Starstuff

Carl Sagan has been damned as a popularizer of science. Carl Sagan has been praised as a popularizer of science. Since the first time he put on his corduroy jacket and turtleneck to introduce the masses to the wonders of the universe in his ground-breaking TV series Cosmos, he has been many things to many people (and associated with the phrase “billyuns and billyuns”).

So. Is being a science popularizer a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a bad thing if you expect a scientist to remain in the lab and conduct research, without wasting her or his time appearing on Johnny Carson. It’s a good thing if you think science needs to be popular for society to survive.

That Sagan appeared on Carson’s show was not a fluke. Rather than being the epitome of an obsessive researcher, Sagan was an enthusiast and a promoter of science who could, at the same time, entertain as well as he explained.

Sagan was in the news a lot, too. He was the one that insisted that astronauts who had been to the moon be quarantined for a period to make sure they had brought back no alien germs. He was the one who demolished the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, famous for his book In Search of Ancient Aliens, which purported that alien civilizations have visited Earth and left their mark on ancient astronomy, archaeology, and biblical studies. (Every year when he was teaching astronomy at Cornell University, Sagan devoted one whole lecture to debunking Velikovsky.)

Sagan’s astronomy class was swamped with auditors (particularly on Velikovsky day). To be officially registered for Sagan’s Astronomy 102 class, you had to sit through Astronomy 101, a deadly boring class taught by a deadly boring professor. (I had the great good fortune of taking Sagan’s class, and met him at department parties.) His teaching was compelling and his tests were far from regurgitating dry facts.

Sagan’s particular field barely existed: astrobiology. Since life has never been discovered on other planets, there wasn’t much to say about it, though he could, and did, do experiments on what circumstances and elements needed to be present for life to arise out of the “primordial soup.”

He memorably said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” He was also famous for “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge” and “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

Carl Sagan is now present on Facebook, despite the fact that he’s been dead for some years. Most of the quotes attributed to him are on the subjects of today’s culture of stupidity (though he didn’t live long enough to see how thoroughly correct he was), the lack of science education in the US (or at least rigorous science education), the dumbing-down of popular culture, and the need for both scientists and people like him to make science accessible.

Many of the Facebook quotations are influenced by the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which was required reading in his astronomy class, though it had nothing to say about astronomy. Instead, it was a work that denounced what came to be known as pseudoscience, such as belief in ghosts and witchcraft.

Losing Sagan was a profound blow both to science and to making science available and understandable to the masses. Others have attempted to carry on his work as popularizers of science, notably Neil deGrasse Tyson (who had a part in the “Is Pluto a planet?” debate) and Bill Nye (The Science Guy). Tyson has even starred in a reboot of Cosmos, though nothing can rival the fascination of the original series.

Neither one, helpful as they may be to the science-ignorant, has stepped into Sagan’s loafers as a teacher, a public figure, a prescient philosopher of science, an inspiration. I miss the heck out of him.

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