Surely there must be others: Carl Sagan’s continued relevance

A response to Erin Podolak.

Surely there must be others: Carl Sagan's continued relevance
Emmy Award-winner Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, longtime collaborator and widow of astrobiologist Carl Sagan, look at items from The Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, which were on display today for the official opening of the archive at the Library of Congress [Image credit: John Harrington, Library of Congress].

“Carl Sagan means absolutely nothing to me.” Simply tweeting these words would have caused an Internet riot. Carl Sagan! Lion of the science communication world, inspiration to a generation of astronomers, best selling and prize-winning author, TV personality and, lest we forget, highly regarded scientist. But science writer Erin Podolak was just getting started.

In her blog post, she argued that science communicators should forget about Sagan because he was one of those from the “old white boys club era of science and science communication” and “a guy that isn’t relevant anymore.”

She couldn’t be more right that we need to move on, but gives all the wrong reasons.

Carl Sagan will always be relevant to science communication, because he invented a powerful style of talking and writing about science that has been inherited by the best communicators we have today. Sagan showed not only what science was, but also how to feel about it. And he was more than willing to share his thoughts with anyone who had a speck of curiosity about the cosmos.

On Tuesday Nov. 12, I was lucky enough to attend the “Celebration of Carl Sagan” at the Library of Congress, marking the opening of the Carl Sagan Archives. Also present were some of today’s foremost communicators of science, including Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Carolyn Porco and Anne Druyan (Sagan’s wife and collaborator). Almost a dozen people spoke in remembrance of Sagan, fleshing out a personality who I, like Podolak, had known only through a TV screen. They painted a portrait of an enormously influential human being, someone caring, thoughtful and curious who inspired love and humility in others.

A recurring theme was that Carl Sagan was far from aloof and disconnected. Rather than being emblematic of an elitist and exclusive mode of communicating science, he was a man who reached out to African-American teenagers from the Bronx (Tyson), 14 year old kids and their mothers (Johnathan Lunine), and former students who thought they hadn’t made an impression on him (Nye). Few, if any, have been more determined than Sagan to share their love of the universe.

Carl Sagan was part of a club — of people who cared about science. And he would welcome anybody who wanted to be a part of it. Surely, there must be others! This is an ethos most science communicators I’m familiar with embrace, sharing their joy of learning with others.

Curiosity, though, is only one part of Sagan’s successful equation. He not only inspired future scientists, he showed all kinds of people how science could be important to their lives, reaching them on a personal level. This is something we science communicators still do today.

In Carl Sagan’s 1995 book “The Demon Haunted World,” he makes an impassioned argument for the necessity of science in the modern world—acknowledging where science had faltered, but also framing science in relation to pseudo- and even anti-scientific strains of thought. Could the modes of thinking adopted by anti-vaccine crusaders and climate change denialists make him any more relevant? Sagan’s own words show his incredible foresight:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

Podolak, however, is close to the mark with her assessment of the present state of science communication — we can’t dwell on Sagan. But rather than having no Sagans, we need many, many more to carry on his legacy and forge their own. As moving as the Archives celebration was, it felt like a delayed eulogy, a mourning of something lost years ago.

During their talks, several of these eulogizers spoke of Sagan’s successors. Most stopped at one name: Neil DeGrasse Tyson. This stuck with me. Can there only be one? The same day that Podolak published her blog post, I also thought, “Surely there must be others?”

What we’ve lost was the era that produced Carl Sagan. General interest in science was high in the years following the Space Age; science and scientists were more highly regarded. Sagan also had the huge benefit of a smaller attention marketplace. If he appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” everybody was watching, and there were only three other channels to turn to.

Now we must work within a fractured media landscape and a polarized political reality. There are powerful interests that seek to distort and discredit scientific thinking for political gain. As Podolak states, Carl Sagan cannot save us. But he can show us a way to reach people.

Podolak recommends diversity as a way to make science relevant. She’s completely right to suggest that we need more people from a variety of groups, like women or half-Asians (shameless plug). But “relevance” isn’t just what you see in the mirror and identity can be a tricky thing to pin down.

You know who has a huge following because he makes his subject relevant to people? Dr. Mehmet Oz. I know, I know: At best he lacks rigor and at worst he embraces hucksterism, even quackery. But he is constantly reminding people why they should care about what he has to say.

Elise Andrew reaches millions on Facebook, not because she’s a woman, but because her page is titled “I F*#&ing Love Science!” Ed Yong won’t shut up about zoology. Cynthia Kenyon speaks eloquently and forcefully about aging. Sylvia Earle has been talking about the majesty of the oceans for decades. David Quammen won’t stop writing about the importance of biodiversity. Tyson, of course, loves space so much his office is practically a shrine to it.

As humans stepped out into the solar system, Carl Sagan was there to provide an interpretation of what it meant. Who will help us understand what genetics and epigenetics are teaching us about the human experience? Who are those that can explain the wonders of the human brain? They’re out there but they need to become more visible. Maybe it means moving closer to the centers of media. It definitely means finding ways to maximize the power of the Internet.

We find ourselves on a continually fragmenting archipelago. Science communicators need to adapt, to fill new niches. Yes, change needs to happen, but we will not be successful by losing what we inherited from Carl Sagan.

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  1. Yes, yes, this! Excellent quote from The Demon-Haunted World–Sagan’s words could hardly be more relevant today.

    Corey, November 15, 2013 at 11:08 am
  2. In a growing world of increasingly complex scientific discovery, we need people to champion the discoveries with the fervor and simplicity that is captured by the Sagans and Tysons of the world. Great article!

    Ben, November 15, 2013 at 5:38 pm
  3. Great post.

    I’d like to add one person who spreads the message of science with Sagan’s sense of wonder. Brian Cox. He’s a particle physicist who works at the CERN LHC. He has done multiple BBC shows. Some of them actually live – there are multiple “stargazing” shows, they revolve around astronomy, obviously. There are also live lectures, one of which was about quantum mechanics, and it was probably the best explanation I’ve seen to date. Felt like I sort of understood it by the end.

    Some of his other shows, and these are very much in the vibe of Cosmos (of which Cox is a huge fan. He’s the perfect age to have been inspired by Sagan growing up, same as me.) wonders of the universe is one. All of them are Wonders of the this or that. Just google ‘Cox wonders of’ and you’ll find them.

    Anyways, very inspiring gentleman. Likes striking heroic poses on mountain tops :D

    Ronny Søberg, February 10, 2014 at 6:25 am
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