Science: The Cosmic Explainer

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The hook worked its way in deeper when Carl also stumbled into science fiction. He was especially taken with the Martian tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote of sensuous princesses, six-legged beasts of burden, evil warlords and a Virginia gentleman named John Carter, who miraculously transported himself to the Red Planet simply by gazing at it. The dark-eyed youngster, looking up at the night sky from a Brooklyn lot, tried vainly to follow his hero into space. It was a dream that Sagan has never forgotten. Phobos, the name of one of the moons of Mars, now appears on the license plates of Sagan's bright orange Porsche.

It was not until the Sagan family,moved to Rahway, N.J., that Carl realized he actually could become a professional astronomer. All along he had felt he might have to go into the clothing business with his father, perhaps as a salesman. But his high school biology teacher assured him that astronomers, like the famous Harlow Shapley, were really paid for their work. In 1951, at 16, he entered the University of Chicago on a scholarship. Nine years later, he left with a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics.

During his undergraduate years at Chicago, Sagan spent some summers breeding fruit flies in the Indiana University laboratory of the famed geneticist Hermann Muller, who won a Nobel Prize for showing that X rays could cause mutations. It was ideal training for an astronomer who would become the premier spokesman for exobiology. He also showed early gifts as a popularizer. He organized a highly successful campus lecture series on science, characteristically including himself as one of the speakers; some faculty members dismissed it as "Sagan's circus," but it drew S.R.O. crowds.

Even at that stage of Sagan's career, some of his professors detected rebelliousness in him, a penchant for shunning the work at hand in order to explore other interests. Recalls Physicist Peter Meyer, who is now director of Chicago's Enrico Fermi Institute: "He told me he would rather spend time with problems in astronomy than go through the hardships of classical physics." Today Meyer concedes that it is precisely this restlessness of intellect that enables Sagan to see the broader picture, letting him point out, for example, where biology and chemistry converge with astronomy. Says another scientist: "Sagan can separate the momentous from the minute. He can tell the story without cluttering detail."

Still, for all his extracurricular interests, including a young biologist named Lynn Alexander whom he would shortly marry, Sagan was a highly productive researcher. As always, he was iconoclastic. Although most astronomers were studying the more distant realms of the stars and galaxies, Sagan opted for the nearby planets, under the tutelage of the late Gerard Kuiper. He realized that planets were the most likely places for extraterrestrial life to be found in his lifetime. He also anticipated that the U.S. would soon embark on an ambitious program of planetary exploration. At a party just before Sputnik I spurred American space activity, Sagan made a perspicacious wager: he bet a case of chocolate bars that the U.S. would reach the moon by 1970. He won with five months to spare.

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