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Cosmos and Carl Sagan

"We're made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."

These are the words of Carl Sagan who became a household name in the 1980's with the hugely popular television show, Cosmos, seen and loved by audiences around the world. Over thirteen episodes, he explored everything from the birth of galaxies, to the origins of life, to the nature of intelligence. The book which accompanies and complements the television series is in print even today.

What made the book and the TV series so special was Sagan himself. He had a rare genius for making science accessible and engaging to a lay audience. A big-picture scientist, he had a knack for synthesizing ideas from various disciplines to present a holistic view of the universe. He saw science as this grand, interconnected story that concerns all of us, and he was able to communicate not just the facts of science, but also the wonder and excitement of scientific discovery.

Carl Sagan made his mark on planetary science in the early 1970s as a young professor at Harvard, at a time when planetary science was not particularly popular. He was the first to suggest that it was the greenhouse effect that made the atmosphere of Venus hot enough to melt lead, that Titan’s red haze comes from organic molecules, and that the changing colour of Mars’ surface is due to shifts in windblown dust. All these hypotheses were confirmed by later exploration. 

The Golden Record cover shown with its extraterrestrial instructions. Credit: NASA/JPL

Sagan worked as a consultant on several unmanned NASA missions, including Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo. He was involved in creating the Pioneer Plaque and the Voyager Golden Record, messages intended for any extraterrestrial beings that might encounter them.

Pioneers 10 and 11, which preceded Voyager, carried small metal plaques identifying their time and place of origin for the benefit of any alien intelligence that might find them. Voyagers 1 and 2, carried phonograph records, twelve-inch gold-plated copper discs containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan. He and his associates assembled a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings in fifty-five languages, beginning with Akkadian, a language spoken in Sumer about six thousand years ago, and ending with Wu, a modern Chinese dialect.

Sagan believed that it is important to see humanity from a cosmic perspective. He advocated for a better understanding of our place in the universe, and the need for responsible stewardship of the Earth and its resources. His book, Pale Blue Dot, is a call for humanity to recognize our shared destiny.

The title of the book comes from a famous photograph taken by Voyager One in 1990, as it left the solar system, and hurtled into interstellar space. It shows the Earth as a tiny dot in a vast sea of darkness. This photograph was taken at Sagan's insistence. “With that picture,” writes physicist, Freeman Dyson, “Carl made clear to all mankind the smallness of the squabbles that currently divide us and the greatness of the destiny that may one day unite us.”

The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of Earth taken Feb. 14, 1990, by NASA’s Voyager 1 at a distance of 3.7 billion miles (6 billion kilometers) from the Sun. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Carl Sagan wrote twenty popular books and hundreds of scientific studies. He won a Pulitzer Prize for The Dragons of Eden. Today, he is best remembered for Cosmos, for inspiring us all to look up at the sky, and wonder about our place in a vast and wondrous universe.

To end, a quote from Pale Blue Dot.

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives […] [E]very king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every revered teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Sources include:

Writer’s Almanac

Discover magazine

National Geographic


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