Astronomer Carl Sagan is one of the world's most adored scientists. He brought a healthy amount of skepticism and wonder to the masses through works like his wildly popular TV show Cosmos and books like Dragons of Eden and Pale Blue Dot. His enthusiasm and general sense of awe concerning the universe was contagious, and he has inspired generations to pursue careers in science.
Any Carl Sagan biography can tell you the basic facts of his life: he was born in Brooklyn in 1934, received a PhD in astronomy from the University of Chicago, and even taught at several esteemed universities. Carl Sagan and his sister, Carol, were the children of Ukrainian immigrant Samuel Sagan and his wife, New York native Molly Gruber. Over the course of his life, Sagan - who was married three times and had five children - went from growing up poor during the Great Depression to a life of fame and riches, thanks in part to Cosmos.
Sagan died in 1996 of myelodysplasia, a cancer that attacks bone marrow. He was 62 years old. Fans of Sagan have kept his legacy alive through their pursuit of scientific knowledge and truth because according to Sagan, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."
Sagan's nonfiction book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, came out in 1995. In the book, which examines and explains the scientific method and skeptical thinking, he predicted people would turn to pseudoscience and superstition over actual fact-based science:
"I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness."
In scientific terms, this type of prediction (and people's need to interpret it in a believable way) is a type of survival tactic that relies on optimism when things get tough. The fact he could predict this downfall - and the optimistic pseudoscience that goes with it - shows just how ahead of his time Sagan really was.
Sagan was a lifelong cannabis smoker, and in 1969, he wrote an essay for Time magazine outlining the benefits of smoking pot. He wrote it under the pseudonym 'Mr. X,' and in 1971, the essay was republished in the magazine Marihuana Reconsidered. In the essay, Sagan talks about how pot heightened his senses and made him appreciate the spiritual realm. He also said it helped him value art more, something he had a difficult time with prior to smoking:
"I do not consider myself a religious person in the usual sense, but there is a religious aspect to some highs. The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate. Sometimes a kind of existential perception of the absurd comes over me and I see with awful certainty the hypocrisies and posturing of myself and my fellow men. And at other times, there is a different sense of the absurd, a playful and whimsical awareness. Both of these senses of the absurd can be communicated, and some of the most rewarding highs I’ve had have been in sharing talk and perceptions and humor."
Despite the fact Sagan co-founded SETI - the Search for Exterrestrial Intelligence - he didn't believe life from any other planet had ever visited Earth during the modern era. He believed life was out there, somewhere, but it had no reason to come and visit us. However, he also thought when it came to ancient civilizations, the "statistical likelihood that Earth was visited by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization at least once during historical times," existed, despite the lack of archeological proof.
Sagan and his third (and last) wife, Ann Druyan, were acquaintances and colleagues working on the Voyager Intersteller Mission. Druyan was the creative director of the project and was helping Sagan with the curation of "Sounds of Earth." She was searching for a particular piece - a 2,500-year-old Chinese song called "Flowing Stream" - to place on the record. Once she finally found it, she excitedly called Sagan to let him know. She left a message, nothing more. Sagan called her back an hour later. By the end of the call, Sagan and Druyan were engaged. They married in 1981 and stay married until Sagan's death in December 1996.