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Carl Sagan
 
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Carl Sagan (Nov. 9, 1934 - Dec. 20, 1996) 
Carl Sagan was the best science educator of the 20th century. At the time of his death (click here to read his obituary), Sagan was a Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University, where he had held a professorship since 1971. 

His greatest skill was his ability to communicate with individuals here on Earth. Through a series of books, magazine articles and television shows, he reached beyond the scientific community to convey the excitement of his research to the lay public.  Sagan's concerns ranged far and wide, from the effects of nuclear war to the evolution of the mind, to the intellectual erosion brought about by pseudoscience. His television series Cosmos reached an estimated audience of 500 million people; his novel Contact was made into a successful movie. Sagan also co-founded the Planetary Society, the largest space-interest group in the world. 

A very good example of Carl Sagan's ability to put complex ideas into understandable terms can be found in the final chapters of  The Cosmic Connection which contain his reflections on what extraterrestrial intelligences might be like and how they might communicate. Sagan's words are both inspiring and humbling: 
 

    "We are like the inhabitants of an isolated valley in New Guinea who communicate with societies in neighboring valleys (quite different societies, I might add) by runner and by drum. When asked how a very advanced society will communicate, they might guess by an extremely rapid runner or by an improbably large drum. They might not guess a technology beyond their ken. And yet, all the while, a vast international cable and radio traffic passes over them, around them, and through them... 
    "We will listen for the interstellar drums, but we will miss the interstellar cables. We are likely to receive our first messages from the drummers of the neighboring galactic valleys--from civilizations only somewhat in our future. The civilizations vastly more advanced than we, will be, for a long time, remote both in distance and in accessibility. At a future time of vigorous interstellar radio traffic, the very advanced civilizations may be, for us, still insubstantial legends." 
Here is how he introduced his 1980 public television series Cosmos
    CARL SAGAN: ("Cosmos" 1980) The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth. For the first time we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger, but our species is young and curious and brave. It shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made almost astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the cosmos and our place within it. I believe our future depends powerfully on well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mode of dust in the morning sky. 
    We’re about to begin a journey through the cosmos. We’ll encounter galaxies and suns and planets, life and consciousness coming into being, evolving, and perishing, worlds of ice and stars of diamond, atoms as massive as suns and universes smaller than atoms. But it’s also a story of our own planet, and the plants and animals that share it with us, and it’s a story about us, how we achieved our present understanding of the cosmos, how the cosmos has shaped our evolution and our culture and what our fate may be. We wish to pursue the truth no matter where it leads, but to find the truth, we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact. The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite inter-relationships, of the awesome machinery of nature. 
    The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can’t, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re "made" of star stuff. We are a way that the cosmos can know itself. The journey for each of us begins here. We’re going to explore the cosmos in a ship of the imagination, unfettered by ordinary limits on speed and size, drawn by the music of cosmic harmonies. It can take us anywhere in space and time. Perfect as a snowflake, organic as a dandelion seed, it will carry us to worlds of dreams and worlds of facts. Come with me. (music in background) 
     
In Sagan’s book, Pale Blue Dot, he makes a poignant description of humanity’s place in the universe.  Carl passed away before the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attack on New York and the Pentagon, but his insight holds true.  Please click here to read an interesting excerpt. 

Carl wanted to share the following with us from his hospital bed: 

    "I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking...the world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides...Five thousand people prayed for me at an Easter service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the largest church in Christendom. A Hindu priest described a large prayer vigil for me held on banks of the Ganges. The Imam of North America told me about his prayers for my recovery. Many Christians and Jews wrote me to tell about theirs. While I do not think that, if there is a god, his plan for me will be altered by prayer, I'm more grateful than I can say to those, including so many whom I've never met, who have pulled for me during my illness. Many of them have asked me how it is possible to face death without the certainty of an afterlife. I can only say that it hasn't been a problem. With reservations about feeble souls, I share the view of a hero of mine, Albert Einstein: I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I, nor would I want to, conceive of an individual that survives his physical death. Let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoting striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature." 
  
Bibliography 
  • Carl Sagan & Jonathon Norton Leonard & The editors of Life. Planets. New York: Time, Inc., 1966.
  • Carl Sagan and I.S. Shklovskii Intelligent Life in the Universe. New York: Random House, 1966.
  • Carl Sagan ed. Communicaton with Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1973.
  • Carl Sagan. The Cosmic Connection. An Extraterrestrail Perspective. New York: Doubleday, 1973.
  • Carl Sagan et. al. Mars and the Mind of Man. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. 
  • Carl Sagan. Other Worlds. New York: Bantam Books, 1975. 
  • Carl Sagan. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. New York: Random House, 1977.
  • Carl Sagan et. al. Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. New York: Random House, 1977.
  • Carl Sagan. Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science. New York: Random House, 1979.
  • Carl Sagan. Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980.
  • Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Comet. New York: Random House, 1985. 
  • Carl Sagan. Contact: A Novel. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. 
  • Carl Sagan et. al. The Nuclear Winter: The World After Nuclear War. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985.
  • Carl Sagan and Richard Turco. A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race. New York: Random House, 1990. 
  • Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for who we are. New York: Random House, 1992.
  • Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. New York: Random House, 1994.
  • Carl Sagan. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1996. 
  • Carl Sagan. Billions and Billions : Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. New York: Random House, 1997. 
  
 
To learn more about Carl Sagan, visit these web sites and web pages:   
 
 
 

 

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