Carl Sagan fought pseudo-science with a smile and wide-eyed wonder.

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During my first year in college, one of my professors gave an unusual assignment: Write a paper about pseudo-science.

I decided to analyze the weather predictions in The Old Farmer's Almanac. This was before the Internet, so I spent many hours in the agriculture school library, poring over binders of temperature and precipitation records. The accuracy of the Almanac's forecasts, it turned out, was exactly what you would expect from chance, no better or worse than flipping a coin.

The professor who assigned that paper was Carl Sagan, the Cornell astronomer who went on to fame as a frequent guest of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and as host of the original, 13-part Cosmos series on PBS. The assignment was Sagan's way of teaching us to look beyond hype and skeptically examine the facts. Extraordinary claims, he liked to say, require extraordinary evidence.

A search for life

Brilliant scientists tend to have trouble communicating their ideas to non-scientists; at universities, they lead seminars with esoteric names for small groups of graduate students. Not Sagan. At Cornell, the courses he taught included introductory-level Astronomy 102.

When I took the class in the spring of 1975, Sagan wasn't yet a celebrity. But to enter his lecture hall was to be in the presence of someone special.

His hair was shaggily long. His wardrobe seemed to consist of a single beige turtleneck sweater with patches at the elbows. His speaking style was distinctive; The Cornell Daily Sun once parodied it by printing every other word in boldface or italics. (He often said "bill-yuns" but never "bill-yuns and bill-yuns," which would have been redundantly imprecise.) In his lectures, Sagan made the most complex topics accessible to everyone, even us liberal arts majors.

Sagan's overriding scientific passion was exobiology — the search for extraterrestrial life. When I interviewed him in 1976 for the Daily Sun, Sagan was scrutinizing images from the two Viking landers for signs of life on Mars. "There certainly isn't anything that looks like a bush or tree or cactus, much less a giraffe," he acknowledged with characteristic humor. "But I'm still looking." Answering fellow scientists who scorned his public relations activities, Sagan said simply, "We use public funds and I think, at the minimum, we have a moral obligation to explain what we're doing."

Soon after his 60th birthday in 1994, Sagan was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a rare bone marrow disease. Throughout his illness, he continued working feverishly, completing The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The book was a passionate defense of rationality against a rising tide of pseudo-science — and a prescient warning that the increasing power of science, combined with widespread ignorance about it, "is a prescription for disaster."

Death left a void

On Dec. 4, 1996, a gaunt-looking Sagan was interviewed on ABC's Nightline from his home in Ithaca, N.Y. As the seven-minute segment ended, host Ted Koppel asked for some final thoughts.

"We live," Sagan replied, "on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of billions of other galaxies. … That is a perspective on human life and our culture that's well worth pondering."

That was Sagan's last message to a national audience. He died 16 days later, with the question of extraterrestrial life still unresolved, and without realizing his lifelong dream of making contact with another civilization.

Sagan's death left a void that has allowed pseudo-science and scientific misinformation to flourish. But Sagan, who would have turned 80 this year, would no doubt have been pleased that one of his students, Bill Nye ("The Science Guy"), has stepped into the fray, challenging the deniers of evolution and climate change.

And as the updated version of Cosmos debuts Sunday on Fox and the National Geographic Channel, perhaps the host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, can introduce a new generation to the wonders of the universe beyond the pale blue dot of planet Earth, the way Carl Sagan did to one wide-eyed freshman nearly four decades ago.

Bill Sternberg is deputy editorial page editor of USA TODAY.

In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, including our Board of Contributors. To read more columns like this, go to the opinion front page or follow us on twitter @USATopinion or Facebook.

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