Carl Sagan, a celebrity astronomer who helped make the vast unknown a little less mysterious, died of pneumonia Friday at age 62 at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He had suffered from the bone marrow disease myelodisplasia for two years.
He leaves behind a generation of Americans inspired by his enthusiastic lectures, books and documentaries about space and life.
Sagan, who lived in Ithaca, N.Y., won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1978 for ”The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence.”
In 1980, his acclaimed 13-part PBS series ”Cosmos” became the most-watched limited series in the history of American public television, a record since surpassed by ”The Civil War.” A film version of his novel “Contact,” to star Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, is on the way from Warner Bros.
Co-written with his wife, Ann Druyan, the “Cosmos” series retraced the 15 billion years of cosmic evolution that have transformed matter into life. It won three Emmys and a Peabody Award, and a companion book was a bestseller for more than a year, including 15 weeks at No. 1.
A Cornell U. professor and a decorated NASA adviser, Sagan had the rare gift of being able to communicate his enchantment with science to the masses. Once asked to explain the public’s interest, he said: ”They’re not numbskulls. Thinking scientifically is as natural as breathing.”
Sagan’s research focused mostly on the chemistry of the planets. But he also contributed to the search for habitable worlds and intelligent life beyond the solar system.
Sagan never shied away from the label of science popularizer, declaring in 1994 that ”I wear the badge proudly.” And while he had a flair for making scientific ideas comprehensible and exciting, Sagan built up an impressive research record and insisted that research was his top priority.
”From when I was a little kid, the only thing I really wanted to be was a scientist, to actually do the science, to interrogate nature, to find out how things work,” he said. ”That’s where the fun is. If you’re in love, you want to tell the world!”
Born in New York on Nov. 9, 1934, Sagan said he fully expected to follow his Russian-born father into the garment industry, but began to chart a career in astronomy while at high school in Rahway, N.J.
He earned a physics degree from the U. of Chicago in 1954 and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960. He was appointed lecturer and assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard in 1962.
In 1973, he made the first of 25 appearances on NBC’s ”Tonight Show.”
His 30th book, titled ”Demon Haunted World,” was published last year.
Sagan is survived by his wife; his sister, Cari Sagan Greene; five children; and a grandson.