Courtesy of Cornell University

November 10, 2019

Carl Sagan’s 85th Birthday: Celebrating the Legacy of the Astronomer who ‘Made Science Sexy’

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In the wake of NASA’s exciting Voyager 2 discoveries, we honor the birthday of one of society’s most prominent astronomy figures: Carl Sagan. In addition to his role as a worldwide leader of scientific discovery and communication, Sagan spent much of his adult life as a professor at Cornell, and his legacy continues to inspire students, faculty and the Ithaca community.

“He was a planetary scientist, interested in planetary atmospheres. He was considered one of the most important planetary scientists of his generation,” said Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, communication.

Sagan’s research helped explain Venus’s high temperatures, the seasons of Mars and why Saturn’s moon Titan appears red in color. A fan of extraterrestrial life, Sagan also helped design the Golden Records for Voyager that may one day educate other life forms what life on Earth is like and was an active proponent of the possibility of human life on Mars.

Beyond his work as an astronomer, Sagan “devoted a significant part of his career to public communication of science and technology – not just about astronomy, but about many kinds of science,” Lewenstein said.

In his effort to spread interest in science, Sagan authored science fiction and nonfiction books, wrote a television show and made television appearances. Among his most popular works was the television show, Cosmos.

Cosmos appeared initially on public television, at a time when public TV in the United States spoke to an audience specifically interested in expanding its understanding,” Lewenstein said

“Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” the accompanying book to the show, became a bestseller and was the precursor to Sagan’s future success as an author. In 1985, Sagan released the science fiction novel, Contact, which chronicles the reality of following communication with an intelligent extraterrestrial species.

The concept of extraterrestrial contact was one that interested Sagan, evident from Sagan’s involvement with “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” The essay collection was adapted into a film in 1997, a year after Sagan’s death.

In 1994, Sagan authored the book “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.” The title refers to an image from the Voyager 1 probe, which depicts the Earth as a single blue dot in the vastness of space.

“Look again at that dot, that’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives,” Sagan wrote.

However, Sagan was more than just an author and television host. Probably more important than Cosmos or Contact were Sagan’s appearances on The Tonight Show and his columns in Parade Magazine.

“By incorporating science into platforms that people watched or read for generic, non-science reasons, Sagan made science part of ‘everyday culture,’ not something esoteric or removed from culture,” Lewenstein said.

Yet, despite his contributions to the field of astronomy, Sagan was not always as respected by his peers as he was by the general public.

“In the past, scientists were skeptical of other scientists who devoted much effort to public communication. Some scientists felt the time should be spent on doing traditional scientific work,” Lewenstein said.

“Sagan felt the sting of this judgment and was prevented from being elected to the National Academy of Sciences because of people who applied their feelings about his public communication to judgments about his scientific work,’” Lewenstein continued.

This effect — of a scientist being denigrated or denied respect because of their work in public communication — is now called “The Sagan Effect.”

Sagan’s impact on science did not end with his passing in 1996. For one, Sagan left in his wake a generation interested in science. The class Astronomy 102, now ASTRO 1102: Our Solar System, was first taught by Sagan before being taken over by Steve Squyres ’78 Ph.D. ’81, principal investigator of the Opportunity and Spirit rover missions who worked closely with Sagan while he was a graduate student.

“Carl was a remarkable teacher, whether he was explaining the nature of geologic time to freshmen in Astronomy 102 or deriving equations for grad students in his Physics of the Planets course,” Squyres said in an interview with Ezra Magazine. “All of us who had the chance to learn from him are better scientists or simply better-informed citizens for the experience.”

“Many science communicators were inspired by Sagan,” Lewenstein said. “He helped make science sexy.”

There were visible scientists before Sagan, but he was on the first true science celebrities. Sagan set the stage for other science communicators, like Bill Nye ’77 and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Nye, who has become a household name in science and pop culture, was a student in Sagan’s astronomy class at Cornell and drew much of his inspiration from Sagan. Nye also took up the mantle of CEO at the Planetary Society in 2010, a nonprofit co-founded by Sagan in 1980 in response to declining government funding for space exploration, in a time where there was still significant public interest.

The organization advocates for space exploration and planetary science funding, funds research in those areas, and provides information to the general public. Earlier this year, the Planetary Society launched the first solar propelled spacecraft into Earth’s Orbit.

Sagan’s message is also carried on by the Carl Sagan Institute, which employs an interdisciplinary team to find life in the universe. The CSI not only continues Sagan’s search for life in the universe, but also stays true to Carl Sagan’s dedication to the public by “sharing the fascination of science with everyone who is interested in where humankind stands in the quest to understand our place in the cosmos.”