The Voyager Golden Record, The Sounds of Earth, 1977

An Introduction to Carl Sagan

If you’re anything like me, then you are not an astrophysicist.  But you might know that the universe is expanding.  Or maybe you donate to an environmental organization every once in a while. Maybe you work with medicine, plants, chemicals, or technology. Maybe you took biology in high school or college, or saw Interstellar in theaters this year (and Googled the ending to see if it was remotely plausible). Most of us know enough science to be interested in the world around us. We have one American author in particular to thank for that.

Carl Sagan, 1979
Carl Sagan, 1979

Carl Sagan may be one of the most influential science writers of all time… he was certainly among the best when it comes to popularizing the field.  He believed the nuts and bolts – and mysteries – of the universe are too important to languish in textbooks or lectures. So he contributed to nearly twenty books to bring science to broader reading audiences, through trade presses like Harper & Row and Random House.

For many folks, Sagan’s writing is the complete package. I personally love Cosmos (1980), which is a perfect blend of the literal and metaphorical exploration that defines so much great American writing.  But Cosmos is no piece of fluff.  Sagan was a rigid scholar, even if his writing was scandalously accessible in the 1960’s. The man held advanced degrees in physics and astronomy, directed the space research center at Cornell, and was a long-time advisor to NASA. Sagan’s writings aren’t whimsical productions of his imagination; they’re imaginative reflections of the real world.

Today Carl Sagan has reached his largest audience via his 1980 television show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. His scientific expertise grounds the show’s compelling graphics and imaginative script, and ultimately inspired not only 500 million viewers, but a 2013 revamp by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

The Voyager Golden Record, The Sounds of Earth, 1977
The Voyager Golden Record, The Sounds of Earth, 1977

Also: the Voyager Golden Record?  The record floating through space ready to let extraterrestrial life have a listen to Mozart and Chuck Berry?  That was yet another example of this unique American “celebrity scientist” capturing our imagination.  But it was all made possible whenever he put pen to paper:


“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery.  But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works–that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red?  It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”

– Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan, 1994


Jill Dwiggins

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