“Billions and Billions”: Carl Sagan’s Life as a Science Activist
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
By John C. Alsedek:
Last time, we looked at the career of Don Herbert, aka "Mr. Wizard," who introduced millions of young people to the principles of science. As I mentioned in that column, I was the wrong age to have been deeply influenced by Herbert (too young to have caught him in the fifties, too old to have seen him on Nickelodeon in the eighties). But I did have my own scientific mentor on the television screen, someone who fueled an interest in astronomy and the sciences in general that remains to this day. He was the personification of the cool college professor, with his slightly shaggy hair, turtlenecks, and tweed sport coats. And though we chuckled at his famous “billions and billions of stars” bit (which isn’t exactly what he said—more on that at the end), it was a loving chuckle, the sort you’d give to a favorite uncle. That person was Carl Sagan, author of the bestselling book Cosmos (later adapted into an award-winning PBS series) and one of the all-time greatest proponents of science for the masses.
Carl Edward Sagan was born on November 9th, 1934, in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. His parents were working-class folks with little education, but they nonetheless were an enormous influence on the young Sagan:
“My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method.”
They encouraged Carl’s intellectual curiosity from a very young age, taking him to the 1939 World’s Fair and getting him a library card, as well as books of his own and chemistry sets as he got older. At just five years old, he discovered the wonder of the stars, which he realized were just like the Sun, only farther away. At six, he was taking trips to the American Museum of Natural History, where the Hayden Planetarium became his favorite stop. He also discovered science fiction writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. G. Wells, further stirring his imagination regarding what lies out in space.
As Sagan advanced through junior high and into high school, his love of astronomy and the other sciences only grew. He was a straight-A student and was so intellectually advanced that his school administrator recommended that he begin attending a school for gifted children. While his family couldn’t swing that financially, Sagan found outlets for his curiosity, such as serving as the president of his high school’s chemistry club. And it was during this time that he decided he wanted to become an astronomer, even entering (and winning) an essay contest in which he posited that contact with extraterrestrials would be as disastrous for humanity as contact with Europeans was for Native Americans. That essay was an early signifier of the Carl Sagan millions of television viewers would come to know in decades to come: a scientist with the soul of a philosopher, someone who thought not just about the scientific process but also its ramifications.
At just sixteen years of age, Sagan began attending the University of Chicago, thereby starting his rapid rise up the astronomical ladder. He earned a B.A. by 20, a Masters in Physics at 22, and his PhD at 26. Before his 30th birthday, he’d been a Miller Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley; worked for NASA on the Mariner 2 probe to Venus and for the RAND Corporation as a "Planetary Science Consultant"; and become an associate professor at Harvard. However, he was denied tenure at Harvard, which came as a shock to Sagan. The reason for the denial was unclear but was most likely related to two things. First, while he was first and foremost an astronomer, Sagan had an abiding interest in all things science and perhaps spread himself thinner than scientific purists might find appropriate. And second? Well, he was also a showman, having become a bit of a national celebrity after the release of his 1966 book Intelligent Life in the Universe. This didn’t sit well with Harvard. But Cornell University had no such qualms, and Sagan became a full professor there in 1970, directing the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and eventually serving as the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences.
By the mid-1970s, Sagan was a regular on network television, including 26 appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. He was asked on both to promote his best-selling books (such as 1973’s The Cosmic Connection and 1977's The Dragons of Eden, which won him a Pulitzer Prize) and because he had an innate gift for taking complicated scientific concepts and presenting them in a way that the general public could understand and appreciate. It was this period that led to his best-remembered work: the 13-part PBS miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.
Cosmos, co-written and narrated on-screen by Sagan, went far beyond the study of astronomy. Each of the thirteen episodes focused on a different subject, from natural selection in Heike crabs to the planet Mars, with the intention of showing the synergy of the universe. To help Sagan with his presentations, he introduced framing devices such as the Cosmic Calendar, which he used to illustrate the age of the universe and how humanity has only been around for the blink of an eye in cosmic terms; and the Ship of the Imagination, which could transport him (and the viewers) to anyplace in time or space. Insightful and thought-provoking, Cosmos would eventually be seen by over a half-billion people in 60 countries, leading to a best-selling book of the same name and garnering Sagan both an Emmy and a Peabody Award. The series has spawned two sequels in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014) and Cosmos: Possible Worlds (2020); both were presented by American astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Sagan continued to advocate for science in the public consciousness throughout the eighties and well into the nineties until his death in 1996. His causes were numerous. He co-founded The Planetary Society, was a driving force behind the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, called for nuclear disarmament, and urged NASA to devote more resources to robotic spacecraft missions (he’d been involved in the Pioneer and Voyager probes, among others). In 1994, Sagan was awarded the Public Welfare Medal, the highest honor of the National Academy of Sciences; ironically, he’d been denied membership in the Academy for much the same reasons he was denied tenure at Harvard.
He also continued to write books with his long-time writing partner and wife, Ann Druyen. 1994’s Pale Blue Dot was a sequel to Cosmos and was selected as one of 1995’s notable books by The New York Times. And 1995’s The Demon-Haunted World is one of my personal favorites, because in it, Sagan presented a set of tools that people could use in the service of skeptical thinking called the "baloney detection kit." Sagan deeply believed in the idea that the average person should question any assertion that doesn’t appear to be supported by science—particularly if the person making the assertion proclaims that you should take their word based solely on their status. Given how much "baloney" gets thrown around on a daily basis on television, in social media, and in the halls of power, cultivating your own baloney detection kit is an absolute must.
Oh, and about that “billions and billions of stars” quote for which Carl Sagan became so famous? Wellllll . . . he never actually said that. It’s really an abridged version of this line from Cosmos, Episode 7, "The Backbone of Night":
“There are in fact one hundred billion galaxies, each of which contain something like one hundred billion stars. Think of how many stars, and planets, and kinds of life there may be in this vast and awesome universe. We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star, lost in a galaxy, tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”
Well, that’s it for this column, and also for me (at least for a bit), as I’m taking a sabbatical to concentrate on a new radio project. For those of you who have been reading my ramblings over the years, I really appreciate you tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.