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Carl Sagan Popular science: Death of astronomer who wouldn't be confined to academia leaves void.


WHEN THE robotic probe Mars Pathfinder touches down on the Red Planet on Independence Day, take a moment to remember Carl Sagan. As much as any scientist, Dr. Sagan was responsible for the public support needed to fund expensive space explorations. He did it by taking science to the people.

Dr. Sagan didn't talk about the origins of the universe or the possibility of life on another planet just with scientists. He used television to spread his excitement to mass audiences, appearing on "The Tonight Show" 26 times.

His 13-part public TV series, "Cosmos," became one of the most widely viewed shows in history, with an audience of 400 million in 60 countries. Some academics bristled at his venturing outside their circle, but none could dispute Dr. Sagan's science.

The Cornell University astronomy professor was a member of NASA's imaging team for the Mariner 9 voyage to Mars in 1971. He helped select the Mars landing sites for the Viking 1 and Viking 2 probes in 1975, and was on the team that sent Voyager and Voyager 2 on their fly-by missions in the '80s to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and beyond.

There was an infectious excitement in Dr. Sagan's presentation of scientific knowledge that even came across in his writings. In 1978, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, "The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence." His 1984 science fiction novel, "Contact," is being made into a movie. Dr. Sagan wrote more than a dozen books, as well as 600 scientific papers and articles.

He died last week of pneumonia, having battled a bone marrow disease for two years. He was 62. Carl Sagan's death leaves a void that will become more apparent as space scientists try to drum up support in this country for further exploration of the stars.

Pub Date: 12/28/96

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