On December 20th, 1996 the world lost one of its greatest minds. Over a decade later Carl Sagan remains, in many minds, the voice of astronomy. His greatest contribution to our understanding of the universe did not come from his scientific discoveries, but from his skills as a communicator.
Carl Sagan was a teacher. I remember watching Cosmos as a child and hanging on every word. He had the ability to explain a complex universe in a way that I, even as a child, could grasp. This ability made him rare among scientists, who are often unable to communicate ideas without the use of jargon or complicated comparisons.
The other thing that jumps out about him was his childlike sense of excitement and wonder. Carl Sagan was genuinely excited about science and astronomy, and he was able to transfer that excitement to his audience. He never came across as all-knowing, rather he emphasized his ignorance. Carl Sagan wasn’t afraid to talk about what he didn’t know. He encouraged you to expand your mind beyond the horizon.
Today, we still don’t have a replacement for Carl Sagan. There are a few that come close: Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolabs, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking (in his writing), Stephen Chu. All of them are good communicators, but none of them possess Sagan’s combination of knowledge, celebrity, excitement and creativity.
Sagan told us that, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” And in that he captured what set him apart from other scientists, he inspired us to imagine.
For most of human history we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Who are we? What are we? We find that we inhabit an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. This perspective is a courageous continuation of our penchant for constructing and testing mental models of the skies; the Sun as a red-hot stone, the stars as a celestial flame, the Galaxy as the backbone of night.
— Carl Sagan