Sagan, Carl

Sagan, Carl (1934–1996) During the late 1980s and the 1990s, American astronomer Carl Sagan was an outspoken skeptic in regard to the existence of extraterrestrials, God, and an afterlife, though in earlier years he was a major supporter of the idea that life on other planets was a real—indeed likely— possibility. As a skeptic, he was heavily involved with an organization that takes a skeptical approach to the study of the paranormal, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). In 1987 he received CSICOP’s In Praise of Reason Award, and in 1994 he received the group’s Isaac Asimov Award for his scientific achievements.

Sagan obtained his doctorate in astronomy in 1960 from the University of Chicago and subsequently taught at the University of California–Berkeley, and at Harvard University. From 1962 to 1968 he worked as an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. During this period, he used radar to study the surface contours of Mars and used observations to deduce that the temperature of Venus was 797 degrees Fahrenheit (425°C). In 1968 he became the director of the Laboratory of Planetary Studies at Cornell University, where he contributed to the efforts of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to send unmanned space missions to Mars and Venus. Ultimately Sagan was involved in the NASA space probes Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11; the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 interstellar messages; the Mariner, Voyager, and Viking planetary exploration craft; and attempts to use sophisticated equipment on Earth to search the skies for transmissions and other signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life. At this point he was hopeful that humans would find evidence of life on other planets, but by the time of his death from a bone-marrow disease in 1996, he had abandoned this hope.

Sagan is also known for making astronomy and cosmology understandable for the general public, through his popular 1980 television series Cosmos and through books and articles written for nonscientists. His writings include The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (1977), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1978; Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1979); and Contact (1985), a novel that was made into a motion picture of the same name. The latter, written before Sagan became a skeptic in regard to the existence of extraterrestrials, was a vehicle for his speculations into how humans might someday make contact with extraterrestrials.


  • Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
  • Skeptics


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning