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Carl Sagan to the cosmos: Connect

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in Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

Carl Sagan’s passion for the universe was so huge that the moment Johnny Carson saw him on a Dick Cavett special, he wanted the scientist booked on The Tonight Show.

After a short first appearance in 1973, Sagan returned and delivered “a cosmological crash course,” explaining the connection between the history of the universe and the development of life on earth.

Here are Sagan’s key characteristics:

1. He asked tough questions. He believed in subjecting all claims to scrutiny and testing, ginned up a “Baloney Detection Kit” to confirm facts, listened to all points of view, and avoided becoming enchanted with his own theories.

2. He conveyed the importance of science without talking down to people. He wrote more than 600 scientific papers and more than 20 books, including Cosmos, the best-selling book about science in English, which was turned into one of the most watched series on public television. He also assisted in several space expeditions.

His method was simple: plain English. “My only secret in being able to talk to others about science is to remember what it was like when I didn’t understand whatever it was we were talking about,” he said.

Mikhail Gorbachev told Sagan himself that he had read all of Sagan’s research and determined never to let a nuclear holocaust happen. Sagan also briefed the Soviet Central Committee on nuclear winter, which a biographer said had a profound effect on Soviet military thinking.

3. He changed the world. Sagan sometimes pursued unusual lines of inquiry. His research on nuclear winter, unpopular in some quarters, caught the ears of U.S. and Soviet officials.

Sagan’s advice to posterity: “Ask courageous questions. Do not be satisfied with superficial answers. Be open to wonder and at the same time subject all claims to knowledge, without exception, to intense skeptical scrutiny. Be aware of human fallibility. Cherish your species and your planet.”

— Adapted from “Billions and Billions of Stars,” Michael Mink, Investor’s Business Daily.

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