Carl Sagan Day: Let’s Make it Official!

Carl Sagan was born on November 9, 1934. Learn more about the movement to observe Carl Sagan day on that date every year.

November 9 is Carl Sagan’s birthday. If I had to name the one most influential person who inspired my love of cosmology, it would be Carl Sagan. His PBS program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was pervasive in 1980, the year I started university.

The special effects were mind-blowing for their time. There was something about the look and feel of Cosmos that drew us into Sagan’s mind. Then, through his imagination, we gained an appreciation of the Universe and the sciences that told its story.

It was the most-watched series ever on US public television (until Ken Burns topped it with The Civil War ten years later.) The series won two Emmys, for creative technical crafts and for informational programming. Cosmos also won a Peabody Award for creating “a new and better way of explaining what our Universe is all about.” Sixty countries have broadcast it, and more than a billion people have watched it.

people are observing November 9 as Carl Sagan Day

I mention all this because people are starting to observe November 9 as Carl Sagan Day. The Center for Inquiry in Fort Lauderdale came up with the idea. They meant it to be a day for celebrating science and inquiry. It has spread to other like-minded groups around the world.

We wholeheartedly support this initiative. There is one sad thing about it. That is, we know Carl Sagan for Cosmos, but we don’t hear much about how he got that role. We’re going to to do our bit to change that.

Sagan was fascinated by the stars and science in general almost from birth. As a small boy, he discovered that if he held two lenses at the right distance apart, it would magnify objects. He found that out on his own. He had a library card at five and visited the Hayden Planetarium at seven.

“There was a magnificence to it, a grandeur”

He later described those years, saying, “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..” His gift was his ability to impart that grandeur to others.

Sagan found high school a waste of time. He earned straight A’s effortlessly. These days, teachers would have moved him into a gifted program, but back then, only expensive private schools provided them, and his parents didn’t have that kind of money.

He won first prize in an essay contest, controversially writing that first contact with extraterrestrials might be as disastrous for humanity as contact with Europeans was for indigenous people. From an early age, he was a profound thinker and a polymath.

Carl Sagan started college at 16

The young Carl Sagan started college at 16. He earned all of his degrees at the University of Chicago, including his Ph.D. The title of his thesis was, Physical Studies of Planets. His early career began at Berkeley and Harvard during the 60s before settling into Cornell University, where he worked for the rest of his life as the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences.

Sagan got in on the ground floor at NASA, joining them as an advisor in the 1950’s. In the 60s, he got the job of briefing the Apollo astronauts before they took off for the moon. He also came up with some of the experiments for the robotic spacecraft exploring the solar system, like Pioneer 10 and 11. Readers will remember the famous Voyager Gold Record containing the voices of the Earth that the Voyager spacecraft carried. That was Sagan’s idea.

Although he was the epitome of a renaissance man, he managed to focus his science on his doctoral work – our solar system. We noted in an earlier story about Venus, that he made major contributions to our understanding of that planet. These included the Mariner missions that confirmed his theories about its dense atmosphere and high temperatures.

warnings about climate change on Earth

Sagan applied his understanding of the greenhouse effect on Venus to issue warnings about climate change on Earth. He included those thoughts in the companion volume to the Cosmos television series. (Yes, scientists knew all about the greenhouse effect in 1980.)

Sagan was an active participant in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (SETI). He conducted experiments showing that amino acids form when basic chemicals get exposed to radiation. In 1966, he and Russian Astronomer I. S. Shklovskii released a book called Intelligent Life in the Universe.

Later, he wrote an article in National Geographic about life on other planets. He founded the Planetary Society, along with Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman, to advocate for public funding of SETI and space exploration in general.

Sagan’s wide-ranging interests got him in trouble

Sagan’s wide-ranging interests sometimes got him in trouble. It seems to be why he didn’t get tenure at Harvard before moving on to Cornell. The National Academy of Sciences also appears to have blackballed him. Reportedly, some of his peers thought he was an entertainer and a crowd-pleaser rather than a distinguished scholar.

Being offered a $2 million advance from Simon and Schuster for his bestselling science fiction novel Contact didn’t help his academic reputation. During his career, he published 20 books aimed at general readers.

Even so, it seems to me that it’s Sagan’s work in political advocacy and science communication that earns him a special day on our calendars. He opposed President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars).

part of a group who predicted nuclear winter

Around the same time, he was part of a group of colleagues and his former students who put forward the concept of nuclear winter. That’s the theory that detonating as few as 100 nuclear weapons (there were about 50,000 armed and ready worldwide back then) would cause unimaginable global cooling.

Throughout his life, Sagan advocated skeptical inquiry.  He was a constant critic of pseudosciences like astrology or claims of the paranormal. There is no question that he was a leader in the movement towards telling the new story of the Universe.

So, go ahead, mark November 9 on your calendars and start celebrating Carl Sagan Day. Remind yourself of the importance of being well rounded and having an inquiring mind.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Carl Sagan Day
Planetary Society
Perimeter Institute
NASA Discovery Program – 4 Bids to Explore Solar System
Why Mars? Why Not Life on Venus?
LightSail2: Come Sail Away

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