Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why is Carl Sagan Among the Top Five Greatest People in Astronomy & Space Exploration?

Credit: Jenny Rollo (Public Domain); Galileo’s elaborate tomb in the Basillica di Santa Croce, Florence.

Who are the greatest people in the history of astronomy and space exploration? From these specific heads came every idea mankind has ever had regarding astronomy and space exploration. Indeed, the very thought of imagination requires people. These represent, with apologies to Walt Disney, the imagineers of Astronomy and Space Exploration. Without them, we’d be nothing but apes throwing bones at an alien black monolith (wait, wasn’t that in our Popular Culture category?). In the spring of 2009, compiled 44 nominations – the most in any category – for the greatest people in astronomy and space exploration. These ranged from a gaggle of Greeks starting with Anaximander (c610-c546BC) – the pre-Socratic philosopher credited with the first known attempt to model the universe – to Carl Fredrich von Weizsäcker (1912-2007) – whose work added tremendously to our knowledge of the energy engine of stars as well as the origin of our solar system.

We had two simple rules when it came to nominating people: 1) Don’t nominate anyone you’re related to; and, 2) Don’t nominate anyone still alive. In a moment, you’ll see why we should have probably added a third rule.

In the summer of 2009, using such Web 2.0 tools as Twitter and LinkedIn, polled professionals and interested amateurs from all across the world to vote for their favorite greatest people in astronomy and space exploration. is an official IYA2009 project designed to increase interest in the best of astronomy and space exploration among all age groups. Over the course of the next several months, we will discover the top 100 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration. Still don’t get it? Try picturing what happens when you mix Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Fox’s American Idol. That’s!

We now proudly unveil the top five (in reverse order based on weighted votes) greatest people in Astronomy and Space Exploration:

#5 Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
#4 Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
#3 Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
#2 Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
#1 Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

I’m sorry, but I have to respectfully disagree with our esteemed voters. Clearly, Carl Sagan does not belong on this list. So many others have added more to the science of astronomy and to the development of the space exploration program that I question whether he even belongs in the top ten.(I can easily place Aristotle, Ptolemy, Charles Messier, Tycho Brahe, Edwin Hubble, and Werner von Braun ahead of Mr. Sagan.) His inclusion may be due to the phenomenon of “recency” – a term in behavioral psychology which says folks tend to overweight things they’ve most recently witnessed.

In retrospect, we should have had a third rule – any nominee must have been deceased for at least 25 years. This would have been long enough for the direct generational experience to have faded so the individuals could have been viewed in proper perspective.

The greatest people in astronomy and space exploration represent only one of eight categories in our quest to identify the top 100 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration. How do these five events compare to the top five in the other seven categories? Would you like to see the complete list of the Top 40 greatest images and imaginations in astronomy and space exploration? Just go to this site: to discover them all.

Which of these top 40 will become the top 10? You can help us by voting your opinion at our surveymonkey poll located here:

Have fun!

Each week from now until December 4, 2009, followers of on will get the first opportunity to answer a new survey. Next, members of the LinkedIn AstronomyTop100 Group will be invited to answer. Finally, members of some relevant LinkedIn groups will also be invited to complete the survey. All surveys will be conducted through

If you’re interested in viewing all the nominations and voting in the Round One surveys, visit to see all the best of the Top 100 Greatest Images and Imaginations in Astronomy and Space Exploration. If you’d like to take a survey, go to the relevant category page on

Just interested in keeping tabs on everything about and astronomy in general? Then follow it on Twitter (@AstronomyTop100).

Explore the unexplored. Discover the undiscovered. Know the unknown.

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