Wondrium Looks at Influential Astronomer Carl Sagan

popular scientist brought astronomy, planetology to general audiences

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Beautiful Milky Way, seen on a very cold night
Carl Sagan brought science and astronomy into the everyday lives of young people who profited by knowing they could explore the same worlds. Photo by Klopping / Shutterstock

Before Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, America’s favorite popular scientist was Carl Sagan. Sagan authored a Pulitzer-winning book about the evolution of intelligence and researched the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life. He also helped assemble the first physical messages to be sent into space, including the Pioneer plaque, and hosted the award-winning science television series Cosmos.

The famed astronomer, planetary scientist, and author led a fascinating life. In her video series Great Heroes and Discoveries of Astronomy, Dr. Emily Levesque, Associate Professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington, delves into how Sagan brought astronomy into the living rooms of the American public—and made it both accessible and fun.

Who Was Carl Sagan?

Born in Brooklyn in 1934, Carl Sagan frequented the Hayden Planetarium and read science fiction authors like Robert Heinlein and H. G. Wells, spurring his interest in science and science fiction. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago, before working as a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley and as a tenure-track professor at Harvard.

Unfortunately, Sagan was denied tenure amid criticisms that his approach to science was too broad.

“As a planetary scientist his work ranged from radio observations of Venus to work on the habitability of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons,” Dr. Levesque said. “Sagan’s work also necessitated studying biology, evolution, and climate science—an unusual approach at the time when researchers tended to choose and stick with a single specialty.”

In 1968, Sagan left Harvard in favor of Cornell, where, according to Dr. Levesque, he was encouraged to continue his multidisciplinary work. At the same time, he developed an interest in science communication and popular writing.

Sagan Was Best-Known for What?

Carl Sagan was not only an astronomer and planetary scientist, but also an author.

“In 1977, he published The Dragons of Eden, a book that explored the evolution of intelligence,” Dr. Levesque said. “The book, his debut science publication, won a Pulitzer Prize, and in the aftermath of this success he was approached by PBS to write and star in a science television series designed for a general audience. Cosmos premiered in 1980, to both popular and critical acclaim.”

Audiences responded well to Sagan’s clear and concise speaking and his easy-to-follow writing. Cosmos was also praised for its cinematic special effects, showing Sagan wandering through an illustration of spacetime or a simulation of interstellar flight on a spaceship. In many ways, it was like watching a nonfiction version of Star Trek or Star Wars. It catapulted him to being the most recognizable and well-known science communicator of all time.

“His efforts made him a hero to young viewers, who now saw astronomy and science as a world they could inhabit,” Dr. Levesque said. “He also made a crucial impact on older viewers who could now look at things like the Hubble Space Telescope and other taxpayer-funded endeavors and see, through Sagan’s eyes, the value they offered.”

Sagan passed away in 1996.

Great Heroes and Discoveries of Astronomy is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily