Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Hero: Carl Sagan

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Before Neil deGrasse Tyson, there was Carl Sagan. Handsome, articulate and witty, Sagan wasn't a man about town. He was a man about the cosmos. A tireless proponent of the universe, he was a pioneer in bridging the gap between science and nonscientists.

He was a giant among his peers, too. Sagan received 22 honorary degrees from colleges and universities throughout the U.S., published more than 600 scientific papers and articles, authored best-selling books and hosted a record-breaking public television series, "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," a 13-part series that originally aired in 1980 on PBS. For 10 years, it was the channel's most-watched show in the U.S. until "The Civil War." The series won three Primetime Emmy Awards, a Hugo Award and a Peabody Award in 1981. Thanks to 500 million fans tuning in from 60 different countries, "Cosmos" still reigns as the world's most-watched series from American public television.

He discovered how Venus was heated -- through the greenhouse effect (something scientists later learned also happened on Earth) and that the red color of Mars came from windstorm dust rather than vegetation. NASA explorations eventually proved he was right.

Sagan was born in 1934 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1960 with a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics, then taught at Harvard and Cornell, where he became the director of Cornell's Laboratory for Planetary Studies and the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences.

Some of Sagan's most memorable contributions occurred outside the classroom. During the 1950s and 1960s, he was NASA's astronaut whisperer. He offered advice to the Apollo crew before their journeys to the moon and conceived experiments for other planetary expeditions, including an interstellar record designed to greet the unknown inhabitants of deep space.

When Sagan died of pneumonia while battling bone marrow disease in 1996, he left behind a vast library of his life's work in the home he and his family had inhabited during the 1980s. The Seth McFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive opened to the public at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in November 2013, the same month Sagan would have celebrated his 79th birthday.

On a more humorous note, scientists have paid tribute to Sagan's deathless phrase (that he never said) "billions and billions," by naming a unit of measurement after him. The sagan is a number equal to at least 4 billion.

Crafted a Universal Message to Aliens
In 1977, two NASA spacecraft left Earth's orbit to afford scientists a closer look at Jupiter and Saturn. And then these celestial-bound twin craft did something even more extraordinary: They transported our message to the universe.

The spacecraft were part of the Voyager Interstellar Mission, and each carried a gold-plated disc designed to survive for a billion years in the hopes an alien civilization might receive it as a greeting. The recorded sounds spanned many possibilities, including the first words uttered to a newborn, greetings in 59 different languages, and music from new and ancient civilizations.

It was Sagan who came up with the idea to add a message to the universe, a "bottle cast into the cosmic ocean," as he put it. Although Sagan's voice isn't heard on the record, he was certainly a part of its creation.

The recording also captured one of science's most famous love stories, the one between Sagan and the project's creative director, Ann Druyan. The sensation of falling in love was so strong, Druyan had the electrical impulses of her brain and nervous system recorded so that it could be turned into music and placed on the Voyagers' recorded greeting when the spacecraft were launched into space on Aug. 20, 1977.

In 1981, Sagan and Druyan were married, and remained together until Sagan's death 15 years later.

Mentored Neil deGrasse Tyson
What may seem simple to one person often becomes profound to another. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the quick-witted astrophysicist, well known for hosting the 2014 version of the "Cosmos" series, received some valuable life lessons from Sagan as a high school senior.

Back on Dec. 20, 1975, Tyson traveled by bus from New York City to Cornell University to meet Carl Sagan. A busy author, astronomer and professor, Sagan had personally extended Tyson an invitation to visit after seeing his college application to Cornell, where he spoke about his enthusiasm for the stars.

"I already knew I wanted to become a scientist," Tyson would later say, "but that afternoon I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become."

After the personal tour of his lab, Sagan dropped Tyson off at the bus depot. As the snow was getting heavier, he told Tyson to call him if the bus was delayed so he could spend the night at his house.

Although Tyson opted to attend Harvard for his undergraduate education, Sagan's influence remained strong.

"To this day," Tyson said during an interview, "I have this duty to respond to students who are inquiring about the universe as a career path, to respond to them in the way that Carl Sagan had responded to me."

Has An Asteroid Named After Him
In 1994, Eleanor Helin, an expert at discovering asteroids, named her most recent finding (asteroid 4970) "Asteroid Druyan." The asteroid, named after Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan, was locked in an eternal orbit with another notable heavenly body: "Asteroid 2709 Sagan," the asteroid earlier named after Sagan. This was a wonderful birthday present and expression of love.

Made Turtlenecks His Signature Look
In March 2014, the "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" exhibit opened at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. The display showcased clips from the show reboot, as well as memorabilia from current host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and original host, Carl Sagan. Among the items was an article so iconic, it is forever linked to Sagan's persona: one of his signature turtlenecks. On Carl Sagan Day, an unofficial annual holiday on Nov. 9, the anniversary of his birth, Sagan fans are encouraged to wear a turtleneck sweater with a brown jacket -- and to "celebrate the beauty and wonder of the cosmos he so eloquently described."

Condoned Medical Marijuana Use
Perhaps taking the meaning of "high in the sky" to another level, Sagan secretly (then not-so-secretly) advocated that marijuana use was beneficial. In an essay he authored in 1969 at age 35 under the name "Mr. X," Sagan outlined marijuana's positive effects on his sensibilities. Marijuana, wrote Sagan, made music, art, food and sex better.

It wasn't until three years after Sagan's 1996 death that the author of "Carl Sagan: A Life," revealed him as the author of the pro-pot post. However, Sagan had already revealed himself as a marijuana advocate years earlier. During at least one interview, Sagan said he supported the legalized use of marijuana by the terminally ill.

"Is it rational to forbid patients who are dying from taking marijuana as a palliative to permit them to gain body weight and to get some food down? It seems madness to say, 'We're worried that they're going to become addicted to marijuana.' There's no evidence whatever that it's an addictive drug, but even if it were, these people are dying," Sagan said. "What are we saving them from?"

More information:
» National Geographic: "Carl Sagan and the Cosmos Legacy"

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