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A Star Man Departs

Sagan helped millions visit the heavens through books and TV

December 22, 1996

Carl Sagan imbued Americans with a starry-eyed respect for science that helped give scientists the government support they needed to explore what Sagan so famously called "billions and billions of stars."

Astronomer Sagan was 62 when he succumbed Friday to pneumonia resulting from a bone marrow disorder; he had at least lived to see EETA 79001, a Martian meteorite in which some scientists see fossilized evidence of life. He long believed in life on Mars: While designing the Viking Mars space probe in the 1970s, for instance, he argued that the probe should have edible paint and a flashlight to attract Martian life. But he was skeptical about whether the currently famous meteorite proved the existence of life on the red planet. "Extraordinary claims," he said, "require extraordinary proof."

It was this marriage of sharp scientific discipline with a soft sense of wonder that made Sagan unique. He was neither a glib cheerleader nor a scholar talking past his audience. But like so many singular people, Sagan never quite fit into either the academic or popular community.

He was a highly educated astronomer and yet he was repeatedly turned down for membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He had a special rapport with ordinary Americans, exemplified by his 1980 "Cosmos," which remains the most watched series in the history of public television. In his latest book, "The Demon-Haunted World," he railed against the American embrace of pseudoscience.

Sagan's real community, of course, was the stars. As a boy, he said, he would lay his head on a log or a pillow and stare into space, at "the cold, diffuse interstellar gas ... loaded with organic matter," the stuff of life.

As Vice President Al Gore said in homage Friday, "It is appropriate that the man who wrote the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on 'life' should have taught us all so much about living."

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