Happy Carl Sagan Day!
Today is November 9th, and on this day in science and skepticism history, Carl Edward Sagan was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1934.
Carl Sagan was arguably the most recognizable scientist in the world in the latter half of the 20th century. He was an accomplished scientist, specializing in astrophysics and planetary science. In the 1960’s, Carl’s contributions were central to the discovery of the high surface temperatures of the planet Venus. He was among the first scientists to hypothesize that Saturn’s moon, Titan, may have liquid compositions on its surface, and that Jupiter’s moon Europa may have oceans of water. He contributed to the understand of the seasons on the planet Mars. His contributions to the Voyager I and Voyager II spacecraft programs are still reaping dividends today. He helped perform research for the Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence program (SETI). Sagan was also one of the first high-profile figures warning people of the dangers of global warming, and a staunch proponent of nuclear weapon disarmament.
What cemented Carl’s legacy among the general public was his talent as a science communicator. He was an author of over 20 books, including bestsellers such as Pale Blue Dot, Broca’s Brain, the Pulitzer Prize winning The Dragons of Eden. Carl also wrote articles for public consumption, including weekly articles for Parade Magazine, which was the most widely read print magazine for many decades. He appeared on television interview shows, most notably 26 times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Of course, he also created, produced, and narrated the epic science series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which is still the most-viewed science series in the history of The Public Broadcasting System.
Perhaps the most understated and under-appreciated aspect of his body of work was as a champion and co-founder of the modern skeptical movement. He is credited with being one of the founders of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). The unofficial slogan of the skeptical movement, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” was spoken by Carl in his Cosmos series. His bestselling book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is considered by many as the single best book encompassing the modern skeptical worldview.
His delivery was singular, if not seemingly effortless. He could condense complex thoughts and ideas in to digestible bites for easy consumption, with a style and flair all his own. A few examples:
“Atoms are mainly empty space. Matter is composed, chiefly, of nothing.”
“There is no other species on the Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything.”
“We are made of starstuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”
It is practically impossible to think about where we would be today without the observations, visions, and eternal wisdom of Carl Sagan. He was, and remains to this day, as central to the craft of modern science communication as Albert Einstein was to the theory of General Relativity. Even in death, and especially in the digital age, Carl Sagan remains a force for science literacy, rationality, and critical thinking. Humanity continues to reap the rewards of the seeds he had sewn.