Study Guide

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan Essay - Critical Essays

Sagan, Carl

Introduction

Carl Sagan 1934–1996

American scientist, nonfiction writer, novelist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Sagan's career through 1997. See also Carl Sagan Criticism (Volume 30).

An internationally renowned astronomer, Sagan is among the most influential popular interpreters of science in recent times. Best known for his role as the host of the award-winning television documentary Cosmos, Sagan is also recognized for his efforts to win credibility for the scientific search for extraterrestrial life and as a leading advocate for nuclear arms reduction. The best-selling author of The Cosmic Connection (1973), The Dragons of Eden (1977), Cosmos (1980), and the novel Contact (1985), Sagan celebrated the joy of scientific discovery and captured the imagination of a mass audience with his compelling speculations on the mechanizations of the universe and evolution of human life.

Biographical Information

Born Carl Edward Sagan in New York, Sagan was raised by his Russian-immigrant father, a garment cutter, and American-born mother in the Bensonhurst section of the city. Fascinated with the night sky as a youth, Sagan became engrossed in science fiction, particularly the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and at age twelve announced to his grandfather his desire to become an astronomer. Four years later he left for the University of Chicago on a scholarship, where he earned an undergraduate degree in 1954 and a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960. While at Chicago, Sagan earned a reputation as a nonconformist and even organized his own series of campus lectures. In 1957, Sagan married his first wife, scientist Lynn Alexander; a second marriage to Linda Salzman in 1968 also ended in divorce, and was followed by a third marriage to writer Ann Druyan. In 1960, Sagan began his scientific career as a research fellow in astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley. There he developed important hypotheses about the surface temperature of Venus and Martian wind storms. He then took up a teaching position at Harvard University while working at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Denied tenure at Harvard, Sagan left for Cornell University in 1968, where he worked as a teacher and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies until his death in 1996. Sagan also contributed to the de-velopment of NASA space-probe projects over several decades, including the unmanned Mariner 9 and Viking missions to Mars and subsequent Pioneer and Voyager missions to distant planets. His first major publication, Intelligent Life in the Universe (1963), was followed by the success of The Cosmic Connection, The Dragons of Eden, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1978, and Broca's Brain (1979). A popular guest on the talk show circuit, Sagan's fame as the unofficial spokesperson for the scientific community grew in 1980 with the PBS television program Cosmos, a thirteen-part series in which Sagan traversed a computer-simulated galaxy in search of the origins of the universe and life—both human and extraterrestrial. His book Cosmos, based on the television series, won a Hugo Award in 1982. Sagan's only novel, Contact, winner of a Locus Award, was adapted as a film in 1996. In his late works, Shadows of a Forgotten Ancestor (1992), Pale Blue Dot (1994), The Demon-Haunted World (1995), and Billions and Billions (1997), Sagan continued to take on the central mysteries of human nature and existence. He was also a prolific contributor to both scientific journals and popular magazines. He died in Seattle, Washington, of pneumonia, a complication resulting from myelodysplasia, a bone marrow disease from which he was recovering.

Major Works

Sagan's popular writings on the promise of modern science won wide appeal largely for their unusual ability to translate complex subjects into awe-inspiring commentaries on the possibility of space travel, human evolution, and life on other planets. With the publication of Intelligent Life in the Universe, a translation and abridgement of the work by Russian astrophysicist I. S. Shklovskii, Sagan emerged as a leading spokesperson for exobiology, the study of extraterrestrial environments and potential life forms. The book was one of the first of its kind to take the subject seriously. The Cosmic Connection provides a comprehensive outline of recent advances in planetary science, including the probable origins of the universe, stars and planets, and life on Earth. Sagan further expanded his ambitious investigations into the design and evolution of the universe in his television program and book Cosmos, both of which feature a semi-omniscient Sagan as cosmic guide and instructor aided by stunning intergalactic illustrations and photographs. Pale Blue Dot similarly explores the birth of the universe and solar system, space travel, and the future colonization of other planets through "terraforming." The title alludes to an astonishing photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager space-probe as it left the solar system, drawing attention to the humbling revelation that our planet is merely one among countless others. In A Path Where No Man Thought (1989), a collaboration with atmospheric scientist Richard Turco, Sagan reexamines the threat of nuclear war and the implications of "nuclear winter," a theory developed by Sagan and several other experts in 1983. According to their research, a massive nuclear strike could produce enough smoke to obscure the sun, resulting in a darkened, frigid, and uninhabitable world. Published as the Cold War drew to an end, in the book Sagan and Turco warn against the continuing danger of nuclear holocaust and recommend drastic reductions in U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals to a level of "minimum sufficient deterrence." In The Dragons of Eden, Sagan discusses contemporary neurophysiology and the genetic origin of human intelligence. His speculation, largely concerned with the history of human behavior, focuses on the interplay among three hypothetical stages of human brain development: the first and lowest is the reptilian R-complex, a vestige of our pre-mammalian progenitors that is responsible for aggression and ritual; the second is the limbic system, similar to that of birds and lower-order mammals, from which emotions and religion derive; the third and highest is the more developed neocortex or primate brain. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, co-written with his wife Ann Druyan, is a highly readable survey of human evolution, covering the birth of the solar system, formation of DNA, and study of physiological and behavioral similarities among humans and primates. Broca's Brain, named after nineteenth-century anatomist Paul Broca, who identified the source of articulate speech in the frontal lobe, contains a diverse collection of essays on the solar system, planetary exploration, robots, extraterrestrial intelligence, famous scientists, pseudoscience and religion, and a call for greater public support for science and technology. In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan holds the verifiable achievements of science and scientific method against dubious, unsubstantiated examples of phenomena and superstition. Seeking to demystify stories of UFO sightings, alien abductions, miracles, astrology, and New Age versions of spirituality, Sagan exalts the superiority of empirical testing and the ability of certain branches of science to predict the future. Revealing his abiding interest in the search for extraterrestrial life, Contact, his only work of fiction, explores the possibility of communication with a distant planet. In this science fiction thriller, scientists receive radio transmissions from the star system Vega. From these signals, in the form of rebounded television images of Hitler's 1936 Olympic games, they are able to decrypt mathematical instructions for the construction of a spacecraft. After two failed launches, an international crew is transported to an Earth-like environment where they encounter doppelgangers and apparitions. Discredited upon their return—Earth witnesses note that the vehicle never left the ground and their entire excursion lasted only twenty minutes—an American member of the crew, Eleanor Arroway, seeks to verify their voyage and discovers God's signature in a mathematical extrapolation of pi.

Critical Reception

Sagan is consistently praised for his great ability to communicate the esoteric dilemmas and discoveries of modern science to a general audience. In addition, he is highly regarded for his significant contributions to the study of Mars and Venus, NASA space exploration, and the nuclear disarmament movement. However, criticized and even resented by some members of the scientific community, he has been derided for his controversial interest in extraterrestrial life and accused of oversimplifying complex subjects to the point of inaccuracy for his nonspecialist viewers and readers. Others object to Sagan's materialist view of evolution, tendency toward reductionism, vehement denial of a godlike creator, and glorification of technological progress and the primacy of human reason. Despite his detractors, Sagan's infectious enthusiasm for science and dauntless speculation on the great mysteries of our cosmic origins inspired renewed public interest in the scientific enterprise. Along with Jacob Bronowski and Stephen Jay Gould, Sagan is credited for the popularization of science in the twentieth century.

Principal Works

The Atmospheres of Mars and Venus [with W. W. Kellogg] (nonfiction) 1961
Intelligent Life in the Universe [with I. S. Shklovskii] (nonfiction) 1963
Planets [with Jonathan Leonard] (nonfiction) 1966
The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (nonfiction) 1973
The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (nonfiction) 1977
Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (essays) 1979
Cosmos (nonfiction) 1980
Comet [with Ann Druyan] (nonfiction) 1985
Contact (novel) 1985, [with Ann Druyan and others] (screenplay) 1997
A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear...

(The entire section is 152 words.)

Criticism

Bruce Cook (essay date June 1980)

SOURCE: "Carl Sagan's Guided Tour of the Universe," in American Film, Vol. 5, June, 1980, pp. 22-7.

[In the following essay, Cook examines Sagan's popular presentation of science and astronomy on the television program Cosmos.]

This fall, when PBS launches Cosmos, its most ambitious series to date, the total effect may be a little like a thirteen-week funding appeal. But there will be no ringing telephones or heartfelt solicitations. The new show is far slicker than that. In fact, it may just be the slickest production of its kind ever undertaken on either side of the Atlantic. And why not? The driving force behind Cosmos, the man who will smile at you...

(The entire section is 3651 words.)

Frederic Golden (essay date 20 October 1980)

SOURCE: "The Cosmic Explainer," in Time, October 20, 1980, pp. 62-3, 65-6, 68-9.

[In the following essay, Golden provides an overview of Sagan's career and his production of the television program Cosmos.]

Scene: A living room in Brooklyn, circa 1946

Grandfather: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Boy: An astronomer.

Grandfather: Yes, but how will you make a living?

Flashing through the heavens like an extraterrestrial Tinker Bell, the spacecraft looks like something by H. G. Wells out of Walt Disney. At the...

(The entire section is 4059 words.)

William J. Harnack (essay date July-August 1981)

SOURCE: "Carl Sagan: Cosmic Evolution vs. the Creationist Myth," in The Humanist, Vol. 41, July-August, 1981, pp. 5-6.

[In the following essay, Harnack discusses the success of the television program Cosmos and Sagan's appearance before the American Humanist Association to receive its Humanist of the Year award in 1981.]

On April 18, 1981, the American Humanist Association, at their Fortieth Annual Conference held in San Diego, named Carl Sagan 1981 Humanist of the Year.

In his address, Sagan simply yet eloquently noted that plants, animals, and humans are all part of a whole. The Greeks, in glimpsing the distribution of the elements of the...

(The entire section is 969 words.)

Cynthia Thomiszer (essay date September 1982)

SOURCE: "Brain Theory and Literary Criticism: Sagan on Art," in Essays in Arts and Sciences, Vol. XI, September, 1982, pp. 87-95.

[In the following essay, Thomiszer considers Sagan's application of scientific discovery to explain the origin and significance of art in The Dragons of Eden. According to Thomiszer, "to confuse aesthetics with empiricism, as Sagan does, is to further confuse an already clouded issue."]

Science and art, so long perceived as mighty opposites, are enjoying a new recognition of kinship. The "two cultures," a model based on the disparate results of science and art, has been discarded. In its place has arisen a unified approach to both...

(The entire section is 3208 words.)

Thomas M. Lessl (essay date May 1985)

SOURCE: "Science and the Sacred Cosmos: The Ideological Rhetoric of Carl Sagan," in Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 71, No. 2, May, 1985, pp. 175-87.

[In the following essay, Lessl examines elements of religious discourse and rhetoric in Sagan's television program Cosmos. According to Lessl, Sagan's Cosmos provides "a mythic understanding of science which serves for television audiences the same needs that religious discourse has traditionally satisfied for churchgoers."]

A bomb outrage to have any influence on public opinion now must go beyond the intention of vengeance or terrorism. It must be purely destructive…. You anarchists...

(The entire section is 6132 words.)

Len Ackland (review date 6 January 1991)

SOURCE: "Chilly Scenes of Nuclear Winter," in The New York Times Book Review, January 6, 1991, p. 7.

[In the following review, Ackland offers praise for A Path Where No Man Thought.]

At their summit meeting in February, Presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev are scheduled to sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). That will be a good step toward disarmament and many people are bound to reckon that the threat of a global nuclear catastrophe has died with the cold war. But, in fact, the risk is far from gone.

In A Path Where No Man Thought Carl Sagan and Richard Turco, who were on the scientific team that devised the concept of...

(The entire section is 915 words.)

Alan Robock (review date March 1991)

SOURCE: "The Imparsible Dream?," in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 47, No. 2, March, 1991, pp. 43-4.

[In the following review, Robock offers praise for A Path Where No Man Thought.]

Soon after the theory of nuclear winter was published, Carl Sagan gave a briefing on the subject on Capitol Hill. Sagan described how, after a nuclear war, the thick smoke from burning cities and industrial plants would block out so much sunlight that the earth's surface would become cold and dark. Agriculture would be impossible for years and most of the world's population would starve to death. After his presentation, one member of the audience called him aside. "Carl," he said,...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Rudy Abramson (review date 15 January 1995)

SOURCE: "Light-Years from Home," in New York Times Book Review, January 15, 1995, pp. 12-13.

[In the following excerpt, Abramson gives a favorable assessment of Pale Blue Dot.]

Carl Sagan became a consultant to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration when it was still in its formative stage. During the more than three decades since, he has briefed astronauts for journeys to the moon, helped resolve some of the most intriguing mysteries about Mars and Venus and reigned as one of the principal gurus of planetary exploration.

Though honored for both public service and scientific achievement, Mr. Sagan is more renowned as a popularizer of space...

(The entire section is 867 words.)

Phillip Morrison (review date May 1995)

SOURCE: "Candid Camera," in Scientific American, Vol. 272, No. 5, May, 1995, pp. 106-7.

[In the following review, Morrison offers praise for Pale Blue Dot, concluding that "no recent book has done better at making plain the subtle nature and fascination of scientific investigation."]

This book opens with a generous gift to us all. It was made early in 1990, when the space probe Voyager completed its scripted dozen-year tour of duty. Well beyond Neptune and far north of the plane of the solar system, the craft received a final set of new commands, no part of the original mission. Look back, Voyager, to the now distant inner planets! Carl Sagan and a...

(The entire section is 1139 words.)

Arthur C. Clarke (review date June 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Pale Blue Dot, in Sky & Telescope, Vol. 89, No. 6, June. 1995. pp. 54-5.

[In the following review, Clarke offers praise for Pale Blue Dot, but objects to Sagan's reference to Wernher von Braun as a "Nazi-American."]

An honest reviewer must disclose any special interest, and in the case of this book I have several, starting with David Hardy's magnificent Marsscape on the dust jacket. A slightly different version appears on page 328, which was used for the jacket of my own book The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars. Frankly, I'm not sure which I prefer: they're both beautiful, but there's a subtle distinction between the two...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

Francisco J. Ayala (review date 26 July 1996)

SOURCE: A review of The Demon-Haunted World, in Science, Vol. 273, No. 5274, July 26, 1996, pp. 442-43.

[Below, Ayala presents a favorable review of The Demon-Haunted World, but disagrees with Sagan's reductionist view of scientific truth.]

In 1961 while driving at night in the White Mountains, Betty and Barney Hill sighted a bright object in the sky that seemed to follow them. Fearing for their safety, they left the main highway and took narrow roads, arriving home two hours later than they had expected. The experience prompted Betty to read a book that described UFOs as spaceships navigated by little men from other worlds, who sometimes abducted humans....

(The entire section is 1270 words.)

Richard Lewontin (review date 9 January 1997)

SOURCE: "Billions and Billions of Demons," in New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997, pp. 28-32.

[In the following review, Lewontin challenges Sagan's defense of science and scientific method in The Demon-Haunted World.]

"But the Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently: "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work."

                  —Colloquy between Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet

I First met...

(The entire section is 5435 words.)

Stephen Jay Gould (essay date 31 January 1997)

SOURCE: "Bright Star among Billions," in Science, Vol. 275, No. 5300, January 31, 1997, p. 599.

[In the following essay, Gould praises Sagan's contribution to the popular presentation of science.]

Saul despised David for receiving ten thousand cheers to his own mere thousand. We scientists often stigmatize, for the same reason of simple jealousy, the good work done by colleagues for our common benefit. Because we live in a Philistine nation filled with Goliaths, and because science feeds at a public trough, we all give lip service to the need for clear and supportive popular presentation of our work. Why then do we downgrade the professional reputation of colleagues...

(The entire section is 757 words.)

Jerry Adler (essay date 31 March 1997)

SOURCE: "Unbeliever's Quest," in Newsweek, March 31, 1997, pp. 64-7.

[In the following essay, Adler discusses Sagan's unshakable faith in science over religion even in the face of fatal illness.]

A man of science, Carl Sagan didn't want prayers; he wanted proof. He died still waiting for evidence.

Carl Sagan, the famous scientist and author, never asked for anyone to pray for him, although in his final illness many people did anyway. For two years prayers for his health filled the great Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. They rose (if prayers do rise) to the heaven Sagan had never seen in all his years of searching the sky, and were heard...

(The entire section is 1165 words.)