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Carl Sagan

One of Cornell’s most famous faculty members and a prolific scholar, Carl Sagan (1934-1996) is probably best remembered as a television personality. Through his Peabody award-winning PBS series and book, Cosmos(1980), and many appearances with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, Sagan inspired millions of viewers and readers, popularizing science for a vast audience. His success may have had to do with his infectious enthusiasm for astronomy’s “billions and billions” of opportunities. His prominence was based, however, on an impressive career that included advising NASA, countless awards (including the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction for his The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, 1977), and influential research on atmospheric conditions on Venus, Mars and Titan. At Cornell, where Sagan was a faculty member from 1968 until his death, he was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies.

As a child, Sagan was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’s tales of life on Mars. Sagan often wondered about extraterrestrial life, maintaining that it is “a wonderful prospect, but requires the most severe and rigorous standards of evidence.” In 1980, he co-founded the Planetary Society, which supports research “in the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” among other astronomical pursuits. Sagan’s novel, Contact (1985), concerns an encounter with sophisticated extra-terrestrial life. Warner Brothers was making a film version at the time of Sagan’s death, starring Jodie Foster and including a sequence shot at the Arecibo Observatory. Although his own connection to science fiction was limited to one novel, his public recognition as a scholar helped legitimize a central theme of science fiction literature: the search for extraterrestrial life.

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