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.