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A moment in time: Carl Sagan

Updated on April 12, 2013

Who was Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan was (and for many still is) an American astrophysicist, cosmologist, science communicator. For a long period of time he was professor of astronomy at Cornell University, and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. He is the author (or co-author) of more than 20 books and more than 600 scientific papers and he was a promoter of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Carl Sagan has an important role in the space program of the USA since the first steps. Since the beginning of the 1950's he was an adviser of NASA, he briefed the astronauts of Apollo before they went to the Moon and he had his role on the Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo expeditions to the planets.

More than that, Sagan was central to the discovery of the high surface temperatures of the planet Venus and the reddish haze of Titan.

Dr. Carl Sagan received the NASA Medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service twice, as well as the NASA Apollo Achievement Award.

"Or perhaps the records will never be intercepted. Perhaps no one in five billion years will ever come upon them. Five billion years is a long time. In five billion years, all human beings will have become extinct or evolved into other beings, none of our artifacts will have survived on Earth, the continents will have become unrecognizably altered or destroyed, and the evolution of the Sun will have burned the Earth to a crisp or reduced it to a whirl of atoms.

Far from home, untouched by these remote events, the Voyagers, bearing the memories of a world that is no more, will fly on".

- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994)

My teens, spent in the '80s, in a gray, Communist and very sad Romania, had a few moments that I would not forget, even if I lived in the most free, rich and cosmopolitan metropolis of the world. One of these moments is linked to Carl Sagan (I always like to tell his name before saying that he was an astrophysicist, astronomer, cosmologist, author). I "met" him through the national television (at a time when it broadcasted interesting programs, not only communist propaganda).

I was watching „Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” every Thursday night, sometime after 8 p.m., when I sit in front of the TV, recording my voice while reading the subtitle. I still understand why I wanted so much to keep all the information from that documentary. The access to this kind of information about the World or Universe practically didn’t exist in my country. That’s why I experienced a very strong paradox during that period. On the one hand, I regretted many things that eluded my scientific understanding. On the other hand, I felt that some invisible doors opened in front of my eyes. I didn’t need all the scientific knowledge of the scientist to be able to cross these doors threshold, all I needed was a pure desire to know, and this desire was the key to the gate of knowledge, then forbidden in Romania to a large extent. Every Thursday, and the following days, I was very excited and quite aware that due to the attention I paid to the text I lost some beautiful images of the film. But I was fascinated by the grandeur of Cosmos, by the permanent link between the Universe and our blue planet, by the elements of the Earth history which weresqueezedin the story.

The storyteller fascinated memost.Because I couldn’t verify the information (we were completely cut off from the world), I assumed that he was American, simply because, in my mind, an American should look, speak, explain like this. More than that, the film could not be done in another country than in America. After watching Thursday night's episode, I had a week at my disposal to write the text on paper and try to retain as many information I could, as if I was in front of an important exam. I felt like doing something very important and only me could understand the point of this scientific exercise. I still have, in a drawer of my personal library, those written, yellowing pages. They have resisted to movement from one city to another, to numerous books and to the passage of time.

After ’90s, when Romania left the Communist eclipse, I was happy to find in the library the book Broca's Brain, written by Carl Sagan. That book didn’t looke like Western books, it didn’t have a picture of the author on its back cover, but at least it had his name on the first cover, and this was everything for me. After all, I knew who Carl Sagan was. His image was/is still fresh in my mind. At the beginning of the ’90s it was too early to have internet, but I asked some Canadian friends news about him. Few weeks later I received their letter, and in the envelope I found a Canadian newspaper article with a photo of an older man. That photo was taken at a seminar presentation concerning nuclear threats. That man was not the narrator of my teens, that’s true, but he resembled a lot to that image. Some years had passed over him, but the smile was the same, and the eyes were too.

Then, in the Spring of 1997, I entered a bookstore. I was reading the titles as if I was looking for a book without remembering its title. Finally, my gaze was attracted by a book with a strange drawing on its fist cover: The Dragons of Eden. Author: Carl Sagan.

The Dragons of Eden was the only book I bought that night. In the next morning, after a search on the internet I found out that he left us for another (maybe better) universe, few months earlier, in December 1996. Since that day I believe in miracles. What unseen hand led me step into that bookstore and brought me that volume under my eyes? It was as if someone fulfilled my desire to learn more about Carl Sagan, shortly after his final departure. We are in 2012, and finally I got a number of books, articles, essays and films by Carl Sagan. This could be the final episode, or maybe this is just another beginning, another attempt to escape from a hostile daily space.

How amazing it is to be spiritually connected with people you have never met in the real life, but they practically filled your life with knowledge, joy and dreams! And how difficult it is to write about those you appreciate, respect and love, especially when there are oceans, life and decades between you and them...

Carl Edward Sagan will always be one of my greatest professors. I owe him so much!

"Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.

If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then, we are up for grabs for the next charlatan (political or religious) who comes rambling along".

- Carl Sagan, in his last interview, 1996

Carl Sagan on books


We are here: the Pale Blue Dot

About the Planetary Society

The Planetary Society was founded in 1980 by three men:

  • Carl Sagan was the first president of this society;
  • Bruce Murray is professor of Planetary Science at the California Institute of Technology, and in the period 1976 - 1982 he was Director of the NASA/Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory;
  • Louis Friedman is Secretary-Treasurer of the Board of Directors. He is very much enthusiastic about humanity's journey into the solar system.

The main goal of the society to inspire humankind to better understand our world, to explore other worlds and seek life elsewhere in the Universe.

Time travel

Carl Sagan Quiz

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