Carl Sagan

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Carl Sagan : biography

1934-11-9 – 20 December 1996

World War II

During World War II, Sagan’s family worried about the fate of their European relatives. Sagan, however, was generally unaware of the details of the ongoing war. He writes, "Sure, we had relatives who were caught up in the Holocaust. Hitler was not a popular fellow in our household … But on the other hand, I was fairly insulated from the horrors of the war." His sister, Carol, said that their mother "above all wanted to protect Carl … She had an extraordinarily difficult time dealing with World War II and the Holocaust". Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World (1996), included his memories of this conflicted period, when his family dealt with the realities of the war in Europe, but tried to prevent it from undermining his optimistic spirit.

Inquisitiveness about nature

Soon after entering elementary school, he began to express a strong inquisitiveness about nature. Sagan recalled taking his first trips to the public library alone, at the age of five, when his mother got him a library card. He wanted to learn what stars were, since none of his friends or their parents could give him a clear answer:

I went to the librarian and asked for a book about stars … And the answer was stunning. It was that the Sun was a star but really close. The stars were suns, but so far away they were just little points of light … The scale of the universe suddenly opened up to me. It was a kind of religious experience. There was a magnificence to it, a grandeur, a scale which has never left me. Never ever left me.

About the time he was six or seven, he and a close friend took trips to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. While there, they went to the Hayden Planetarium and walked around the museum’s exhibits of space objects, such as meteorites, and displays of dinosaurs and animals in natural settings. Sagan writes about those visits:

I was transfixed by the dioramas—lifelike representations of animals and their habitats all over the world. Penguins on the dimly lit Antarctic ice; … a family of gorillas, the male beating his chest, … an American grizzly bear standing on his hind legs, ten or twelve feet tall, and staring me right in the eye.

His parents helped nurture his growing interest in science by buying him chemistry sets and reading materials. His interest in space, however, was his primary focus, especially after reading science fiction stories by writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, which stirred his imagination about life on other planets, such as Mars. According to biographer Ray Spangenburg, these early years as Sagan tried to understand the mysteries of the planets, became a "driving force in his life, a continual spark to his intellect, and a quest that would never be forgotten."Spangenburg, Ray; Moser, Diane. Carl Sagan: A Biography, Greenwood Publ. (2004) pp. 2–5

Posthumous recognition

The 1997 movie Contact, based on Sagan’s novel of the same name and finished after his death, ends with the dedication "For Carl".

In 1997 the Sagan Planet Walk was opened in Ithaca, New York. It is a walking scale model of the solar system, extending 1.2 km from the center of The Commons in downtown Ithaca to the Sciencenter, a hands-on museum. The exhibition was created in memory of Carl Sagan, who was an Ithaca resident and Cornell Professor. Professor Sagan had been a founding member of the museum’s advisory board.

The landing site of the unmanned Mars Pathfinder spacecraft was renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station on July 5, 1997. Asteroid 2709 Sagan is named in his honor.

Sagan’s son, Nick Sagan, wrote several episodes in the Star Trek franchise. In an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise entitled "Terra Prime", a quick shot is shown of the relic rover Sojourner, part of the Mars Pathfinder mission, placed by a historical marker at Carl Sagan Memorial Station on the Martian surface. The marker displays a quote from Sagan: "Whatever the reason you’re on Mars, I’m glad you’re there, and I wish I was with you." Sagan’s student Steve Squyres led the team that landed the Spirit Rover and Opportunity Rover successfully on Mars in 2004.