The Cosmos Kid Sagan Tapped The Wonder Of Pure Science.

Posted: December 22, 1996

Like any vital field of human endeavor, science can be plagued by polemics and controversy, egos, envies and ethical quandaries.

How lucky we were, then, to have Carl Sagan around for 62 years to remind us that science is also rife with joy, wit, wonder and possibility.

What Mr. Sagan, who died Friday in Seattle, managed to pack into his six decades was itself a marvel worthy of scientific study.

Before a rare disease shut down his revving brain, he wrote more than 20 books, won the Pulitzer Prize, composed the article on ``Life'' in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, designed the plaques that flew into interstellar space with the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes, worked on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project, did significant research in planetary astronomy, taught, married three times and fathered five children.

And, oh yes, he wrote and hosted Cosmos, the 13-part series that was one of the most popular things ever broadcast on public television.

One thing he never did, he insisted, was utter the phrase that became his pop culture trademark: ``Billll-yunnns and billl-yunns.'' Too imprecise, he sniffed; a scientist would never talk like that.

A scientist? Was he the genuine article? Critics pooh-poohed his credentials, his boyish enthusiasm about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Just a ``popularizer,'' they sneered. In 1992, he was blackballed from the National Academy of Sciences.

Envy is an ugly thing.

What exactly is wrong with being a popularizer of difficult science? This age is sadly rife with hyperbolic pseudo-science and proud ignorance of established scientific truths. Public resources for pure science research are shrinking. In this landscape, isn't a person with a gift for translating cutting-edge complexity into phrases that capture the public mind exactly the kind of champion the scientific community needs?

If science didn't have Carl Sagan, it would have had to invent him.

In an interview earlier this year Mr. Sagan said something that seems to hover sadly over his obituary: ``I'd rather there be extraterrestrial life discovered in my lifetime than not. I'd hate to die and never know.''

But perhaps, in the end, the joke will be on his detractors. For the year that took Carl Sagan from us also dropped a few broad hints - a rock from Mars, an icy patch on the moon - that his unshakable faith in life out there may not be so kooky, after all.

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