Carl Sagan on the Power of Science and Popularizing Science Through Books

 

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Carl Sagan sitting on a barrier in City Hall Plaza, March 1972. Photographer: Jeff Albertson. Via: (UMASS Amherst)

 

“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

This was the speech delivered by marine biologist and one of the finest science writers of the twentieth century, Rachel Carson, when her book The Sea Around Us (Amazon) (Public Library) won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1952. The rest of the speech, she talked about the value of science and her aim as a writer to write truthfully and enchantingly about science.

Carson was not alone in her ambition to popularize the importance of science to public. One of our greatest scientists, Carl Sagan, arrived in our public consciousness and intensified Carson’s ambition unflinchingly through all of his work he did when he was alive–more than 700 articles and 20 books on science, an award winning TV series called Cosmos, and his work for NASA and Cornell University. Just like Carson, Sagan always had a missionary’s zeal about pushing science into the public arena.

In one of those articles he wrote, there’s one titled “Describing The World As It is, Not As It Would be”–a short but robust article on the importance of understanding and applying science into our lives. I found this article in Marie Arana’s book titled The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work (Public Library) (Amazon)–featuring fifty six writers reflecting on the craft of their writing and the trajectory of their lives as a writer.

Our time is far more advanced than the time when Sagan lived. Science has increasingly altered the way we interact to each other and helped us to solve unsolvable issues in the past. Behind this glorious achievement, some of us still perceive that science only belongs to those white-coated people, especially men, who sit hours on high lab stools looking at a microscope. This belief is destructive and something that Sagan wanted to reconstruct. He wrote:

“We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements–transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment and protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting–profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. We might get away with it for a while, but eventually this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

The demand of scientifically driven minds are increasingly desired. Sagan argued that science must reach beyond academia. He wrote:

“. . . it’s insufficient to produce only a small, highly competent, well-rewarded priesthood of professionals; some fundamental understanding of the findings and methods of science must be available on the broadest scale.”

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The great comet of 1881. Observed on the night of June 25-26 at 1h. 30m. A.M. Painted by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

What was it about science that Sagan cherished? Sagan explained some of the powerful values that science can bring into our lives:

“It alerts us to subtle dangers introduced by our world-altering technologies, especially to the environment.

It teaches us about the deepest issues of origins, natures and fates–of our species, of life, of our planet, of the universe. In the long run, the greatest gift of science may be in teaching us, in ways no other human endeavor has been able, something about our cosmic context, and about who we are.”

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 This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed “Pale Blue Dot,” is a part of the first ever “portrait” of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. © NASA/JPL

 

Sagan peered beyond his scientific mind to trace the value of science. On the connection between national economy and science, Sagan said:

“It [science] makes the national economy and the global civilization run. Other nations well understand this. This is why so many graduate students in science and engineering at American universities–still the best in the world–are citizens of other countries. Science is the golden road out of poverty and backwardness for emerging nations. The corollary, one that the United States sometimes fails to grasp, is that abandoning science is the road back into poverty and backwardness.”

With his deep intuitive mind, Sagan saw the commonalities between science and democracy. He wrote:

“The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable. Science confers power on anyone who takes the trouble to learn it. Science thrives on the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy. Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions. Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of honesty and evidence. Science is a baloney detector, a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. The more widespread its language, rules and methods, the better chance we have of preserving what Jefferson and his colleagues had in mind. But democracy can also be subverted more thoroughly with the tools of science than any pre-industrial demagogue ever dreamed.”

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Carl Sagan’s reading list, fall 1954. Via: (Library of Congress)

 

Once Sagan famously said, “Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.” His profound relationship with books since he was a kid made him believe that the best way to popularize science is through books. He said:

“With books, you can mull things over, go at your own pace, revisit the hard parts, compare texts, dig deep. As a youngster, I was inspired by the popular books of George Gamow, James Jeans, Arthur Eddington, J. B.S Haldane, Rachel Carson and Arthur C. Clarke. The popularity of well-written, well-explained books on science that touch our hearts as well as our minds seems greater in the last 20 years than ever before, and the number and disciplinary diversity of scientists writing these books is likewise unprecedented. Among the best contemporary science-popularizers, I think of Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins in biology; Steven Weinberg, Alan Lightman and Kip Thorne in physics; Roald Hoffman in chemistry; and the early works of Fred Hoyle in astronomy. Isaac Asimov wrote capably on everything. (And while requiring some calculus, the most consistently exciting science popularization of the last few decades seems to me to be Vol. I of Richard Feyman‘s Introductory Lectures on Physics.) Nevertheless, current efforts at science popularization are clearly nowhere near commensurate with the public good and the national need.”

In this digital world, we have invented some alternatives that can help us to enlarge our understanding of the world. Though books are still beloved by a lot of us, the rise of blogs, podcasts, Ted Talks, have made knowledge acquisition much easier and more accessible than before. Sites such as: Brain Pickings.org, Farnam Street, Ted Talk, Ted Radio Hours, It’s Okay to be Smart, Open Culture, On Being, Radio Lab, Science Friday, Aeon.co, Khan Academy, Kids Should See This; they have revolutionized our education system, especially freely teaching science to public.

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Carl Sagan with the planets. 1981. Via: (Library of Congress)

 

Everything that Sagan said in this article remains as fresh as when it was written in the middle of 90’s. At the end of the essay, through the question he posed, Sagan invited us to imagine the possibility that science can have for our future generation:

“What kind of society would it be if, instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?”