Happy birthday Carl Sagan!

Posted by David Eicher
on Monday, November 09, 2015

Credit: NASA/JPL
As many of you know, today would have been Carl Sagan’s 81st birthday. Carl changed the world of astronomy and also science popularization dramatically throughout his career, largely with the spectacular PBS series Cosmos, which aired in 1980 and opened the eyes of many to the universe.

I miss Carl Sagan and owe him much — he encouraged me to get into science popularization. There really has never been anyone quite like him before or since.

Here is a piece that I wrote for Astronomy a few years ago:

My first encounter with Carl Sagan came as a teenager when I readied for a late night of observing with my telescope. I hovered over The Tonight Show before heading outside and sat, mesmerized, as this Cornell University professor made astronomy relevant, exciting, and meaningful to ordinary Americans. Sagan didn’t utter “billions and billions” on that summer night; that phrase, gently lampooning his friend Sagan, arrived later from amateur astronomer Johnny Carson.

As I looked toward a career in astronomy and started publishing Deep Sky Monthly, I sent a latter to Sagan and included copies of my little publication on observing galaxies, clusters, and nebulae. It was mid-1977. I was 15 and he was 42. Busy as he was (although this was pre-Cosmos), Sagan wrote me a long letter that I received a week or two later. It absolutely made my year and inspired me to redouble my efforts in astronomy. Filled with career advice, the letter served as an inspiration for years to come.

Through a correspondence, I got to know Carl Sagan. What struck me most was how generous he was with his time and with his wisdom. He was truly a humanist who cared about people and was impressed with helping them in any way he could. When Cosmos ignited interest in astronomy through the airwaves of PBS, he sent me an inscribed copy of the accompanying Random House book, signed “For Dave Eicher / friend of the Cosmos.” I was awestruck.

In those days, Carl Sagan took heavy criticism from conservative or even jealous professional colleagues over his popularization of astronomy and science. To some, it was “selling out to the masses.” In the world that now exists, where too few people value science and know about its details, how those elitists would sing a different tune! Sagan realized the value of the Average Joe understanding and supporting science, and did more than just about anyone else to deepen that connection between science and the public.

When I finally met Carl Sagan and spent time with him at meetings, now as an editor at Astronomy, I was even more impressed. I was struck by his height (he was 5‘11” but for whatever reason seemed taller than that in person and shorter on TV), his softspoken, fatherly manner, his fine manner of dress, and his patient, caring gaze.

I recall how impressive it was to hear his views, in person, on a wider variety of subjects. This was no shallow TV presenter. At the “Comets and the Origin and Evolution of Life” Meeting in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in the fall of 1991, I sat with him in the back of a meeting room. He rattled off numerous interesting questions following many of the lectures, as well versed in a whole maze of specialized research as the speakers were.

Carl Sagan wrote for Astronomy magazine many times, from the earliest issues onward. He sent me his last contribution to the magazine in 1993, and it appeared in the 20th anniversary issue of the magazine, in a story about what was coming in astronomy’s future.

Three years later we all learned he was being treated for an illness, and I called him in late 1996 when he was in Seattle at the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He spoke, as always, with great caring in his voice. I asked him if he would be a member of the magazine’s newly forming Editorial Advisory Board, and talked about all the exciting things to come, unaware of the grave seriousness of his illness. In the most generous, compassionate way you could imagine, he simply said, “Dave, nothing would make me happier.”

Two weeks later he was gone, and we were all left stunned. Astronomy had lost its best friend and would never be quite the same again.

Follow Dave Eicher on Twitter: @deicherstar

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