“Science is a joy. It is not just something for an isolated, remote elite. It is our birthright.” insisted Carl Sagan, a visionary known for his contributions to the field of astronomy and for his advocacy of science. Born in New York on November 9, 1934, Sagan came to be prominently recognised for his best-selling popular science books, including the Pulitzer-winning The Dragons of Eden and the Emmy award-winning television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. This show attracted the greatest viewership in American public television history, with at least 500 million viewers across 60 nations. The TV series also had an accompanying book called Cosmos, which also went on to become one of the best-selling science books of the time, won numerous awards and further inspired the sequel, the Pale Blue Dot.
Growing up with a fascination to learn about the stars he saw in the night sky, Sagan studied both biology and astronomy in college, and his research as an astronomer focused on extraterrestrial biology and the atmospheric conditions of planets. His earlier work first confirmed that the atmosphere on Venus was hot because of the Greenhouse effect and also suggested that the dust storms on Mars were responsible for seasonal fluctuations. As an adviser and consultant to NASA on numerous space missions, he was part of the team that transmitted global messages into space via the Pioneer Plaque and Voyager Golden Record if any extraterrestrial life intercepted them. His research on the atmospheric effects of nuclear radiation played a critical role in determining the current policies for the use of nuclear weapons in war, and he was a strong opponent of the nuclear arms race.
Apart from his academic achievements, Sagan left a lasting impact via his attempts to make science more accessible to the general public and to raise public awareness of scientific issues. He firmly believed that scientists had an obligation to explain science to the general public and made a significant effort to inspire the general population an enthusiasm for science while encouraging scientific scepticism and frequently criticising pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. He was often seen on major American talk shows and his appearances were very well received by the public thanks to his eloquence and ability to weave beautiful stories about science that captivated the audience.
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”Carl Sagan
Disappointed by the lack of media coverage for the Mariner 9 mission and the Viking landing on Mars, he sought sponsors for a TV film on space exploration, which later went to become the series Cosmos. Every episode of the show covered a different topic, from the evolution of the solar system and life on Earth to the concept of intelligence in humans, animals, and computers, and even delving into the possibility of intelligent life beyond Earth. The show also included historical and mythological anecdotes of astronomical observations and ancient calendars, which kept the average television viewer interested. The show in itself was also a pioneer in using special effects on a television screen that were comparable to major movies of the time, which further piqued public interest.
With the incredible success and popularity of the show, he became a very well-known face of science in the media and was even featured on the cover of Times magazine, where they called him the “Showman of Science,” “the nation’s scientific mentor to the masses,” and “America’s most effective salesman of science.”
Despite his huge success, he also dealt with criticism for his fame, with some even questioning his standing as an academic consequently. More conventional scientists thought his theories blurred the boundaries between scientific truths and speculations and that he was not serious about the pursuit of scientific endeavour. The criticism he received was so much so that the term “Sagan Effect” was coined, which refers to the idea that a scientist’s contributions to research are adversely correlated with their level of public appeal. He nonetheless went on to make significant advances in astronomy and space exploration. He was also recognised with honours for his contributions to the public welfare.
In recent times, as scientists have come to realise the importance of communicating science to the public and are encouraged more to engage in science outreach and advocacy, Sagan’s legacy as a pioneer in the popularisation of science continues to grow, and a newer generation of scientists and science communicators continue to draw inspiration from his enthusiasm for science.