Carl Sagan Sagan, Carl

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 ,...

(The entire section is 32,873 words.)