April 9, 2020

06.10.11: A Carl Sagan Day Marathon!

Carl with a Viking mock-up on the set of Cosmos. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

The recent passing of Apple CEO Steve Jobs reminded us of another luminary of our age who passed way too soon; planetary scientist and science visionary Carl Sagan died December 20, 1996 at the age of 62 after a long fight with the rare form of cancer known as myelodysplasia. Cancer sucks, and by all rights, Carl should be with us today. Hardly a day goes by as we explore the universe or get another postcard snapshot from some distant corner of our own solar system that we don’t stop and think; “I wonder what Carl would have thought about this?”

To this end, the Saturday nearest his birthday on November 9th has become the official sort of Carl Sagan Day as it will be this year on November 12th. To this end, we here at Astroguyz thought to ourselves; wouldn’t it be great to celebrate all things Carl with a Cosmos marathon? The entire series is up for viewing both on Hulu and YouTube:

In addition, we’ll be using the hashtags #CSDTweetup and #CarlSaganDay to provide running Twitter commentary throughout… the episodes run about an hour in length, and we’ll start an episode on the hour every hour starting 8:00 AM EST/1:00 PM UTC November 12th to get optimal time zone coverage. So join in, wear your best tweed jacket and turtle neck, take a drink every time Carl says “billions…” and/or celebrate the mind of a man that inspired so many in the wonder and skepticism of science!

Review: How Old is the Universe? By David A. Weintraub.

Probably the toughest questions an astronomer ever has to field with the public are those in cosmology. How old/how big/how far are truly mind bending questions, and difficult to explain to the average man on the street in sound-bite style. This week, we look at David Weintraub’s latest, How Old is the Universe? out by Princeton Press. Fans of this site will remember our review of Is Pluto a Planet? also by Mr. Weintraub a few years back.

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Carl Sagan: A Biography by Ray Spangenburg & Kit Moser.

(Editor’s Note; This post is part of our ongoing tribute to Carl Sagan, the man and scientist.)

Think you know Carl Sagan? The recently published Carl Sagan: A Biography by Ray Spangenburg & Kit Moser out earlier this year courtesy of Prometheus Books will show you otherwise. Don’t forget, long before there was Carl Sagan the media icon/spokesperson for humanity via PBS’s Cosmos series, there was Carl the PhD student, family man, and planetary scientist. Perhaps no modern scientific visage (with the exception of Hawking) is immediately as recognizable as Sagan’s, turtle neck, elbow-patched jacket and all. This biography traces his roots from his Brooklyn childhood in the 30′s up through his college and PhD years to his work as a scientist at JPL, to fame via Johnny Carson and publication. The book ends with Sagan’s untimely death, which came way too soon.

Many fascinating aspects of Sagan’s life are brought to light. Sagan found himself in the right place at the right time on many occasions. Attending the 1939 World’s Fair first sparked his interest in science. Like many of us, his childhood subsisted of a steady diet of Sci-Fi, only it was Pulp magazines and Edgar Rice Burroughs back then instead of Star Trek and Battlestar. Later in college he rubbed elbows with such 20th century greats as Urey & Miller, who performed the first seminal experiments on the origin of early life, and Gerard Kuiper, the great planetary scientist. How I would have loved to have been a fly on the observatory dome wall during Sagan’s and Kuiper pre-dawn discussions at the McDonald Observatory!

But Carl’s personal life was as complex as the ponderings of the man himself. Married three times, he frequently fell prey to the same marital dilemmas that plagued Einstein and Gandhi; its just plain hard to be a “great” public persona while being a great father and husband! He was also vexed with achalasia, an esophageal condition that made swallowing difficult. Some of the behind the scenes portraits of Sagan’s work on the Cosmos series paint him as difficult to work with and uncompromising; but perhaps its this quality that has made the series itself so timeless and enduring.

For the record, Sagan got his PhD in 1960 in Astronomy from the University of Chicago for his thesis entitled: “Physical Studies of Planets”. It was a heady time for science, as the Russians had recently thrown down the technological gauntlet in the form of Sputnik. Science may not have been at the forefront of politicians’ minds as they eagerly funded the race to space, but men like Sagan assured that some science did indeed get done. Ironically, it was during the first flyby of another world, Mariner 2 past Venus, that his first marriage dissolved. Sagan was also crucial in bridging the gulf between Soviet and American scientists, no mean feat in beleaguered Cold War climes. He was also key to perhaps one of the greatest planetary exploration legacies of the 20th century; the Grand Tour of the outer planets, first with Pioneer, and then the Voyager space probes past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, utilizing the post-Apollo technologies to their best advantage. When Vikings I and II touched down on Mars, Sagan was there in JPL eagerly awaiting the images of his childhood world of Barsoom.

But it was for is later era of his life as a elder scientist & skeptic that he was best known. It seems as if a true sign of “making it” as a science writer is when the “cranks” start filling your inbox. It’s truly astounding the number of concocted-in-the-basement, alternative theories of cosmology and what not that have filled loose leaf notebooks over the years. After his first book, The Cosmic Connection, Sagan was introduced to this alternate world. Rather than dismissing it, Sagan carefully brought these folks in and introduced them to real science. His era as a celebrity properly began with his appearances on the Johnny Carson Show, who was himself an avid amateur astronomer. How many scientists make late night TV today?

It was via Cosmos that Sagan entered most of our households, explaining science and the state of man. I was enthralled by the show as a teenager; it was like a real life Star Wars! I especially remember how effectively Carl would convey how long and torturous a path our road to knowledge was, and still is. Scientific knowledge is not easy to come by; many obstacles had to be overcome throughout the ages.

Alas, Carl’s time with us proved to be much too short after his success as a science popularizer. Throughout the 1980′s he could be seen warning against nuclear winter, a term he himself brought into popular focus. He wrote several outstanding books, and continued to advocate the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in a new era of meager science funding. He also founded the Planetary Society, still one of the largest grassroots citizen science organizations.

Carl’s diagnosis and passing from pneumonia due to his battle myelodysplasia came as a blow to all. Carl had just turned 62 when he passed away on December 20th, 1996; next month, he would have been 75. He missed the opening of the movie Contact based on his only science fiction novel by mere months. One sees the whirlwind of scientific progress and the dilemmas we face and wonder what insight Carl would have, were he still with us.

Read Carl Sagan: A Biography to get a true feel for the man that shaped much of our thinking in the late 20th century. Few scientists have cast such a long shadow in not only the scientific, but political and cultural arenas. We still miss you Carl!



Remembering Carl.

(Editor’s note: Some may think that this week’s big post and book review are redundant, because they both cover the same famed scientist. Faithful followers of this site will however recall that we’ve done the same for such similar greats in the past, most recently Robert Burnham Jr. We’d like to think that the book review out this Friday covers the life and accomplishments as told in the biography of the man, while this piece relates Carl’s influences, both universal and personal. Let Carl Sagan week at Astroguyz begin!)



Some of my greatest heroes are scientists. Frequently maligned by the public and the media, few before or since have been able to convey the awe and wonder in science as Carl Sagan. A planetary scientist by trade, he might also be properly remembered as the first true exo-biologist. Like so many others, I was first introduced to the true modus operandi of science not in school, but by his ground-breaking series Cosmos. Its still worth digging up, and free for viewing on Hulu.com! Over the years, I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed over and over again by countless scientists; Carl got me into science. I first learned what the idea of evolution by natural selection was from Cosmos; how easy it all seemed! In a time that the world was posed on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, Carl showed us another way; a future in a universe that could be just the beginning for mankind, if only we chose it to be so. [Read more...]

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan stands as one of the great popularizers of modern science. Known best for the “Cosmos” PBS television series and companion book of the same name, “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” was perhaps his most vital work.

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Measuring the Circumference of the Earth: the Eratosthenes Method

  This is one I duplicated in High School that I first heard about on Carl Sagans’ Cosmos series.  Way back in the 3rd Century BC, the Greek philospher Eratosthenes of Cyrene devised a method of calculating the circumference of the Earth. [Read more...]