This Day in Jewish History / Popular Scientist Carl Sagan Dies

Carl Sagan brought his life-long enthusiam for science, space and particularly extraterrestrial life to the masses.

On December 20, 1996, astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan died. Sagan, who directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, is remembered for his ability to present difficult scientific concepts to the public and for sharing his enthusiasm and imagination regarding such topics as the possibility of life in other parts of the universe.

Carl Sagan was born November 9, 1934, in Brooklyn, to Sam Sagan, a garment worker who had immigrated from Ukraine, and Rachel Molly Gruber, a New York-born housewife. As an adult, their son claimed that he inherited his analytical side from his mother, while his “sense of wonder” came from his father. The family strongly identified as Reform Jews, and his mother, who was extremely devoted to her son, went to great lengths to protect him during his childhood from learning what was happening to the Jews – including family relatives – in Hitler’s Europe.

Carl showed scientific aptitude from a young age, his curiosity stimulated by a visit at age 4 or 5 to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He was particularly impressed by a time capsule on display, which was to be buried for the discovery of humans in a future millennium. Later, he brought a similar idea to bear on his proposal to send spacecraft to outer space carrying information about life on earth. Sagan helped design the plaques containing images depicting earth and human existence that were attached to both the unmanned Pioneer and Voyager craft, and intended as calling cards in the event they ever encountered intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Sagan was educated at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960, and where he also studied such subjects as genetics and wrote a thesis on the origins of life with Harold Urey, a pioneer in that field. He began teaching at Cornell in 1968, and spent the remainder of his career there.

Much of his professional work involved the study of the environments of the planets of the solar system and research into the possibility of extraterrestrial life. But he became an international celebrity from his many books written for the general public, and, principally, for the 13-part TV series “Cosmos,” first broadcast in 1980, and said to be the most-watched program in the history of the Public Broadcasting System in the United States. The series and an accompanying book were like a personal guided tour into the origins of life and the place of humanity in the universe.

Other best-selling books were “The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence” (1978) and “Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science” (1979), as well as the novel “Contact,” about an encounter between mankind and extraterrestrials, which made it to the big screen in 1997, after Sagan’s death. He also studied the topic of UFOs for much of his career, and debunked the conspiracy theories that suggested that government officials were hiding evidence that aliens had visited earth. He found no evidence that such visits had ever taken place.

Sagan became convinced that the fact that no evidence of life beyond earth had been found, despite the high probability that such life should exist (a riddle known as the Fermi Paradox), could be explained by the assumption that highly technological civilizations would have a tendency destroy themselves. This belief led him to become involved in the campaign to limit nuclear weapons, and to educate people about the damage nuclear warfare would do to the earth’s environment. As Sagan, who never saw his dream of finding life beyond his home planet, put it, “The flip side of not finding life on another planet is appreciating life on Earth."

Sagan died at the age of 62, after a two-year fight against myelodysplasia (bone-marrow syndrome).  

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