SEATTLE (Dec. 20) -- Astronomer Carl Sagan, a gifted storyteller who extolled and explored the grandeur and mystery of the universe in lectures, books and an acclaimed TV series, died Friday (Dec 20, 1996) of pneumonia after a two-year battle with bone marrow disease. He was 62.
Sagan was surrounded by his family when he died at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where he had a bone-marrow transplant in April 1995 and occasionally returned for treatment, said center spokeswoman Susan Edmonds. The center had identified his disease as myelodysplasia, a form of anemia also known as preleukemia syndrome.
Sagan, who lived in Ithaca, N.Y., helped transport an ivory tower realm into the living rooms of ordinary people, enthralling millions with his vivid writing and flamboyant television soliloquies.
He won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1978 for "The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence."
In 1980, his 13-part Public Broadcasting Service series "Cosmos" became the most-watched limited series in the history of American public television, a record since surpassed by "The Civil War."
The series turned him into a national celebrity. Comics parodied his references to "billions and billions" of stars, "but it really established, despite the joke that comes with it, just how vast the universe is," said Greg Andorfer, executive director of the Maryland Science Center and the producer of "Cosmos."
Some purists complained that Sagan sometimes oversimplified and made significant interpretive errors, but he had the full confidence of his department chairman at Cornell University.
"Carl was the best teacher of science in the world," Professor Yervant Terzian said Friday. "It is difficult to think of a more positive, compassionate, and intelligent person."
Sagan never shied away from the label of science popularizer. "I wear the badge proudly," he told The Associated Press in 1994.
Aside from his flair for making scientific ideas comprehensible and exciting, Sagan built up an impressive research record and always insisted that scientific investigation was his top priority.
"From when I was a little kid, the only thing I really wanted to be was a scientist, to actually do the science, to interrogate nature, to find out how things work," he said. "That's where the fun is. If you're in love, you want to tell the world!"
In his early 20s, Sagan deduced from experimental models that Venus, long considered a habitable planet, was actually a foreboding place with a surface heat of about 900 degrees.
While teaching astronomy at Harvard in the 1960s, he established that fierce winds that sculpted the landscape, not seasonal changes in vegetation, explained the bright and dark patterns detected on Mars.
Harvard never offered him tenure, so when Cornell University in Ithaca asked in 1968 if he would set up a laboratory for planetary studies, Sagan promptly accepted.
Having helped design robotic missions for NASA since the late 1950s, Sagan made use of space-mission data in lab simulations to draw lessons about dust storms on Mars or the greenhouse effect of Venus.
He was always performing on the high wire, racing from the lecture circuit to spacecraft observations of planets to his writing desk in Ithaca. When he got stuck on one project, he moved on to the next, letting his subconscious go to work.
Sagan began publishing at the age of 22, his early work mostly academic papers and books. His 30th book, titled "Demon Haunted World," was published in the fall of 1995. An earlier novel "Contact" (1985) became a best seller.
He began experimenting with the popular market in 1973, publishing "The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective." The same year, he was off exploring the Hollywood star cluster, making the first of 25 appearances on NBC's "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."
"Cosmos," winner of three Emmys, retraced the 15 billion years of cosmic evolution that have transformed matter into life and consciousness. Among its topics: the origin of life, the evolution of galaxies and matter, and the human brain.
Co-written by his wife, Ann Druyan, it first aired in 1980 and was seen by more than 500 million people in 60 countries. The companion "Cosmos" book spent 70 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, 15 weeks at No. 1.
In his 1994 "Cosmos" sequel, "Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space," Sagan visualized mankind several centuries from now, concluding that humans need to settle other worlds in order to survive.
Once asked to explain the public's insatiable interest in his rather esoteric essays, Sagan said: "They're not numskulls. Thinking scientifically is as natural as breathing."
Born in New York City on Nov. 9, 1934, Sagan said he had fully expected to follow his Russian-born father into the garment industry but began to chart a career in astronomy while at high school in Rahway, N.J.
While his parents knew little about science, they nurtured his sense of wonder and instilled a healthy skepticism.
He earned a physics degree from the University of Chicago in 1954 and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960. He was appointed lecturer and assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard in 1962.
In 1971, he became a full professor at Cornell, where his campus lecture series drew standing-room-only crowds.
Sagan occasionally journeyed into the political arena, pushing for more government funding of space missions and stricter measures to counter the environmental threats of ozone depletion and global warming.
As for UFOs, lost continents and the like, Sagan said the world could ill afford such pseudoscientific twaddle.
"We sometimes pretend something is true not because there's evidence for it but because we want it to be true," he said. "We confuse reality with our hopes and fears."
Sagan was a firm believer in the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, noting that organic molecules, the kind that life on Earth is dependent on, appear to be almost everywhere in the solar system.
Finding out whether mankind is alone, or not alone, he believed, is one of the world's most important puzzles.
Sagan is survived by his wife; his sister, Cari Sagan Greene; five children; and a grandson.
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