It has been twenty years today since we lost Carl Sagan, the beloved astronomer and science communicator at the age of 62. His untimely death still feels prescient, especially in light of our seemingly chaotic and irrational world. However, I know that if he was still alive, Sagan would have found a way to be optimistic, looking ever forward to new horizons of knowledge and exploration.
I came to learn about him as an adult. Growing up in the rural Midwest, I received an abysmal science education, which left me largely ignorant and uninspired. I went into the humanities, history specifically, and found it to be my calling. I love studying the human race’s march toward betterment, through understanding ourselves and the universe around us.
As a result, I came to Sagan as an undergraduate in college. I am a huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, so it’s surprising that I didn’t get to Sagan earlier. But once I watched Cosmos for the first time, I was hooked. His ability to interweave science, history, and philosophy in way that is eloquent, engaging, and entertaining is unmatched by anyone. Even after all these years, Sagan is still the master.
From there, I began to read his books, which were even more rewarding than Cosmos. My all-time favorite is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Published shortly before his death, this book is easily his best. In it, he stresses the importance of not just learning about science, but about critical thinking and skepticism. As he writes:
“One of the reasons for its [science’s] success is that science has a built-in, error-correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.”
The more we think critically, the more we test ideas against the evidence, the more we learn and grow as a people. As he said countless times, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”
In his own career, he was a pioneering scientist. A professor at Cornell, Sagan’s research on the greenhouse effect on Venus and his work on the Viking and Voyager missions for NASA solidified his position as an astute scientist. Alongside his popular books, he published numerous scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals and continued his research into the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life for most of his career. Despite all this, he was never admitted to the National Academy of Sciences (they did give him a distinguished public service award, but not full membership).
His snub by the NAS was likely the result of his role as “popularizer” of scientific ideas, which was an unheard of endeavor during his time as a scientist. Most scientists were content with researching, publishing, and teaching, but Sagan took it a step further. He didn’t just want to be a great scientist; he wanted to be a great communicator of ideas. Even though some of his peers derided his public advocacy of science, the court of public opinion held him in the highest-esteem.
This is why Carl Sagan matters, why his work stands the test of time. When I started my search for graduate schools in history, I was inspired by Sagan to do something different. As such, I became a public historian, dedicated to quality research and analysis but interested in sharing this knowledge with the public. I didn’t just want to be a historian. I wanted to be a history communicator, someone who not only shared history with others but explained the importance of history to my fellow citizens and the world. I got this lesson from Carl.
Carl wasn’t just a great scientist; he was an amazing champion for skepticism, critical thinking, and intellectualism. His powerful voice, decades on, still inspires me to be a better thinker, a better communicator, and a better person. I have such a deep admiration and affection for someone I’ve never met, but whose mind and life compel me to be the man I am today.
Carl, thank you for all you did for the world. We love you and we miss you.