The great popularizer

Galileo Galilei There was once a time, a long time ago, when scientists communicated their discoveries to a fascinated world through popular books and lectures. Galileo’s Dialogues, after all, was a gripping a good read, even as it helped topple the Church’s domination and open an Age of Discovery. The Universe, Galileo suggested, was a lot grander without an omniscient, omnipotent God.

Now fast forward a few hundred years. Another fellow came along, writing and speaking about remarkably similar stuff. The Universe was big, billions big. And the Age of Discovery continued on, carried forth by a belief in the power of rationality against prejudice, intellect against the ravings of the night. All in books written with a wit and concision, accessible to anybody with the patience to crack a book and relax for a while.

Now, as a young man I followed Carl Sagan’s career, book by book, TV appearance by TV appearance. And when I first found myself at University, I was mystified by the scorn Sagan often received, not just from no-nothings, but from the folks who could best appreciate his message: the scientific community themselves. And it is here I would like to leave it: Carl Sagan was a ground-breaking (or should I say, ground re-breaking) popularizer of science at a time when most of the Academy couldn’t be bothered. And it was his often lonely voice that helped pave the way, that made communicating science with vigor, wit, and panache a respectable enterprise. Here’s to Dr. Sagan.
Carl Sagan


5 Responses to The great popularizer

  1. Matt Wedel says:

    I think David Hull wrote about this in Science As A Process, about the tendency of scientists like Sagan and Gould who achieve popular acclaim to be viewed with disdain by other scientists. Raup called it Saganization. I don’t remember what motive either author ascribed this to, but I chalk it up to simple jealousy.

    It’s pretty f’d up, whatever the cause. We need scientists who can talk the public and make people care worse than we need just about anything else.

    Great blog, by the way. Keep ’em coming.

  2. Mike Brown says:

    Agreed. Harlan Ellison said in a lecture at MIT that he had heard Sagan’s name taken in vain and Cosmos referred to as “the Giant Golden Book of Science,” like he was dumbing down complexity to speak to the great unwashed.

    But I appreciated Ellison’s point that for the Bible-thumping hordes living in the Deep South who believed the world was created in 7 days, for them Cosmos was the first hint they might have had about what the universe was all about, and Sagan was performing a terrific service in educating the species by doing that.

    I often hear the same criticisms leveled at Ken Burns’ documentaries on the Civil War and Jazz for the same reasons: he left out things, he emphasizes the wrong things, he doesn’t take into account blahblahblah. Who cares? He’s opening a door and introducing people to the basic vocabulary, concepts, ideas, people, all of that, and then it’s up to the viewer/reader to take their own education forward. But we have to start somewhere.

    Thanks for this. Haven’t thought of Sagan in years.

  3. […] know, never–and the class would be allowed to listen to an hour of George Carlin. With a Carl Sagan […]

  4. […] on matters scientific; communicating in an engaging way just what makes science so important and so fun. We’ll hav e more to talk about this […]

  5. […] on matters scientific; communicating in an engaging way just what makes science so important and so fun. We’ll hav e more to talk about this […]

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