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Thursday, April 24, 2014 | return to: lifecycles, deaths


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in memoriam |  Return of ‘Cosmos’ prompts recollections of Carl Sagan

by robert gluck, jns.org

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Carl Sagan fans old and new have been gazing at their televisions in awe as host Neil Degrasse Tyson resurrects the science epic “Cosmos,” taking them on a journey from the Big Bang to the ascent of man, to beyond the stars and planets.

The return of “Cosmos”— which launched in March and runs for 13 episodes on the Fox network — provides an opportune time to remember Sagan, the original show’s Jewish creator who died in Seattle at age 62 in 1996.

From an early age, Sagan was seized with the mission of searching for life on other worlds, a quest that would dominate his entire career from his adolescent chemistry-set accidents to his professional work on the Viking and Voyager NASA missions, nuclear disarmament, “Cosmos,” and the 1997 film “Contact,” directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodi Foster.

In 1986, the World Jewish Congress presented Sagan with the Nahum Goldmann Medal, which is awarded to individuals for their contributions to universal humanitarian causes and actions benefiting the Jewish people.

At that time Sagan gave an address titled “The Final Solution of the Human Problem: Adolf Hitler and Nuclear War.”

“If the United States and the Soviet Union permit a nuclear war to break out, they would have retroactively lost the Second World War and made that sacrifice meaningless,” Sagan said after accepting the Goldmann medal. “If we take seriously our obligation to the tens of millions who perished in World War II, we must rid the planet of the blight of nuclear weapons.”

Sagan spent most of his career as a professor of astronomy at Cornell University, where he directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. He published more than 600 scientific papers and articles and more than 20 books. He advocated for scientific skeptical inquiry and promoted the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. But it was perhaps Sagan’s personality that popularized “Cosmos”more than anything.

“One of the reasons the original ‘Cosmos’ series worked was Sagan was one of the few scientists who could wear jeans and a turtleneck and look comfortable,” said William Poundstone, author of “Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos.”


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