November 9th – Carl Sagan

“I think I’m able to explain things because understanding wasn’t entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand. I can remember what I had to do to figure it out. The very brilliant ones figure it out so fast they never see the mechanics of understanding.”

Carl Sagan

Carl Edward Sagan was born on November 9th, 1934, in Brooklyn, New York. His father was an immigrant from what is now Ukraine and worked in the garment industry. His mother grew up in New York, and was strong and overbearing, putting her own lofty ambitions into her son.

In 1939 his parents took him to the World’s Fair, where the four-year-old Carl experienced exhibits and technologies beyond what he had ever seen or dreamt of, and it opened up his mind to the World’s possibilities. He continued to feed his inquisitive nature by visiting the public library and museums. He was incredibly gifted and bored with the education offered by his public school, but his parents did not have the means to send him to a private school. In High School, he set his career goal to astronomy, and at the age of 16, was admitted to the University of Chicago. He received a BA in 1954, a BS in physics in 1955, an MS in physics in 1956, then a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics in 1960 (he was just twenty-six). 

After graduating, he went to the University of California, Berkeley, as a Miller Fellow, before becoming an assistant professor at Harvard. In 1968 he was denied tenure at Harvard, partly because of the broadness of his research and his growing celebrity status. He left Harvard and joined the faculty of Cornell University, where he stayed for thirty years. 

He worked as an advisor to NASA from the 1950s on.  

Sagan was married three times. In 1957, he married biologist Lynn Margulis, and they had two children, Jeremy and Dorion Sagan. They divorced in 1965. In 1968 he married artist Linda Salzman and they had a child together, Nick Sagan. In 1981, just after his divorce from Linda, Sagan married author Ann Druyan. They had two children, Alexandra (known as Sasha) and Samuel Sagan. Carl Sagan and Druyan remained married until his death in 1996.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Carl Sagan was the best-known scientist in the United States. 

His book The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (1973) made him a popular science writer. His television appearances, including more than two dozen on the Carson Show, made him famous.  

His book The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence was awarded the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. 

In 1980 Sagan narrated and co-wrote (along with his wife Ann Druyan) the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. It was the most widely watched series in the history of American public television, seen by at least 500 million people in 60 countries. Sagan followed the series with a best-selling book of the same title. 

Other notable books include Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), The Demon-Haunted World: Science as Candle in the Dark (1996), and Contact (1985)a sci-fi novel that is one of Sagan best-known works and was made into a film in 1987. 

In 1994 Carl Sagan was diagnosed with the rare blood cancer myelodysplasia. He died on December 20th, 1996, at the age of 62.

In 2012 the writer, producer, and director Seth MacFarlane (yes, of Family Guy) bought Sagan’s papers from his widow and collaborator Ann Druyan and donated the 800 boxes to the Library of Congress (Officially it’s the Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive.)

Lesson from Sagan:

I love Sagan’s statement that he was good at explaining because he had a hard time understanding. I feel this so deeply. Not being the smartest person in the room can be an advantage – especially for writing, where the whole point is to communicate. Whether it’s explaining the universe or simply writing a recipe – whatever you can understand and are able to share is a gift only you can give. 

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