This is Carl Sagan: Galactic  Philosopher

The Space K Icons series delves into the stories of some of history’s most important and influential figures. In this entry, we take a look at the man who re-defined and articulated our fascination with the universe, and opened our minds to all of the wonders of the Cosmos: Carl Sagan.

Biography

Carl Edward Sagan is best known for his work on the television programme Cosmos, which aired in 1980. The American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, author, and more, was hugely influential in adding a poetic, transcendent element to his depiction of the universe, and humanity’s place within it.

Sagan was born in Brooklyn, New York City. His first encounter with free-thinking happened during disagreements between his parents: his mother was a sceptic, born poor in New York City with failed intellectual ambitions, and hoped ‘Carl would fulfil her unfulfilled dreams’. His father was a dreamer – who in his free time helped the poor and only considered Carl’s unusual inquisitiveness as part of growing up. These two ideas were so conflicted, they shaped his awareness of ‘uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method’.

Growing up during the Second World War, Sagan was protected by his family from the events in Europe, as they believed it would affect his optimism and chances of becoming a success. This type of sheltering caused a sense of alternate-reality during his adolescence – as the young man buried his head in science fiction stories about flying saucers and aliens for comfort. When he arrived at the University of Chicago, Sagan began an academic career that took him to Berkeley and later Harvard. Here his work centered on the physical conditions of the planets: particularly, Venus and Jupiter. In the meantime, he began conducting highly classified experiments with NASA which furthered the progress of space exploration. Some of these he breached in public interest.

Following his highly commended career in space engineering was a very long role in broadcasting. Having established himself within the scientific community, by 1968, Sagan was employed by Stanley Kubrick to consult on the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (however, this was short-lived as both men had difficulties working together). By the 1970s and 80s, Sagan was by far the most famous scientist in the US. His writing – in both fiction and non-fiction – captured the minds of audiences all over, asking readers to consider the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the expansive beauty of space. Soon after his early successes, he launched the series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage to huge acclaim (a sequel, Pale Blue Dot, was aired fifteen years later). It remains one of the most influential scientific programmes ever to have aired. This led to his continued reputation as a celebrity scientist, someone who offered as much entertainment to viewers and readers as serious intellect. With this influence, the final years of his life were committed to his political goals; one such example being his loud opposition to the Reagan administration’s position of nuclear armament, introducing the now-famous concept of a ‘nuclear winter’.

Sagan was loved and respected by the public and intellectual sphere alike. He was honoured many times during his career, receiving the highly-lauded Distinguished Public Service Medal from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences’ Public Welfare Medal.

Sadly, Carl Sagan passed away in 1996 at the age of 62. The cause was pneumonia.

What was Carl Sagan Known For?

Sagan is best known for the television programme Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which aired in 1980. The show’s concept was based around joining Sagan in a ‘spaceship’ that travelled to distant parts of the universe. He also found further notoriety when his novel Contact was also made into a popular Hollywood film starring Jodie Foster.

For a generation of viewers, Cosmos added an ethereal, dreamlike conception of space, asking them to try and conceive the vastness beyond the Earthly borders that our societal minds were confined to. His beliefs were clearly atheist; suggesting most famously that humans were made of ‘star stuff’, and emphasising the history of our planet as stretching back billions and billions of years ago. The poetical flourish in his articulation of the universe added a sense of oneness with space that had been missing in scientific investigation – and his warm-hearted public persona made him a sort of ‘father figure’ for a generation of space-fans.

Carl Sagan is also responsible for a myriad of unusually Eastern zen-like quotes and lines that sum up his philosophy of space. Some of these include:

‘We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself’
‘Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known’
‘We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever’
‘Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge’

Carl Sagan’s Contributions

His contributions can be divided between those that affected the scientific community, and those which shaped public perceptions of space.

During his career he had helped develop an infrared radiometer for NASA’s Mariner 2 robotic probe. He had also worked with NASA on the Viking, Pioneer, and Voyager probes – crafting the messages that would be sent out to space (in case of contact with other life forms).

Sagan is the man who popularised space exploration in the public sphere; who added scientific credibility to the idea of extraterrestrial life. Before his books and programmes achieved a wide audience, the concept of aliens was ridiculed; a fringe issue that conflicted with American Protestant principles. With his dignity and expertise on the subject, Sagan turned this narrative on its head. His image also changed the perception of science as something that was for ‘nerds’, and added a philosophical dimension that persists today in his protégés – one of whom is the much-beloved Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who created a sequel series to Cosmos in 2016.

Beyond space (if such a thing is possible) Sagan was hugely influential in the Cold War debate – shedding light on the possible catastrophes that humanity would face in the case of a nuclear fallout.

Carl Sagan is not only a scientist, but a philosopher and icon; a true original who brought the expansiveness of the universe into our living rooms, and who has, and will continue to have, a cosmic effect on generations of scientists