Happy Birthday Carl Sagan!
Sagan with a model of the Viking lander. Image Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Happy Birthday Carl Sagan!

09/11/2020Written by Sophie Allan

Astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrobiologist, science communicator and poet, Carl has been a huge influence on many science communicators.

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Carl Sagan. Credit: NASA

Carl Sagan had a unique, passionate and fun way of describing space concepts, and through the medium of television, particularly his ground-breaking show ‘Cosmos’ he helped inspire a new generation to look at the stars, and think about the wonders of our Universe.  

Unusually for researchers, Sagan split his academic focus over a wide range of fields – planetary atmosphere’s, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and the hunt for alien life (he was able to prove that amino acids, the building blocks of biological matter, could be synthesised through the interaction of basic chemicals with space radiation). His most famous associations, however, lie in the realms of robotic space exploration of the solar system. He helped design and manage the Mariner 2 mission to Venus and the Mariner 9 and Viking trips to Mars. He was also involved landmark Voyager 1 and 2 missions which took a two probes on a once in a lifetime journey around our solar system, famously carrying gold records with information and greetings from Earth. 

Sagan brought his ‘Jack of all space trades’ love of science to the public, desperate to re-engage an audience that he perceived to have lost their scientific curiosity, with the wonders of space. To celebrate his passion for opening up the wonders of the cosmos to the public, in this blog we share some of our favourite Carl Sagan quotes. 

Founding of the Planetary Society. Credit: NASA

Sagan on the ethics of exploring Mars if we find life:

There are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth that even phrasing this question chills me. If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes. The existence of an independent biology on a nearby planet is a treasure beyond assessing, and the preservation of that life must, I think, supersede any other possible use of Mars. 

On looking back at our significantly insignificant planet from the edge of the Solar System (captured by Voyager 1):

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. 

On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. 

The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” 

Chuck Berry (left) and Carl Sagan (right) at a Voyager 2 Neptune flyby celebration in August 1989. Credit: NASA

On the link between the mundane and the hugely complex:

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

On where we come from:

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

On whether we are alone:

“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

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NASA press conference for Pioneer 10 mission to obtain images of Jupiter. Credit: NASA

On togetherness in the loneliness of existence

“You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”

On the reason for human existence

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

On critical thinking

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”

“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers”