“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
I remember watching a few old episodes of Cosmos: A Personal Journey in elementary school and being totally enthralled. Maybe it was the super smooth turtleneck and sport coat combo. Maybe it was that majestic side part. Maybe it was the cadence of his speech, which was so particular to him. But, undoubtedly, it was the sense of wonder Carl Sagan was able to share with his viewers that kept me unblinking and glued to my seat; it was his ability to tie physics to philosophy to biology to ethics and so on that inspired me. Though I will never claim to be anywhere near as badass as Carl Sagan, that mode of intersectional thinking has always been the way my own brain is hardwired to think about the world around me, and it was nothing short of wondrous to see it play out on the television screen while watching Cosmos.
Best known as a science communicator and popularizer, Carl Sagan was an astrophysicist, astrobiologist, cosmologist, astronomer, educator, author, and advisor to NASA. Born on November 9, 1934, the son of a poor family living in Brooklyn during the Depression, Sagan would eventually go on to brief Apollo astronauts before their moon missions and assemble the gold-anodized plaques that went into space on both Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11. He helped develop and assemble the Voyager Golden Record and was otherwise very involved with NASA’s unmanned exploration of the solar system, including participating in the Viking missions to Mars and the early Mariner missions to Venus.
Concerned not only with advancing scientific inquiry but with developing a more educated and scientifically literate citizenry, Sagan possessed a rare ability to teach to both laypeople, other scientists, and to all levels in between. When not bringing his enthusiasm for learning about our universe to the public, he was teaching in an academic setting. His first professorial gig was at Harvard where, after teaching for five years, he was denied tenure because of the very things that would make him so iconic to so many people – his broad range of interests (as opposed to a very narrow field of expertise), and his role as a science popularizer; which was regarded by many as just pilfering other scientists’ ideas for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. Cornell, however, embraced the wide breadth of his interests and his growing fame. He taught at Cornell for nearly thirty years. Last year, Cornell launched the Carl Sagan Institute—an interdisciplinary program that carries on one of Sagan’s passions: the search for life in the universe and better understanding of the emergence of life on our own “pale blue dot.”
His pursuit of scientific literacy led him to both the written word and the television screen. Sagan wrote well over a dozen critically acclaimed books, including The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977. Cosmos, an accompaniment to the television series, became the best-selling English language science book ever published, while the show itself won both an Emmy and a Peabody award. He also wrote Contact, upon which the Hugo Award and Saturn Award-winning movie was based, and which is definitely on my top 20 list of novels, in case you were wondering. He appeared often on The Late Show with Johnny Carson, which is where he became associated with the phrase “billions and billions.” He appeared on Ted Turner’s still-fledgling CNN and was interviewed by Ted Turner himself.
Though I am profoundly uncomfortable with the kind of sainthood attributed to him—or any person who has left this plane of existence— it should be noted that Carl Sagan impacted our world in many positive ways. As a feminist ally, he argued to other men the necessity of including women in scientific pursuit. He paved the way for another generation of science educators/popularizers like Bill Nye, who actually took Sagan’s astronomy course, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who Sagan tried to recruit to Cornell’s astronomy program. He inspired kids like me to indulge the curiosity of their inner, innate scientist and continually engage in critical thinking about the world around us. He encouraged everyone to reclaim their sense of wonder at the cosmos.
So, let’s take some time to celebrate Carl Sagan, to rekindle—even for a moment—our sense of wonder, to realize and revel in the fact that we are all made of star stuff.
Happy Carl Sagan Day!