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Carl Sagan brought 'billions and billions' of stars within reach

The founding members of the Planetary Society in 1970. Carl Sagan (sitting in the center with the brown coat) founded the Planetary society with Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman. Harry Ashmore is also pictured. (Image: NASA/ JPL)

It's hard to believe that it's been sixteen years since the death of Carl Sagan (1934 — 1996), possibly the most widely recognized astronomer of our time, best known for popularizing science by bringing the cosmos to the masses.

Were Sagan alive today, he would be 78 on November 9. He died at the age of 62 of pneumonia.

Sagan was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a Russian immigrant garment worker, his mother a housewife. Sagan credited his father with giving him his sense of wonder, and his mother for giving him skepticism and an analytical nature — both of which served him well as a scientist.

His interest in science began as a young child when his parents took him to the 1939 New York World's Fair, where he observed several wonders of science first hand. He started going to the library at age five to learn about the stars, and to the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium at age seven. His parents bought him chemistry sets and books about science, but even though he loved nature and other sciences, his primary love was always space.

Sagan attended the University of Chicago, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree as well as a Bachelor of Science in Physics, Master of Science in Physics, and a PhD in Astrophysics and Astronomy. Sagan was a professor at Harvard for several years, but left to teach at Cornell, where he headed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies.

Sagan was an ongoing contributor to the space program, working for NASA in an advisory capacity as early as the 1950s. He designed the first physical messages into space: the gold plaque that was sent into space on Pioneer 10 in 1972, as well as the Voyager Golden Record that launched with both Voyager probes in 1977. Sagan contributed his expertise to many missions involving robotic spacecraft, and helped further our understanding of the environments of the planets and their moons.

Sagan was bestowed with many honors and awards and wrote best-selling books including Contact, which was made into a movie, The Demon-Haunted World, and Pale Blue Dot. But he may be best known to the general public for his PBS show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which made the universe understandable and interesting to the lay person. (His companion book Cosmos became the best-selling science book ever published in English.)

Cosmos aired in 13 episodes in 1980, becoming the most widely watched PBS series in the world, which it would remain for the next decade. The show won an Emmy and a Peabody Award and has been broadcast in over 60 countries and viewed by millions of people. Topics of the show included the solar system, evolution, early astronomers, time travel, the life cycle of stars, the origins of the universe, the search for extraterrestrial life, and the accomplishments and destructions of humanity, especially the dangers of nuclear war.

As his popularity increased, Sagan made the rounds on the talk show circuit, where his "billions and billions" catch phrase became his hallmark.

Sagan's legacy continues. Ann Druyan, Sagan's widow, published a book by Sagan in 2006 (the tenth anniversary of his death) called The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, based on Sagan's 1985 Gifford lectures. And in 2008, NASA created the Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowship program.

But perhaps most exciting is that Cosmos lives on. A sequel to the original series is in the works to air on Fox in 2013. Called Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, the show will be produced by Druyan, who helped write the original series; Steven Soter, an astrophysicist who also co-wrote the original series; and Seth MacFarlane, best known for his animated show Family Guy. Though MacFarlane's involvement might seem an odd match for the project, his love of science fiction is evident in his many references to Star Trek and Star Wars on the show, and he is a proponent of making science more available and interesting to the general public. The new Cosmos will be hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the current host of NOVA ScienceNow on PBS.

Sagan was an agnostic who did not believe in life after death. And yet his life and work continue to touch the lives of many, long after he is gone.

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