The Sagan Thing

I am crushingly busy right now– massive book rewrites needed, papers to grade, etc.– so I’ve actually been fairly happy with the general lack of topics that inspire a deep desire to blog. which of course, was promptly upset this morning, when a brief outburst of hating on Carl Sagan erupted on Twitter just as I was about to head to the gym.

The catalyst was the hoopla surrounding the donation of Sagan’s papers to the Library of Congress, which though it isn’t specifically cited was the cause of a flurry of Twitter discussion that I think led to Erin Podolak’s anti-Sagan manifesto, which in turn produced a bunch of ephemeral follow-on discussion on Twitter.

As is usually the case, my take on this is slightly different than most of the argument, which pretty well ran its course while I was playing basketball. But on the off chance that anyone still cares, I will explain the theory I alluded to on Twitter.

My read of this is that most of the wistful longing for a “next Carl Sagan” doesn’t actually have much to do with Carl Sagan the person or writer, but “Carl Sagan” the cultural phenomenon. That is, at the time that Cosmos aired, he was everywhere– the cover of Time, the Tonight Show, etc. He wasn’t just a science popularizer, he was a pop-culture phenomenon, nd everybody loved him in a way that really hasn’t happened since.

And the mistake everyone makes about this is thinking that that success was a result of his personal qualities. But it wasn’t. At least, it wasn’t exclusively about his personal qualities– to be sure, he had a good deal of charisma in a late-1970’s sort of way, and Cosmos was, at the time, a rather impressive achievement (it’s kind of slow and rambling to modern tastes, alas).

But that success was also a result of the fortuitous collision of a lot of other factors– PBS was in a relatively stronger position at the time, he didn’t have to compete with a vast and fragmented cable tv universe (let alone the Internet), space stuff had greater salience as the Apollo program was not too far in the past and the Space Shuttle program still seemed like a great idea, his tone and topic were generally hopeful and relatively apolitical, etc. All those factors came together for him in a way that they haven’t since.

Asking for a “next Carl Sagan” isn’t, to my mind, specifically about a desire for a white dude in a turtleneck talking about astronomy, it’s nostalgia for a time when a guy talking about science was one of the most recognizable figures in pop culture. I don’t think it really matters what science it is, or what the person looks like, people just want to see a science communicator on the cover of Time again.

It’s a little like the periodic lamentation about the lack of a “new Einstein” in physics. People saying that aren’t so much talking about Einstein the person or Einstein the physicist, but Einstein the cultural phenomenon– the guy who was so universally famous that fifty years after his death, he’s still the name people reach for when asked to name a scientist. Like Sagan, that was only partly a product of his personal qualities– the phenomenon that we know as “Einstein” came about through a combination of physical insight and clarity of expression, yes, but also personal charisma and a lot of factors particular to that historical moment. He was working on the right problems at the right moment, and caught the public imagination in just the right way. He had contemporaries and successors who made contributions to physics that were just as deep and revolutionary– Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, Feynman, Gell-Mann, etc.– without ever attaining the same level of fame.

People asking for a “next Carl Sagan” or a “next Einstein” aren’t talking about the specific people attached to those names, but the vast cultural phenomenon associated with them. Because those things are nearly impossible to disentangle at this point.

And the problem is that saying “We need a new Carl Sagan” or “We need a new Einstein” is a lot like saying “Hey, remember that time when a solid-gold meteorite landed in the field next to our house? We should totally do that again.”

The cultural phenomena that we associate with Carl Sagan was a product of a particular moment, and that moment has passed. It passed within his lifetime, if you want to be honest about it– the peak of his fame was circa 1980, and while he continued to be a go-to scientific commentator for the media for many years after that, by the time of his death in 1996, the general reaction was not so much general lamentation over the loss of a beloved figure as “Oh, he was still alive?”

The culture is so different right now that the chances of someone attaining Sagan-like status by doing the same sort of things that he did is basically zero. The media environment is different, the political environment is different, everything is different. It’s not going to happen again, not the same way.

I could be wrong, of course– Neil de Grasse Tyson is on the edge of iconic status, and maybe the Cosmos reboot on Fox will take off and catapult him to vast fame. And 20 years from now, people will be wondering who the next Tyson is going to be, working on the mistaken assumption that his fame had something to do with his ridiculous vest… but I don’t think so.

Does that means it’s hopeless? No, I think it’s possible that somebody else might somehow bubble up through new media channels to pop-culture icon status. But whatever they do will be different than what Sagan did.

So, like I said on Twitter, everybody’s wrong on the Internet. People getting too hung up on Sagan specifically, in either direction, are missing the point. It’s not the person that matters, it’s the phenomenon, and that’s not something you can engineer, or reasonably expect to happen on cue.

15 thoughts on “The Sagan Thing

  1. To be honest, I have never understood the fuss about Sagan. Growing up in Europe, I had never even heard of Sagan until people started spouting about him on the internet in more recent times. Sure, Cosmos may have aired late at night on some obscure channel in the UK, but I did not see it or even hear about it. We had our own science communicators, of perhaps less iconic status, but I was getting my science from Patrick Moore and Johnny Ball, and that seemed good enough to me.

    Having since seen a bit of Sagan’s stuff, I think I can safely say that he is almost single handedly responsible for runining science communication. It’s all a bit West Coast, Hippy-Dippy, let’s smoke some weed and contemplate how awesome the universe is, e.g. pale blue dot and all that nonsense. It makes science seem like something grand, complicated and far away from the experience of the average human being. To give a musical analogy, it is a bit like listening to Pink Floyd, which you are similarly supposed to think is awe inspiring, and that the average human being has no hope of ever producing something comparable, but at the end of the day it’s just a bunch of blokes widdling around on their instruments with almost no connection to the original spirit of rock and roll. I want to see science communication that is more analogous of punk rock. It should be anti-authoritarian and make science seem like something that everyone could do just by bashing out three chords.

    Any time you see a physics documentary with psychadelic computer graphics of star fields and galaxies, with a narration by Morgan Freeman telling us how awe inspiring everything is, that is Carl Sagan’s influence right there and, to be honest, I think the world could do with a lot less of that.

  2. Ha! As if a science communicator based on punk isn’t just as culturally and temporally contextual as Sagans hippy Floyd-ness.

  3. @Matt – it’s horses for courses mate. That big science stuff was what made it exciting for me as a kid, not someone making a coke bottle rocket. And personally I’d rather listen to Pink Floyd any day instead of a bunch of talent-less idiots screaming nonsense.

  4. Chad’s post and Matt’s comment taken together reinforce an important point: It’s all about the emotions.

    What emotions do you like, and what emotions don’t you like? What emotions do you want more of?

    That’s what audiences seek, and that’s what any “communicator” is fundamentally engaged with, whether in science or in music: conveying emotions.

    Emotional meaning is conveyed in the nonverbal elements of speech as it is in music: rhythm, tone, and melody of voice. The song lyrics or scientific content of speech tell a story or at least imply a story. Emotions + narrative produce a sense of meaningful communication. (Speaking here from professional experience in music production: some of the punk rock stuff I worked on, you probably heard on the radio; and yes I like Pink Floyd too.)

    Nobody disagrees about the value of the science being communicated by Sagan or others: the difference of opinion is about the emotions. Chad speaks to awe and wonder; Matt finds those feelings overly-complicated and remote, and wants something more rough & ready and anarchic. Emotions and more emotions all ’round.

    But today we live in a world where audiences are fragmented and fractalized, so the likelihood of any one person becoming a superstar science communicator is minimal, other than for a very brief time, to quickly be replaced by someone else. More likely, we’ll see many communicators reaching many smaller audiences.

    How to make a go of it, for anyone who wishes to try: Find your audience’s emotional center of gravity. Speak to _that_. Be completely congruent: your tone of voice, cadence and rhythm, the “melody” of your speech, your facial expressions and gestures, dress, and “stage” setting. Use words that speak to the intended emotions, at varying levels of subtlety. This works best if it represents your real feelings; otherwise requires cinematic-level acting skills.

    And then when you have a loyal audience, encourage them to go out and do it too, thinking for themselves and communicating effectively with others: and watch the numbers multiply and the message spread, content included.

    Ideal case: many science communicators, each reaching an audience that’s attuned to a particular kind of emotional message, all of them together adding up to reaching the entire emotional spectrum within a given society.

  5. I don’t know that I’d say Sagan ruined science communication, but then I also retain some fondness for Pink Floyd… I agree about the air of hippie-ness, though, which is one of the things that worked brilliantly in that particular moment. I’m not sure that the over-emphasis on awe and wonder can be attributed entirely to him, though, as there’s a bit of the same in a lot of other programs from the same era– James Burke’s Connections, the nature stuff by Attenborough and others, etc.

    I think a lot of this comes down to the innate conservatism of publishers and producers– the business of bringing out new stuff is essentially a gamble, and they have a tendency to do things that look very similar to something the succeeded before. But we do have a number of scruffier science shows out there these days– I’m with Zombie Richard Feynman in approving of MythBusters on those grounds.

  6. I would also note that just because Sagan’s success was historically contingent doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons that we can learn from it. I think G is on to some good stuff, but the other thing I would add is the trite-sounding “be yourself.” That is, if you want to have any hope of being the “next Carl Sagan” in the sense of the phenomenon, not the person, don’t try to imitate the person. You need to find a voice that fits your particular moment, in the same way that his voice fit his moment, and go from there.

  7. I immediately think of NDT or Michio Kaku, but that’s probably because I’m one of those love science geeks that don’t really understand it all, but am still fascinated LOL.

  8. I also love Thru the Wormhole, because I will continue to consume anything that helps me try to understand “high science”. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve read theoretical physics books/articles just because I find it fascinating.

  9. I am crushingly busy right now– massive book rewrites needed, papers to grade, etc.– so I’ve actually been fairly happy with the general lack of topics that inspire a deep desire to blog.

    But you do still find time for blogging — which we are all grateful for.

    I’m just wondering: Have you ever done a post on how you spend your working week timewise? As in: How many hours do you spend on various tasks (tweeting included)? Having been snowed under with work myself lately, I’m wondering how other people in academia manage their time etc.

  10. The single most important thing that Sagan managed to communicate was that the viewers could understand the sciences. He explained whatever that show’s particular little chunk of science happened to be- and by god, you did understand it. He did it without condescension, with the tacit acknowledgement that you were absolutely smart enough to get it, without a specialized vocabulary, perfectly clearly and in under an hour. He did it without a ‘gee whillikers kids, is this cool or what!’ approach, an expert who found the viewer worth talking to. That ability is what made him a great science communicator, and I think that’s what people miss.

  11. Sagan did a bang up job for the era. He can’t compare to current popular science es’plainers because seventies production technology and pre-MTV pacing makes “Cosmos” seem more dated than it really is. Sagan seemed to be trying to get Americans to grasp how truly huge the universe is and how deep deep time is. He did a good job of explaining relativity and brought a lot of public attention to the first Mars lander and JPL that filled in the vacuum in public support created by the end of Apollo program. The man could rock a mean turtleneck too.

  12. I am old enough to have watched Sagan’s PBS show as it happened. It was thrilling at the time. As I watch it again it is much slower than any present day science show. A reflection of the times. But as has been said by Chad and others it was a cultural phenomenon.

    Connecting with your audience in an emotional way is absolutely necessary to be effective. Teachers know this. When you connect with your students it helps motivate them to do the work necessary to overcome difficulties. If you are a physics teacher the PER (Physics Education Research) indicates that the students must build their knowledge from analysis of data. (That is a gross over-simplification but sufficient for this post.) When they do that they have developed both an intellectual and an emotional connection with the concepts. The emotional and intellectual aspects of involvement with an idea is the key.

    So who will be those science people who will captivate a large audience and maybe encourage people to pursue science? I think there are a few already. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a very recognizable face. Many of my friends not in the science world know who he is and tend to listen to what he has to say. Pluto not being a planet was a big deal and he was a very public face during that time.

    I think there is another person who is still active today. He is not a research scientist but he has a science education. He has inspired many young people to pursue science. When he speaks on college campuses he sells out. That is Bill Nye. He is quirky but students made a connection with him. His show was relatively fast paced but well structured to expose young students to many science concepts.

    Will there be icons like Einstein and Sagan in the future? It is hard to say who will arise and when. Entertainment and politics hires a large number of people to market and create icons. I do not see science doing that anytime soon. But scientists can learn how to communicate to the public in a more effective way. Last year there was a few articles in Physics Today discussing how scientists could do a better job of communicating and what some of the difficulties and shortcomings they have. Science needs to be accessible to people without training but that is difficult because science principles are built on a great deal of interconnected data and concepts. Scientists have to take an active role in learning how to communicate.

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