Carl Sagan – A Journey’s End

January 1997
by Robert Novella

SAGANThe candle in the dark dimmed this past December 20 with the passing of Carl Sagan, world-renowned scientist, author, educator and skeptic. He unexpectedly lost his two-year battle with bone cancer, succumbing finally to pneumonia at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. He was 62 years old.

Carl Sagan first captured the world’s imagination in 1980 with his immensely popular PBS series Cosmos. Due to his talent for clearly explaining and demystifying science, Cosmos became the most watched series in Public Television history, attracting half of a billion people in sixty countries and winning both an Emmy and Peabody award. The book based on the series was on The New York Times bestseller list for 70 weeks and was the best-selling science book ever published in English.

Sagan was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. As such he had a leading role in the Voyager, Viking, and Mariner space probe expeditions to the outer planets. He even helped craft the messages the probes carried that may some day be found and interpreted by extrasolar intelligences. In recognition of his work, NASA awarded him medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, Distinguished Public Service, and the Apollo Achievement Award.

DEMONHe was a prolific writer with over 600 scientific papers and popular articles to his name and he wrote or co-authored more than 20 books including The Dragons of Eden which won a Pulitzer prize in 1978. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark , published last year, was his eighth New York Times bestseller and an eloquent elucidation of the necessity for critical thinking in today’s technological society. Sagan was deeply concerned that so few people understood science and technology even though society is increasingly dependent on it. This he considered a recipe for disaster. As he put it in The Demon Haunted World:

“I worry that, especially as the Millenium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us—then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

Carl Sagan’s great love of science was evident in everything he did. In all his books and television appearances his enthusiasm and devotion to science shined through. He had a tremendous desire to show the wonders and significance of science not as dry facts but as an extraordinary and unending journey of discovery.

“Science is still one of my chief joys. The popularization of science that Isaac Asimov did so well-the communication not just of the findings but of the methods of science-seems to me as natural as breathing. After all, when you’re in love, you want to tell the world. The idea that scientists shouldn’t talk about their science to the public seems to me bizarre.”

Carl Sagan Remembered by Friends and Colleagues

“Carl Sagan was one of the leading scientific skeptics in the world and a critic of anti-scientific and irrational attitudes, and perhaps the leading proponent of the scientific outlook and the methods of science. His untimely loss is deeply felt by the scientific and academic community.”

– Paul Kurtz, Chairman of CSICOP

“The nation and the world has lost one of its most articulate advocates of science and a brilliant dedicated teacher with the death of Carl Sagan. He contributed fundamentally to our understanding of the universe.”

-Former Vice President Al Gore

“This is a bleak day for science. Carl Sagan, more than any contemporary scientist I can think of, knew what it takes to stir passion within the public when it comes to the wonder and importance of science.”

– Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences

“In the Financial Times this year, I described him as ‘a beacon of clear light in a dark world of alien abductions and real-life X-files, of psychic charlatans and New Age airheads, of fatcat astrologers giggling all the way to the millennium.’ Carl Sagan was one of the great literary stylists of our age, and he did it by giving proper weight to the poetry of science. It is hard to think of anyone whom our planet can so ill afford to lose.”

– Richard Dawkins

“Carl was a candle in the dark. He was, quite simply, the best science educator in the world this century. He touched hundreds of millions of people and inspired young generations to pursue the sciences. He will be deeply missed by his colleagues and friends at Cornell and around the world.”

– Yervant Terzian, chairman of Cornell’s astronomy department

“We’ve lost Carl Sagan, and I can’t quite adjust to the fact. When Asimov went, it was bad enough, but now that both these bright lights have gone out, I’m desolated.

“Up until the end, he was confident, cheery, optimistic. Despite the ravages of his illness and the obvious, visible effects of the therapy he was undergoing, he made every public appearance he could. He was brave in the face of his demise, and went like the warrior he was.

“I urge you, if you have not yet read The Demon-Haunted World, his last book, please do so. Many months ago, I received a bound galley of that book, with a cautionary note not to prepare a review based closely upon it, since there were many planned changes due. When I eventually received the final version, I noted many instances where Carl had strengthened his language, upgraded and fortified his adjectives, and in general hardened his language. I had the chilling thought that perhaps he felt this might be his last statement about the pseudoscience, crackpots, frauds, and quacks that he so resented.

“I feel his loss acutely. He had the ability to captivate with his words, spoken or written. His students at Cornell worshiped him, and though his colleagues were often pedantically annoyed at his high public profile and expressed opinions that he should return to astronomy, he ignored that pressure — happily for us — and continued to be the great teacher of critical thinking that the world came to know and respect.
“A giant has fallen. We can only celebrate his life and continue to listen to him through his writings.”

– James Randi