Science: The Cosmic Explainer

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At Sagan's Cornell laboratory, one of the main objectives was to try to unravel the mystery of how the building blocks of life—amino acids, proteins and DNA—could have evolved on the primordial earth. Although he and the Russian astrophysicist I.S. Shklovskii lived half a world apart, they collaborated in writing Intelligent Life in the Universe, still probably the best treatise on the prospects for extraterrestrial life. As a planetary expert, Sagan was called upon by NASA to act as an adviser and scientific investigator on unmanned space missions. He did not always endear himself to the space agency. One irritant was his outspoken opposition to the moon landings. Robots, he argued, could do the job better and cheaper and with no risk to life.

In 1973, during a brief appearance on the Tonight show to promote Cosmic Connection, his first really popular book, he so impressed Host (and astronomy buff) Johnny Carson that he was soon invited back, for a choicer spot on the show. That second appearance gave Sagan a chance to tell the story of the evolution of the universe and the beginnings of life in his inimitable cadences: "Fifteen billion years ago, the universe was without form. There were no galaxies, stars or planets. There was no life. There was darkness everywhere." When Sagan's soliloquy ended, said a reviewer, 100,000 teen-age listeners must have vowed on the spot to become astronomers. One thing is certain: Sagan captivated Carson, who kept inviting him back for further appearances. Indeed he became such a frequent guest that students would greet his return to the Ithaca lecture halls with a mock Tonight show-type introduction: "Heeere's Carl!"

Yet even without Carson's patronage, Sagan's public star would surely have risen. Just before NASA sent off its twin Pioneers 10 and 11 to Saturn and Jupiter, he had persuaded the space agency to attach plaques identifying the ships' origins on the remote chance that they might be intercepted when they finally passed out of the solar system. The idea was a triumph over bureaucratic caution. The plaques, drawn by Linda, depicted nude male and female earthlings, and provoked worldwide comment.

For Sagan these overtures to anyone out there were equally important as signals to earth. They are part of what he calls cosmic consciousness-raising, his attempt to alert earthlings to the excitement and wonder of the universe. It was just such consciousness-raising that first stirred thoughts in Sagan's mind of doing a television program on space exploration.

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