Superstar of Science: A Tribute

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When Carl Sagan died a year ago last December, America lost its best science teacher.

And American science lost the man who was its most successful dual citizen--scientist cum science popularizer. The world also lost--it lost the man who explained science to millions of people, no matter if they lived in the First World or the Third World.

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

My first exposure to Carl Sagan came in the late 1970s, when I was a teenager, by a book given to me by a European tourist passing through the small Asian town where I lived. The book was The Dragons of Eden, his 1977 best seller. I found it absolutely fascinating. Thanks to parents who had exposed me precociously to books in English, I was already an Anglophone, but nowhere else had I seen the style of discourse that I saw in that book. His ruminations on human intelligence, his conjectures on evolution, his fluent interweaving of science and speculation--all these evoked in the reader a sense of pride in having been born a human being. Perhaps due to that early fascination, to this day I consider it his best book. Indeed, it won him the 1978 Pulitzer Prize.

As any Sagan reader knows, he was a cogent writer, irresistibly persuasive and indelibly evocative. The outstanding commercial success of his works was testimony to his ability to reach and 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, for instance, his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World.

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

But superstardom in science comes at a price, for informed Sagan fans know that not all of the scientific establishment was pleased at the Saganesque popularizing of science. Some professional scientists carped at the tenderizing of science 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 a taxpayer for not supporting billion-dollar particle accelerators when the only accelerator he has ever heard of is the one in his car?

Most scientists deplore the public ignorance of science, but they do not consider it a worthy task to ameliorate the situation. For one thing, teaching science is anathema to most scientists. As we all know, in academia the mantra is "publish or perish"--and that 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 often relegated to the steerage, or maybe even thrown overboard. 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 reputation--Carl Sagan was one, Richard Feynman was another. Mr. Feynman was a Nobel Prize winner, 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 diehard acolytes.

As a high school math and science teacher, I always look for ways to point out the power of science to my teenage charges, and I have found that the power of science has a certain force of conviction all its own. So I cannot understand why many scientists despise mass popularization of science. We should not forget that the greatest scientific thesis ever written, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, was intended by Darwin for the general reader as well. If the mind is a terrible thing to waste, as the saying goes, then surely we could say that science is a terrible thing to waste, too. We need 10 Carl Sagans for every Einstein. Sometimes the messenger is just as important as the message.

Informed Sagan fans also know of an incident that occurred at the National Academy of Sciences which must have been utterly humiliating: After Mr. Sagan was provisionally elected to membership, some academy members, calling his scientific achievements meager, managed to get his election rejected.

Calling Carl Sagan's scientific achievements meager was taking contumely to a new level. For one thing, he was a professor of astronomy and space sciences at Cornell University, where he also directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. For another, he had made significant contributions to that field. In his 20s, he hypothesized that certain radio emissions from Venus were caused by a very hot (900-degree) Venusian atmosphere. Years later, observations from spacecraft vindicated him. He also did pioneering research on the Martian atmosphere. He worked with NASA on several interplanetary missions. And he was an unflagging proponent of SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, a pursuit that, 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 begun to silence some of those critics.

In fairness to Mr. Sagan's critics, it must be admitted that some of his ideas were not always impeccably scientific or politically neutral. I felt his propagation of the so-called "nuclear winter" theory bordered on doomsday demagoguery. There were reputable scientists who--correctly--doubted 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 American 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 recent appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp, for instance, many schools with available 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 it; remarkable, considering the series was made before they were even born.

Right now, as you read this, there are two spacecraft--the Voyagers 1 and 2--that have left our solar system and are hurtling in 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 have truly made contact.

Vol. 17, Issue 18, Pages 50, 52

Published in Print: January 14, 1998, as Superstar of Science: A Tribute
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