November 9, 2009

Happy Birthday, Carl Sagan
(November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996)

Broward College in Florida celebrated the first annual Carl Sagan day on Saturday (November 7), but today would have been the astronomer's actual 75th birthday, if cancer hadn't taken him too young. Sagan is best known as the co-writer and presenter of the TV series Cosmos and author of the book Contact, which was made into a movie starring Jodie Foster; Sagan did a lot to popularize astronomy and inspire a new generation of astronomers. He was a professor at Cornell University, worked with NASA on the space program, made many discoveries about the planets, and helped jump-start the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. His contributions to science and science education are far too many to list!

Make a List
Carl Sagan is one my heroes. Try making a list of your own heroes. Keep in mind that a hero is not just someone you like, he or she is someone you want to be like.

Enjoy Sagan's Works
  • The TV show Cosmos is available on iTunes, Netflix, and FREE on Hulu! (
  • The movie Contact is available on Netflix and in many DVD/video stores.
  • Cosmos and Contact are available as books, too. Two of Sagan's other books are The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and Pale Blue Dot.

Enjoy Sagan's Words
For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

I try not to think with my gut. If I'm serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.

Carl Sagan was popular enough, during his lifetime, to be impersonated by comedians, and he became associated with the catch phrase billions and billions. Whenever a comedian appeared in a tan blazer and dark wig and began talking about billions and billions of galaxies, each with billions and billions of stars, everyone thought, “Ah, Carl Sagan.” But Carl Sagan never said the phrase billions and billions, and he never wrote the phrase either! (He did use the phrase billions upon billions in the book Cosmos.)

One word he did use is numinous. It's one of my favorite words. Numinous means “appealing to the higher emotions or sense of beauty,” and Sagan used it as he described the amazing complexity of life and enormity of the universe. It's a great adjective for things that create a sense of awe in us.

Think about your own favorite words. Are the meanings or the sounds of your favorite words more important to you? Do you actually use your favorite words?

Here are some favorite words of some people I know: ginormous, synergy, uber, ubiquitous, and skulking.

Do You Speak Alien?


One thing Carl Sagan wondered about is how we can ever communicate with aliens, if we ever meet them. The things we will have in common with aliens from other planets and solar systems is science and (probably) math. Sagan and others created metal plates with pictures and symbols that describe our planet and ourselves; these plates were affixed to the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft that were then sent into space and that have, by now, left the solar system. The Voyager spacecraft also carried a golden phonograph record that holds many different sorts of music along with whale songs. It is unlikely, in a universe that is so unimaginably huge, that anyone will ever find these messages. Still, they are our first attempts to deliberately communicate with E.T.s, as if we were putting messages into bottles and throwing them into the vast ocean.

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