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As a child, Sagan avidly read science-fiction novels from authors such as H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Sagan "used to scour the entire library looking for anything that had to do with science, he was addicted to the subject at an early age" (Byman 5). This penchant for the sciences helped Sagan to excel at math and science in school, which eventually led him to major in astronomy in college.
Sagan's first experiences with writing came at the University of Chicago, where he received both his master's and his doctorate's degrees. These first encounters came in the form of scientific writings for professional journals, such as Icarus. His first scientific paper (which would later be reproduced in a Time-Life book, Planets) dealt with the theory that the surface of the planet Venus was very hot and dry, something that was not known to scientists at that time. Sagan began to gain recognition in his field and eventually became a full professor at Cornell, where he continued to publish many more scientific papers.
Sagan's first published novel was 1973's The Cosmic Connection, which dealt with the theories of extraterrestrial life outside of our solar system. "The Cosmic Connection sold well because Carl knew how to write about science with poetry and passion" (Cohen 47). Sagan then spent the next several years working on the Voyager space probes and Apollo missions that eventually led to his famous appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He soon became a household name with his television appearances and repeated catchphrases, such as "billions and billions."
Adding to his popularity, Sagan wrote The Dragons of Eden in 1977, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. That same year, Sagan's popularity reached an all-time high. He narrated co-wrote and co-produced the highly popular thirteen part PBS television series: Cosmos: Personal Voyage, which was modeled on Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man.
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In the next few years, Sagan continued to act as the astronomy professor at Cornell while contributing many papers to scientific journals and supplying his ideas to different NASA programs. In 1985, Sagan's most famous novel to date, Contact, was published. The book was written to be "yet another way for [Sagan] to present [his] concerns UFOs, the existence of God, the importance of science to a wide audience"(Sagan 81). Contact was later adapted into a popular movie which Sagan assisted with starring Jodie Foster as the book's heroine, Ellie Arroway.
Over the next few years Sagan lived a quiet life, only writing a few novels. He married Ann Druyan in 1981 and had two children. In 1992, Sagan was nominated for election to the National Academy of Sciences. This honor ensures that members become advisers to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine. In 1995, Sagan was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, which led to bone marrow cancer. Sagan died on December 20, 1996 at the age of 62 as a result of cancer.
Sagan was a science-fiction writer, in addition to being a scientific journalist and editor. Sagan loved to share science with all people by using simple analogies in his writings which served as a way to explain very complex scientific theories to the masses. Most of his books dealt with the possibility of extraterrestrials making contact with earth, which brought up the ideas of advanced civilizations that lead to the destruction of mankind throughout the universe as a result of constant evolution. This concept could be perceived as both a negative and a positive in terms of life on Earth.
Sagan is credited for his importance to the popularization of science, defending democratic traditions, resisting nationalism, defending humanism, and arguing against geocentric views. He caused mixed reactions among other professional scientists. On the one hand, there was general support for his popularization of science, his efforts to increase scientific understanding among the general public, and his positions in favor of scientific skepticism and against pseudoscience. On the other hand, there was some unease that the public would "misunderstand some of the personal positions and interests that Sagan took as being part of the scientific consensus, rather than his personal views" (Davidson 406). There was some unease that scientific views contrary to those that Sagan took were not being sufficiently presented to the public.
Sagan had a gift for public speaking and relating to his audience, which made him one of the most admired scientific writers of our time. He helped to bring the world closer to understanding the universe and using the scientific method to come to personal conclusions about what was believed about science. Sagan did not believe in trying to persuade his readers to believe what he put forth as his own opinions. He encouraged the use of the scientific method as a way of drawing own conclusions and as a way of ruling out the so-called "pseudo sciences." Sagan constantly tested new hypotheses in order to gain further knowledge.
All of Sagan's works have the ability (as of any science-fiction writer) to get a little too in-depth at times. It was as if Sagan was testing what the general public would understand in his own novels to hone for future use. His third-person omniscient point-of-view gives an amazing overall perspective on subjects that are presented by many characters in his books, and Sagan is able to make it work spectacularly.
This perspective is most evident in Contact when most of the main characters give their own views on religion and the existence of God. The heroine, Ellie, believes that "the major religions on the Earth contradict each other left and right."(Sagan 162). However, the book does not deal only with Ellie's views on religion, but with many characters such as Palmer Joss who believes that "[he] had a religious experience that [he] cannot explain nor understand. [He] only knows that it was God, plain and simple" (Sagan, 82). There are just as many agnostic views expressed in Contact as there are deeply religious ones, and Sagan is offering up these views for the reader to choose which is best for them.
Carl Sagan had the unique ability to inspire and excite people with science. He was, quite simply, the best science educator of this century. He touched hundreds of millions of people and inspired young generations to pursue the sciences. For most of human history we have searched for our place in the universe. We find that we inhabit an insignificant planet of a little star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. Carl Sagan helped to introduce us to these many other galaxies. Future generations will come to appreciate all that he did for our understanding and knowledge through his talent of communicating with us all.