December 21, 1996 in Nation/World

Astronomer Carl Sagan Dies In Seattle He Brought Science Into Our Living Rooms

David L. Chandler Boston Globe
 

To a generation of scientists, citizens and statesmen, Carl Sagan was an eloquent advocate for planetary exploration, a tireless defender of the search for other intelligences, a relentless foe of pseudoscience. To a generation of comic impressionists, the astronomer with the deep voice and deliberate, impassioned cadences was a ripe target for parody.

The combination helped make Sagan, who died Friday at 62, perhaps the best known and most influential scientist in the world.

Sagan died of pneumonia at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, after a two-year battle with a rare precancerous blood disease called myelodysplasia. He was surrounded by members of his family, including his wife and co-author, Ann Druyan.

Vice President Al Gore Friday spoke of Sagan’s “boundless enthusiam and his ability to communicate with passion and understanding the issues facing us as we explore the universe.” Gore called him “an enthusiastic optimist in the search for other life in the galaxy and a champion for understanding and protecting life on Earth as well as life among the stars.”

Sagan wrote more than 20 books, and his 1972 “The Cosmic Connection” was an international best seller. But it was his PBS television series, “Cosmos,” that brought him to the world’s attention. It became the most-watched public television series ever shown and has been seen in over 60 countries by a about 500 million people - about one person in 10 on the planet.

The accompanying book “Cosmos” is considered the most widely read science book ever published in English.

“No one (in science) had the recognition and the staying power and the clarity that he had,” said Philip Morrison, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and himself a respected popularizer of science. “He had a kind of poetic skill which is given to very few people.”

But despite his great popularity, which built over the course of 25 appearances on the “Tonight” show and regular articles in the Sunday Parade magazine, Morrison said Sagan “was a man of strong integrity. He never bent what he said to make people happy.”

For example, he was a forceful explainer of evolution even when speaking to fundamentalist Christians who held a creationist view. But he was always “very respectful, very patient with students who came out of a different background,” Morrison said.

Yervant Terzian, chairman of the astronomy department at Cornell University, where Sagan taught for almost 30 years, said Friday, “Carl was a candle in the dark. He was, quite simply, the best science educator in the world this century.”

Among Sagan’s graduate students at Cornell was David Morrison, now acting chief of planetary science at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Ames Research Center. He said Friday Sagan’s teaching was an extension of his remarkable gift for communicating science to the public.

“One reason he was such a superb teacher and popularizer was that he believed everyone could understand and appreciate science, and everyone could participate in it. Carl had a wonderful faith in people,” David Morrison said. “He was the pre-eminent spokesperson for science in our time.”

Sagan’s writings spanned a broad sweep of modern science, far beyond his own specialty of planetary astronomy. He wrote about the evolution of consciousness in “The Dragons of Eden,” which won a Pulitzer Prize; the consequences of nuclear war as co-author of the “nuclear winter” theory; the debunking of pseudoscience in his 1995 “The Demon-Haunted World,” and about life itself in Encylopedia Britannica.

But despite the popularity of his books, articles and television series, he remained a devoted practitioner of science, involved to the end in laboratory studies. He participated in the planning and interpretation of NASA’s missions of planetary exploration, including the Viking, Mariner, Voyager and Galileo missions.

His vision helped shape the direction of the US space program, and his efforts helped convince presidents from Carter to Clinton of the need for further exploration. He cofounded the Planetary Society, now the world’s largest nonprofit space advocacy organization with 100,000 members.

“In some ways, he’s played his role there,” said Morrison, explaining that after Sagan’s exhortations to direct the space agency toward a search for greater understanding of the origins of life, planets and the universe itself, that direction has now firmly taken root.

“What we’re really going to miss is the next thing he would have done,” whatever that might have been, Morrison said. “He was a real leader.”

Sagan’s first wife, biologist Lynn Margulis of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said Friday, “We have lost a great champion of the international space program.”

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. CARL SAGAN Born: Nov. 9, 1934 Educator: Research fellow, U. of Calif. (Berkeley), 1960-62; asst. prof., Stanford U., 1962-63; asst. prof., Harvard U., 1962-68; professor, director, Lab. for Planetary Studies, Cornell U., 1968 to present Adviser to: American Astronomical Society, American Geophysical Union, CETI Foundation, Intl. Academy of Astronautics, Smithsonian, NASA Host: 13-part PBS series “Cosmos”; winner of three Emmys; the series was seen by more than 500 million people in 60 countries. Author: 450 scientific papers and articles; 20 books, including best-seller “Comet” (1985) and Pulitzer Prize-winner “The Dragons of Eden” (1978)

Sources: International Who’s Who; research by Brenna Sink

2. SAGAN SCIENCE As a research scientist looking into space, Carl Sagan concluded through experimental models as a doctoral student that Venus had a surface temperature of 900 degrees so was considerably less habitable than many scientists believed. He was one of the first to determine that life could exist and probably did exist on Mars. He dislodged the long-held theory that “canals” and seasonal vegetation existed on Mars, establishing instead that fierce winds and dust storms caused the light and dark spots on the Red Planet. He was a pioneer in the emerging field of exobiology, the study of extraterrestrial life, and continually prodded NASA to extend exploration of the universe. He helped design and manage the Mariner 2 mission to Venus, Mariner 9 and Viking to Mars, Voyager to the outer solar system and Galileo to Jupiter. He also carried out extensive research relating to the origin of life, and was a member of a team that raised the specter that dust and smoke thrown up by explosions and fires in a nuclear war could lead to a devastating cooling of the atmosphere, or “nuclear winter.”

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. CARL SAGAN Born: Nov. 9, 1934 Educator: Research fellow, U. of Calif. (Berkeley), 1960-62; asst. prof., Stanford U., 1962-63; asst. prof., Harvard U., 1962-68; professor, director, Lab. for Planetary Studies, Cornell U., 1968 to present Adviser to: American Astronomical Society, American Geophysical Union, CETI Foundation, Intl. Academy of Astronautics, Smithsonian, NASA Host: 13-part PBS series “Cosmos”; winner of three Emmys; the series was seen by more than 500 million people in 60 countries. Author: 450 scientific papers and articles; 20 books, including best-seller “Comet” (1985) and Pulitzer Prize-winner “The Dragons of Eden” (1978)

Sources: International Who’s Who; research by Brenna Sink

2. SAGAN SCIENCE As a research scientist looking into space, Carl Sagan concluded through experimental models as a doctoral student that Venus had a surface temperature of 900 degrees so was considerably less habitable than many scientists believed. He was one of the first to determine that life could exist and probably did exist on Mars. He dislodged the long-held theory that “canals” and seasonal vegetation existed on Mars, establishing instead that fierce winds and dust storms caused the light and dark spots on the Red Planet. He was a pioneer in the emerging field of exobiology, the study of extraterrestrial life, and continually prodded NASA to extend exploration of the universe. He helped design and manage the Mariner 2 mission to Venus, Mariner 9 and Viking to Mars, Voyager to the outer solar system and Galileo to Jupiter. He also carried out extensive research relating to the origin of life, and was a member of a team that raised the specter that dust and smoke thrown up by explosions and fires in a nuclear war could lead to a devastating cooling of the atmosphere, or “nuclear winter.”

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