A High Torch
By Seth Shostak
Seth Shostak is a Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and host of SETI's weekly science radio broadcast "Are We Alone.” Dr. Shostak has written numerous articles as well as three books, including a popular textbook on astrobiology. He was the 2004 recipient of the Klumpke-Roberts Award from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in recognition of his contributions to the public understanding and appreciation of astronomy. See full bio.
Ever since the coining of the word “scientist,” a mere 170 years ago, there have been practitioners of the art who go beyond the obligation of publishing for tenure or to impress their peers. This small percentage tries to interest the public in their labors – perhaps because they recognize that science literacy is a societal good, or simply because they feel that, having been funded at the citizenry’s expense, they have an obligation to report on the fruits of that expenditure.
These are defensible and even laudatory motives for science popularization, and are enshrined in the policies of universities and government labs. But a nobler incentive is this: to convey to everyman the excitement of knowing how Nature works. Not because such knowledge has practical application, and not because it’s important to our 21st century hopes. But simply because deep understanding is the special provenance of Homo sapiens – it is one ability that our species wields alone. It is what makes us different.
The great contribution of Carl Sagan was to realize that the ideas and the excitement of science can be accessible to everyone. This statement sounds trivial, but it’s not – because research today is far different than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. In those distant eras, an interested person of leisure could bring himself up to speed on just about any aspect of science in an afternoon. With access to a library and a small investment in time, even an amateur could quickly become an expert, and find himself on the frontier of knowledge.
These were the salad days of big discoveries made with simple experiments and home-built equipment. Disseminating the results was hardly difficult, because the boundaries of science were still close to everyday experience.
Today, all that is changed. Science is perceived as complex and frequently subtle beyond easy comprehension. And of course, that’s often true. How many among the citizenry have heard of the Higgs boson, or if they have, appreciate why so many billions of dollars are being expended to find it? What does the concept of vibrating strings, or the multiverse, really mean to most people, other than as buzzwords that signal some familiarity with current research? Science’s biggest puzzles have become fancy terms bandied about to impress others at a cocktail party, but seldom with much understanding.
Sagan had the talent – and perhaps of greater import – the motivation to explain even complex research to others. He knew there must be a way to do this because, fundamentally, all our brains are similar. If one human can understand something, than others can too. His special interest was to turn the public’s gaze outward, in the direction of a universe that – ever since the start of the twentieth century – had been expanding in size and complexity. In 1900, our cosmos was thought to consist of one, small galaxy. The Sun and its planetary companions were near the center. By the time of Sagan’s famed series, “Cosmos”, the known universe had expanded by a factor of a thousand. The cosmic bestiary had been augmented with dozens of strange objects such as pulsars, quasars and black holes.
It was a universe that would have been unrecognizable to Newton. But Sagan saw it as a New World, beckoning to be explored. His enthusiasm and talents for speaking understandably and poetically to the public turned the universe into an accessible place, a place we could all imagine – and one that had the power to enthrall the most jaded among us.
Sagan was neither the first nor the last scientist to be accomplished in popularization. But he was singularly effective. Many of his colleagues resented his success, thinking he was monopolizing the limelight that – in some cases at least – should be shone on them. But this was a myopic attitude. Sagan did something they could not have done. He brought modern science into the public plaza – pulled it from the dusty labs and dark domes to showcase its broad human appeal. He took the best of our species’ talents, and put it on passionate display.
Carl Sagan lit a torch of excitement, wonder and understanding, and held it high. We still follow.