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Home / HT School / Carl Edward Sagan: Iconic US astronomer who demystified space

Carl Edward Sagan: Iconic US astronomer who demystified space

Renowned American Pulitzer Prize winner astronomer and astrobiologist who researched on extraterrestrial life. He was also associated with space missions like Voyager and Galileo.

ht-school Updated: Nov 18, 2020, 18:41 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Continuing his association with NASA, Carl Sagan assembled the first two physical messages sent into space by NASA.
Continuing his association with NASA, Carl Sagan assembled the first two physical messages sent into space by NASA. (Illustration: Mohit Suneja)

Born on November 9, 1934, in Brooklyn, New York, to Rachel Molly Gruber, a housewife, and Samuel Sagan, an immigrant worker from the then Russian empire, Carl Sagan received his first lessons at a local elementary school. As a boy, he developed interest in astronomy when he learnt that the Sun was a star. He enrolled at the University of Chicago where he earned his PhD in astronomy and astrophysics.

Academic career

In 1960, Sagan was appointed the Miller Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. There, he helped a team of astrophysicists develop an infrared radiometer for NASA’s Mariner 2 robotic probe.

In 1968, Sagan was denied an academic tenure at Harvard, but joined Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) as associate professor. In 1970, he became a professor and the director of the university’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies. In 1972, he became Associate Director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research (CRSR) at Cornell and held the post till 1981. Concurrently, he continued working as a consultant to NASA and, in 1975, helped select the Mars landing sites for the Viking probes. In 1976, he became the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences, a position he held for the remainder of his life.

Interest in extraterrestrial life

Best remembered for research on extraterrestrial life, Sagan showed that amino acids and nucleic acids, the two main components of life, could be created by exposing a mixture of certain chemicals to ultraviolet rays and therefore, life can exist outside the Earth.

Continuing his association with NASA, Sagan assembled the first two physical messages sent into space by NASA. The first of these were the Pioneer plaques set up on the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft. The other one comprised the Voyager Golden Records that were part of the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. He headed the committee that decided the contents of the two phonograph records included aboard the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. The records contained sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. The records were created as a sort of time capsule intended for intelligent extraterrestrial life forms who may find them.

Established author

Apart from publishing more than 600 papers, Sagan was also a prolific writer who authored, co-authored and edited around 20 books which popularised astronomy. The first of these books, titled Jerome Agel, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, published in 1973 and helped make him a popular science writer.

Achievements and honours

Sagan was honoured with many awards which included Nasa’s Distinguished Public Service Medal (1977 & 1981) and the National Academy of Sciences’ Public Welfare Medal (1994). In 1978, he won Pulitzer Prize for his book titled The Dragon of Eden. He was honoured with NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal — National Aeronautics and Space Administration (1977),

Personal life

Carl Sagan got married thrice. During his last two years, Sagan developed Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and he had to undergo bone marrow transplants thrice from his sister. Later on, he developed pneumonia to and succumbed to it on December 20, 1996 aged 62. His burial then took place at the Lake View Cemetery in Ithaca, New York.

INTERESTING FACTS

1. In 1939, when he was not yet five, Carl Sagan’s parents took him to New York’s World Fair. He was so impressed by the exhibits, especially the ‘Futurama’, that he was able to recall them later in life.

2. Sagan’s best-known book, Cosmos, was published in 1980. During the same year, the book was turned into a 13-part television series titled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Sagan himself presented the series which, for a decade, remained the most widely watched series in the American public television. It was broadcast in 60 countries and watched by over 500 million people.

3. Cosmos (1980) was followed by bestsellers like Contact (1985) about human contact with extraterrestrial life form and Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994)which is the sequel to Cosmos. In Carl Sagan’s last major work titled — The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995), he tried to explain the scientific method to lay people and encourage skeptical thinking.

Sources: the famous people, wikipedia, www.smithsonianmag.com

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