Carl, we hardly knew ye ...

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, March 30, 2007

It's hard to believe it's been 10 years since Carl Sagan died. As you know if you've been interested in astronomy for a long time, Sagan brought an enthusiasm for spreading his passion for astronomy to the public like no other astronomer in recent times. Had he lived to defeat the cancer that took his life December 20, 1996, Carl Edward Sagan would now be 72. For me, it's still difficult to accept he's gone.

I vividly remember watching the episodes of Sagan's landmark television series Cosmos on PBS in 1980. Stretched out on the floor of my living room in Ohio, accompanied by my mother and father, Sagan made astronomy, and science overall, spellbinding. That may be hard for some younger readers to fathom, but when Cosmos concluded, you really wanted to become an astronomer or at least run out and observe all night!

Beyond the science popularization, which Carl paid a price for from some of his skeptical colleagues, Sagan was a brilliant, accomplished researcher and a genuinely nice guy. When I was still a teenager, I received a correspondence from him flooded with advice about becoming an astronomer, interwoven with tips on my fledging astronomy project, which became Deep Sky Monthly magazine. Later, after I joined the Astronomy staff and I ran into Carl at professional conferences, I was always impressed with how thoroughly engaged he was. He was always ready with insightful questions aimed at his friends, looking at issues from unique points of view, and he was always tender and nice to a young follower, generous with his time and encouragement.

A short time before Sagan's death, I chatted with him on the phone, not knowing it would be my last conversation with him. He was receiving care at a special facility on the West Coast. As I asked him about becoming a member of Astronomy's new editorial advisory board, I had no idea Carl was as ill as he was. He obviously did. "Sure, I would love to," he replied, always mindful of being considerate and kind. "Nothing would make me happier," he generously said. A short time later he was gone. I miss Carl, and the whole world of astronomy, 10 years later, still misses his enthusiastic influence.

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