Carl Sagan

Historical Figure Project - Gabriel Richardson

Biographical Sketch

Carl Sagan was born on November 9, 1934 in Brooklyn, New York to Samuel Sagan and Rachel Molly Gruber.

Sagan was raised as a Reform Jew, although his family was not particularly religious with the exception of his mother. His father was a garment worker who immigrated from the Russian Empire and his mother was a housewife. Naturally, his parents influenced him, a lot. His father's sense of wonder and his mother's analytical urges really shaped him into being a skeptical and very curious personality. As Sagan was entering elementary school, he really began to express these attributes. He had a profound interest in nature, and discovering how the world works. His parents really helped nurture Sagan's developing interest by buying him chemistry sets and helping him find good reading materials. He later graduated from Rahway High School in 1951, and went on to attend the University of Chicago. He spent most of his time in college researching with physicists and chemists before earning his Ph.D. Then he researched with even more scientists. Sagan was mostly self motivated to do all of this. He just had an intrinsic desire to learn everything he could about how the universe works. As a scientist, this is really an important factor to Sagan's success. He wasn't doing any of his research for fame or for money. He was just excited to learn, and discover new information.

                                                      Defining Quote

"For me, it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."


Carl Sagan was very well suited for his era. It was a time when science was really starting to gain popularity and the increase in technological advancements helped aide his profound research. Had Sagan done his research during a different time, say 1633, he would have been met with much opposition by the church. Sagan's discoveries would have more than likely been declared heretical. Something tells me that he would have also been jailed for publishing such heretical information.

If I had the same skills as Carl Sagan and I was stuck in the 17th century, I would have a hard time spreading scientific knowledge. I would write similar research papers, however I would obviously be hindered by the lack of technology. I would make sure to publish all my findings, at the risk of punishment from the church. I would also utilize my skills to inspire other scientists to publish their findings, even if it was not in accordance with the church.


I would have to say that Sagan lived in the perfect time period. When he did most of his research between 1960 and 1990, science was really beginning to ramp up, and he was not terribly inhibited by a lack of technology. Sure, Sagan could have made more groundbreaking discoveries with today's technology, but his personality was a great fit for the time period, and I think Sagan held a very important position in history. Not only was he a great scientist, but he was a very influential figure. He was able to popularize science through his television series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and you would have difficulty finding a scientist today who was not influenced by Carl Sagan's work.

Sagan's Greatest Contribution

Carl Sagan was truly a man of many talents. He made discoveries about the surface of Venus, helped put spacecraft on Mars, and he took part in sending Voyager 1 and 2 out on their discovery of the universe. He was also a big proponent of contacting extraterrestrial life, as seen through his research and his work on the Arecibo message and in the Voyager program. Furthermore Sagan authored over 20 books, had a voice in politics, and co-wrote and narrated a television series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Though Sagan did a lot to contribute to the scientific community, Cosmos is his most important contribution to our country. Through Cosmos, Sagan was able to explain complex scientific concepts to a wide audience, and he was able to popularize science. Because Sagan was lived in such an accepting time period, he didn't face many if any tough moral decisions in writing this show. His sense of wonder inspired many other scientists, and without him we probably would have never seen shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Political Cartoon

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In Carl Sagan's Life and Legacy as Scientist, Teacher, and Skeptic, David Morrison recalls what specifically set Sagan apart from other scientists at the time. Driven by an intense desire to succeed, Sagan's lifelong quest was to understand the universe (Participial Phrase). He was a natural teacher, with a profound ability to explain complex scientific concepts to the lay public. With his knack for teaching, communicating, and popularizing, Sagan was very different than other recognized scientists (Periodic Phrase). His patience and skill for communicating set him apart from his peers and made him recognizable as one of the best scientists of his age. Morrison, once a student of Sagan, wrote this article in hopes of correctly describing why Sagan had such a great impact on science and the skeptical movement.

Synthesis Essay

Read the following sources (including any introductory information) carefully. Then, in an essay that synthesizes at least three of the sources for support, take a position that defends, challenges, or qualifies the claim that Carl Sagan's search for extraterrestrial intelligence was important to the scientific community.

Refer to the sources as Source A, Source B, etc.; titles are included for your convenience.

Source A (Vaknin)

Source B (Stephens)

Source C (Shostak)

Source D (Tarter)

Source E (Schenkel)

Source F (Black)

Vaknin, Sam. Moral Deliberations in Modern Cinema. Project Gutenberg, 2005. Print.

The assumption that life has arisen only on Earth is both counter-intuitive and unlikely. It defies the law of parsimony: it is far simpler to assume that life is a common, normal phenomenon that to surmise that it is a unique, unprecedented, and unparalleled one. Rather, it is highly probable that life is an extensive parameter of the Universe. In other words, that it is as pervasive and ubiquitous as are other generative phenomena, such as star formation. This does not mean that extraterrestrial life and life on Earth are necessarily similar. Environmental determinism and the panspermia hypothesis are far from proven. There is no guarantee that we are not unique, as per the Rare Earth hypothesis. But the likelihood of finding life in one form or another elsewhere and everywhere on other planets (Earth-like or not) in the Universe is high.

Stephens, Sally. "ASP: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence." ASP: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. 1992. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

We know that life evolved here on Earth, a product of volcanic gases, organic chemicals brought by impacting comets and meteorites, and naturally occurring chemical reactions. We also know, from our robot spacecraft, that the other planets and satellites in our Solar System are unlikely habitats for complex life forms. Certain conditions apparently must be met, such as the amount of warmth obtained from the parent star, in order for life to begin. If there are planets orbiting other stars, as seems likely (see The Universe in the Classroom, no. 19), perhaps conditions on some of them are suitable for life as we know it to develop. But unless we undertake a search, we may never know if other intelligent life forms exist.

Shostak, Seth. "SETI's Prospects Are Bright." Pointless Asteroid Scare. 1 Oct. 2002. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

In short, while it is interesting and edifying to debate the likelihood that we will uncover evidence of thinking beings elsewhere, it is hubris to think that we can decide this issue based on the activities our own society or the situation of our immediate neighborhood. Cook's sailors might just as well have concluded that Antarctica couldn't exist because there was ice-free water around their ship. It makes more sense to sail on.

Tarter, Jill. "Advancing the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence." Web. 30 Apr. 2015. .

Few topics in astronomy or astrobiology generate as much interest and excitement as SETI. It is still not possible to estimate with any accuracy the chances of success; but the discovery of extrasolar planets and the enormous diversity of newly-recognized extremophiles give the cosmos the appearance of being more bio-friendly than it did five decades ago. Exponential gains in computational capabilities, new observing facilities designed and constructed specifically for SETI observing, and new receiver technologies that open up new wavelength regimes can be combined in the coming decade to significantly improve the speed and scope of search efforts, thereby boosting the possibility of success. The consequences of contact with life beyond Earth would profoundly affect humanity.

Schenkel, Peter. "SETI Requires a Skeptical Reappraisal." - CSI. 1 May 2006. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

However, in the interest of science and sound skepticism, I believe it is time to take the new findings and insights into account, to dampen excessive SETI euphoria and to adopt a more pragmatic and down-to-earth stand, compatible with facts. We should quietly admit that the early estimates-that there may be a million, a hundred thousand, or ten thousand advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy-may no longer be tenable. There might not be a hundred, not even ten such civilizations. The optimistic estimates were fraught with too many imponderables and speculative appraisals.

David, Black. "SETI Institute." SETI Institute. Web. 1 May 2015.

The number of verified planets outside of our solar systems grows rapidly, and includes several that may have liquid water on their surfaces. At the same time, we are learning that life can survive in amazing places, even in lakes sealed beneath the Antarctic ice. These and other recent developments virtually assure the existence, and ultimate verification, of life beyond Earth.

Works Cited

Morrison, David. "Carl Sagan’s Life and Legacy as Scientist, Teacher, and Skeptic." - CSI. 1 Feb. 2007. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Vaknin, Sam. Moral Deliberations in Modern Cinema. Project Gutenberg, 2005. Print.

Stephens, Sally. "ASP: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence." ASP: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. 1992. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Shostak, Seth. "SETI's Prospects Are Bright." Pointless Asteroid Scare. 1 Oct. 2002. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Tarter, Jill. "Advancing the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence." Web. 30 Apr. 2015. .

Schenkel, Peter. "SETI Requires a Skeptical Reappraisal." - CSI. 1 May 2006. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

David, Black. "SETI Institute." SETI Institute. Web. 1 May 2015.

"Carl Sagan." Famous Scientists. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.

"World Biography." Carl Sagan Biography. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.