National Nuclear Security Administration

Carl Sagan continues to inspire NNSA’s scientists

November 9, 2016

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Carl Sagan was one of the highest-profile scientists of the 20th century. He made notable contributions in the fields of science, literature, education, environmental preservation, and received numerous awards for his efforts. In addition to his books and the television show “Cosmos,” Sagan’s work inspired movies, as well. There are few scientists who have had such a broad influence as Sagan.

On this day, Sagan’s birthday, some of NNSA’s scientists, engineers, and technologists took a moment to recall his enduring influence on science, and their life and work.

Nina Louise LanzaNina Louise Lanza, Staff Scientist - Intelligence and Space Research, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Carl Sagan eloquently articulated the joys of curiosity and discovery, and his words helped me to believe that I could and should pursue a major in astronomy as an undergraduate. I have always been fascinated by Mars, in part because of Sagan’s research on that planet.

Sagan took seriously the idea that life may exist beyond Earth, perhaps even as close to us as Mars. He thought seriously about how we might go about identifying extraterrestrial life in a rigorous, scientific way, and supported projects like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence that are taking tangible steps toward answering the question of whether extraterrestrial life exists. His work has paved the way for scientists like myself to pursue exobiology as a serious field of study.

He always stressed the importance of critical thinking and skepticism in science and in life, and was able to bring this message to the general public. In his book, “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” he explains how and why science works, and the difference between science and pseudoscience. In very clear terms, Sagan shows us the beauty, power, and joy of the scientific approach. This message is needed more than ever in an age where information of all kinds is abundant but facts are ever harder to discern.

Sagan’s perspective on the universe remains fresh and inspiring 20 years after his untimely death. He encouraged us to think of ourselves on the “pale blue dot” of Earth, vanishingly small in the context of our solar system, galaxy, galactic group, and the universe beyond. This was not intended to make us feel meaningless; rather, he wanted us to understand that human problems are relatively small in the context of nature, which is grand and awe-inspiring. There is so much that we don’t yet know about our universe, and we’ve only just begun to explore it. We are, as he said, on the “shore of the cosmic ocean,” where the water looks inviting but we have yet to take the plunge.

Bob KaplarBob Kaplar, Electrical Engineer, Sandia National Laboratories

I used to watch the “Cosmos” program when I was growing up. I also had the accompanying book and several other books by him. In fact, as I recall, my college entrance essay even mentioned the program. I re-watched the entire (original) series about 15 years ago (I think I got it at the library), and I have been trying to buy it ever since. I also watched the re-make of the show a year or two ago.

I specifically liked the “cosmic calendar” that compressed the whole history of the universe into a standard calendar. All of recorded human history falls into the last few seconds of December 31. The idea is to convey the nature of cosmic time scales. I also like the “spaceship of the imagination” that he travels on. My favorite episode is one in which he is trying to explain special relativity, and does this by using an example featuring a couple of brothers in Italy – one of them rides his scooter around town near the speed of light, and at the end of his trip his brother is old, while only a few minutes have elapsed for him.

Keith PenneyKeith Penney, Laser/Optical Technologist, Sandia National Laboratories

In high school I fell in love with the “Cosmos” television series and was inspired by Carl Sagan and his successors, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Janna Levin, and Brian Greene.

All these people had the word “physicist” attached to their names. I realized that if I wanted to understand the things they were describing, I need to get myself a physics degree. So I did that… and then I got another one. Then I got carried away and ended up working in a lab.

Susanna GordonSusanna Gordon, Physicist & Information Security senior manager, Sandia National Laboratories

I took Sagan’s “critical thinking” course while at Cornell.

One of the biggest concepts he taught me was to try not to make assumptions when listening to someone else’s point of view. If their point of view doesn’t make sense to you, then spend time ferreting out what is behind that instead of just dismissing it. The key is to listen to understand, not listen to argue. If only everyone took a class like his!

He was a very thoughtful and introspective person and had the highest integrity of anyone I think I’ve met.

Mark Boslough Mark Boslough, Physicist, Sandia National Laboratories

Sagan was a gifted teacher of how to be a good scientist, as well as how to be a good human being. I only became aware of a quote, from his 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot,” when it was read at a wedding I attended a couple weeks ago:

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

But I must have known about it subliminally. I wrote a chapter for this year’s Starmus Festival volume on planetary defense and global warming risk communication. The title is “Defending the only home that we have ever known.”

This image of Earth as a tiny, pale blue dot (right side in the middle of the stripe) was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on Feb. 14, 1990, from a distance of more than 4 billion miles away. It inspired Sagan’s book, “Pale Blue Dot.”