Tribute to a star

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- Every star has a life and a subsequent death. But still, each one is different in the amount of darkness it drives away due to its own luminance. Born on November 9, 1934, Carl Sagan was certainly one of the brightest. Sagan died of pneumonia at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, US, on December 20, where he had undergone a bone marrow transplant early this year.

He transformed the way of communicating science and brought planetary secrets to the living rooms of ordinary people. Few people know about his achievements as a professor of astronomy at Cornell University or of his search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. But he would be remembered and loved because he showed that science could be interesting. And that was more than what the masses wanted. When his 13-part serial Cosmos first came on tv screens in 1980, it created a worldwide euphoria.

Sagan's first contact with science was probably at the age of seven, at the Ultrech branch of the New York public library, where he randomly picked up a book on stars. In his words, "I felt a sense of vertigo leafing through it. How could these huge bodies -- these suns -- hang in that immensity of black vaccum?" Sagan, at one point of time, was fully expected to follow his Russian-born father's garment industry, but instead began to chart a career in astronomy while at high school in Rahway, New Jersey. His parents knew little of science but nurtured his sense of wonder and inculcated a healthy scepticism, a mixture he said was the key to being a scientist. At 17 he had no doubt that astronomy was his subject. And at that time he had not yet attended a single class on it. Sagan completed his PhD in astrophysics in 1960 from the University of California, Berkeley.

He won the Pulitzer prize for literature in 1978 for the Dragons of Eden . Although confronted throughout his life by purists for oversimplifying science and making interpretative errors, he was always proud of the label of being a science populariser.

Apart from making science interesting and comprehensible, he built up his own research record. In his own words, "From when I was a little kid, the only thing I wanted to be was a scientist, to actually do the science, to interrogate nature, to find out how things work. That's where the fun is. If you're in love, you want to tell the world."

Sagan began publishing at the age of 22. His early works were mostly academic papers and books. Cosmos retraced the 15 billion years of cosmic evolution that have transformed matter into life and consciousness. Co-written by his third wife, Ann Druyan, it was seen by more than 500 million people in 60 countries when it was first aired. The book Cosmos spent 70 weeks on the New York Time s bestseller list, 15 weeks at No one.

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