Education Opinion

Science Superstar

By Ian De Silva — April 01, 1998 5 min read
Eulogizing the late Carl Sagan as ‘America’s best science teacher.’

Carl Sagan died more than a year ago, but his legacy lives. Thanks to the blockbuster movie Contact, which was based on Sagan’s novel of the same name, even those who have never read his many books know his name and his work.

Sagan was, without a doubt, America’s best science teacher.

With his death, American science lost the man who was its most successful dual citizen—scientist cum science popularizer. The world also suffered a loss, for Sagan could explain natural science to millions of people, no matter if they lived in the First World or the Third World.

An Asian immigrant, I grew up in the Third World, where statesmen deferentially consult astrologers and religions often require self-immolation. Sagan was the one scientist whose books helped me see past the superstitions of my environs in Southeast Asia. I am now a math and science teacher myself, having moved to America more than 15 years ago, and I believe most of my enthusiasm for science—and perhaps even my decision to come to America and pursue a college education—redounds to Sagan. Although I never met him—which I will now regret forever—I am very grateful to him.

My first exposure to Carl Sagan came when I was a teenager in the late 1970s. A European tourist passing through the small Asian town in which I lived gave me The Dragons of Eden, Sagan’s 1977 bestseller. I found it absolutely fascinating. I had been exposed to Western literature at an early age and was a voracious reader, but nowhere had I seen such a style of discourse. His ruminations on human intelligence, his conjectures on evolution, his fluent interweaving of science and speculation—all these evoked in me a sense of pride in being human. To this day, I consider Eden his best book. Indeed, it won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1978.

As any Sagan reader knows, he was a cogent writer, irresistibly persuasive and indelibly evocative. The commercial success of his works was testimony to his ability to hold millions of people spellbound by the wonders of science. And most of us will never forget his indefatigable defense of science against pseudoscience, as evinced by his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World.

Of course, his dynamism was most apparent on his TV appearances, particularly in the 1980 Cosmos series. It was the most widely viewed television science series ever, seen by some 400 million people in 60 countries. I watched it in Southeast Asia (Television then was still a novelty in some areas there) and was delighted to finally see Sagan. A vicarious meeting, I thought; the next best thing to meeting him in person.

Such superstardom in science comes at a price, however; not all of the scientific establishment was pleased at the Saganesque popularizing of science. Some professional scientists carped at the tenderizing of their field to make it chewable for the masses. They acted as if science were a virgin to be protected from the masses, forgetting it was the masses who paid the taxes that paid for their research. No wonder public support for science funding is wanting. How can we blame taxpayers for not supporting billion-dollar particle accelerators when the only accelerator they know is the one in their cars?

Most scientists deplore the widespread ignorance of science, but they are reluctant to enlighten the public. Teaching science is anathema to most scientists. In academia, the mantra “publish or perish” means doing research, not teaching. Anyone found deriving inordinate pleasure from such a menial task as teaching—or, heaven forbid, getting an award for excellence in teaching—is snubbed. Far too many scientists tend to think good teachers cannot be good researchers. The very few men who shattered this myth did so by dint of their gargantuan reputations—Carl Sagan was one, Richard Feynman was another. A Nobel Prize winner, Feynman worked on the atomic bomb and gave proselytizing lectures at the California Institute of Technology. At his passing in 1988, he also left behind a cadre of acolytes.

As a high school math and science teacher, I always look for ways to show my students the power of science. So I cannot understand why many scientists despise mass popularization of their field. We should not forget that the greatest scientific thesis ever, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, was intended by Darwin for both the general reader and the expert. We need 10 Carl Sagans for every Einstein. Sometimes the messenger is just as important as the message.

Sagan fans know how he was humiliated at the National Academy of Sciences: After he was provisionally elected to membership, some academy members, calling his scientific achievements meager, managed to get his election rejected.

Belittling Carl Sagan’s scientific achievements would be like questioning Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic skills. A professor of astronomy and space sciences at Cornell University, Sagan also directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. In his 20s, he hypothesized that certain radio emissions from Venus were caused by a very hot (900 degrees Fahrenheit) Venusian atmosphere—a hypothesis confirmed years later by observations from spacecraft. He also did pioneering research on the Martian atmosphere, worked with NASA on several interplanetary missions, and unflaggingly promoted SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. That pursuit, due to its highly speculative nature, was not always considered serious science by many in academia. But the recent discovery of extrasolar planets—planets outside our solar system—has silenced many critics.

In fairness to Sagan’s detractors, I must admit that some of his ideas were not always impeccably scientific or politically neutral. His propagation of the so-called “nuclear winter” theory bordered on doomsday demagoguery. There were reputable scientists who—correctly—challenged the assumptions behind that theory.

Nevertheless, Carl Sagan probably did more for public enthusiasm for science than 500 colleges and universities put together. I do not mean that as an indictment of the quality of higher education; rather, it is the quality of universities’ public science-awareness programs—programs that create enthusiasm in the local community for ongoing scientific projects—that leaves a lot to be desired. During the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet, many colleges and universities with telescopes never even bothered to invite the public in for a look.

I still occasionally show my students episodes from Cosmos. And I know other teachers who do the same. The students enjoy them, which is remarkable, considering that the series was made before they were even born.

As you read this, two spacecraft—the Voyagers 1 and 2—have left our solar system and are hurtling through deep, dark space, eternally far from us. Aboard each of them is a message-laden phonograph record with sounds from Earth—sounds of us. The records are coated with gold and will last millions of years. Carl Sagan worked on those records, on the chance that they might one day be found by extraterrestrials.

If that happens, we will truly have made contact.

—Ian de Silva <</p>

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as Science Superstar