Today—November 9, 2012—would have been Carl Sagan’s 78th birthday. Sagan of course was a prominent planetary scientist, co-founder of the Planetary Society space exploration advocacy group, and (most famously among non-scientists) a writer and television host. He co-wrote and starred in the iconic PBS series Cosmos, and wrote the novel Contact (the basis for the 1997 movie starring Jodie Foster), along with a number of popular science books. Sagan’s research involved studying the possible conditions under which life arose on Earth, and comparing those to other worlds in the Solar System; he worked on the Viking, Pioneer, and Voyager programs.
Last year, many people on Facebook and other social media passed around the graphic on the right. I admit, I chuckled a bit, but I was also bothered by it; this excellent post by Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society helped me articulate why.
Carl Sagan was indeed a great popular science figure, with his books and especially Cosmos. However, he died in 1996 at the relatively young age of 62, and Cosmos originally aired in 1980—32 years ago—so while much of its scientific content is still relevant, it’s not up to date. (It is available on Netflix, which makes me want to add it to my queue.) In other words, it wouldn’t surprise me if more people recognize Snooki than Sagan. I recognize Snooki because of media saturation and internet memes, not because I’ve ever watched Jersey Shore. I even humbly posit that watching Jersey Shore doesn’t necessarily make one a bad or stupid person. Shockingly enough, it’s possible to enjoy shows like that and still love science. If we want to promote widespread acceptance of science in culture, we should focus on the positive that science offers, not begin by attacking popular entertainment.
On the other hand, it’s true that there aren’t enough great popular science figures in the mainstream media today. Lakdawalla mentions Neil deGrasse Tyson (who incidentally is working on a new version of Cosmos), Brian Cox (better known in the UK), and Bill Nye the Science Guy. There’s also Brian Greene, whose string theory apologetics I have decidedly mixed feelings about, but who is nevertheless very popular. (I also note that these are all men. Seriously, where are the female TV hosts for science shows?) The Mythbusters are great and I love ‘em, but they aren’t particularly scientific. In short, I don’t see any one of these figures or TV shows standing out strongly as the central spokesperson for science in the public eye.
But then again, do we need one?
I think there is a tendency to idolize Sagan, which is (as usual with idolization) unfair both to him and to others who would try to communicate science. In this era of media fragmentation, it may not even be possible for a single figure to be as popular or recognizable, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Instead of a single Sagan, why not many? One may be good on PBS, while another may be awesome at making videos for YouTube. Someone may be great at talking on morning news programs, while another is the master of podcasting. In truth, we have excellent writers covering not just astronomy, but paleontology, general biology, neuroscience, chemistry, epidemiology, and so on. I compiled a list recently of some of the best science-focused writers who all happen to be women, and failed to include some really good people I should have listed.
People are thirsty for science information, and the more good reliable sources for it, the better. Let there be 100 Carl Sagans, of all genders, races, and personalities.
[This post is adapted and edited from a piece that originally ran last year. As I am working diligently on my book, I will be running repeats occasionally. I hope you will forgive me.]