Let There Be 100 Carl Sagans

We’re the insect life of paradise
crawl across leaf or among
towering blades of grass
glimpse only sometimes the amazing
breadth of heaven

– Bruce Cockburn

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, writing many books and appearing on the iconic television series Cosmos. However, he’s been gone some years, and I don’t know if Cosmos has even been rerun on TV recently. (It is available on Netflix, which makes me want to add it to my queue.) In other words, I’m not surprised more people recognize Snooki than Sagan. I recognize Snooki because of media saturation, not because I’ve ever watched her show, and so I hardly think knowing who she is reflects poorly on me.

It’s true that there aren’t enough great popular science figures today. Lakdawalla mentions Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox (known mostly 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? It’s 2011!) The Mythbusters are great and I love ’em, but they aren’t strictly science. I don’t see any one of these 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) 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 think that’s not necessarily bad. Instead of one Sagan, why not many? One may be good on PBS, while another may be awesome at making viral videos for YouTube. Someone may be great at talking to the hairsprayed hosts on morning news programs, while another is the master of podcasting. The number of people who visit science blogs may be hard to quantify in total, but over 1,200 people read my little neutrino story so far, and I’m not one of The Big Blogs (TM).

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.


5 responses to “Let There Be 100 Carl Sagans”

  1. “Let there be 100 Carl Sagans, of all genders, races, and personalities.”

    I think the original would be more then cool with that.

    1. Outstanding. I’m glad you pointed out the fact that Snooki is omnipresent and that’s why someone like me, who could care less who she is, would know her face immediately. Aaarrrrgggghhh. I was beating myself up for that but you made me feel better.

  2. Here in Mexico the series Cosmos was rerun many times during the eighties and early nineties. It was also part of the curricula in some schools and even when I enrolled in college to study chemistry we had to watch an episode on the chemical evolution of the universe (“If you want to bake an apple pie from scratch, you first have to invent the universe”). On the other hand Snooki is not a recognizable figure since her show is not popular in Mexico but we have figures of her stature so don’t worry. Actually, Snooki’s existence was brought to my attention last summer by my sister (a physicist getting a phd in neurophysics) who went to work at Rutgers and got into closer contact with the current American pop culture.

    I agree with you on having many Sagan-like personalities who could address various kinds of audiences. People like you do their bits in getting science “out there” but maybe we have failed as a whole in using the power of social networks (my facebook and twitter accounts are mostly networked to other chemists and physicists of my acquaintance) to further reach a lay audience.

    Do we need a central spokesperson in science? We need many! with all this controversies about climate change and evolution going on in the US I think its clear a higher scientific culture is needed. It is clear that less and less students in the US are attracted towards a career in science.

    I like your blog a lot, keep it up and thanks for sharing your thoughts with all of us.


  3. The internet is a great tool for this, as your blog demonstrates. I learn a TON just by checking it out everyday, and really appreciate it. Of course, popular culture is not so homogeneous as when Sagan was on tv, so you have to be somewhat motivated to search these things out. But they are available.

    I believe I recently read that they are bringing back Cosmos, with deGrasse Tyson as host. I think there is room for a few big name popularizers and then many more voices to fill in the details for us non-scientists.

    What worries me the most is the seeming general lack of understanding of the scientific process in general, of why it better describes the material world. I was recently talking with someone (an educated person) who said to me, ‘I just don’t know if I believe in evolution. I don’t know if I agree that we came from monkeys.’ If I remember one of your recent posts, you talked about how science is not simply a matter of one person’s personal opinion vs another’s. This is what I find lacking in a lot of public discourse. The idea that there are always two equally valid sides, which each deserve equal voice. Ok, starting to go on a rant here so I’ll stop.

    Keep up the good work.


  4. […] 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 […]

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