Friday, November 9, 2012

Carl Sagan Day

I often stumble across new *days* to celebrate, but this one I knew nothing about until I saw a friend's post on Facebook today. Then I started doing some research into and got excited!

Carl Sagan was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and Pulitzer prize winning author who is probably best known for his show Cosmos. He also wrote the book Cosmos as a companion to the show. If his show was before your time, you may be more familiar with the movie Contact, with Jodie Foster. That movie was based on Sagan's book by the same name. Sagan wrote several books, including Pale Blue Dot, which was a follow up to Cosmos, and my personal favorite, The Demon Haunted World, a book that explains scientific method to laypeople, like me.

Sagan earned his PhD in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960 from the University of Chicago, lectured and did research at Harvard and was a professor at Cornell. As an advisor to NASA, he conceived the idea of sending a recorded message into space on a gold anodized plaque, much like how we would think of a vinyl record. The Voyager Golden Records contain sounds that reflect the diversity of life on earth, and are intended to be heard by extraterrestrials that may encounter it. Sagan viewed these recordings as bottles launched into the cosmic ocean.

Sagan's scientific achievements were many, including the search for extraterrestrial life and monitoring space for objects that might impact the earth, and I won't go into detail about them here. His main contribution to me, however, was his advocacy and the sense of wonder he imparted about the universe. He was fervent in his desire and ability to educate laypeople about science and the cosmos. His quote, "A galaxy is composed of gas and dust and stars—billions upon billions of stars," especially his frequent use of the word billions, became a catchphrase used by comedians in their routines. Sagan was so amused by this he turned it to his advantage, and entitled a book, Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium.

Today, to honor his achievements and profound impact, organizations all over the world celebrate him through star parties, astronomy lectures, science fairs, teacher workshops and other events. Be sure to see if your city or community has any such offerings and take advantage of them! If not, plan your own!

Invite friends over and watch either Cosmos or Contact.

Gather as many telescopes and binoculars as you can for some star gazing.

Pick and read one of the many books he wrote.

Share your love of space and the beauty of the universe with your children, especially. There are some excellent books to use with children. Two of  my favorites are written by H. A. Rey, of Curious George fame. They are The Stars and Find the Constellations.

Be silly and watch UFO movies. Paul, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T, Independence Day, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Battleship or any of the many movies available that involve aliens. See how many possible references to Carl Sagan you can catch.

Whatever you decide to do, have fun doing it!

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