Daily Archives: 9 November 2014

November 9, 1934 (a Friday)

Carl Sagan

On this date, the astronomer Carl Sagan was born in New York City. He helped define two new disciplines: planetary science and exobiology. In terms of scientific achievements, Sagan is best known for his research on the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, including experimental demonstration of the production of amino acids from basic chemicals by radiation. Sagan was also an advocate of the search for extraterrestrial life. He helped Dr. Frank Drake write the Arecibo message, a radio message beamed into space from the Arecibo radio telescope on November 16, 1974, aimed at informing extraterrestrials about Earth. Sagan also urged the scientific community to listen with radio telescopes for signals from intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms. So persuasive was he that by 1982, he was able to get a petition advocating SETI published in the journal Science, signed by 70 scientists, including seven Nobel Prize winners. This was a tremendous turnaround in the respectability of this controversial field. Sagan believed that the Drake equation suggested that a large number of extraterrestrial civilizations would form, but that the lack of evidence of such civilizations pointed out by the Fermi paradox suggests technological civilizations tend to destroy themselves rather quickly. This stimulated his interest in identifying and publicizing ways that humanity could destroy itself, with the hope of avoiding such a cataclysm and eventually becoming a spacefaring species.

A professor of astronomy and space sciences at Cornell University after 1968, Sagan was involved with numerous NASA planetary space probes and was the creator and host of the 1980 public television science series Cosmos. His publications include the book co-authored with the Russian astronomer I. S. Shklovskii Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966); The Dragons of Eden (1977; won a Pulitzer); a novel, Contact (1985); with Richard Turco, A Path Where No Man Thought (1990), on nuclear winter; with Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992); Pale Blue Dot (1994); The Demon-Haunted World (1996); and the posthumously published Billions and Billions (1997).