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Carl Sagan

David Duncan Professor Astronomy and Space Science; dir., Lab for Planetary Studies, Cornell Univ.
1934 to 1996

Carl Edward Sagan was born 9 November 1934 in Brooklyn, NY, the oldest of Sam and Rachel Sagan’s three children. When Carl was five, the Sagan family moved out of New York City to New Jersey, where he attended a public high school. He showed great academic promise in school, so much so that he was awarded a full scholarship to attend the University of Chicago. Sagan received a bachelor's degree in 1955, a master's degree in 1956 (both in physics), and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960, all at Chicago. He taught at Harvard University in the early 1960s before coming to Cornell University in 1968. Having been offered a position at Cornell as lecturer, the young Sagan insisted that he be fast-tracked to professor. He was elected the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences in 1971.

A diverse researcher, Sagan published on topics ranging from interplanetary meteorology to exobiology, the environmental effects of nuclear war and the origins of life on Earth. Sagan published more than 600 scientific papers and popular articles and was author, coauthor or editor of more than 20 books. He is also well known for his work on the PBS (Public Broadcasting System) series Cosmos.

In addition to lecturing, presenting television programs, and publishing, Sagan was actively involved in several of NASA’s unmanned expeditions to other planets, including the Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo projects. For 12 years he was also the editor of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. Sagan’s enthusiastic advocacy of the sciences and concern for the social and environmental effects of scientific research contributed to his dual role as both an important cultural and political figure and a serious academic.

Sagan was the recipient of numerous awards, including 22 honorary degrees in recognition of his work. His commitment to space exploration earned him NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and the NASA Apollo Achievement Award. Additionally, Sagan also was awarded the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award of the American Astronautical Society and the Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Medal of the Soviet Cosmonauts Federation. He was also the recipient of the Public Welfare Medal, the highest award of the National Academy of Sciences.

Following a two-year battle with myelodysplasia, a rare and deadly bone marrow disease, Sagan died on 20 December 1996 in Seattle, Washington. The cause of death was pneumonia. Sagan was survived by his wife and colleague, Ann Druyan, his sister, Cari Sagan Greene, his five children, Dorion, Jeremy, Nicholas, Sasha and Sam, and a grandson, Tonio.

Sagan’s more significant popular works include Other Worlds (1975); Cosmos (1981), Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1993), Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium (1997), Demon-Haunted World (1997), and Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1997).

  • Michael W. DeLashmutt, University of Glasgow