November 9th is a great day indeed, for it is on this day in 1934 that a tiny little sack of Carl Sagan shaped star dust was born. Happy Birthday Carl! And to all of you, Happy Carl Sagan Day!
Dr. Sagan, as I’m sure many readers are aware, was an extraordinary researcher lauded not only for his numerous scientific achievements but for his role as a science popularizer, one who spread his enthusiasm for planetary sciences like wildfire. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, young Sagan showed a strong affinity for the sciences, going on to continue his exploration of the physical world at the University of Chicago, earning his B.A., B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in physics, astronomy, and astrophysics before flying off to Berkeley as a Miller Fellow. He spent most of his illustrious career at Cornell as a professor, director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies, and Associate Director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research (CRSR). Sagan was also profoundly influential in the development of the US space program, working as a NASA adviser beginning in the 1950s. He authored over 600 papers, 20 books, and co-wrote and narrated the award-winning PBS series, Cosmos: A Personal Journey before his untimely death at the age of 62.
A crown jewel among the pantheon of scientific minds, Carl Sagan is remembered as a vivacious, brilliant, and controversial character. In honor of his life and work, I’ve penned a list of my eight favorite tidbits of Sagan trivia, one for each decade since his auspicious day of birth.
1. The Golden Record. In addition to assisting with deciding on the landing sites for Viking 1 and 2, the first spacecrafts to land on Mars, Sagan played a key role in the development of Voyager 1 and 2, particularly, by originating and developing the idea for the golden record, a phonographic message from Earth aboard the spacecrafts in the event that they were ever discovered by extraterrestrials. Voyager 1 and 2, which are currently the farthest man-made objects from Earth, both carry with them records of natural sounds, musical selections from various cultures and eras, and spoken greetings in over 50 languages. Engraved on the records are images both of scientific and cultural interest. Depictions of mathematical and physical quantities, the Solar System, and DNA sit side by side with pictures of humanity and animals, insects, plants and landscapes.
2. “Billions and billions.” This catchphrase of Sagan was so well known that it earned Sagan two units of measurement; the humorous, but bogus, unit of sagan, used to denote any large quantity and Sagan’s number, which is the number of stars in the observable universe, currently estimated at 70 sextillion (that’s 70·1021).
3. Butt-Head Astronomer. In the early 1990’s, Apple was set to release the Power Macintosh 7100, which it had code-named Carl Sagan, a clever tip of the hat to their hope that the company would sell “billions and billions” of the computer. Of course, when Sagan heard wind of this, he was less than pleased and wrote a strongly worded letter to Apple. Following this event, the fellows down at Macintosh renamed the computer “BHA” for “Butt-Head Astronomer.” While this amuses me greatly, the same cannot be said of Sagan, who proceeded to sue the company for libel. As the dust of this kerfuffle settled, the final name for the product was “LAW,” yet another cheeky acronym, for “Lawyers are Whimps.”
4. Cosmos. Together with Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, Sagan wrote and produced the incredible 13-part PBS miniseries entitled Cosmos: A Personal Journey, a whirlwind scientific journey that took viewers on a trip through the origins of life and the universe, a journey that would surely have Ms. Frizzle and the Magic School Bus brigade green with envy. Though not quite a sagan, with over 500 million viewers in over 60 countries, Cosmos became one of the most-viewed PBS show of all time. Widely celebrated (it even has its very own subreddit), this series won an Emmy and a Peabody award and remains one of the most treasured educational productions of the modern era. Sagan also published the book Cosmos as a complement to the series.
5. Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson brushed shoulders. Not going to lie, I get crazy fangirl feels every time I hear how Sagan met with Degrasse Tyson when he was applying to college. According to Neil, Sagan wrote him a letter, encouraging him to stop by the lab when he visited Cornell. Sagan’s kindness influenced Degrasse Tyson so much that he has continued the tradition of acting as a public educator and advocate for science. In fact, Neil Degrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan, one of the original authors behind the Cosmos series (and wife to Sagan), are working on a sequel to Sagan’s masterpiece, set to release next spring. When asked why this epic reboot was created (seriously, you need to watch the trailer), Druyan responded,
“…while it builds on some of the elements in the original series and certainly doffs its hat to Carl in many different ways, it’s a completely new series. And why? Because we’re coming out of a period of intense antagonism to science and we all thought that it was time to make the case for science, and make it in such a way that people would be on the edge of their seats the whole time.”
6. ET Phone Home. Now this title is a bit of a misnomer, as Sagan was not in the least convinced that extraterrestrials had visited Earth (insofar as, not in the form of UFOs and such), however Sagan was a huge proponent for the search for extraterrestrial life. His advocacy for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was so effective that it propelled the entire field into great respectability. Remarkably, Sagan’s petition for SETI in Science garnered signatures from 70 scientists, seven of whom were Nobel Laureates. A man of much influence indeed.
7. Vision of Mars. Perhaps it’s no surprise that such an influential scientist would have his mark on so many spacecrafts in space, but it never ceases to amaze me how many objects we propel into space that carry some signature of Sagan on board. Attached on board of the 2007 craft, Phoenix, is a DVD collection of literature and art about Mars as well as messages to future Martian people from Carl Sagan and others. You can listen to Carl’s visionary message to future human inhabitants of Mars here.
8. Pale Blue Dot. Lastly, as a parting thought, I’ll leave you with arguably one of Sagan’s most famous quotes. More a master of words than I can ever hope to be, Dr. Sagan certainly had a way of communicating the beauty and power of our universe in a nearly poetic and downright philosophical flourish of words.
“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that distant dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. “
For the full Pale Blue Dot monologue, click here.
Do you have any other favorite Carl Sagan facts? Let us know in the comments!