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A Celestial Event for a Premier Stargazer : Celebrations: A galaxy of scientists, journalists, artists and 300 others salute Carl Sagan on his 60th birthday--and on his continued commitment to space exploration.

October 19, 1994|FREDERIC GOLDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ITHACA, N.Y. — As parties go, it was out of this world, a truly heavenly event.

To celebrate his 60th trip around the Sun--as his wife and co-author Ann Druyan poetically put it--Carl Sagan's closest colleagues and kin decided to host a gala birthday party.

But what sort of fete do you stage for America's most famous astronomer, a pedagogue who has turned the planet into his classroom, a writer who limes pop science books with almost Asimovian energy, a debunker of the fraudulent and a champion of international comity, a one-man early warning system against the dangers of nuclear winter, a star professor so recognizable he can't walk a street from Tokyo to Tadzhikistan without people asking for his autograph?

The answer came when a galaxy of scientists, diplomats, artists, journalists and about 300 other "friends of Carl" descended upon Cornell University--not only to toast Sagan, but to talk learnedly for two days about some of his favorite themes.

It was, as geologist Frank Press, former president of the National Academy of Sciences and President Jimmy Carter's science adviser, dryly noted, an occasion where the collective "intelligence quotient was higher than the cholesterol quotient."

As any event linked with the Sagan name would have to be, last week's proceedings had their share of the wondrous and mind-expanding, such as the speculations by the Jet Propulsion Lab's director, Edward C. Stone, about the origins of life in the organic soups of such forbidding places as Saturn's giant moon, Titan, and the vivid descriptions by UC Santa Cruz radio astronomer Frank Drake and Harvard physicist Paul Horowitz of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) in the faint radio whispers from deep space.

Apart from the birthday itself, which actually occurs Nov. 9 (when Upstate New York's notorious cold and snow would have made such a party harder to stage), Sagan has plenty to celebrate.

Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences gave him its highest medal--the Public Welfare Medal--for "communicating the wonders of science" to the public. That partly made up for what Caltech black-hole theorist Kip Thorne called its "shameful decision" in blackballing probably the country's most recognizable scientist from membership.

In addition, Sagan's latest book, "Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space" (Random House), is about to appear in bookstores. And in the midst of the festivities here, word came from Hollywood that Jodie Foster had agreed to play the lead role of the radio astronomer who discovers the first indication of extraterrestrial life in the film version of Sagan's science-fiction novel, "Contact."

"He's an icon of modern society and science," said Wesley Huntress, NASA's associate director for space science, politely forgetting the space agency's occasional pique over Sagan's loudly proclaimed preference for robotic exploration of space instead by its favored manned missions.

At the party, there were there no allusions to Sagan's well-known temper, such as his recent threat to sue Apple Computer when some of its engineers playfully called the in-house prototype of a new computer "Sagan," or to the recent brouhaha at Cornell, when a conservative student magazine announced a mock "I Rubbed Shoulders with Carl Sagan" contest. This was a not-so-sly reference to the irritation of some Cornell faculty and students at the frequent absences of their celebrated David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of Cornell's Laboratory for Planetary Studies because of far-flung lecturing and writing commitments.

Only the plain-spoken Caltech geologist Bruce Murray, a former JPL director and co-founder with Sagan of the 100,000-member Planetary Society, glancingly took note of such storms by saying he admired Carl for how he "can take abuse in a world-class way."

In addition, there was tribute to Sagan's international impact. Russian space scientist Roald Sagdeev--who sealed the end of the Cold War in a very personal way by marrying political scientist Susan Eisenhower, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's granddaughter--spoke of how the Kremlin listened to Sagan, whose books are widely read in Russia.

When President Ronald Reagan came to Moscow, Sagdeev recalled, Mikhail Gorbachev urged him to endorse a joint Soviet-American manned expedition to Mars. Reagan welcomed the idea, Sagdeev said, until he was told that it came from Sagan, perhaps the most vociferous opponent of Reagan's "Star Wars" program. "End of this project," Sagdeev said.

There was lots of good old Saganesque fun, such as the mocking denunciations by the magician, peripatetic skeptic and MacArthur "genius" fellow James (the Amazing) Randi of spoon-bending psychics and scientific gobbledygook.

The party-goers--who included Sagan's five children from his three marriages and his first wife, Lynn Margulis--were hard pressed to find appropriate gifts for a man who has the universe at his fingertips.

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