He is world-famous for writing popular science books and for co-writing and presenting the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which has been seen by more than 600 million people in over 60 countries, making it the most widely watched PBS program in history. A book to accompany the program was also published. He also wrote the novel Contact, the basis for the 1997 Robert Zemeckis film of the same name starring Jodie Foster. During his lifetime, Sagan published more than 600 scientific papers and popular articles and was author, co-author, or editor of more than 20 books. In his works, he frequently advocated skeptical inquiry, secular humanism, and the scientific method.
Sagan lectured annually at Harvard University until 1968, when he moved to Cornell University. He became a full Professor at Cornell in 1971 and directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies there. From 1972 to 1981 he was Associate Director of the Center for Radio Physics and Space Research at Cornell.
Sagan was a leader in the U.S. space program since its inception. From the 1950s onward, he worked as an adviser to NASA. One of his many duties during his tenure at the space agency included briefing the Apollo astronauts before their flights to the Moon. Sagan contributed to most of the robotic spacecraft missions that explored the solar system, arranging experiments on many of the expeditions. He conceived the idea of adding an unalterable and universal message on spacecraft destined to leave the solar system that could be understood by any extraterrestrial intelligence that might find it. Sagan assembled the first physical message that was sent into space: a gold-anodized plaque, attached to the space probe Pioneer 10, launched in 1972. Pioneer 11, also carrying the plaque, was launched the following year. He continued to refine his designs throughout his lifetime; the most elaborate message he helped to develop and assemble was the Voyager Golden Record that was sent out with the Voyager space probes in 1977.
At Cornell, Sagan taught a course on critical thinking until his death in 1996 from a rare bone marrow disease. The course had only a limited number of seats. Although hundreds of students applied each year, only about 20 were chosen to attend each semester. The course was discontinued immediately after Sagan's death, but was later resumed by Professor Yervant Terzian in 2000.
Sagan was among the first to hypothesize that Saturn's moon Titan might possess oceans of liquid compounds on its surface and that Jupiter's moon Europa might possess subsurface oceans of water. This made Europa potentially habitable for life. Europa's subsurface ocean of water was later indirectly confirmed by the spacecraft Galileo. Sagan also helped solve the mystery of the reddish haze seen on Titan, revealing that it is composed of complex organic molecules constantly raining down onto the moon's surface.
He further contributed insights regarding the atmospheres of Venus and Jupiter as well as seasonal changes on Mars. Sagan established that the atmosphere of Venus is extremely hot and dense with pressures increasing steadily all the way down to the surface. He also perceived global warming as a growing, man-made danger and likened it to the natural development of Venus into a hot, life-hostile planet through a kind of runaway greenhouse effect. Sagan and his Cornell colleague Edwin Ernest Salpeter speculated about life in Jupiter's clouds, given the planet's dense atmospheric composition rich in organic molecules. He studied the observed color variations on Mars’ surface and concluded that they were not seasonal or vegetational changes as most believed but shifts in surface dust caused by windstorms.
Sagan was a proponent of the search for extraterrestrial life. He urged the scientific community to listen with radio telescopes for signals from intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms. So persuasive was he that by 1982 he was able to get a petition advocating SETI published in the journal Science and signed by 70 scientists including seven Nobel Prize winners. This was a tremendous turnaround in the respectability of this controversial field. Sagan also helped Dr. Frank Drake write the Arecibo message, a radio message beamed into space from the Arecibo radio telescope on November 16, 1974, aimed at informing extraterrestrials about Earth.
Sagan was chief technology officer of the professional planetary research journal Icarus for twelve years. He co-founded the Planetary Society, the largest space-interest group in the world, with over 1,000,000 members in more than 149 countries, and was a member of the SETI Institute Board of Trustees. Sagan served as Chairman of the Division for Planetary Science of the American Astronomical Society, as President of the Planetology Section of the American Geophysical Union, and as Chairman of the Astronomy Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
At the height of the Cold War, Sagan became involved in public awareness efforts for the effects of nuclear war when a mathematical climate model suggested that a substantial nuclear exchange could upset the delicate balance of life on Earth. He was the last of five authors — the "S" of the "TTAPS" report as the research paper came to be known. He eventually co-authored the scientific paper hypothesizing a global nuclear winter following nuclear war. He also co-authored the book A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race, a comprehensive examination of the phenomenon of nuclear winter.
Sagan erroneously predicted in January 1991 that so much smoke from the Kuwaiti oil fires "might get so high as to disrupt agriculture in much of South Asia...." He acknowledged the error in The Demon-Haunted World: "as events transpired, it was pitch black at noon and temperatures dropped 4-6 C over the Persian Gulf, but not much smoke reached stratospheric altitudes and Asia was spared.
In his later years Sagan advocated the creation of an organized search for near Earth objects that would impact the Earth. () When others suggested creating large nuclear bombs that could be used to alter the orbit of an NEO that was predicted to hit the Earth, Sagan proposed the Deflection Dilemma: If we create the ability to deflect an asteroid away from the Earth, then we also create the ability to deflect an asteroid towards the Earth - providing an evil power with a true doomsday bomb. () ()
In March 1983, hoping to blunt the momentum of the nuclear freeze movement, Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative — a multi-billion dollar project to develop a comprehensive defense against attack by nuclear missiles, which was quickly dubbed the "Star Wars" program. Sagan spoke out against the project, arguing that it was technically impossible to develop a system with the level of perfection required, and far more expensive to build than for an enemy to defeat through decoys and other means — and that its construction would seriously destabilize the nuclear balance between the United States and the Soviet Union, making further progress toward nuclear disarmament impossible.
When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared a unilateral moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons, which would begin on August 6, 1985 — the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima — the Reagan administration dismissed the dramatic move as nothing more than propaganda, and refused to follow suit. In response, American anti-nuclear and peace activists staged a series of protest actions at the Nevada Test Site, beginning on Easter Sunday of 1986 and continuing through 1987. Hundreds of people, including Sagan, who had previously been arrested for participating in an anti-war protest during the Vietnam War, were arrested on two separate occasions as he climbed over a chain-link fence at the Test Site.
Cosmos covered a wide range of scientific subjects including the origin of life and a perspective of our place in the universe. The series was first broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service in 1980, winning an Emmy and a Peabody Award. According to the NASA Office of Space Science, it has been since broadcast in more than 60 countries and seen by over 500 million people.
Sagan also wrote books to popularize science, such as Cosmos, which reflected and expanded upon some of the themes of A Personal Voyage, and became the best-selling science book ever published in English; The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, which won a Pulitzer Prize; and Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science. Sagan also wrote the best-selling science fiction novel Contact, but did not live to see the book's 1997 motion picture adaptation, which starred Jodie Foster and won the 1998 Hugo Award.
From Cosmos and his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show, Sagan became associated with the catch phrase "billions and billions." Sagan never actually used the phrase in the Cosmos series, however his frequent use of term billions, and distinctive delivery with emphasis on the “b”, made him a favorite target of performers and comedy routines of Johnny Carson, Gary Kroeger, Mike Myers, Bronson Pinchot, Harry Shearer and others. Sagan took this in good humor, and his final book was entitled Billions and Billions and opened with a tongue-in-cheek discussion of this catch phrase. The indefinite and fictitious number Sagan has arisen in popular culture to indicate a count greater than 4 billion.
He wrote a sequel to Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, which was selected as a notable book of 1995 by The New York Times. He appeared on PBS' Charlie Rose program in January 1995. Sagan also wrote an introduction for the bestselling book by Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time.
Sagan caused mixed reactions among other professional scientists. On the one hand, there was general support for his popularization of science, his efforts to increase scientific understanding among the general public, and his positions in favor of scientific skepticism and against pseudoscience. Most notable perhaps was his ironically more emotional than scientific debunking of the book Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky. As popular as this condescending assault was with science writers and the public the flaws in its reasoning were ultimately brought to light by astronomer Robert Jastrow and Sagan's student, astronomer David Morrison. Concerning Sagan's great odds against a collision of 1 in 30,000 per 1000 years, using his statistical approach and Velikovsky's actual scenario, e.g., no grazing encounters, S. F. Kogan (Velikovsky's older daughter) showed the odds would be drastically reduced to 1 in 12 per 1000 years. Furthermore, Sagan's Appendix 3 on the cooling of Venus has nothing to do with cooling, but instead is a trivial identity that merely equates the heat radiated to Venus by the Sun in one hour at 6000K to the heat radiated from Venus in 3500 years at 79K. On the other hand there was some unease over the possibility that the public would misconstrue some of the personal positions and interests that Sagan took as being part of the scientific consensus.
Late in his life, Sagan's books elaborated on his skeptical, naturalistic view of the world. In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, he presented tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent ones, essentially advocating wide use of critical thinking and the scientific method. The compilation, Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, published in 1997 after Sagan's death, contains essays written by Sagan, such as his views on abortion, and his widow Ann Druyan's account of his death as a skeptic, agnostic, and freethinker.
In 2006, Ann Druyan edited Sagan's 1985 Glasgow Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology into a new book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, in which he elaborates on his views of divinity in the natural world.
In 1994, Apple Computer began developing the Power Macintosh 7100. They chose the internal code name "Carl Sagan", the reference being that the mid-range PowerMac 7100 should make Apple "billions and billions." Though the internal project name was never used in public marketing, it did come up in usenet postings and news of the name grew from there. When Sagan learned of this he sued Apple Computer to force the use of a different project name. Other models released conjointly had code names such as "Cold fusion" and "Piltdown Man", and Sagan was displeased at being associated with what he considered pseudoscience. (He was at the time writing a book discrediting pseudoscience.) Though Sagan lost the suit Apple engineers complied with his demands anyway and renamed the project "BHA" (for Butt-Head Astronomer). Sagan promptly sued Apple for libel over the new name, claiming that it subjected him to contempt and ridicule, but he lost this lawsuit as well. Still, the 7100 saw another name change: it was finally referred to internally as "LAW" (Lawyers Are Wimps).
Sagan wrote frequently about religion and the relationship between religion and science, expressing his skepticism about many conventional conceptualizations of God. Sagan once stated, for instance, that "The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard, who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by 'God' one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity. Sagan is also widely regarded as a freethinker or skeptic; one of his most famous quotations as seen in Cosmos, was "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." (This was actually based on a nearly identical earlier quote by fellow CSICOP founder Marcello Truzzi, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.) The quote is also known, under different wording, as the principle of Laplace — attributed to Pierre-Simon Marquis de Laplace (1749-1827), a French mathematician and astronomer: "The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness."
Sagan married three times: to biologist Lynn Margulis, mother of Dorion Sagan and Jeremy Sagan, in 1957; to artist Linda Salzman, mother of Nick Sagan, in 1968; and to author Ann Druyan, mother of Alexandra Rachel (Sasha) and Samuel Democritus (Sam), in 1981. His marriage to Druyan continued until his death in 1996.
Sagan was a user of marijuana. Under the pseudonym "Mr. X", he wrote an essay concerning cannabis smoking in the 1971 book Marihuana Reconsidered, written by Sagan's close friend Lester Grinspoon. In his essay, Sagan wrote how marijuana use had helped to inspire some of his works and enhance sensual and intellectual experiences. After Sagan's death, Grinspoon disclosed this to Sagan's biographer, Keay Davidson. The publishing of this biography, Carl Sagan: A Life, in 1999, brought much media attention to the issue of the use and legalization of marijuana.
Sagan warned against our tendency for anthropocentrism, and was the faculty adviser for the Cornell Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In the COSMOS chapter "Blues For a Red Planet" Sagan states "If there is life on Mars, then I believe we should do nothing to disturb that life. Mars then, belongs to the Martians, even if they are microbes."
Stuart Appelle notes that Sagan "wrote frequently on what he perceived as the logical and empirical fallacies regarding UFOs and the abduction experience. Sagan rejected an extraterrestrial explanation for the phenomenon but felt there were both empirical and pedagogical benefits for examining UFO reports and that the subject was, therefore, a legitimate topic of study.
In 1966, Sagan was a member of the Ad Hoc Committee to Review Project Blue Book, the U.S. Air Force's UFO investigation project. The committee concluded Blue Book had been lacking as a scientific study, and recommended a university-based project to give the UFO phenomenon closer scientific scrutiny. The result was the Condon Committee (1966-1968), led by physicist Edward Condon, and in their final report they formally concluded that UFOs, regardless of what any of them actually were, did not behave in a manner consistent with a threat to national security.
Ron Westrum writes that "The high point of Sagan's treatment of the UFO question was the AAAS's symposium in 1969. A wide range of educated opinions on the subject were offered by participants, including not only proponents such as James McDonald and J. Allen Hynek but also skeptics like astronomers William Hartmann and Donald Menzel. The roster of speakers was balanced, and it is to Sagan's credit that this event was presented in spite of pressure from Edward Condon". With physicist Thornton Page, Sagan edited the lectures and discussions given at the symposium; these were published in 1972 as UFO's: A Scientific Debate. Jerome Clark writes that Sagan's perspective on UFO's irked Condon: "... though a skeptic, [Sagan] was too soft on UFOs for Condon's taste. In 1971, [Condon] considered blackballing Sagan from the prestigious Cosmos Club".
Some of Sagan's many books examine UFOs (as did one episode of Cosmos) and he recognized a religious undercurrent to the phenomenon. However, Westrum writes that "Sagan spent very little time researching UFOs ... he thought that little evidence existed to show that the UFO phenomenon represented alien spacecraft and that the motivation for interpreting UFO observations as spacecraft was emotional".
Sagan again revealed his views on interstellar travel in his 1980 Cosmos series. In one of his last written works, Sagan argued that the chances of extraterrestrial spacecraft visiting Earth are vanishingly small. However, Sagan did think it plausible that Cold War concerns contributed to governments misleading their citizens about UFOs, and that "some UFO reports and analyses, and perhaps voluminous files, have been made inaccessible to the public which pays the bills ... It's time for the files to be declassified and made generally available." He cautioned against jumping to conclusions about suppressed UFO data and stressed that there was no clear evidence that aliens were visiting the Earth either in the past or present.
After a long and difficult fight with myelodysplasia, which included 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. Surviving him were his wife and five children. Sagan was a significant figure, and his supporters credit his importance to his popularization of the natural sciences, opposing both restraints on science and reactionary applications of science, defending democratic traditions, resisting nationalism, defending humanism, and arguing against geocentric and anthropocentric views.
The 1997 movie Contact, based on Sagan's novel of the same name and finished after his death, ends with the dedication "For Carl".
On November 9, 2001, on what would have been Sagan’s 67th birthday, the NASA Ames Research Center dedicated the site for the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Cosmos. "Carl was an incredible visionary, and now his legacy can be preserved and advanced by a 21st century research and education laboratory committed to enhancing our understanding of life in the universe and furthering the cause of space exploration for all time", said NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. Ann Druyan was at the Center as it opened its doors on October 22, 2006.
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 has at least three awards named in his honor: the Carl Sagan Memorial Award presented jointly since 1997 by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) and the Planetary Society; the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science presented since 1998 by the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences (AAS/DPS) for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public. Carl Sagan was one of the original organizing committee members of the DPS; and the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science presented by Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP). Sagan himself was the first recipient of the CSSP award in 1993. In 2006, the Carl Sagan Medal was awarded to astrobiologist and author David Grinspoon, the son of Sagan's friend Lester Grinspoon.
On December 20, 2006, the tenth anniversary of Sagan's death, a blogger, Joel Schlosberg, organized a Carl Sagan "blog-a-thon" to commemorate Sagan's death, and the idea was supported by Nick Sagan. Many members of the blogging community participated.