It’s that time of the year—you know, when I get to unabashedly gush over my forever love of Carl Sagan. Again.
Born on this day, in 1934, Carl Sagan was an astronomer, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, cosmologist, science communicator, author, and a total badass. He contributed significantly to scientific inquiry into the possibility of extraterrestrial life, even demonstrating—with an adapted version of the Miller-Urey experiment—that basic chemicals can produce life-building amino and nucleic acids when exposed to ultraviolet radiation. He assembled the first two communications to go into space: the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record.
Voyager Golden Record playlist:
Fun fact: It was while assembling what was to be included on the Golden Record that he proposed to the woman who would be his third wife, Ann Druyan. Their courtship lasted the duration of a single phone call, at the end of which they were engaged to be married.
In that vein, I like to share with you some more of my favorite fun stuff concerning Carl Sagan in celebration of his birthday!
He concluded that Venus’ high temperature was due to the greenhouse effect.
The atmosphere of Venus was actually the subject of his PhD thesis; in it, he concluded that Venus’ temperature was due to (and could be calculated with) the greenhouse effect in an atmosphere heavily laden with carbon dioxide and water vapor. His conclusions were later supported by data sent back to Earth by the Mariner expeditions. It was this work that led him to become increasingly concerned about climate change here on Earth—another planet with an atmosphere rich in water vapor and with climbing levels of CO2. He warned that runaway greenhouse effect could easily lead toward disaster on Earth.
He also proposed that there are underground oceans on Europa, Jupiter’s second moon.
And, again, later NASA missions proved him correct. The Galileo mission showed a disruption in Jupiter’s magnetic field around Europa, implying that a different magnetic field is emanating from Europa. The most likely candidate for a material that could create the kind of magnetic signature detected by Galileo “is a global ocean of salty water.”
He was not one hundred percent sold on our ability to be trusted with Mars.
Shortly before his death in 1996, Sagan recorded a message to future travelers to and explorers of Mars. Years prior, though, in one of the chapters of Cosmos, he reminded us of how dangerous we have been for our own planet. He lamented that our misuse and abuse of Earth made him worry about what “uses” we might find for Mars and argued that, above any and all “use” Mars could have, the planet belongs to the Martians—even if those lives consist solely of microbes—and preservation of those lives must come first.
Interestingly, Star Trek: Enterprise actually included in the background of a scene a plaque denoting the site as Carl Sagan Memorial Station and honoring the landing of the first Mars rover. The plaque quotes the final sentence of Sagan’s message to future Mars explorers: “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars, I’m glad you’re there and I wish I was with you.”
He has an asteroid named after him: 2709 Sagan.
And it is locked in orbit with another asteroid, as was revealed during a party thrown for his sixtieth birthday by Cornell Astronomy. Asteroid 4970 was named “Asteroid Druyen” by its discovered Eleanor Helin.
Happy Carl Sagan Day!
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