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Carl Sagan. Courtesy of Cornell University.

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Sagan, Carl (09 November 1934–20 December 1996), space scientist, author, science popularizer, TV personality, and antinuclear weapons activist, was born Carl Edward Sagan in Brooklyn, New York. He was the son of Rachel Molly Gruber Sagan and garment industry worker Samuel Sagan, an immigrant from the Ukraine. Carl Sagan's Jewish background encouraged him “to ask questions early,” as he later observed (Davidson, p. 57); so did his mother's skeptical, sometimes acidic personality. At age five, he became interested in astronomy when he read in a library book that the stars are distant versions of our sun. His interest in science soared when his parents took him to the New York World's Fair of 1939–1940, which offered an optimistic and (as he later acknowledged) “extremely technocratic” view of the future (Davidson, p. 14)....

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Urey, Harold Clayton (29 April 1893–05 January 1981), physical chemist and planetary scientist, was born in Walkerton, Indiana, the son of Samuel Clayton Urey, a minister, and Cora Rebecca Reinoehl. After his father died in 1899, his mother married another Church of the Brethren minister. Urey lacked the financial means to continue his education beyond his 1911 high school graduation and taught for the next three years in rural schools. After the family moved to Montana, he entered Montana State College in Missoula (now the University of Montana), supporting himself by working in dormitories and in the summers on railroad gangs. In 1917 he received a bachelor of science degree in zoology with a chemistry minor. Deeply influenced by the pacificism of the Church of the Brethren, he nevertheless acknowledged a duty to aid his country in World War I, serving as a chemist with the Bartlett Chemical Company in Philadelphia. In 1919 he returned to Montana State as an instructor in chemistry. In 1921 he accepted a fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley. Guided by ...

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Vestine, Ernest Harry (09 May 1906–18 July 1968), geophysicist and planetary scientist, was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of Olaf Algot Vestine and Frida Christine Lund, farmers. Both parents had emigrated from Sweden. When Vestine was two years old, his parents moved to a farm in Alberta, Canada, where he was raised....

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Zwicky, Fritz (14 February 1898–08 February 1974), astrophysicist and space scientist, was born in Varna, Bulgaria, the son of Fridolin Zwicky, a Swiss merchant, and Franziska Wrcek. Zwicky’s early talent for science convinced his father to let him train for engineering rather than commerce. Accordingly, Zwicky moved to Zürich, Switzerland, where he attended the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule. There Zwicky soon evinced a more abstract bent, switching from engineering to physics and mathematics in 1918. To obtain his teaching diploma in 1920, he wrote for the mathematician and mathematical physicist ...