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Billions Upon Billions: The Legacy of Carl Sagan

Billions Upon Billions: The Legacy of Carl Sagan

On November 9th, 1934, Carl Edward Sagan was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father was an immigrant garment worker from present-day Ukraine, and his mother an American housewife. Carl’s mother, Rachel Molly Gruber, had academic ambitions as a young woman, but found that social restrictions (her class, her gender, her status as a wife, and her Jewish ethnicity) hindered her.

Sagan claims that he inherited his mother’s analytical nature and his father’s sense of wonder, and that these two characteristics were vital to his pursuit of the sciences. He described this influence thusly: 

“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.”

These traits, combined with a childhood curiosity about nature and the world around him, would propel Sagan into the sciences. He cites both a trip with his parents to the 1939 New York World's Fair and a visit to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History as formative moments during his childhood.

In high school, Sagan was an A student. He became president of his school’s chemistry club, and even set up a laboratory in his home. He pursued astronomy as a hobby, but once he found that he could have a career in astronomy, he set his sights on space. During his high school years, he entered an essay contest with a piece that asked whether human contact with advanced life forms from another planet might be as disastrous for us as European contact was for the Indigeous peoples of the Americas. Despite the controversial topic, he was awarded first prize.

After high school, Sagan attended the University of Chicago, enrolling at the age of 16. Sagan earned a Bachelor’s degree in Physics in 1955, a Master’s degree in physics in 1956, and a doctorate in physics in 1960.

During his career, Dr. Sagan made vital contributions to the study of the surface of Venus, was among the first to posit that Saturn’s moon Titan might contain liquid oceans, and that Jupiter’s moon Europa might contain liquid water. Dr. Sagan was also deeply concerned about global climate change, and in a 1980 essay, he wrote:

“The principal energy sources of our present industrial civilization are the so-called fossil fuels. We burn wood and oil, coal and natural gas, and, in the process, release waste gases, principally CO2, into the air. Consequently, the carbon dioxide content of the Earth's atmosphere is increasing dramatically. The possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect suggests that we have to be careful: Even a one- or two- degree rise in the global temperature can have catastrophic consequences. In the burning of coal and oil and gasoline, we are also putting sulfuric acid into the atmosphere. Like Venus, our stratosphere even now has a substantial mist of tiny sulfuric acid droplets. Our major cities are polluted with noxious molecules. We do not understand the long- term effects of our course of action.”

In 1985, Dr. Sagan would testify before Congress on the subject of global climate change.

Sagan’s colleagues would describe him as a big idea guy, and a master of “back of the envelope” calculations. It was this “big picture” tendency combined with his holistic view of the natural sciences that would make him perhaps the most important science communicator of his day. It gave him the ability to explain what is popularly considered a “hard” science in a way that was accessible to those of all age groups and education levels. It is in this role that most of us came to know Dr. Carl Sagan.

In1980, Sagan co-wrote and narrated Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. This series of 13 episodes became the most widely watched television series in the history of American public television, winning an Emmy and a Peabody Award. This launched Carl Sagan into pop culture, and brought science and space into the public imagination.

Dr. Sagan inspired members of our pop culture arena from Seth McFarlane to Neil Degrasse Tyson. During his career, he wrote more than 600 scientific papers and articles, contributed to more than 20 books, and chaired the committee that selected what sounds would appear on the golden records carried into space by the Voyager probes. He also orchestrated the “Pale Blue Dot photo taken by Voyager, and said about that photo:


Pale Blue Dot photo from NASA: earth as seen from the Voyager 1 spacecraft

"Every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there on the moat of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast, cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot."

Carl Sagan died in Seattle, Washington on December 20th, 1996. He was not just responsible for a wealth of scientific theory and discovery, but also for a vast cultural legacy. Space, nature, and the sciences were rendered accessible to millions by his books and by Cosmos. His ability to bring lofty subjects like astronomy down to earth inspired children to explore the sciences, to develop independent learning and critical thinking skills. He infected so many of us with his own sense of awe and wonder, and through him, we became better people.

To honor Dr. Sagan's life and incredible legacy, we offer a quote bar necklace bearing his quote: "Somewhere, something incredible waiting to be known." This quote captures his awe at the universe and hunger for knowledge. What better way to carry that with you than to wear it by your heart, as a necklace.