Caleb Scharf Wins Carl Sagan Medal for Public Science Communication

The prize, given by the American Astronomical Society, honors astronomers for their work communicating with the public.

Christopher D. Shea
August 19, 2022

Caleb Scharf, a senior research scientist at the Columbia Climate School and Columbia's Director of Astrobiology, was awarded the 2022 Carl Sagan Medal, which honors “outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public.”

The medal is awarded by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society to “scientists whose efforts have significantly contributed to a public understanding of, and enthusiasm for, planetary science.”

The award is named for the late Carl Sagan, an astronomer who spent most of his career at Cornell University. Sagan achieved widespread public recognition for the 1980 documentary television series Cosmos, a show that explored the history of the universe and the origins of life, and which was for many years the most watched show in the history of public television. Sagan was also known for public appearances, including more than two dozen guest spots on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

In a statement announcing this year’s prize, the astronomical society praised Scharf for “broadening public awareness of fields from astrophysics and planetary science to astrobiology, and for stimulating insightful and balanced public conversation on the implications of contemporary research.”

“Dr. Scharf is a prolific writer, having written articles in Scientific American that reach a large number of people,” the announcement said. “He has also written a widely used textbook on extrasolar planets and is a highly regarded author of popular science books on astrobiology, astronomy, and technology. He served on the editorial board of Nautilus science magazine and has contributed to a number of movies, documentaries, and popular television shows on science, inspiring many people.”

Scharf’s books include The Ascent of Information, The Copernicus Complex, Gravity’s Engines, Extrasolar Planets and Astrobiology, and The Zoomable Universe. His academic research focuses in large part on exoplanets, planets that orbit stars other than the sun. One major goal of his research is to identify which planets outside the solar system could potentially have life forms of their own. 

Among Scharf’s writing for the public is a recent reflection on the first photos from the James Webb Space Telescope, which captured the most distant images of outer space yet taken, the first of which were released to the public in July. (The telescope’s program director is School of Professional Studies lecturer Gregory L. Robinson). 

“Occasionally our species manages to accomplish something that every single one of us (except perhaps for the most misanthropic curmudgeons) can enjoy as a sign that all hope is not lost, that we can still reach for the sublime,” Scharf wrote in Nautilus. “It arguably took 4.5 billion years of Earth’s evolution and the emergence of one particularly fractious and obsessive species to enable this brief moment, where the complex beings of 15 countries could build a stunningly sophisticated new way for the universe to look at itself.”