A Tribute to Carl Sagan

Between the excitement of the midterm elections and the flood of atheism-related news that has occurred this month, there was one very important date that passed almost unnoticed, but that I would be remiss if I failed to mention. Namely, November 9 was the birthday of the famous astronomer and skeptic Carl Sagan. If he were still alive, he would have been 72 this month.

Sagan’s scientific achievements were groundbreaking and hardly need me to recount them. During a time when the human species was taking its first tentative steps out into the solar system, he indisputably led the way. He was one of the primary scientific advisors on some of the earliest unmanned missions to study the planets, including the Pioneer, Viking and Voyager missions, and was the chief architect of the Voyager Golden Record that contains the images and music of our civilization, in case any extraterrestrial intelligence should happen to recover the probe millions of years in the future. He was one of the first scientists to hypothesize that Venus was boiling hot due to a runaway greenhouse effect, that Jupiter’s moon Europa contains subsurface oceans beneath a layer of ice, and that a haze of organic molecules rains from the sky on Saturn’s moon Titan, all of which turned out to be correct. He was also a well-known advocate of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and one of the trailblazing advocates who turned it into a respectable area of scientific research in its own right.

But despite his considerable scientific achievements, Carl Sagan is best remembered as a popularizer who brought the wonder and awe of science and the importance of skepticism to the public. That this aspect of his career often outshines his prolific scientific work is a measure of just how good he was at it. He was the author or co-author of many books eloquently expressing the romance and power of scientific discovery, including Broca’s Brain, The Dragons of Eden, Pale Blue Dot, The Demon-Haunted World, Billions and Billions, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, many of which are still personal favorites of mine. But the best-known of all his roles was as the host of Cosmos, an award-winning PBS television series and accompanying book whose grand sweep travels from humanity’s ancient past to the glorious diversity of life to the universe on the very largest of scales, and ends with an eloquent plea for peace and reason in the face of all the threats, mostly self-caused, that confront us. Cosmos is still the most widely viewed science documentary in the history of humanity; it is estimated that over half a billion people have seen it worldwide. I cannot think of a more worthy candidate for such an honor.

As my readers are probably aware, Carl Sagan’s life was cut tragically short. I will let this great man tell the story in his own words, in an excerpt from the last chapter of his final book, Billions and Billions:

…one morning late in 1994, Annie [Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan] noticed an ugly black-and-blue mark on my arm that had been there for many weeks. “Why hasn’t it gone away?” she asked. So at her insistence I somewhat reluctantly (black-and-blue marks can’t be serious, can they?) went to the doctor to have some routine blood tests.

We heard from him a few days later when we were in Austin, Texas. He was troubled. There clearly was some lab mixup. The analysis showed the blood of a very sick person. “Please,” he urged, “get retested right away.” I did. There had been no mistake.

Sagan had become ill with myelodysplasia, a rare and deadly form of leukemia. The only hope for survival was a bone marrow transplant, and by a stroke of good fortune, his younger sister Cari matched in all six genetic compatibility factors that would be needed for a successful one. Sagan went through several grueling rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and transplants, but the disease recurred, a few malignant cells escaping each round of treatment to kindle a new flare-up. In the end, it seems, he triumphed over myelodysplasia; but the treatment had taken a terrible toll, and his weakened immune system could not fend off a bout of pneumonia that wracked his lungs and, ultimately, ended his life. Ann Druyan was at his side as he died, and wrote in the epilogue to Billions and Billions:

Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching.

…For days and nights Sasha [his daughter] and I had taken turns whispering into Carl’s ear. Sasha told him how much she loved him and all the ways that she would find in her life to honor him. “Brave man, wonderful life,” I said to him over and over. “Well done. With pride and joy in our love, I let you go. Without fear. June 1. June 1. For keeps…”

The rawness of these words, written so soon after Sagan’s death, still stings my eyes even as I type this. The world is a slightly darker place without him, and though he has now been deceased almost ten years, I am often reminded of how much need we still have of him. His passing preceded, by only a few years, my discovery of his writings and my enthrallment by them. It is one of my few regrets that I never had the chance to write him a letter to let him know how much his work meant to me.

But more so, I regret knowing that he had the terrible misfortune to die before seeing so many of the wonderful discoveries humanity has made in the ten years since, many of which can be credited to his legacy. There is the Stardust mission that flew through the dusty corona of the comet Wild-2 and became the first spacecraft to return comet dust to Earth; the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe that has revealed the most detailed picture ever taken of the cosmic microwave background radiation, conclusively determining the age and large-scale structure of the universe; the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moons, including a lander that parachuted onto the surface of Titan itself; and the robot rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which even now are exploring Mars and uncovering astonishing evidence that, though the planet is now a freezing dry desert, it had a warm, wet, Earthlike past. Such discoveries would undoubtedly have brought Sagan much joy. I am sorrowful that he missed them, for he more than anyone else deserved to live to see them; but I find some small comfort in knowing that they at least were made, and that there are many more people eager to join the pursuit of scientific progress, some of whom were perhaps inspired to do so by Sagan himself, who will continue to raise the banner of discovery and raise our eyes to the awe and wonder of living in the cosmos.

Though many new brilliant and eloquent scientific popularizers have emerged over the past ten years, none of them match up to Carl Sagan. I mean no insult by saying so, and I trust none will be perceived. If, as the man himself said, science is a candle in the dark, then Carl Sagan’s candle burned brilliantly against that dark, glowing like a miniature sun. In that light was an eloquent hope of all that humanity could become, and a poignant reminder of how much we have in common and how insignificant the things that divide us truly are. Though we can never replace him, we can do the next best thing and carry forward the ideals he defended so powerfully. Rest in peace, Dr. Sagan. We will remember, and you have my word that we will not allow your candle to go out.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • TK

    Bravo, bravo, Ebon. As the Dr reminded us, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and this is a most extraordinary remembrance.

  • http://www.townofautumn.com/blog Martian

    All I can add to this is, beautiful post. Carl Sagan, you are indeed missed.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    The rawness of these words, written so soon after Sagan’s death, still stings my eyes even as I type this. The world is a slightly darker place without him, and though he has now been deceased almost ten years, I am often reminded of how much need we still have of him. His passing preceded, by only a few years, my discovery of his writings and my enthrallment by them. It is one of my few regrets that I never had the chance to write him a letter to let him know how much his work meant to me.

    So true. It was even more recently that I discovered him and his work, and it’s truly a shame he couldn’t still be alive today. But in the end, as the saying goes, we shouldn’t mourn that such a man died, we should rejoice that he lived.

  • http://www.toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/ toomanytribbles

    carl sagan has affected me deeply. i miss his presence so often it’s like i’ve lost a close friend.

  • andrea

    now you’ve gone and done it, Adam. Here I am sniffling at my desk. I hadn’t read the quotes from Ann before. I miss Sagan a lot. I remember trying to watch Cosmos on a very snowy tv screen since we lived out in the middle of nowhere and reception of the closest PBS station was very bad. Thankfully, my parents got me the book. I had an astronomy teacher like Dr. Sagan, Dr. Bill Suggs. When he died also unexpectedly, I cried like a baby. True teachers don’t come around very often.

  • Unbeliever

    The Science Channel has been replaying his Cosmos miniseries the past few weeks. I’ve had a chnace to see them again and better appreciate Sagan’s ability to explain complex ideas in a way that anyone can understand.

    You can feel his love for science in these shows. It is infectious. You walk away in awe of the majesty of the universe.

    He was a great man and the quintessential teacher.

  • Jeromy

    Very nice, Ebon. Sometimes it seems as if Sagan is still with us. His teaching will be for many years, no doubt. What always impressed me about him the most was his “down to earth” approach. He put across some fairly complex ideas in a format easily grasped by the general public. Who does that today? Names, anybody?

  • andrea

    Bill Nye does a decent job. He’s just so goofy, but I did like his Saturday morning show.

  • Doug Purdie

    Thank You Ebon. For the last twenty years I’ve been telling all who would listen that Carl Sagan, whom I have always referred to as America’s science teacher, is worthy of hero status. Not many would listen. It looks like you, unlike me, have an attentive audience. A thousand more Thanks to go with the first!

  • http://transsurvivalist.blogspot.com Mark Plus

    Carl Sagan shows that a man can live a worthwhile life without believing in the gods. Of course, having academic tenure and a pile of money from his books and TV series helped.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    now you’ve gone and done it, Adam. Here I am sniffling at my desk. I hadn’t read the quotes from Ann before. I miss Sagan a lot.

    I’m not ashamed to admit I get teary-eyed every time I read the epilogue of Billions & Billions. It’s a stark portrayal of Carl Sagan’s death (and the bravery with which he faced it) through the eyes of the people who loved him, and it always reminds me of how much I miss him.

    Incidentally, Ann Druyan appeared recently both on Freethought Radio and Point of Inquiry to discuss a new posthumous book by Carl Sagan, Varieties of Scientific Experience, that was compiled from a series of lectures he gave some years ago. I, for one, greatly look forward to reading it.

    He put across some fairly complex ideas in a format easily grasped by the general public. Who does that today? Names, anybody?

    Some of my favorite science popularizers at the moment are Carl Zimmer, Brian Greene, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’ve found that all of them are very good at conveying complex ideas in understandable form, and more importantly, all of them have that true love for scientific discovery that is conveyed in their work. That’s the most important part, I think. Even more so than the specific findings, the message we should be trying to convey to the public is that science is just plain cool.

  • http://northeastradio.co.uk Andy Fleming

    I share the sentiments in the eloquently written and beautiful tribute at the top of this page completely. Carl Sagan was indeed a very special person who through both the series and the book Cosmos, has changed my way of thinking about the cosmos and our place in it profoundly. My 10 year old son is hooked on both Cosmos and Contact, and through Cosmos is getting his first telescope for Christmas (we’ve used binoculars for many years!)

    I vaguely remember as a teenager being captivated by Carl, in the 1970s with his involvement in the NASA missions to the moon, Mars, and of course the Golden Record on Pioneers 10 and 11. I remember his passion and enthusiasm when he was frequently interviewed on BBC-TV.

    It is to my eternal shame that I missed both Cosmos when it was aired for the only time on BBC TV here in the UK in the early 80s, and the news of his illness and death in 1996. I even watched “Contact”, which enthralled my young family, thinking that it was an exceptional movie – not even knowing that it was by Carl – even those words “for Carl” didn’t register – Carl who?

    Which brings me to last summer, when totally by chance, trawling for stuff on space and astronomy on Google, the NASA site etc, I saw Carl Sagan’s name mentioned, his photograph and the superb reviews of Cosmos – everywhere. …And then I found the shocking news that he had died almost 10 years ago.

    We bought the series, and have avidly watched every episode a multitude of times. We bought and imported from the USA, “Pale Blue Dot” and the book to accompany the series “Cosmos”.

    I have never felt so sad and mournful at the loss of someone who I have never met, and whose death pre-dated our “getting to know him” through thirteen hours of Cosmos. A like mind with vastly superior knowledge and achievements, charisma, enthusiasm for science and zest for life, and a fantastic communicator and educator of ordinary people like myself – I feel I’ve lost a close friend. Truly unique, to me he was the “Mozart of science”, and the world and the human race is so much the poorer with his loss. His work is more relevant today than ever with superstitions, and racial and religious bigotry again threatening to engulf the human race. Our capacity for self destruction and the environmental armageddon of which he warned, are omni present.

    Carl – we all miss you.

    Andy Fleming and Family
    County Durham, UK

  • Snake

    Cosmos was my first space documentary and i was instantly hooked.I compare every doc which i saw to Cosmos after that, i can see why people miss him so much,we get drawn into his enthusiasm for knowledge,when i first heard “We are made of star stuff,we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself”,i knew i was in right hands.

  • http://ftlcreative.8m.com Francis Thomas Lunetta

    What I remember most about Carl Sagan is simple, …he made learning fun and most intersting, as a teen and young adult I would make sure I never missed Cosmos and when I was able to, I would record it on my tape recorder and fall asleep just listening to his voice. When I found out he died the first thought was “he aint dead, the goverment sent him to Mars to begin a new world for us!” Whatever, I’d like to think of him there, we should have transported his remains somehow.
    Thank you Carl Sagan for making me a smarter individual and a lover of your Billions and Billions of stars

  • http://www.robesonsky.com Ken Brandt

    Carl Sagan lives on in the works of the probes he built, the data still being mined from them, and the students he taught that have gone on to ‘come into their own’ as voices for scientific thought: Steve Squyres and Bill Nye immediately spring to mind. Steve Squyres is the Principal Investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover missions Spirit and Opportunity, which have done the grunt work of finding liquid water’s traces on both sides of Mars. A previous post called Bill Nye ‘goofy’…perhaps on television, not in person. I had the pleasure of hearing Bill speak a few months ago, and he makes a compelling case for immediate action to save the ‘pale blue dot’ we call home. And Carl’s voice and ideals come from a larger strand of voices, Carl’s legacy, of which I am a small and noisy part! A billion thanks, Carl!

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Sagan ignited in me a love of astronomy, and through that, science in general. I’m sorry to say that I never wrote to thank him for being such a positive influence. Good scientist and good man.

  • Dave Bowman

    December 04
    Carl Sagan
    Dr. Sagan inspired me as a child. Barely 14 years old and in love with science, his word was gospel to me. Well, almost 30 years later, he´s no longer a hero of mine. A radical dope-smoking leftist hippie weirdo can no longer be my heroe. Farewell Mr. Sagan, too bad you did not live up tp your own standards, scientific standards. You taught me those, but you were blinded by your politics. I have your books but now I can see how misguided you were. You fell into the very trap you wanted us not to fall into: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Nuclear winter, Iraqi oil fields, global warming… Damn it doctor, how could you go so wrong, veer so astray from realitiy. You were a scientist…truth is all we seek, understanding.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Is this a Modus Operandi sock?

  • http://www.antiquetissuecovers.com Patricia LaRaia

    Thank you for this tribute to the one in many lifetimes scientist.