Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Scientist of the Month: Carl Sagan

I approach this "Scientist of the Month" with a little trepidation. Carl Sagan isn't just some scientist of the past that I've read about in textbooks - he's the man that inspired me to become the scientist I am today. Indeed, if I had been influenced by Sagan any earlier I would be in graduate school studying astrophysics instead of chemistry.

Sagan was a brilliant research scientist. He studied the atmosphere of Venus - his thesis included the first computational model for the greenhouse effect on the planet. He also modeled the atmosphere of Mars and proposed seasonal weather patterns due to wind storms (which was later verified by unmanned spacecraft). He studied the moons of Saturn and correctly predicted liquid oceans on Titan's surface.

Carl Sagan would deserve a place in any discussion on brilliant scientists for this work alone, but he was also a tireless advocate for science and rational thinking. He wrote, narrated, and produced an amazing TV series called "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage" with the purpose of making science more accessible. If you haven't seen them, the entire series is available on Hulu. If you have seen them, here's a fun remix. He also wrote many books including "Cosmos" (to accompany the television series) and "Contact" (the book that the Jodi Foster movie is based on).

One of my favorite pictures of my son is of him reading "Cosmos". He's four years old, so he's obviously not reading the book. There's a section in the middle of the book that has pictures. My son is in love with the planets. It's a special connection we have, since we both started becoming really interested in them at about the same time. This picture is the perfect example of what Carl Sagan was always hoping to inspire: an honest curiosity about the universe.