Tag Archives: astronomy


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.

My Next Tattoo

I know I’m not the tattoo “type,” being neither a biker nor a chef, but I already have two tattoos and am now considering a third.

My first two tattoos were mental health tattoos. The one I’m getting in the photo is a semicolon. (Okay, I’m also a punctuation freak. The semicolon is my favorite.) It stands for the point in a sentence where a writer could have put a period and ended it there. If there’s a semicolon there instead, the sentence continues. As a metaphor, it means “My story isn’t over” and as a mental health symbol, it represents suicide awareness and prevention.

My second tattoo was a colon followed by half a parentheses followed by another colon, like this :):

In emoji terms, this would be happy face/frowny face. In a mental health context, it stands for bipolar disorder, which I have. (Bipolar used to be called manic depression, and it’s a lot more than wide mood swings.)

Determined to try something a little different – and more colorful – this time, I began contemplating options that would be meaningful, at least to me.

Compass rose. A compass rose is the little design at the bottom of a map that orients you to north, south, east, and west. For me, it symbolizes travel, which is a thing I love to do and have done often, both domestically and abroad, with my mother or my husband or by myself.

I also thought of having a compass rose with a yellow rose, perhaps in the center, in honor of my mother. She loved to travel too, and the yellow rose was her favorite flower. But that might be a lot to cram into a small tattoo. (I want something subtle, not showy.) Maybe I can get a yellow rose separately later.

Books. Reading, as all my friends know, is a passion of mine, one I’ve been indulging since I was four years old. I’ve read under the covers when I was a kid, in the hallway between classes when I was a teen, and practically anywhere and anytime now. (I have three e-readers so I can recharge them and still have at least one to read from. But I digress. I’m not getting a Nook tattoo.)

I’ve been wavering between an open book, maybe with a pen, to signify writing books; an open book laid flat; or a small stack of books. I think the stack of books offers an opportunity for some color, so I’ve been leaning towards that.

Orion. The constellation Orion is my favorite. (Is it weird to have a favorite constellation as well as a favorite mark of punctuation?) I love when it appears every autumn, with its belt and sword of stars, and the big red star Betelgeuse at the left shoulder and the bright blue-white Rigel at the right knee, creating a hunter figure from Greek mythology. (Most people pronounce Betelgeuse as “Beetlejuice,” but I’ve heard other pronunciations as well. Isn’t this educational?)

Astronomy is and has long been one of my special interests. I belonged to an astronomy club in high school. I subscribed to Sky and Telescope magazine for a while. I watched Carl Sagan’s TV show Cosmos avidly, then took his astronomy class in college.

Rather than have the stars as black dots connected by lines or superimposed over the figure of a hunter, I would like the tattoo to have a watercolor background, like a nebula.

I’ve been toying with these ideas for some time, but have been feeling motivated to get on with it recently (perhaps because I’ve been binge-watching Ink Master.) This week I got in touch with one of the artists at Monkey Bones Tattoos, a local studio. Mike, who did the punctuation tattoos, wasn’t available, so I selected another tattooist named Viktoria.

She and I then emailed back and forth about ideas and schedules. The earliest opening she had was in August. (Evidently there is pent-up demand for tattoos, owing to the shop being closed during the pandemic.) I sent her pictures of tattoos that looked something like what I wanted. We discussed the merits of each, as well as how my vision might differ from the “reference” I sent.

So, now it’s official. In August I’m getting a tattoo of a stack of books on one of my wrists. I’ve even put down a deposit for the appointment, so I can’t change my mind. When it’s done, I’ll post a picture of it. But I’m still not becoming a biker or a chef.