American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and author Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was once one of the most famous – and controversial – scientists in America. Known for his divisive views on extraterrestrial intelligence, religion and nuclear weapons, he lectured as an astronomy professor at Cornell, wrote more than a dozen books, worked on NASA robotic missions, was repeatedly on television as an astronomer on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide in the 1980s with his television series Cosmos.
Indeed, perhaps he is best known for his passion for education, and his ability to communicate scientific concepts to the general public in an accessible, entertaining way. During his lifetime, he published more than 600 scientific papers and was author, co-author or editor of more than 20 books, and as a result, sparked an interest in science for millions of people across the world.
Here’s a breakdown of 5 of his most significant books, in chronological order.
1. The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective
Sagan’s first book remains one of his most influential. It explores the implications of the discovery of microbial life on Mars as well as the possibility of life and even more advanced civilisations existing elsewhere in the universe. He discusses his hypothetical opinions about what other lifeforms might think of the Earth, as well as their efforts at communication, such as UFO sightings. In 2006, the book was listed as number 13 in a list of the ’25 Greatest Science Books of All Time’ by Discover Magazine.
2. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence
By combining the fields of anthropology, evolutionary biology, psychology and computer science, Sagan explores the evolution of human intelligence and how it has shaped our understanding of the world. He discusses the role of the brain in human evolution and the impact of technological advances on human society. The name originates from Sagan’s notion that man’s early struggle for survival in the face of predators, and in particular a fear of reptiles, may have led to cultural beliefs and myths about dragons.
An accompaniment to Sagan’s popular television series of the same name, Cosmos provides a comprehensive overview of the history of science and the universe, citing a range of different sources such as the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras as well as information about recent discoveries like black holes. Sagan shares his love of science and his overarching belief that it has the power to bring people together. As such, it is still widely read and remains a good starting point for those interested in engaging with science.
A science fiction novel and the only full work of fiction published by Sagan, Contact explores the consequences of making a connection with a more technologically advanced, extraterrestrial life form. The novel actually originated as a screenplay co-written by Sagan and Ann Druyan (who he later married); however, after the development of the film stalled, Sagan turned it into a novel. It was a critical and commercial success and was later adapted into a feature film in 1997 starring Jodie Foster.
5. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
One of Sagan’s final and most impactful works, this book reflects upon the significance of the famous photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which shows the planet as a small dot in the vast expanse of space. Through poignant descriptions of the image and information about current knowledge of the solar system, he discusses the importance of preserving the planet and protecting its resources for all posterity. He also talks about a human vision of the future.