Related topics

Astronomer, Science Popularizer Carl Sagan Dead at 62

December 20, 1996 GMT

SEATTLE (AP) _ Astronomer Carl Sagan, a gifted storyteller who extolled and explored the grandeur and mystery of the universe in lectures, books and an acclaimed TV series, died today at age 62 after a two-year battle with bone marrow disease.

Sagan died of pneumonia at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where he had a bone-marrow transplant in April 1995, said center spokeswoman Susan Edmonds. The center had identified his disease as myelodysplasia, a form of anemia also known as preleukemia syndrome.

Sagan helped transport an ivory tower realm into the living rooms of ordinary people, enthralling millions with his vivid writing and flamboyant television soliloquies.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1978 for ``The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence.″

In 1980, his 13-part Public Broadcasting Service series ``Cosmos″ became the most-watched limited series in the history of American public television, a record since surpassed by ``The Civil War.″

The series turned him into a national celebrity. Comics parodied his references to ``billions and billions″ of stars. While purists complained that he sometimes oversimplified and made significant interpretive errors, Sagan never shied away from the label of science popularizer.

``I wear the badge proudly,″ he said in a 1994 interview with The Associated Press.

Aside from his flair for making scientific ideas comprehensible and exciting, Sagan built up an impressive research record and always insisted that scientific investigation was his top priority.

``From when I was a little kid, the only thing I really wanted to be was a scientist, to actually do the science, to interrogate nature, to find out how things work,″ he said. ``That’s where the fun is. If you’re in love, you want to tell the world!″

In his early 20s, Sagan deduced from experimental models that Venus, long considered a habitable planet, was actually a foreboding place with a surface heat of about 900 degrees.

While teaching astronomy at Harvard in the 1960s, he established that fierce winds that sculpted the landscape, not seasonal changes in vegetation, explained the bright and dark patterns detected on Mars.

Harvard never offered him tenure, so when Cornell asked in 1968 if he would set up a laboratory for planetary studies, Sagan promptly accepted.

Having helped design robotic missions for the NASA since the late 1950s, Sagan made use of space-mission data in lab simulations to draw lessons about dust storms on Mars or the greenhouse effect of Venus.

He was always performing on the high wire, racing from the lecture circuit to spacecraft observations of planets to his writing desk in Ithaca, N.Y. When he got stuck on one project, he moved on to the next, letting his subconscious go to work.

``When you come back, you find to your amazement, nine times out of 10, that you have solved your problem _ or your unconscious mind has _ without you even knowing it,″ he once said.

Sagan began publishing at the age of 22, his early work mostly academic papers and books.

He began experimenting with the popular market in 1973, publishing ``The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective.″ The same year, he was off exploring the Hollywood star cluster, making the first of 25 appearances on NBC’s ``Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.″

``Cosmos,″ winner of three Emmys, retraced the 15 billion years of cosmic evolution that have transformed matter into life and consciousness. Among its topics: the origin of life, the evolution of galaxies and matter, the human brain and the individuals who helped shape modern science.

Co-written by his third wife, Ann Druyan, it first aired in 1980 and was seen by more than 500 million people in 60 countries. The companion ``Cosmos″ book spent 70 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, 15 weeks at No. 1.

In his 1994 ``Cosmos″ sequel, ``Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space,″ Sagan visualized mankind several centuries from now, concluding that humans need to settle other worlds in order to survive.

Once asked to explain the public’s insatiable interest in his rather esoteric essays, Sagan said: ``My sense is that the public is a lot brighter and more interested in science than they’re given credit for. They’re not numskulls. Thinking scientifically is as natural as breathing.″

Born in New York City on Nov. 9, 1934, Sagan said he had fully expected to follow his Russian-born father into the garment industry but began to chart a career in astronomy while at high school in Rahway, N.J.

While his parents knew little about science, they nurtured his sense of wonder and instilled a healthy skepticism, a mixture he said was the key to being a scientist.

He earned a physics degree from the University of Chicago in 1954 and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960. He was appointed lecturer and assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard in 1962.

In 1971, he became a full professor at Cornell in Ithaca, where his campus lecture series on science drew standing-room-only crowds.

Sagan occasionally journeyed into the political arena, pushing for more government funding of space missions and stricter measures to counter the environmental threats of ozone depletion and global warming.

As for UFOs, lost continents and the like, Sagan said the world could ill afford such pseudoscientific twaddle.

``We sometimes pretend something is true not because there’s evidence for it but because we want it to be true,″ he said. ``We confuse reality with our hopes and fears.″

Sagan was a firm believer in the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, noting that organic molecules, the kind that life on Earth is dependent on, appear to be almost everywhere in the solar system.

While detection techniques are limited to spacecraft and radio telescopes, finding out whether mankind is alone, or not alone, he believed, is one of mankind’s most important puzzles.