Carl Sagan

On this date in 1934, scientist Carl Edward Sagan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Samuel and Rachel (Gruber) Sagan. Samuel was born in what is now Ukraine and Rachel in New York City. Sagan had his bar mitzvah at age 13 in a Reform synagogue. After earning bachelor and master's degrees at Cornell University, he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1960. After teaching and being denied tenure at Harvard, he became a professor of astronomy and space science and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell, where he worked until his death.

A great popularizer of science, Sagan produced the PBS series "Cosmos," which won Emmy and Peabody awards and was watched by 500 million people in 60 countries. A book of the same title came out in 1980. Sagan was author, co-author or editor of 20 books, including The Dragons of Eden (1977), which won a Pulitzer, Pale Blue Dot (1995) and The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995), his hardest-hitting on religion. With his third wife, Ann Druyan, he was co-producer of the popular motion picture "Contact" (1997), which featured a feminist, atheist protagonist played by Jodie Foster. He played a leading role in NASA's Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo expeditions to other planets.

Druyan, in the epilogue to Sagan's last book, Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium (published posthumously in 1997), gives a moving account of his last days: "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 from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching."

After suffering from bone marrow cancer and receiving three marrow transplants from his sister Carol, his sole sibling, he died from pneumonia at age 62 in 1996.

PHOTO: Sagan in 1951 as a high school senior in Rahway, N.J.

“If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I'd be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote. As with the face on Mars and alien abductions, better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. And in the final tolling it often turns out that the facts are more comforting than the fantasy.”

—Sagan, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" (1995)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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