Study Guide

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111205719-Sagan.jpg(Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: One of the most well-known scientists in the twentieth century, Sagan had the unique ability to simultaneously conduct significant astronomical and planetary research and make science interesting and accessible to the general public.

Early Life

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934, Carl Edward Sagan knew from an early age that he wanted to be an astronomer when he grew up. At that time, however, astronomy was a somewhat obscure field, and when the eight-year-old Sagan asked a librarian for a book on stars, she gave him a book on Hollywood film stars. Sagan persisted and eventually found what he wanted. Fascinated by the fact that the stars are like the Earth’s sun but merely farther away, he continued to read about science on his own. He also supplemented his reading with science fiction magazines, which he carefully evaluated for their scientific accuracy.

Even while avidly pursuing these interests, Sagan did not yet know that it was possible to make a living as an astronomer—he thought he would have to get a “regular” job during the day and indulge his astronomy hobby on evenings and weekends. While attending high school in Rahway, New Jersey, where his family had moved at the end of World War II, Sagan learned that it was indeed possible to pursue a career in astronomy. Fortunately, his parents supported his ambitions, and Sagan began studying physics at the University of Chicago in 1951 at the age of sixteen.

The University of Chicago, which had several Nobel Prize-winning scientists on its faculty, was an ideal environment for Sagan. He learned that other scientific fields such as biology and chemistry were also relevant to his interests, which had expanded to include the origin of life. He even organized a series of science lectures on campus, foreshadowing his later success as a popularizer of science.

Sagan continued his studies after graduation by pursuing a doctoral degree in astronomy and astrophysics under Dutch astronomer Gerard Kuiper at the University of Chicago campus in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Before receiving his doctorate in 1960, Sagan met and married biologist Lynn Alexander, with whom he later had a son, Dorian. Sagan held academic posts at various institutions, including Harvard University, before accepting a permanent professor position at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1968, where he remained until his death.

From the beginning of his academic career, Sagan proved to be an energetic researcher and writer, publishing numerous papers and articles over the years. In 1966, he wrote a nontechnical, educational book on planets that was published as part of a Time-Life science book series. In the same year, he coauthored Intelligent Life in the Universe with Soviet scientist I. S. Shklovskii, an unusual collaboration in light of the Cold War hostilities between the two nations at that time. Sagan also conducted significant research on such topics as the greenhouse effect on Venus and the composition of the atmosphere of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

Life’s Work

By this time Sagan was fairly well known in the scientific world as an expert on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. In fact, when Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick began working on the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), they consulted with Sagan about what the alien creatures in the film should look like. Ultimately, they followed Sagan’s advice and decided not to show the aliens.

Sagan’s entry into the public’s view, however, did not occur until 1972, when he made a brief appearance on The Tonight Show, hosted by comedian Johnny Carson, to promote a book of his essays titled Cosmic Connection (1972). Carson liked Sagan enough to invite him back a few weeks later, at which time the scientist spoke about one of his favorite topics, the history of the universe. Viewers were so enthralled with Sagan’s knowledge and charisma that he became a regular guest on The Tonight Show. Never before had a practicing scientist become so widely known to the American public.

After his success on The Tonight Show, Sagan realized that the general public could indeed find science fascinating if presented to them correctly and that he had a talent for doing so without abandoning the actual research itself. The dual nature of Sagan’s contributions is illustrated by the fact that he simultaneously served as editor in chief of Icarus, a highly technical scientific journal, and wrote several articles for Parade, a magazine supplement distributed in newspapers all over the United States every Sunday.

In the meantime, Sagan and his first wife had divorced, and Sagan married Linda Salzman, an artist, with whom he had two sons, Jeremy and Nicholas. In the early 1970’s, Sagan and Salzman worked together with the National Aeronautics and...

(The entire section is 2032 words.)