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Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson: Who’s the real King of the Cosmos?

3 Apr

Guest post: Chicago blogger Beth Michelle


They started and ended in the same place: born in New York a generation apart, astronomers Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson would both go on to host a show called Cosmos. Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, aired in 1980 on PBS and broke documentary viewership records for nearly a decade; Tyson’s sequel, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, debuted in 2014 on Fox.

Their passion for knowledge and their desire to share the wonder of the universe with everyone drove both men, but their careers, personalities, and approaches are unique.

saganSagan indulged in the speculative, and he focused his career on the exploration of extraterrestrial life. He was inspired early on by the Miller-Urey experiment which sought to pinpoint the chemical origin of life on earth. After his acquaintance Stanley Miller demonstrated that amino acids, a fundamental building block of life, could have been formed by chemical reactions in Earth’s early days, Sagan became engrossed in the near-certainty of extraterrestrial life.

His seemingly outlandish ideas, from musing about possibility of life under the surface of the moon to terraforming Venus, captured the popular imagination, though they were regarded as reckless by some of his peers. Harold Urey, a part of the experiment that inspired him early on, wrote a letter to the Harvard tenure committee in 1968 expressing his concerns.

Sagan’s tendency to dream may have cost him tenure at Harvard, but he moved quickly to Cornell University, where he would consult with NASA on a life-detecting mission to Mars, and also had a hand in designing the Pioneer plaques and Voyager Golden Record, messages to any extraterrestrials those missions might encounter.

He believed that the public was more interested in and more capable of understanding science than his peers did. Just over a decade later, Cosmos appeared on PBS for the first time.

Sagan drew people to science with his sense of wonder and possibility. Tyson brings science closer to people on a cultural level, using social media to share his passion.

tysonNine-year-old Tyson’s love of the stars was ignited when he first visited the Hayden Planetarium in New York. After studying at Harvard and Columbia, he eventually went on to become director of the Planetarium. He dedicated himself to making sure inquisitive minds, like his own, would find the same enlightenment there that he had.

Tyson posts regularly to Twitter, where he (@neiltyson) has more than three million followers. He certainly engages people with interesting factoids, and he’s also at least partly responsible for one of the most popularly contentious decisions in recent astronomy: the demotion of Pluto. Most of his work focuses on stars, but his reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet was confirmed by the International Astronomical Union in 2006.

plutoNothing gets people riled up – gets them as engaged in astronomy – as the “debate” about Pluto’s planet-hood. Except perhaps for debates about the legitimacy of astrology — and both Sagan and Tyson have been outspoken about their disbelief.

Both men also served as advisors to NASA. He has served on two separate commissions, one in 2001 and the Moon, Mars, and Beyond commission of 2004, to guide the future of NASA’s research. In 2006 he was appointed to the Advisory Council to help NASA prioritize projects with its limited budget.

Another significant similarity is that both men publicly expressed their concern for the welfare of the environment. Sagan had published about the looming dangers of climate change in the early eighties, and Tyson has repeatedly spoken out in favor of a diversified energy market (which is the very sort of advocacy that has helped to improve Toledo gas prices and diversify renewable energy options throughout Texas).

Both Sagan and Tyson racked up plenty of accomplishments. Both were instrumental in bridging the gap between esoteric sciences and the popular imagination. They started their lives in the same place and achieved many similar things, though their methods, and their personalities, are quite different.


Beth_KellyBeth Michelle is a Chicago-based blogger with a nasty film addiction. Her primary interests include pulp cinema, fashion photography and vintage Japanese film cameras.

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