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Carl Sagan (1934–1996)

Published onJan 01, 1997
Carl Sagan (1934–1996)

John Irwin Slide Collection

AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

American astronomy lost its clearest and most colorful public voice with the death of Carl Sagan on 20 December 1996, at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, as an immediate result of pneumonia, secondary to myelodysplasia. A native of Brooklyn, New York (born 9 November 1934), Sagan graduated in 1951 from Rahway High School, Rahway, New Jersey (which now boasts a Carl Sagan Science Wing, dedicated in 1991). He earned AB and SB degrees from the University of Chicago in 1954 and 1955, followed by an SM in physics in 1956 and a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960, for work under Kuiper on organic matter in the atmospheres of the Moon and Venus. Sagan was also the recipient of 23 hoporary degrees. Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute had the idea first, in 1975, and the Claremont College and Graduate Center (California) last, in 1996.

After stints as a Miller Fellow at UC Berkeley (1960-62) and as assistant professor at Harvard (1962-68), Sagan spent the rest of his professional career officially headquartered at Cornell University, as director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies (1968-96) and David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Science (1977-96). His PhD students there included Christopher Chyba, W. Reid Thompson, Peter Wilson, Dave Morrison, Steve Soter, Brian Toon, Jim Pollack, and David Pieri. His concurrent positions and responsibilities easily fill many paragraphs, but include the Astronaut Training Program at NASA (1968-72) and co-founding of The Planetary Society. Vo1ume 17, No.3 of the Society's publication The Planetary Report is a special issue in tribute to Carl.

From first to last, Carl kept feet firmly planted in both the planetary research community and in the greater worlds of science communication and science policy. His first book was The Atmospheres of Mars and Venus (with W. W. Kellogg), but his second was Intelligent Life in the Universe, a collaboration with losef Samuelovich Shklovskii, accomplished before the authors ever met. Its unique style of dialog between the authors introduced a whole generation not only to the sweep of cosmic history but also to the nature of scientific discourse. A couple dozen later books included technical ones published by NASA, volumes on defense issues (The Fallacy of Star Wars, with Richard Garwin and others, and two book-length discussion of nuclear winter), as well as volumes on many aspects of cosmic, biological, and technological evolution aimed at the general public, including The Cosmic Connection (winner of the John W. Campbell, Jr., Memorial Award for the best science book of 1974), The Dragons of Eden (Pulitzer Prize 1978), Broca's Brain, Cosmos ("now read the book" version of the most-watched series of public television programs ever), Shadows of Forgotten Ancesters (with Ann Druyan) , and Pale Blue Dot (which works very nicely as a text for a non-major course in space science).

Sagan's editorial achievements were equally broad-based: editor-in-chief of the technical journal Icarus from 1968 to 1979, editorial board membership for Origins of Life and Climate Change, and contributing editor for Parade, the Sunday supplement with a circulation of 82 million, for which he wrote regularly for more than a decade, at the same time writing papers for main stream astronomical journals on topics like the disparate colors of the two sides of Iapetus.

Carl was not only a legend in his own time, but a legend in his spare time. His 66 visiting lectureships wandered from Tuskegee Institute (now University, 1963-72) through Toronto, Florence, Glasgow (on natural theology), Tokyo, and Delhi, to presentations at Penn State and Dartmouth after the diagnosis of his ultimately fatal bone marrow disease. He served on roughly 135 scientific and policy advisory committees and the like, once again ranging from technical ones reporting to NASA, the International Astronomical Union, and the National Academy of Sciences (beginning with a committee of the Space Science Board when he was still a graduate student), to groups dealing with schizophrenia and depression, religious freedom, literacy, flying saucers and the paranormal, nuclear disarmament, and environmental issues. As chair of one of these groups, the second author can testify that Sagan customarily did his fair share and a bit more of the work.

Probably everyone who ever encountered Sagan has a favorite story, including Cornell student Joe Novak, who won the 1995 "I touched Carl Sagan" contest, sponsored by The Cornell Review (yes, of course Carl co-operated in getting a suitable picture). The second author remembers with pleasure and gratitude a moment some years ago when a colleague, in the process of introducing people who actually already knew each other, said something rather tactless, at which Carl jumped in immediately with, "No, no. She used to be notorious. Now she's just famous." The first author is only too aware that for many years the most frequently asked question by visitors to the Cornell University campus has been, "Where is Carl Sagan's office?"

Sagan was occasionally suspected of venturing too far outside his areas of professional expertise in his popular writing. Thus it is worth remembering that he had put in time as a research assistant in genetics (Indiana University, 1952-53) and as visiting assistant professor of genetics (Stanford Medical School, 1962-63), and held a couple of patents in synthetic organic chemistry, not to mention the opportunities for learning by osmosis during his years of marriage to biologist Lynn Margulis (best known for the idea that eukaryotic cells arose from symbiotic relationships among prokaryotic ones), artist Linda Salzman, and his widow, writer Ann Druyan (which whom many of his later awards for science writing and service were shared). Their projects underway at the time of his death include a film version of Contact and an IMAX production called Comet. Other survivors include his sister, Cari Sagan Green (donor of the bone marrow that helped give Carl an extra year of productive life), five children, Dorion (already a published writer in collaboration with his mother), Jeremy, Nicholas, Sashah, and Sam, and a grandson, Tonio.

Other obituaries appeared in the March 1997 issues of Astronomy and Sky and Telescope, in Nature (385, 400, 1997), in the Washington Post and other newspapers in late December, in publications of Cornell Universiry, and many other places, though none of us can be proud that he will not appear in the Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences. As Post writer Joel Aschenbach said, "We have needed Sagan ever since Copernicus removed us from the center of the Universe." And the need remains. Carl Sagan received a great many awards in his 62 years, but "billions and billions" would not have been enough to repay what the scientific community owes him.

Photo (available in PDF version) courtesy Cornell University.

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