12 Out-of-This-World Facts About Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan was perhaps America’s most beloved scientific visionary since Albert Einstein. A gifted astronomy researcher and an incredible communicator, he brought the wonders of the universe to the masses with his popular TV series Cosmos and books like the Pulitzer Prize–winning Dragons of Eden and Pale Blue Dot. His only novel, Contact, later became a sci-fi movie starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. Here are a few things you might not know about the scientist, TV star, and amateur turtleneck model.
1. Harvard passed on hiring Carl Sagan.
After Sagan served five years at the esteemed university as an assistant professor, Harvard denied him tenure in 1967, in part because one of his mentors at the University of Chicago derided his work as needlessly wordy and useless. He took a job at Cornell instead, where he stayed on as a professor until his death in 1996.
2. Carl Sagan dictated all of his writing to an audio recorder.
Sagan was an avid self-editor. A total of 20 drafts of Sagan’s 1994 book Pale Blue Dot exist today in the Library of Congress, each filled with handwritten edits, annotations, and revisions by the author. However, he drafted all of his writing—even grant proposals—by dictating his ideas onto a cassette. The contents were then transcribed for him and returned for editing.
3. Carl Sagan considered writing a children’s book called How Do Birds Fly?
In 1993, Sagan brainstormed a long list of possible children’s books for a series structured around the theme of “why?” Other potential ideas included Why Is It Warm In Summer?, Why Are There Lakes?, and What Is Air?
4. Carl Sagan didn’t like the Space Shuttle program.
Sagan argued against funding NASA’s Space Shuttle program in favor of more robotic exploration of the farther reaches of space. “That’s not space exploration,” he said in an interview about the space shuttle program’s week-long orbits. “Space exploration is going to other worlds.” A space station would only be worth it if it was preparing humans for long-term journeys to space, he told Charlie Rose in 1995.
5. Carl Sagan was an early crusader against climate change.
Sagan’s 1960 Ph.D. thesis concerned the atmosphere of Venus. His theoretical model showed that the planet’s extremely high surface temperatures were due to the greenhouse effect of an atmosphere filled with carbon dioxide and water vapor. In his book Cosmos, he wrote, “The surface environment of Venus is a warning: something disastrous can happen to a planet rather like our own.”
6. Carl Sagan has an archive in the Library of Congress endowed by the creator of Family Guy.
Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane put up an undisclosed sum to help the Library of Congress buy more than a thousand boxes of material kept by the late scientist and his wife and collaborator, Ann Druyan. The papers in The Seth MacFarlane Collection of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, which opened in 2013, include some of Sagan’s earliest notebooks and report cards.
7. Carl Sagan became famous for a phrase he never said.
After Sagan appeared in several successful spots on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Carson saw fit to send up the scientist’s signature style (turtleneck included) in a parody sketch.
Carson’s exaggerated use of “billions and billions” would later become associated with the astronomer, though he didn’t use it himself. However, Sagan did talk about large numbers quite a lot, as this supercut shows.
8. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan dated for one phone call—and were engaged before hanging up.
Sagan and Druyan, who would create the TV show Cosmos together, fell in love while working on the Voyager message. The courtship was exceedingly brief, as NPR's Radiolab describes:
“After searching endlessly for a piece of Chinese music to put on the record, Druyan had finally found a 2500-year-old song called ‘Flowing Stream.’ In her excitement, she called Sagan and left a message at his hotel. At that point, Druyan and Sagan had been professional acquaintances and friends, but nothing more. But an hour later, when Sagan called back, something happened. By the end of that call, Druyan and Sagan were engaged to be married.”
9. Carl Sagan wanted to legalize pot.
Under the pseudonym “Mr. X,” Sagan wrote a 1969 essay for Time magazine about the personal benefits he’d seen from cannabis use. Then in his mid-30s, he admitted to smoking throughout the prior decade. “I find that today a single joint is enough to get me high,” he wrote, going on to observe that marijuana had enhanced his appreciation for art and music. He concluded that “the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”
10. Carl Sagan thought Star Trek was too white.
“In a global terrestrial society centuries in the future, the ship’s officers are embarrassingly Anglo-American. In fact, only two of 12 or 14 interstellar vessels are given non-English names, Kongo and Potemkin,” he wrote in a piece about the impact of science fiction on his life in The New York Times in 1978.
11. Carl Sagan wanted us to leave Mars alone.
Despite his passion for exploring space, Sagan argued for the preservation of Mars even if it meant limiting our exploration of the planet. In Cosmos, Sagan declared:
“If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes. The existence of an independent biology on a nearby planet is a treasure beyond assessing, and the preservation of that life must, I think, supersede any other possible use of Mars.”
12. Carl Sagan wanted to make a Contact video game.
In the early days of conceptualizing the novel that would eventually become Contact, Carl Sagan thought the story would also be great fodder for a video game. But it wouldn't have been an action game; instead, players would control an alien carrying a message of peace to Earth, while avoiding calamities along the way. The idea also included segments where players controlled a human, with Sagan even wondering if it could be multiple games. Unfortunately, none of his concepts came to fruition.
This story originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2021.