Astronomy Loses Its Most Popular Voice

Carl Sagan, the astronomer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose books and television shows fired the imaginations of millions of people, died early this morning in Seattle, of pneumonia. Sagan, 62, had fought a 2-year battle with myelodysplasia, a disorder that presages leukemia, and had received a bone-marrow transplant from his sister Cari in April 1995, says a spokesperson for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

>Arguably the greatest science popularizer of the 20th century, Sagan gained fame for hosting Cosmos, the Emmy Award-winning PBS series that ran in the late 1970s and is estimated to have reached 500 million people worldwide. "Carl was a candle in the dark," says Yervant Terzian, chair of Cornell University's astronomy department, where Sagan was a professor. "He was, quite simply, the best science educator in the world this century."

Sagan's research at Cornell had focused on the origin of life on Earth. He also was an active player on large scientific teams analyzing data from missions to Mars, Venus, and other planets. Perhaps his best known work to scientists outside his field, however, was his passionate defense of the controversial nuclear winter theory, which holds that a nuclear war would chill Earth's climate for years.

Indeed, while Sagan charmed most of the world, he rubbed some prominent scientists the wrong way. In 1992, his astronomy colleagues proposed him for membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Sagan appeared to make the final cut, but an eleventh-hour debate among academy mandarins over whether his research accomplishments were up to snuff put an end to his candidacy. Two years later, however, the academy offered an olive branch when it awarded Sagan its Public Welfare Medal, presented annually "to honor the extraordinary use of science for the public good." In a statement today, academy President Bruce Alberts sounded a similar theme: "This is a bleak day for science, and certainly for the public, who benefited tremendously from Carl Sagan's inspired life."

Sagan taught at Harvard University after receiving a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago in 1960, then moved to Cornell, where he became a full professor in 1971. He and his wife, Ann Druyan, were co-producing a Warner Brothers movie, based on his novel Contact, that is scheduled for release next year.

Posted in Space, Scientific Community