular science books and for the award-winning 1980 television series A Personal Voyage, which he narrated and co-wrote. A book to accompany the program was also published. Sagan also wrote the novel Contact, the basis for the 1997 film of the same name.
"A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism.""All of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year. Not all bits have equal value.""But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.""For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.""For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.""I am often amazed at how much more capability and enthusiasm for science there is among elementary school youngsters than among college students.""I can find in my undergraduate classes, bright students who do not know that the stars rise and set at night, or even that the Sun is a star.""If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?""Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.""In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.""It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.""Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.""Personally, I would be delighted if there were a life after death, especially if it permitted me to continue to learn about this world and others, if it gave me a chance to discover how history turns out.""Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.""Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.""The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous.""The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.""The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.""We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.""We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.""We've arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology.""When you make the finding yourself - even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light - you'll never forget it.""Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people."
Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Russian Jewish family. His father, Sam Sagan, was a Russian immigrant garment worker; his mother, Rachel Molly Gruber, a housewife. Carl was named in honor 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 one sister, Carol, and the family lived in a modest apartment near the Atlantic Ocean, in Bensonhurst, a Brooklyn neighborhood. According to Sagan, they were Reform Jews, the most liberal of the three main Jewish 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 height 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 relations with both 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 WWI and the 1920s. She had her own intellectual ambitions as a young woman, but they were blocked by social restrictions, because of her poverty, her being a woman and wife, and her Jewish religion. Davidson notes that she therefore "worshiped her only son, Carl. He would fulfill 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, 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. 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.
1939 World's Fair
Sagan recalls that one of his best experiences was when he was four or five years old, his parents took him to the 1939 New York World's Fair. The exhibits became a turning point in his life. He later recalled the moving map of the "America of Tomorrow" exhibit: "It showed beautiful highways and cloverleaves and little General Motors cars all carrying people to skyscrapers, buildings with lovely spires, flying buttresses...and it looked great!" At other exhibits, he remembered how a flashlight that shined on a photoelectric cell created a cracking 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. Sagan writes:
Plainly, the world held wonders of a kind I had never guessed. How could a tone become a picture and light become a noise?
He also saw one of the Fair's most publicized events, the burial of a time capsule at Flushing Meadows, which contained mementos of the 1930s to be recovered by Earth's descendants in a future millennium. "The time capsule thrilled Carl," writes Davidson. As an adult, Sagan and his colleagues created similar time capsules, but ones that would be sent out into the galaxy. These were the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record records, all of which were spinoffs of Sagan's memories of the World Fair.
World War II
During World War II, Sagan's family worried about the fate of their European relatives. He also experienced warfare at the beach near his apartment, where Hitler's "wolf pack" submarines destroyed merchant ships within earshot of his neighborhood. Kids could walk along the beach and find debris, along with body parts, lying in the sand. Sagan, however, was generally unaware of the details of the ongoing war. He writes, "Sure, we had relatives who were caught up in the Holocaust. Hitler was not a popular fellow in our household . . . But on the other hand, I was fairly insulated from the horrors of the war." His sister, Carol, said that their mother "above all wanted to protect Carl . . . She had an extraordinarily difficult time dealing with World War II and the Holocaust." Sagan's book, The Demon-Haunted World (1996), included his memories of this conflicted period in his life, where his family dealt with the realities of the war in Europe, but tried to prevent it from undermining his optimistic spirit.
Inquisitiveness about nature
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 none of his friends or their parents could give him a clear answer:
I went to the librarian and asked for a book about stars . . . And the answer was stunning. It was that the Sun was a star but really close. The stars were suns, but so far away they were just little points of light. . . The scale of the universe suddenly opened up to me. It was a kind of religious experience. There was a magnificence to it, a grandeur, a scale which has never left me. Never ever left me.
About the time he was six or seven, he and a close friend took trips to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. 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. Sagan writes about those visits:
I was transfixed by the dioramas...lifelike representations of animals and their habitats all over the world. Penguins on the dimly lit Antarctic ice; . . . a family of gorillas, the male beating his chest, . . . an American grizzly bear standing on his hind legs, ten or twelve feet tall, and staring me right in the eye.
His parents helped nurture his growing interest in science by buying 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 Edgar Rice Burroughs, which stirred his imagination about life on other planets, such as Mars. According to biographer Ray Spangenburg, these early years as Sagan tried to understand the mysteries of the planets, became a "driving force in his life, a continual spark to his intellect, and a quest that would never be forgotten."
He attended the University of Chicago, where he participated in the Ryerson Astronomical Society, received a bachelor of arts with general and special honors in 1954, a bachelor of science in 1955, and a master of science in physics in 1956 before earning a doctor of philosophy in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960. During his time as an undergraduate, Sagan worked in the laboratory of the geneticist H. J. Muller. From 1960 to 1962 Sagan was a Miller Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. From 1962 to 1968, he worked at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Sagan lectured and did research at Harvard University until 1968, when he moved to Cornell University in New York. He became a full Professor at Cornell in 1971, and he directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies there. From 1972 to 1981, Sagan was the Associate Director of the Center for Radio Physics and Space Research at Cornell.
Sagan was associated with the American 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. He conceived the idea of adding an unalterable and universal message on spacecraft destined to leave the solar system that could potentially be understood by any extraterrestrial intelligence that might find it. 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 the following year. 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 Space Station at the expense of further robotic missions.
Sagan taught a course on critical thinking at Cornell University until he died in 1996 from pneumonia, a few months after finding that he was in remission of myelodysplastic syndrome.
Sagan's contributions were central to the discovery of the high surface temperatures of the planet Venus. In the early 1960s no one knew for certain the basic conditions of that planet's surface, and Sagan listed the possibilities in a report later depicted for popularization in a Time-Life book, Planets. His own view was that Venus was dry and very hot as opposed to the balmy paradise others had imagined. He had investigated radio emissions from Venus and concluded that there was a surface temperature of . As a visiting scientist to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he contributed to the first Mariner missions to Venus, working on the design and management of the project. Mariner 2 confirmed his conclusions on the surface conditions of Venus in 1962.
Sagan was among the first to hypothesize that Saturn's moon Titan might possess oceans of liquid compounds on its surface and that Jupiter's moon Europa might possess subsurface oceans of water. This would make Europa potentially habitable for life. Europa's subsurface ocean of water was later indirectly confirmed by the spacecraft Galileo. Sagan also helped solve the mystery of the reddish haze seen on Titan, revealing that it is composed of complex organic molecules constantly raining down onto the moon's surface.
He further contributed insights regarding the atmospheres of Venus and Jupiter as well as seasonal changes on Mars. Sagan established that the atmosphere of Venus is extremely hot and dense with pressures increasing steadily all the way down to the surface. He also perceived global warming as a growing, man-made danger and likened it to the natural development of Venus into a hot, life-hostile planet through a kind of runaway greenhouse effect. Sagan and his Cornell colleague Edwin Ernest Salpeter speculated about life in Jupiter's clouds, given the planet's dense atmospheric composition rich in organic molecules. He studied the observed color variations on Mars’ surface and concluded that they were not seasonal or vegetational changes as most believed but shifts in surface dust caused by windstorms.
Sagan is best known, however, for his research on the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, including experimental demonstration of the production of amino acids from basic chemicals by radiation.
He is also the 1994 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."
Sagan's ability to convey his ideas allowed many people to understand better the cosmos ...simultaneously emphasizing the value and worthiness of the human race, and the relative insignificance of the Earth in comparison to the universe. He delivered the 1977 series of Royal Institution Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution in London. He hosted and, with Ann Druyan, co-wrote and co-produced the highly popular thirteen-part PBS television series A Personal Voyage modeled on Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man.
Sagan was a proponent of the search for extraterrestrial life. He urged the scientific community to listen with radio telescopes for signals from intelligent extraterrestrial life-forms. So persuasive was he that by 1982 he was able to get a petition advocating SETI published in the journal Science and signed by 70 scientists including seven Nobel Prize winners. This was a tremendous turnaround in the respectability of this controversial field. Sagan also helped Dr. Frank Drake write the Arecibo message, a radio message beamed into space from the Arecibo radio telescope on November 16, 1974, aimed at informing extraterrestrials about Earth.
Sagan was chief technology officer of the professional planetary research journal Icarus for twelve years. He co-founded the Planetary Society, the largest space-interest group in the world, with over 100,000 members in more than 149 countries, and was a member of the SETI Institute Board of Trustees. Sagan served as Chairman of the Division for Planetary Science of the American Astronomical Society, as President of the Planetology Section of the American Geophysical Union, and as Chairman of the Astronomy Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
At the height of the Cold War, Sagan became involved in public awareness efforts for the effects of nuclear war when a mathematical climate model suggested that a substantial nuclear exchange could upset the delicate balance of life on Earth. He was one of five authors...the "S" of the "TTAPS" report as the research paper came to be known. He eventually co-authored the scientific paper hypothesizing a global nuclear winter following nuclear war. He also co-authored the book A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race, a comprehensive examination of the phenomenon of nuclear winter.
Cosmos covered a wide range of scientific subjects including the origin of life and a perspective of our place in the universe. The series was first broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service in 1980, winning an Emmy and a Peabody Award. It has been broadcast in more than 60 countries and seen by over 500 million people, making it the most widely watched PBS program in history.
Sagan also wrote books to popularize science, such as Cosmos, which reflected and expanded upon some of the themes of A Personal Voyage, and became the best-selling science book ever published in English; Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, which won a Pulitzer Prize; and Reflections on the Romance of Science. Sagan also wrote the best-selling science fiction novel Contact, but did not live to see the book's 1997 motion picture adaptation, which starred Jodie Foster and won the 1998 Hugo Award.
He wrote a sequel to Cosmos, A Vision of the Human Future in Space, which was selected as a notable book of 1995 by The New York Times. He appeared on PBS' Charlie Rose program in January 1995. Sagan also wrote an introduction for the bestselling book by Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. Sagan was also known for his popularization of science, his efforts to increase scientific understanding among the general public, and his positions in favor of scientific skepticism and against pseudoscience, such as his debunking of the Betty and Barney Hill abduction. To mark the tenth anniversary of Sagan's passing, David Morrison, a former student of Sagan, recalled "Sagan's immense contributions to planetary research, the public understanding of science, and the skeptical movement" in Skeptical Inquirer.
Sagan hypothesized in January 1991 that enough smoke from the 1991 Kuwaiti oil fires "might get so high as to disrupt agriculture in much of South Asia" He later conceded in The Demon-Haunted World that this prediction did not turn out to be correct: "it was pitch black at noon and temperatures dropped 4°—6°C over the Persian Gulf, but not much smoke reached stratospheric altitudes and Asia was spared." A 2007 study noted that modern computer models have been applied to the Kuwait oil fires, finding that individual smoke plumes are not able to loft smoke into the stratosphere, but that smoke from fires covering a large area, like some forest fires or the burning of cities that would be expected to follow a nuclear strike, would loft significant amounts of smoke into the stratosphere.
In his later years Sagan advocated the creation of an organized search for near Earth objects that might impact the Earth. When others suggested creating large nuclear bombs that could be used to alter the orbit of a NEO that was predicted to hit the Earth, Sagan proposed the Deflection Dilemma: If we create the ability to deflect an asteroid away from the Earth, then we also create the ability to deflect an asteroid towards the Earth...providing an evil power with a true doomsday bomb.
Billions and billions
From Cosmos and his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Sagan became associated with the catch phrase "billions and billions". Sagan stated that he never actually used the phrase in the Cosmos series. The closest that he ever came was in the book Cosmos, where he talked of "billions upon billions":
However, his frequent use of the word billions, and distinctive delivery emphasizing the "b" (which he did intentionally, in place of more cumbersome alternatives such as "billions with a 'b'", in order to distinguish the word from "millions" in viewers' minds), made him a favorite target of comic performers including Johnny Carson, Gary Kroeger, Mike Myers, Bronson Pinchot, Penn Jillette, Harry Shearer, and others. Frank Zappa satirized the line in the song "Be In My Video", noting as well "atomic light". Sagan took this all in good humor, and his final book was entitled Billions and Billions which opened with a tongue-in-cheek discussion of this catch phrase, observing that Carson himself was an amateur astronomer and that Carson's comic caricature often included real science.
The popular perception of his characterization of large cosmic quantities continued to be a sense of wonderment at the vastness of space and time, as in his phrase "The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth". However, this famous saying was widely misunderstood, as he was in fact referring to the world being at a "critical branch point in history" as in the following quote from A Personal Voyage, Episode 8: "Journeys in Space and Time":
"Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours and every one of them is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet at this moment, here we face a critical branch point in history: what we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants. It is well within our power to destroy our civilization and perhaps our species as well."
As a humorous tribute to him, a sagan has been defined as a unit of measurement equal to at least four billion, since the lower bound of a number conforming to the constraint of billions and billions must be two billion plus two billion.
Sagan believed that the Drake equation, on substitution of reasonable estimates, suggested that a large number of extraterrestrial civilizations would form, but that the lack of evidence of such civilizations highlighted by the Fermi paradox suggests technological civilizations tend to destroy themselves rather quickly. This stimulated his interest in identifying and publicizing ways that humanity could destroy itself, with the hope of avoiding such a cataclysm and eventually becoming a spacefaring species. Sagan's deep concern regarding the potential destruction of human civilization in a nuclear holocaust was conveyed in a memorable cinematic sequence in the final episode of Cosmos, called "Who Speaks for Earth?" Sagan had already resigned from the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board and voluntarily surrendered his top secret clearance in protest over the Vietnam War. Following his marriage to his third wife (novelist Ann Druyan) in June 1981, Sagan became more politically active...particularly in opposing escalation of the nuclear arms race under President Ronald Reagan.
In March 1983, Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative...a multi-billion dollar project to develop a comprehensive defense against attack by nuclear missiles, which was quickly dubbed the "Star Wars" program. Sagan spoke out against the project, arguing that it was technically impossible to develop a system with the level of perfection required, and far more expensive to build than for an enemy to defeat through decoys and other means...and that its construction would seriously destabilize the nuclear balance between the United States and the Soviet Union, making further progress toward nuclear disarmament impossible.
When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared a unilateral moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons, which would begin on August 6, 1985...the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima...the Reagan administration dismissed the dramatic move as nothing more than propaganda, and refused to follow suit. In response, American anti-nuclear and peace activists staged a series of protest actions at the Nevada Test Site, beginning on Easter Sunday in 1986 and continuing through 1987. Hundreds of people were arrested, including Sagan, who was arrested on two separate occasions as he climbed over a chain-link fence at the test site.
Sagan married three times: in 1957, to biologist Lynn Margulis, mother of Dorion Sagan and Jeremy Sagan; in 1968, to artist Linda Salzman, mother of Nick Sagan; and in 1981, to author Ann Druyan, mother of Alexandra Rachel (Sasha) Sagan and Samuel Democritus Sagan. His marriage to Druyan continued until his death in 1996.
Isaac Asimov described Sagan as one of only two people he ever met whose intellect surpassed his own. The other, he claimed, was the computer scientist and artificial intelligence expert Marvin Minsky.
Sagan wrote frequently about religion and the relationship between religion and science, expressing his skepticism about the conventional conceptualization of God as a sapient being. For example:
Some people think God is an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow. Others...for example Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein...considered God to be essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarchs controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point, but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws.
In another description of his view of God, Sagan emphatically writes:
The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity."
Sagan, however, denied that he was an atheist: "An atheist has to know a lot more than I know." In reply to a question in 1996 about his religious beliefs, Sagan answered, "I'm agnostic." Sagan maintained that the idea of a creator of the universe was difficult to prove or disprove and that the only conceivable scientific discovery that could challenge it would be an infinitely old universe. According to his wife he was not a believer:
When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me...it still sometimes happens...and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl.
In 2006, Ann Druyan edited Sagan's 1985 Glasgow Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology into a book, A Personal View of the Search for God, in which he elaborates on his views of divinity in the natural world.Sagan is also widely regarded as a freethinker or skeptic; one of his most famous quotations, in Cosmos, was, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." This was based on a nearly identical statement by fellow founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Marcello Truzzi, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." This idea originated with Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749—1827), a French mathematician and astronomer who said, "The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness."
Late in his life, Sagan's books elaborated on his skeptical, naturalistic view of the world. In Science as a Candle in the Dark, he presented tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent ones, essentially advocating wide use of critical thinking and the scientific method. The compilation Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, published in 1997 after Sagan's death, contains essays written by Sagan, such as his views on abortion, and his widow Ann Druyan's account of his death as a skeptic, agnostic, and freethinker.
Sagan warned against humans' tendency towards anthropocentrism. He was the faculty adviser for the Cornell Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In the Cosmos chapter "Blues For a Red Planet", Sagan wrote, "If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes."
Sagan was a user and advocate of marijuana. Under the pseudonym "Mr. X", he contributed an essay about smoking cannabis to the 1971 book Marihuana Reconsidered.