National Geographic News
A photo of Carl Sagan.

Astronomer Carl Sagan was the "most famous U.S. scientist of the 1980s and early 1990s."

PHOTOGRAPH BY EVELYN HOFER, TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published March 16, 2014

It was almost like a dispatch from another planet: the invitation to the young astronomer to leave Brooklyn and visit the lakes and gorges of upstate New York.

"A letter shows up in my mailbox from Carl Sagan," said Neil deGrasse Tyson, recalling the 1975 invitation at a recent Library of Congress event celebrating Sagan. "I couldn't believe it. Famous people don't write out of the blue to strangers."

But the invitation was real. In response to his Cornell application, Tyson met the famous professor on a college visit soon after. Sagan offered to let the 17-year-old astronomer camp out at his house if a snowstorm knocked out his bus ride home.

Tyson eventually ended up at Harvard instead of Cornell, but he now hosts Cosmos, the 13-part remake of the original series (airing on the National Geographic Channel and Fox on Sundays at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT) that shot Sagan's celebrity sky high.

The original invitation, the visit, and the connection were typical Carl Sagan.

Life in the Cosmos

"He worked very hard for his students, got them jobs, worried about their education, many of them very well placed now," says William Poundstone, author of Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos. "If you talk to the people he inspired, who knew him, they are uniformly effusive."

"Sagan was certainly the most famous U.S. scientist of the 1980s and early 1990s," says science journalism expert Declan Fahy of American University in Washington, D.C. Fahy says, "After Cosmos reached half a billion viewers in 60 nations, his fame reached another level. The book of the series spent more than 70 weeks on the bestseller list."

But who was Carl Sagan? Scientist, celebrity, writer, professor, skeptic, and free-thinker, he was much more than the narrator of a TV series.

"Part of what made him great was the number of things he pursued," says NASA's David Morrison, director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Morrison marveled both at Sagan's breadth of accomplishments and his lack of self-importance.

A photo of Carl Sagan in a laboratory.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SANTI VISALLI INC., GETTY
Sagan, here in 1974, was a professor of astronomy at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, for much of his career.

Scientist

"He worked very hard, 18-hour days. He had a tremendous appetite for his work," says Poundstone. "He was made for television, sure, and he looked very relaxed and normal in jeans when other scientists didn't. But there was a lot more to him."

As a scientist, Sagan made a real mark on planetary science in the early 1970s as a young Harvard professor, "at a time when planetary science was a bit of a backwater," Poundstone says.

Sagan first predicted that the greenhouse effect made the atmosphere of Venus hot enough to melt lead, at a time when some scientists still speculated that its clouds might hide oceans, says Morrison.

Sagan also identified dark-shaded regions on Mars as highlands and identified lighter areas as desert plains marked by dust storms. Those storms later bedeviled NASA's Mars Viking landers in the 1970s.

"He was a really great big-picture scientist, great with back-of-the envelope calculations, who could see the fundamental premises of science and observations," says Morrison.

On the two Voyager missions launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, Sagan was a member of the imaging science team. "That was really before the crest of his fame," says Morrison, a former student of Sagan's. "He was not a superstar then, just one of us."

Celebrity

Sagan led the team that put together the "golden records" attached to the Voyager mission's two spacecraft. The records (sent along with phonograph needles) included cuts of everything from Bach to "Johnny B. Goode," along with greetings and natural sounds from Earth.

To a large extent, Poundstone says, Sagan benefited from filling a scientific niche, planetary science, that was set to explode with new knowledge as a result of NASA's line of planetary probes exploring the solar system starting in the 1960s.

Reporters gravitated toward Sagan on those missions, Poundstone says. "They knew who could explain things." Sagan ended up as a regular on the Tonight Show (as Tyson now is on Comedy Central's Colbert Report), a guest favorite of Johnny Carson.

Parodied by Carson for his consonant-rolling pronunciation of "bill-ions and bill-ions" in the series, Sagan indeed thought big, even opening a line of Cosmos-themed stores that anticipated the museum-themed stores in malls today.

After the 1980 publication of Cosmos and the premiere of the PBS series, "things changed for Carl. He was getting death threats; he had to travel in limousines and keep a closed schedule," Morrison said. "People don't remember that."

A photo of Carl Sagan at a hearing.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KARL SCHUMACHER, TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY
Sagan testified at a congressional hearing in 1985 on the climatic, biological, and strategic effects of nuclear war.

Skeptic

The death threats partly derived from Sagan's work on the U.S. Air Force's Project Blue Book, which investigated UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s. "He started out with an open mind, but came to the conclusion that there wasn't any evidence for aliens visiting Earth," Poundstone says. Sagan was a big proponent of the likelihood of life existing elsewhere in the universe, however.

Sagan also waded into one of the wellsprings of today's global warming debate, as the senior author on a 1983 Science journal study of "nuclear winter." The group's climate model found worldwide subzero temperatures an inevitable consequence of the dust clouds resulting from a nuclear exchange between the superpowers.

He had angered both UFO fans and belligerent critics of the nuclear winter report. Morrison recalls that after Sagan received threats, "they hid his office number at Cornell and he used a back door to get to work." In the era of the "Unabomber" mailing explosives to professors, the threats were taken seriously.

"Science is more than a body of knowledge. It's a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility," Sagan said in his last, 1996 interview with PBS's Charlie Rose. He died that same year from cancer.

The power of skeptical thinking infused his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, which sought to explain the scientific method to general readers. It included a "baloney-detection kit" for skeptics.

Sagan wasn't skeptical about everything: He was also a marijuana advocate, appearing as "Mr. X," a successful pot smoker, in a book by Harvard's Lester Grinspoon. And he advocated for medical marijuana in the years before his death.

A photo of Carl Sagan in front of a model of the Voyager Two.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LENNOX MCLENDON, AP
Sagan talks about the Voyager 2 spacecraft at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California, in 1986.

Spokesman

"Do something meaningful," said Ann Druyan, Sagan's third wife, speaking at the Library of Congress event, where Sagan's papers were donated to its collections. "That was at the heart of his whole life."

Druyan, Sagan's third wife and frequent collaborator, was a co-writer on the original Cosmos and is part of the production team on the new series.

Sagan wrote 20 popular books (dictating, not typing them) and hundreds of scientific studies. Nevertheless, his fame brought him criticism from other scientists, and a snub from the National Academy of Scientists, when he was nominated for membership but not accepted.

"That's just human nature: envy and resentment," Poundstone says.

Today, Cosmos is remembered for popularizing thinking big about space and inspiring young scientists. And the memory of Sagan as a prominent defender of science is perhaps his greatest legacy.

"His influence can be seen now in that almost every scientist with a prominent media profile cites him as an influence," Fahy says. "When scientific organizations want to increase public interest in science, one of their first ideas is something like: 'We need more Carl Sagans.'"

If he were around today, Poundstone says, Sagan would likely be speaking out forcefully for science in his inimitable way, regardless of the slights.

"For at least 100 years we have had scientific celebrities," he says. "But Sagan was the first one with a personality made for the age of television, and that was where he found a home."

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

51 comments
Ashraf Dowla
Ashraf Dowla

World lost a Great  scientist of all time by his untimely death. 

Mark Shariar
Mark Shariar

He is my Hero!! I always watch his COSMOS series on DVD. I wish we could travel to the Space and travel faster than the speed of light!!  I like to watch the Universe through the Window of a Spaceship like he watched on his imaginary spaceship. I wish we all could watch those Billions of Billions of Stars and live forever!! 

Mark Shariar

Voobon Ventures, Inc.

Mark Shariar
Mark Shariar

He is my Hero!! I always watch his COSMOS series on DVD. I wish we could travel to the Space and travel faster than the speed of light!!  I like watch the Universe through the Window of a Spaceship like he watched on his imaginary spaceship. I wish we all could watch those Billions of Billions of Stars!!

Ron Williams
Ron Williams

Carl did a number of positive things; however his show Cosmos, did not always credit images and data from universities and scientists around the world. This left a bad taste for some of us.

Ron Williams
Ron Williams

Carl did many things correctly and was intent on bringing science to the masses with his show Cosmos. Unfortunately, the show regularly used content from universities and scientists across the world without crediting them. This left a bad taste for many of us despite the efforts he had made.

Jov Miria
Jov Miria

When you are genius, people don't forgive that you are still alive.

Same thing happened to Nietzsche. It's nice for national geographic to remember him .

CHAMBERLINE OWEN
CHAMBERLINE OWEN

AS a little boy growing up watching television in black and white,Carl Sagan spoke with great gusto that even a kid in Africa listened with great attention,i must confess i didn't understand all that he said,but he set the tone for me to study science in high school,and i was greatly inspired with continued interest till today about space-time and the universe and our great human potential that lies out there.i never miss an opportunity to watch what these great minds have to say and ponder upon their hypothesis and assertions.

Leonard Feinman
Leonard Feinman

I was an early fan of his. He got me when he started to talk about the danger of "Global Warming" and I can't ever forget it. When he died, I felt like there was still too much to explain, and hardly anybody does it better. I enjoyed the original series, and it's re-do is quite welcome and done well.

Craig Couch
Craig Couch

I was a high school dropout. In my 20's, I picked up one of his books by chance in an airport store. It opened my mind up like nothing ever had before. I subsequently read every one of his books and went back to college. His writing gave me back a love of learning that had been lost in school. He cut through all of the BS like no one else. I can never praise him enough.

George Kamburoff
George Kamburoff

I was a Research Engineer working for the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency on a manual to protect American industry form the effects of nuclear weapons.  I am sure we were preparing a first-strike against the Soviet Union in 1979,from the words of our COTR.

An obscure report specified the results of limited nuclear strikes, and we realized we would kill ourselves if tried. That year, there were terrible fires East of Los Angeles, and teams of scientists came out to test the theories of Nuclear Winter from particulate loading.  It was not enough: They actually started more fires to further test the theory, and proved the calculations correct.

As a co-signer of the TTAPS Report on Nuclear Winter (he was not an original researcher),  Sagan brought it into the public light, and essentially saved us by that addition.

I quit and went back to school for a Master of Science in Environmental Management, hoping to do some good for a change.

Georges Leclere
Georges Leclere

Thank you for reminding us about how great Carl Sagan was.

Just one more point:

As I was a French TV Science editor, I had the chance to work closely with Carl when we produced the French version of the first Cosmos in 1981. And Carl let me write the foreword of his book Cosmos in French.

My point is: DO not forget how universal Carl was. His approach was always "planetary" in nature. He really felt that he was from Earth! Not for a small region.

That was his every day vision!

His COSMOS always started with the full Earth!

Thanks again!

Georges Leclere

Keith Moore
Keith Moore

As founder of Open Government TV, I find both Carl and science fascinating. As a non scientist, I find my newly discovered passion for uncovering the world of science and the life of scientists to be an amazing rush.  This passion to discover has become a purpose and when I look at what we have set out to do with Open Government TV. www.opengovtv.com, I literally see over time the stars and the moon aligning. 


Scientist should not be in the lab alone, or in a world of their own. There are too many young black and brown kids in neighborhoods who need to discover and outside of the lab is where this begins. If you are a scientist passionate about changing the world for the better, email me at kmoore@opengovtv.com or call 202-469-3423.  There is work to be done and there is room for more than one Cosmos. 


Hats off to what I currently understand about Carl Sagan. Our success seems like it would be his honor.

Bronwyn Hartung
Bronwyn Hartung

If I could spend a day with one person from the past, it would be Carl Sagan. Long may he live in our hearts and, more importantly, in our minds.

Brian Edwards
Brian Edwards

This was a real event in our house when I was a teenager. It changed the intellectual tone of the household (As did Bronowski's Ascent of Man series). Astronomy has moved along since then so I am keen to see the new version when it gets to Australian tv but I think it will struggle to be as poetic as Carl's commentary. I have the originals on dvd but watching it now just makes me sad that he is no longer among us. Sadly missed.

dileep kanitkar
dileep kanitkar

People like Sagan & Tyson add an extra dimension of imagination to the Universe. 

Raquel Garcia Jurado
Raquel Garcia Jurado

Sagan's greatest contribution was  his interest to make  science understandable for the layman and mainly for children.  Thank you Carl.

marc berlue
marc berlue

Velikovsky's assertion  would have to be revisited to give due credit to a true scientifical  researcher  whose voice still rings true but silenced by personal influence, xenophobia, rivalry in the name of TRUTH   "ghost of the past"


marc berlue
marc berlue

Velikovsky's assertion  would have to be revisited to give due credit to a true scientifical  researcher  whose voice still rings true but silenced by personal influence, rivalry in the name of TRUTH   "ghost of the past"

John Atlas
John Atlas

Comos shows the beauty, wonder, and mystery of the universe we live in.  Sagan wanted to share that.

Joseph Melotte
Joseph Melotte

i have a great respect for Carl Sagan.

in the 80's i think, he made me very enthusiastic for the cosmos.

and this is still so.


Al Kamieniecki
Al Kamieniecki

Carl Sagan was a good guy with the right idea...he did some really solid science in his field and was also someone who could speak about scientific issues in an accessible manner. These kind of people are important because they point out the difference between scientific inquiry and the way we all tend to think in day to day life.

I had not known that the UFO believers gave him grief, but that is a perfect example. You can believe in UFOs until the cows come home but if you can't prove it, well it isn't proved.

As for religion, a lot of people have lost their heads over subtle interpretations of theology. Although I am a believer which Sagan was not, the sad reality is that human interpretation of what God wants or what side he is on has led to a lot of misery throughout history. Unfortunately that is history also.

Remember the scientific method is our friend.

David Ory
David Ory

A great man and human being who deserves to be remembered by future generations.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

I never fully understood the resentment that many scientists from across the spectrum of disciplines had for Carl. Any scientist who can teach science (and history) in such an engaging way as to enthrall, tantalize and fascinate the general public should be celebrated by the science community.


I've read all of his books and most of his notable essays several times, and I will never tire of re-reading them. Man, I miss that guy!

David Kennedy
David Kennedy

Could it be true that Fox (the Conservative Network) is switching to commercials and other diversions when the new Cosmos program discusses matters having to do with evolution and other subjects Conservatives and "Fundies" disagree with?

Francisco Garces
Francisco Garces

He also inspired me in several ways: He convinced me about the importance of conserving our wonderful and unique planet, He opened my eyes to the wonders of the universe and reminded me about the steps that we have to take in scientific investigation.

Ray Zaballa
Ray Zaballa

One of my favorite people of all time - too bad we lost him.

skip lee
skip lee

Who Was Carl Sagan?  A man who three seconds after he died said to himself  "OH Crap " he really does exist.....i knew nothing

mik pea
mik pea

I learned a lot from this great man.

He makes science accessible to people who would otherwise be afraid of it.

I was really bummed out when he died back in Dec of 95. I remember hearing about it on the morning news and how badly it affected me all that day.

Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson

Carl Sagan was a great man. I still have his COSMOS documentary on video.


The new COSMOS documentary seems top rate, too. I was really surprised and happy to see they actually covered the brutal murder of the free thinking hero Giordano Bruno by the Catholic Church because, among other things, Bruno violated the errors in the Bible about the Sun orbiting the Earth and believed and said the Sun is one star among countless others and the Earth is one planet among countless others.


The way the "revealed" religions violate and attack free thought when they have the opportunity to do so makes clear the American founder and Deist Thomas Paine was correct when he wrote in The Age of Reason, The Complete Edition that we need a revolution in religion based on our innate God-given reason and Deism. This will go a very long way in slowing or stopping religious violence and help society make true progress.


Progress! Bob Johnson

www.deism.com

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@George Kamburoff  The really scary thing about all of that is how any reasonable person, whether highly educated or not, could ever believe that an all-out nuclear war could be, "winnable".

Ronald Warrick
Ronald Warrick

@Georges Leclere We could sure use him today.  In America today, our most visionary leaders can't seem to even think of a whole country, let alone a planet.

Randy Stanley
Randy Stanley

@Brian Edwards  Unfortunately, I think you'll find that you're right in expecting the new series to fail to match the poetry of the original. Last night, I said that to my wife while watching episode 2 here in the States.


It's disappointing and sad in a sense. But in context I think it's more of a sign of how great Sagan was than it is a sign of anyone else's shortcoming.

Ronald Warrick
Ronald Warrick

@Ron BockmanThe enemies of science have been trying to get us to believe in the imminent end of the world for the last 2000 years. A few of them are even working and praying for it, making them the enemies not only of science, but of mankind. 

Ronald Warrick
Ronald Warrick

@Zen Galacticore   As an observer of academia, I am not surprised.  I find it a testament to Carl, and scientists, that there was not more resentment.

Ronald Warrick
Ronald Warrick

@David Kennedy I give Fox credit where it is due in this case.  According to Ann Duryan, Fox was the only network they approached that offered her and Neil's team full control of the content.  The so-called liberal media would not.  Apparently they are more worried about rubbing the fundies the wrong way than Fox is.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@David Kennedy  I wondered along similar lines. I do wish this new 'Cosmos' reboot had been funded by philanthropies and the public and aired on PBS instead of Fox.


For one thing, no commercial interruptions. But on a deeper level, it's inevitable that this new version will be--even if ever so subtly or slightly--dumbed-down here and there.


I watched the intro episode last Sunday, and it was okay. Tyson's a likable guy and a good presenter, and whatever he does, it probably can't be as bad or dumbed-down as many recent Science Channel programs!

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@mik pea  Yep. I sure wish my elementary and high school had had science (or history) teachers like Sagan! Although his specialty was astronomy and planetary science, Sagan could easily have also taught chemistry, mathematics, biology, etc., at least up to the sophomore college level.

Chris Crawford
Chris Crawford

@Robert Johnson  Mr. Johnson, Bruno was burned for his religious declarations, not for his scientific views. He was quite a radical and it is surprising that the Church took so long to condemn him as a heretic; I suspect that his reputation for science gave him some elbow room.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Ronald Warrick @Georges Leclere  We could have a million clones of Carl Sagan, and still need one more! Or ten million more.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Ronald Warrick @Zen Galacticore  As a member of academia, I'm not surprised either. As I said, I just don't fully understand it.


I don't envy my fellows who have achieved greater things than I (and those fellows are many)!  Instead, I admire them.


I suppose it comes down to base human pettiness, self-absorption, and ego.


For goodness sake, in the big picture, what does any of it really matter?

Ronald Warrick
Ronald Warrick

@Chris Crawford @Robert Johnson Bruno was willing to recant on the religious questions, but the Inquisition demanded he recant on the scientific ones as well, specifically the plurality of worlds.  So I think it is fair to say that ultimately the Church killed him for his scientific views, or at least for not recognizing the Church's right to absolute control of scientific opinion.

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