Carl Sagan Brought Astronomy Into Our Living Rooms

Biography of a visionary astronomer

Carl Sagan Biography For Teenagers

As a scientist, Carl Sagan contributed enormously to our knowledge of the solar system. He correctly predicted the existence of methane lakes on Saturn's largest moon Titan. When other astronomers had imagined Venus to be a balmy paradise he showed it to be dry, thick and unpleasantly hot. Carl went on to propose that the atmosphere of the early earth must have contained powerful greenhouse gases.

He played a leading role in every major spacecraft mission to explore the solar system in the 20th century: Mariner, Viking, Voyager, you name it. Carl also pioneered the search for extra terrestrial intelligence.

Carl Sagan Biography For Teenagers
with a model of Viking

But we know him as our personal astronomer. He was one of the first people to recognize the potential of mass-media for popularizing science. The question is, why did a full-time astronomer and chief adviser to NASA decide to sacrifice a glorious academic career for something as trivial as science communication? This is the Carl Sagan story.


Childhood

It all began in 1939. Carl was a young and curious five year-old. Night after night he used to look up at the twinkling dots of light in astonishment. One such evening, he asked his father, "Dad, what are the stars?"

His father almost instantly replied, "What, they are lights in the sky kid." But the young astronomer wasn't pleased with this answer. Upon noticing discontent on his son's face, Sam Sagan persuaded Carl to explore further.

Carl Sagan Biography For Teenagers

So one day, along with his mom, Rachel, five-year old Carl went to nearby public library in search for a book on stars. He was quite anxious as to what he would find in the book. The librarian smirked as she went looking for the book. Carl waited impatiently.

When she returned, all of Carl's enthusiasm turned into utter disappointment. She had with her a book on the Hollywood stars, wait what, those weren't the kind of stars that concerned an astronomer.

The librarian, a little embarrassed, shifted her attention to a different bookshelf. After searching for a while, she brought with her the correct book, titled, "secrets of the stars". She handed it to the young astronomer. This incident made a deep and lasting impression on a young Carl Sagan.


Career at NASA

Carl Sagan attended the University of Chicago where he came under the guidance of famous physicists such as Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller. As an undergraduate he worked for geneticist H.J. Muller and wrote a thesis on the origins of life.

Carl Sagan Biography For Teenagers

Carl Sagan went on to earn a masters in physics in 1956, before earning a PhD degree in 1960.

Then he became a visiting scientist to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he contributed to the making of the first Mariner orbiter mission to Venus.

The Mariner Orbiter confirmed his conclusions on the surface conditions on Venus in 1962. He also worked closely with NASA for the successful landing of man on the moon in 1969.

Next, he worked with NASA for the Viking space program which  was set up to explore the habitat and environment of planet Mars. For the first time in human history, a man-made object had landed on an alien world.

Carl Sagan Biography For Teenagers
viking on mars, 1976

However, the viking landing did not receive attention it deserved. The general public was widely unaware of a significant success in the field of space exploration. Was it not important to people? Was it not worth their time? These questions began to haunt Carl's imagination.

Therefore, just two years later in 1978, Carl Sagan began to work for a new TV show, Cosmos: a personal voyage. Its objective was to narrate to people the story of cosmic evolution, sciences and civilization. In 1980, the first episode of Cosmos was aired and became an instant hit.


Cosmos

Using the word "cosmos" rather than the word universe implies viewing the universe as a complex and orderly system; the opposite of chaos. Nobody had ever explained space, in all its bewildering glory, as well as Sagan did.

Carl Sagan Biography For Teenagers
ship of the imagination

Cosmos was seen in over 60 countries by more than 500 million people. It was the biggest show of the eighties.

In the fifth episode of the series, Sagan explained the kind of experiments performed by viking on the surface of planet Mars. The episode ends with the possibility of the colonization of Mars which became inspiration for the likes of Elon Musk.

During the same time, he was also working with NASA for the voyager space program whose mission was to investigate the outskirts of the solar system for signs of life.

Voyager 1, which had completed its primary mission and was leaving the Solar System, was commanded by NASA to turn its camera around and take one last photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space, at the request of Carl Sagan.

This picture is called The Pale Blue Dot.

Carl Sagan Biography For Teenagers
consider again that dot

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

The earth is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.


People's Astronomer

Through his appearances on TV and eloquent writings, he has shown many a times how space humbles as well as lifts. He brought astronomy into our living rooms.

Today, the word "cosmos" is on everyone's lips thanks to Carl Sagan. He made astronomy more accessible to people by popularizing it.

Carl Sagan Biography For Teenagers

In fact, Carl Sagan turned astronomy into a deep spiritual experience.

That we are not different from space but a little part of it, made from it. The nitrogen in our DNA, calcium in our teeth and iron in our blood were first forged in the interiors of the dying stars. That we are the star-stuff contemplating the stars is well and truly a great spiritual realization.

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