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Carl Sagan: The Man of "Cosmos"
Carl Edward Sagan was born on November 9, 1934, as the first child of Samuel Sagan and Rachel Molly Gruber, in Brooklyn, New York. Sagan was fascinated with space from a very young age. The New York World's Fair further elevated his interest in astronomy and helped create his future visions. He was also attracted by accounts of flying saucers, which suggested extraterrestrial life, and rapidly became a fan of the popular 1940s science-fiction stories in pulp magazines.
Sagan graduated from high school in 1951, at sixteen, then attended the University of Chicago, earning B.S. and M.S. degrees in physics in 1955 and 1956, respectively. He earned PhD in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960. Later, Sagan relocated to California and accepted a position as an astronomy fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. He worked with a team to create an infrared radiometer for NASA's Mariner 2 robotic probe. During this time, he grew interested in the potential of extraterrestrial life and the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), a contentious study subject that he helped to progress significantly.
Sagan spent the 1960s at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, where he studied the physical state of the planets, particularly Venus and Jupiter. Sagan was appointed director of Cornell University's Laboratory for Planetary Studies in 1968, and three years later, he was promoted to full professor. Sagan assisted NASA in determining where the Viking probes would land on Mars and crafting the messages from Earth that were sent out with the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft beyond our solar system.
Sagan began speaking out on various fringe themes, including the possibility of interstellar flight, the idea that aliens visited Earth thousands of years ago, and the existence of animals resembling "gas bags" high in Jupiter's atmosphere. During this time, he also spoke before Congress regarding UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects), which had captured the public's imagination, and recommended terraforming Venus into a habitable world.
In 1968, as a well-known figure in science, Sagan temporarily served as a consultant on Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the gig was cut short due to a conflict of personalities. Nevertheless, Sagan was the most well-known scientist in the United States throughout the 1970s and 1980s, largely thanks to the books he produced. The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (1973), Other Worlds (1975), Pulitzer Prize winner, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (1977), and his 1985 novel, Contact, which was made into a film starring Jodie Foster in 1997, all piqued the scientific community's and general public's interest.
Sagan co-founded the Planetary Society, an international nonprofit organisation devoted to space exploration, in 1980, and he also authored and presented the enormously influential TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), a successor to Cosmos, was inspired by the iconic Pale Blue Dot image, which depicts Earth as a speck in space. Sagan uses a shot of the Voyager 1 spacecraft as a jumping-off point to describe humanity's location in the enormous universe and his future vision. In 1983, Sagan co-wrote a paper that popularised the term "nuclear winter," and the following year, he co-wrote The Cold and the Dark: The World After Nuclear War.
Several awards were bestowed upon Sagan over his career, including NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1977 and 1981 and the National Academy of Sciences' Public Welfare Medal in 1994, among many others. On December 20, 1996, at the age of 62, he died of pneumonia, a consequence of the bone-marrow disease myelodysplasia. Sagan's famous work Cosmos was brought back to television eighteen years later, this time with Neil DeGrasse Tyson as host, enthralling a new generation of viewers about what lay beyond Earth's atmosphere.