Carl Sagan

55

Carl Sagan : biography

1934-11-9 – 20 December 1996

Death

After suffering from myelodysplasia, and receiving three bone marrow transplants, Sagan died of pneumonia at the age of 62 at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, on December 20, 1996.

He was buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Ithaca, New York.

Early life

Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Samuel Sagan, was an immigrant garment worker from Russia, in today’s Ukraine. His mother, Rachel Molly Gruber, was a housewife from New York. Carl was named in honor of Rachel’s biological mother, Chaiya Clara, in Sagan’s words, "the mother she never knew". Sagan graduated from Rahway High School in Rahway, New Jersey, in 1951.

He had a sister, Carol, and the family lived in a modest apartment near the Atlantic Ocean, in Bensonhurst, a Brooklyn neighborhood. According to Sagan, they were Reform Jews, the more liberal of Judaism’s three main groups. Both Sagan and his sister agree that their father was not especially religious, but that their mother "definitely believed in God, and was active in the temple … and served only Kosher meat". During the depths of the Depression, his father had to accept a job as a theater usher.

According to biographer Keay Davidson, Sagan’s "inner war" was a result of his close relations with both his parents, who were in many ways "opposites". Sagan traced his later analytical urges to his mother, a woman who had known "extreme poverty as a child", and had grown up almost homeless in New York City during World War I and the 1920s. She had her own intellectual ambitions as a young woman, but they were blocked by social restrictions, because of her poverty, her being a woman and wife, and her Jewish ethnicity. Davidson notes that she therefore "worshiped her only son, Carl. He would fulfill her unfulfilled dreams".

However, his "sense of wonder" came from his father, who was a "quiet and soft-hearted escapee from the Czar". In his free time, he gave apples to the poor, or helped soothe labor-management tensions within New York’s "tumultuous" garment industry. Although he was "awed" by Carl’s "brilliance, his boyish chatter about stars and dinosaurs", he took his son’s inquisitiveness in stride, as part of his growing up. In his later years as a writer and scientist, Sagan would often draw on his childhood memories to illustrate scientific points, as he did in his book, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Sagan describes his parents’ influence on his later thinking:

My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method.

1939 World’s Fair

Sagan recalls that one of his best experiences was when he was four or five years old, his parents took him to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The exhibits became a turning point in his life. He later recalled the moving map of the America of Tomorrow exhibit: "It showed beautiful highways and cloverleaves and little General Motors cars all carrying people to skyscrapers, buildings with lovely spires, flying buttresses—and it looked great!" At other exhibits, he remembered how a flashlight that shone on a photoelectric cell created a cracking sound, and how the sound from a tuning fork became a wave on an oscilloscope. He also witnessed the future media technology that would replace radio: television. Sagan wrote:

Plainly, the world held wonders of a kind I had never guessed. How could a tone become a picture and light become a noise?

He also saw one of the Fair’s most publicized events, the burial of a time capsule at Flushing Meadows, which contained mementos of the 1930s to be recovered by Earth’s descendants in a future millennium. "The time capsule thrilled Carl," writes Davidson. As an adult, Sagan and his colleagues created similar time capsules, but ones that would be sent out into the galaxy. These were the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record records, all of which were spinoffs of Sagan’s memories of the World Fair.