Why We Should Keep Talking About Carl Sagan

14 November 2013 by Travis Park, posted in Personal, Rant, Science Communication

This may be a blog about palaeontology but in this particular post I want to talk about science communication. More specifically, I want to reply to a blog article posted on Wednesday by Erin Podolak (@ErinPodolak) entitled "Can we stop talking about Carl Sagan?". I am not attempting to disagree completely with everything in Erin's post, as I hope to articulate below, but I believe strongly that there is no valid reason to stop talking about Sagan, rather, we should be talking about and celebrating his efforts to communicate science to the general public.

Erin proposes Sagan is no longer relevant due to two key points. Firstly, Cosmos, the TV series that He is best known for was made in 1980 and is too old to connect with young people today and secondly, the fact that Sagan was a middle-aged white male and that is the stereotypical image of scientist or science communicator that we want to move away from in this day and age.

Like Erin, Cosmos was broadcast several years before I was born. I personally only discovered the show and Sagan's books no more than five years ago. Yet the fact that the show and the books are two or three decades old didn't matter one jot, what mattered was how passionately and eloquently he transmitted the wonders of the universe, the methods for rational, sceptical inquiry and the stories of how those how those great discoveries were made. As a tangent, the science on the show has stood the test the time reasonably well, although I'm sure eventually it will all become obsolete, but that's a good thing! And sure, high-school kids might not be aware of who he is today, but I guarantee you if Cosmos was played in high schools across the world, you would get a hell of a lot more kids wanting to be scientists.

Similarly, the fact that he was a middle-aged white male didn't matter to me either, it was what he said, wrote and did that mattered. In all fairness, I am a white male so I admit that this is not an issue I would have necessarily even contemplated before reading Erin's article (more shame on me). I may very well feel differently if I was a different gender or race.

This is very much an argument from personal experience, but I don't feel that Sagan's words and efforts are remembered and celebrated to the extent they are because it was him that said them. They are remembered and celebrated because of their clarity, their poetic nature, the way he showed that science is not just something that is dry, dusty and boring, but it can actually be a beautiful, powerful and emotional experience when used to make sense of the world. I believe that it wouldn't matter if it Sagan was male or female, white, or black, or any other race for that matter, his works would still be as cherished as they are today, perhaps even more so.

Sagan was one of the trailblazers of science communication, people like him and Jacob Bronowski, who made the 1976 BBC series 'The Ascent of Man' (in my humble opinion an even better series than Cosmos), shouldn't be relegated to the scrapheap just because of their age, race or gender. What should be key is the fact that they were expounding upon the scientific experience and doing it so succinctly that people still find what they had to say interesting today. We should be including them in that diverse group of science communicators that Erin (and of course myself) wants to see.

Which brings me to the part where I agree with Erin. Things have changed an awful lot from the 1980's, which is a good thing of course. We most definitely do need more men and women of different ethnicities and backgrounds in science and communicating their science to those ethnicites and backgrounds to show them that science isn't just for white males. But not talking about Sagan isn't going to achieve this. Using his words to convey to an audience how wondrous the universe is just might.

I too hope that the new Cosmos series does well, the absolute rubbish that Discovery (Megalodon show, shows about exploiting every last natural resource), History (Nazis, UFO's and conspiracy shows ad nauseam)  and Animal Planet (mermaid show) puts on these days is depressing.

So, to sum up. Sagan is not still talked about because of his age, race or gender. He is still talked about because he said things like this:

"The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky."

Those are beautiful, powerful words. It shouldn't matter who spoke them, they will inspire all 'yumans' regardless.


8 Responses to “Why We Should Keep Talking About Carl Sagan”

  1. Rajbir Reply | Permalink

    Good article Travis.
    One reason so many of us continue talking about Carl Sagan is because of the impact he had on our lives. Some people may not understand how a tv show or a book could change someone's life but Cosmos did that for many people who like you and me were too young to watch the original broadcasts and only discovered him years later because of people who continued talking about him.

    • Travis Park Reply | Permalink

      Thank you Rajbir

      The more I think about Erin's original post, the more I realise that her key message is that we need to increase diversity in science and science communication. This is something that I completely and wholeheartedly agree with as I stated in my post. The only thing I disagree with is the concept of not using Sagan's works to inspire people because of his age, race or gender. We should include Sagan in a broad and diverse spectrum of approaches to science communication not ignore him because he fits the stereotype.

  2. Signe Reply | Permalink

    Well written. As a white female of a similar age I can simply agree with you wholeheartedly, dismiss Erin's not-very-well-thought-out article and move on. She has a point, but it was poorly argued.

    • Travis Park Reply | Permalink

      Thank you. It's reassuring to hear that from a female, I was a little worried that it might have seemed like it was just another white male argument, but it most certainly was not.

      Travis

  3. Robin Reply | Permalink

    Very nicely put.
    I would also point out that although he was white, Carl Sagan *was* a minority. He was a Jew--the son of an Eastern European immigrant who escaped from the deadly anti-Semitism of czarist Russia. His mother, also a Jew, grew up in poverty in New York. I suppose I should be happy that Jews are so accepted in scientific circles today that a young writer like Erin would consider the widespread admiration for a Jewish scientist unremarkable and even somewhat distasteful (apparently). I guess in her book, gender and skin color are all that matter in discussions of diversity.

    That said, I agree that Sagan isn't remembered for his physical attributes or ethnicity but for what he had to say. His words are timeless and profound, beautiful and inspiring. They will never, ever be irrelevant.

    • Travis Park Reply | Permalink

      Thank you, glad you enjoyed the post. That Sagan was himself a minority is a point that probably is forgotten about by most people, no doubt in part due to his success. Erin's point was admirable (i.e. the need to increase diversity in science) but the tactics employed to illustrate this were perhaps not thought through well enough.

      Couldn't agree more about Sagan's words.

      Travis

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