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The Darkest Day of the Year
by Dr. H. Paul Shuch, Executive Director

The brightest star in the SETI cosmos has extinguished. It seems sadly appropriate that Carl Sagan should leave us on the eve of Winter Solstice, the Northern Hemisphere's shortest day of the year.

I never met Sagan in person, although we enjoyed a brief correspondence toward the end of his life. Sagan was a dozen years my senior, but had been a stellar student who raced through school at light-speed, so that by the time I started graduate school, his name was already a household word. I read about him first in accounts of the 1961 Order of the Dolphin meeting at Green Bank, while I was still in high school. I was puzzled by the press references to this "brilliant young professor" who seemed positively ancient to me!

The first of his books I encountered was Intelligent Life in the Universe, which he co-authored with Shklovskii in 1966. I was in the Air Force at the time, and wondered why I could find no evidence of intelligent life in the military. But I was really struck by Dragons of Eden, which earned Sagan his Pulitzer Prize in 1978. I thought, "If this man speaks as well as he writes, he must be a fantastic teacher." A couple of years later, with the release of his PBS TV series, the world found out just how fantastic.

Since I had the honor of knowing Barney Oliver in the 1970s, SETI was already more than a familiar concept to me when Cosmos came out in 1980. But I always felt SETI was science's best kept secret. A cynical world wrote it off as fanciful science fiction or, worse, a blatant attempt of scientists to extort funding from an unsuspecting public. Carl changed all that. Probably more effectively than anyone else, he championed the cause and bolstered SETI's image. He made it respectable for scientists to speculate about, and then seek out, other life.

Sagan was a brilliant research scientist, yes, but where he really shined was as a science popularizer, telemarketer, televangelist. His easygoing manner, evident charm and boyish good looks were, of course, an asset. But what made him Dr. Science to a whole generation was the way he made complex concepts accessible, without sacrificing accuracy. Like many educators, I have spent my whole career trying, never quite to my satisfaction, to emulate his style.

Sagan was a tough act to follow. Last year, accompanied by my ubiquitous guitar, I gave one of my SETI lectures at an East Coast college. (As I recall, one of the songs I sang was the ever-popular "Cosmic Carl.") Afterward, a Physics professor told me "the music was nice. But when Sagan was here a couple of years ago, he was accompanied by a string quartet."

The simple fact is, no one can do Carl Sagan nearly as well as Carl Sagan did. The void he has left will be very difficult to fill. And I doubt the stars will ever again shine quite so brightly.

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