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Nov 14 2013

You know I’m a sucker for heresy

So you won’t be surprised that I really like that Erin Podolak has asked, Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan?

It feels like I’m committing an act of science communication sacrilege here, but I have a confession to make: Carl Sagan means absolutely nothing to me. No more than any other dude from my parents 1970′s yearbooks that could rock the turtle neck/blazer combo with the best of them. There, my secret is out.

I’m not saying I don’t like Sagan – I’m saying Sagan has zero influence on me or what I do. To me, Sagan is a stereotypical old white guy scientist who made some show that a lot of people really liked more than 30 years ago. That show – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage -was on air nearly a decade before I was even born. The reason I bring up my own age is because I’m as old, if not older, than the prime audience for science communication. I think anyone can learn to appreciate science at any age in life, but we stand the best chance at convincing people that science is something they can understand (and even do themselves) early in life when their beliefs are not so entrenched.

So then why, WHY as science communicators do we keep going around and around among ourselves about how Sagan – who is so far outside my life experience, let alone that of people younger than me – was the greatest science communicator of all time? We keep talking about who will (or won’t) be the next Carl Sagan but I promise you, no high school kid gives a f*&^ about Carl Sagan let alone whether or not science communicators think he was great. We spend so much time and energy talking about a guy that isn’t  relevant anymore. The topics of space, the natural world, and how to communicate wonder are totally relevant to the public and to the science writing community. But, this one guy? Nope.

Oh, good. Now I can confess that I too was not a Sagan fan boy. I liked him all right, I appreciated what he was doing for astronomy, and I’m not going to argue with you if he inspired you. He did great work! But his voice didn’t resonate with me.

To me, he was completely overshadowed by that other white guy with a documentary popularizing science at the same time, Jacob Bronowski. There was no comparison. I watched Cosmos and learned stuff, but the man who inspired me and made me think was Bronowski. You do appreciate that different people will respond to different messages, right?

My other big inspirations in the 70s, when I was getting fired up to go study science, were Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, Stephen Jay Gould, EO Wilson (that those last two were feuding was so discouraging to me), and Jacques Cousteau. A bit later I was avidly reading Peter Kropotkin and Aldo Leopold. When I was acquiring a focus on developmental biology, it was D’Arcy Thompson, John Tyler Bonner, and Gould (again!) — and when I really was deeply into the field, the brains that blew me away with their work were those of Christiane Nusslein-Volhard, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, and Susan Oyama. Notice — they were biologists or biology-centered. It was nothing personal against Sagan, he just wasn’t writing about things that interested me as much.

Another important point, though, is “this one guy? Nope.” I worry that one of the problems we see in getting people focused on a movement is idolatry and hero worship — if you’ve got only one name in your roster of science heroes, you’ve got a serious deficiency: get out more. Read more. I don’t care how great Sagan might have been, Sagan is not enough. And if you want an example of a related problem, notice this complaint on Podolak’s blog: No more reading your blog for me, what a shame. Really, dude? If someone doesn’t share your same idols in all things, you won’t read them any more?

Then, of course, the other reality is that these people are all human beings, not saints. Feynman was a pickup artist of the worst sort; Einstein was a jerk to his wife; James Watson is a racist bigot. When we set up individuals as idols who must be respected, we’re simply setting ourselves up for disappointment. Appreciate the work they do with an appropriate perspective on their strengths and limitations.

So can we stop talking about Carl Sagan now? Yes, if you’d like; no, if you’d rather.

How about if we talk about Jacques Monod instead, or Rita Levi-Montalcini? It takes more than one voice to make a chorus.

182 comments

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  1. 1
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I gots to go with James Burke.

    However much his name might have unfortunate connotations relating to evil doings not at all his fault, I loved the concept and execution of the show from its original episodes to the last ones.

    Good stuff.

  2. 2
    nkrishna

    I think this is a good and valid point. I will admit Sagan, though dead before my time, was a big influence on me, the son of an astronomer. The kind of science communication you’re receptive to is both dependent on and shapes your interest in specific fields. Since you’re a person more immersed in biology and the life sciences, I’m not surprised to hear that Bronowski and Carson were much more influential to you than Sagan. So we absolutely need a variety of science communicators, because we have a variety of sciences. Sagan is most notable in the modern day for a) his influence in astronomy communication in particular, and b) his ability to spin a pithy quotable.

    I’m in a field that desperately needs good communication. I’m a computational linguist PhD student, and even though I’m surrounded by research pursuing fascinating questions in AI, logic, computation, and even history (language reconstruction), most people don’t know what “computational linguistics” is, beyond “Oh, you’re the guys who built Siri” and “Do your job better, Google Translate sucks between Hungarian and Vietnamese!”

  3. 3
    dõki

    Feynman was a pickup artist of the worst sort

    Yup, I remember reading Feynman’s memories and getting a very bad impression of him from them, but had already forgotten the specifics. Re-reading this has made my opinion of him plummet again. (I think there was also another nasty thing he told in the book, about how he refused to remove a sexist example from his lectures, but I might be misremembering…)

  4. 4
    Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall

    I second James Burke.

    Gotta say I found Timothy Ferris to be a much better writer than Sagan, too.

  5. 5
    Sven

    I see lots of talk regarding Cosmos, and no mention of his book, The Demon-Haunted World. The book made me a fan, not the boring TV show. His “dragon in the garage” metaphor is still, in my humble opinion, the best illustration of the absurdity of believing things that are stubbornly and utterly unverifiable.

  6. 6
    blf

    Issac Asimov is very possibly my main early influence (scientifically and intellectually, not in terms of his apparent behaviour towards woman). It is perhaps telling that my other main early influences (e.g., Gould) were also written — probably because my family didn’t bother with a TV until the first moon landing (which is specifically why my parents bought one, realizing my by-then strong interest in science (so I suppose Walter Cronkite’s Apollo missions coverage fits in here somewhere)). Upshot is Sagan’s Cosmos also means nothing to me, as I have never developed a TV-watching habit and have never owned a TV (albeit I am wondering how I will watch the upcoming Dr Who 50th Anniversary show (“no habit” ≠ “not ‘addicted’ to some shows”)).

  7. 7
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I should have also given credit to JW Watson for this book that i read cover to cover any number of times before I turned 5. After that, I needed something more advanced, but that thing was well loved before I was done.

  8. 8
    Randomfactor

    Burke for the win. The Day the Universe Changed.

    But I grew up on Asimov’s science essays. Yeah, I’m an old fart.

  9. 9
    drivenb4u

    I agree it’s unwise to fixate on one persona to the exclusion of others, but personally I can’t understate the impact Sagan had, at least for me, on the subjects of atheism and popular science. I remember quite clearly his articles for Parade magazine (if it can be called one, it was little more than an insert in the Sunday paper) in which he flatly asserts his non-belief and waves off any notion of afterlife wishful thinking. That was amazing to me, reading that as a kid at the family table surrounded by my otherwise religious family, that this secular voice was in print and it was the beginnings of my own shift in thinking. So, no, I wouldn’t be cool with just stopping talking about him.

  10. 10
    hillaryrettig

    Sagan was an amazing person. Cosmos was wonderfully done, truly visionary, and he took brave political stands (nuclear disarmament, etc.). He was talking about global warming and greenhouse stuff in the 1970s.

    Also, I took his intro class at Cornell, and despite all the pressures and time constraints of being a prof AND a tv star, he made it a point to meet with any student individually – and there were hundreds in my class. And he treated us with great respect – I remember waiting on line next to a reporter from the AP.

    I will always adore and admire him.

  11. 11
    nomadiq

    I must look more into this Bronowski character…. and this is the point.

    I loved Sagan when I was young. But to be honest, it wasn’t because he inspired me to love science. I already did. Sagan made me feel good that I loved science. But there is so much more that needs to be done to inspire the level of importance I think science should have. I wonder how many others had a similar experience.

    And what does Sagan mean to me now? Not much beyond a memory. I’ve seen Cosmos (of course) and I have read many of his books. They are so clearly encased in the period in which they are written, a time long gone now, it’s hard to be inspired about the future from them. Sagan just can’t inspire anymore – unless you have never been exposed – and then only briefly. To be honest, I feel like Sagan worship is a wasteful kind of nostalgia. Same would go for this Bronowski guy after I’ve looked into what he has done.

    Looking to the future (a diverse future) is not only important for the young folk, but also important for us older white guys. Otherwise we run the risk of stagnant nostalgia.

  12. 12
    Eamon Knight

    I saw Sagan speak sometime in the early 1970s, but never watched Cosmos until recently (just a few episodes during all-day marathons local CFI has run the last couple of years). They’re decent enough dockos, if lacking in the fancy CGI that today could be useful to illustrate some of the concepts. Agree that Bronowski was excellent (I still have the companion book). Loved the first Connections series, but the second was scraping the barrel-bottom for material. And his attempt to recycle it into a SciAm column was excruciating. James, dude: telegraphic style. Works on the screen. But in print. Looks. Fucking. Illiterate.

    As to the larger point, of course: no infallible authorities or immaculate heroes. Not Sagan, not Dawkins, not He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, not Darwin, not PZ, not all of them together. To be a freethinker is to reject that entire way of thinking, of relating to the world.

  13. 13
    Alexius Folk

    For me, the person who got me interested in science from a young age and then ultimately primed me to go into the field I’m studying now (evolutionary ecology) was Steve Irwin. I’d never even heard of Carl Sagan until people started reminiscing that he’d died, and by then it was nothing that I’d never heard before. I certainly wouldn’t expect young people today to idolize Steve-o, though I definitely wouldn’t object to it!

  14. 14
    Pierce R. Butler

    It takes more than one voice to make a chorus.

    For me, the more sciencey sections of The Whole Earth Catalog/CoEvolution Quarterly series provided a thundering, soaring choir.

  15. 15
    Acolyte of Sagan

    Excellent idea, Podolak. While we’re at it, we can stop talking about Bach and Beethoven and Strauss and Vivaldi; Monet and Picasso and Ruebens and Constable and Piranesi and da Vinci; Shakespeare and Dickens and Twain and Wordsworth and Keats and Byron.
    Shit, they’re only old, dead, white guys who died before you were born. They can’t possibly have any relevance.

  16. 16
    Correador UK

    Yes, for me it was Bronowski that changed the direction of my life. How extraordinary that a TV series could do that.

    Here in the UK, I think we are past Sagan; I don’t think he’s part of the conversation any more. Of course we have Sagan two point oh in Brian Cox, but there are a host of other excellent communicators. Lisa Jardine and Jim Al-Khalili spring to mind as people I’ll watch or listen to on pretty much any topic, and there’s a healthy range from populists like Dara Ó Briain, Alice Roberts and Mark Miodownik, to the more academic Simon Schaffer.

    There is, however, no Bronowski and I fear there never will be, not on television at any rate.

  17. 17
    Chengis Khan, The Cryofly

    The issue here seems to be, ‘I am not a fan boy, but I like him/her’. Here is what I understand about this fanboy thing. We all like Sagan for his contribution and bringing his knowledge to the public more than many others scientists in his field. But the act of bring it to the public is what is important. There is definitely more awareness of Sagan than Monod, just for the same reason… Sagan brought his knowledge and his ‘Beliefs’ to the public. You can like him for what he is and what he is done, but you are his fanboy if you share his beliefs … and … when you express those beliefs in the public and if you are challenged, and if you cite Sagan to defend yourself, then you are a Sagan fanboy.
    PS: Just because I have 82 references in my most recent pub, that does not mean I am a fan of so many researchers… I do not know or share their beliefs.

  18. 18
    michaeld

    Yeah I knew nothing of sagan till well into my university days. Still haven’t seen an episode of cosmos. Bill Nye and Robert Bakker did way more making me interested in science.

  19. 19
    mpachis

    I agree we should not confer sainthood on anyone and if Carl Sagan did not inspire you, so be it. My problem is the reason Erin stated that Carl Sagan is not relevant appears to be he is guy before my time and dresses funny. Here is my old fart rant, the world did not start when you were born. You should be aware of what is current, but if you do not understand what preceded you than you do not understand why the world is that way it is.

  20. 20
    myeck waters

    Cosmos is a great show to fall asleep to. The smooth voice, the soothing music…

  21. 21
    uri4

    The Ascent of Man was very good. It made an impression on me too.

    Connections, by James Burke, I think had a greater influence on my teaching style than anything Sagan did.

    And, while we are waxing nostalgic, I really wish that PBS, or one of the Discovery Networks channels, would rebroadcast Phillip Morrison’s The Ring of Truth. There are scenes from that show that are still clear in my mind after a quarter of a century.

    The thing about Sagan, though, wasn’t just Cosmos. He was on Carson. He made Johnny laugh. And, a lot like Carson, he wasn’t the first guy with the gig but he was the guy who owned it. He had the right voice, the right style, at the right time in the development of the medium, to be both popular and influential.

    It may annoy millennials to be told that Sagan was important, but ignorance has not made him irrelevant. I think when we oldsters ask “Who will be the next Sagan?”, that it isn’t about Sagan. It is about the changed media environment. Sagan was a rockstar when PBS was on one of the 4 VHF stations available on your TV.

    We will not see his like again, because his like cannot happen now.

  22. 22
    Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc

    As a Brit Cosmos probably didn’t have the same impact, as we already had some high quality science broadcasting.

    Sir Patrick Moore (RIP) and Sir David Attenborough being two notable figures for me. I was much more interested in space as a kid, and still am to an extent, but The Attenborough’s shows are just so good!

  23. 23
    twas brillig (stevem)

    < PZ’s OP in “shortform” > :
    “Don’t worship the man only what he did.”

    I.E. it is always a mistake to worship the entirety of a person, everyone has a “dark side“, that is better left untouched, and embarrassing to “worship”. So, avoid the dark side and only worship specific actions by specific persons that are worthy of worship. All well and good; but Sagan? How can you even think Sagan has a dark side? Inconceivable! Yes, I’m a Sagan fanboy but only by that maxim I just stated. Everything Sagan has done I’m a fan of; with only minor quibbles here and there (that I only blame myself for, not Sagan): e.g. Cosmos: The “ship” he used to tour the universe was a laughable SFX, that amused me quite thoroughly. His Contact story was a little beyond comprehension, just an excuse to throw some political jabs. etc. etc. So even if someone wrote some “shocking revelatory biography” of Sagan revealing his darkside, I’d still be a fan; maybe not of him, but definitely of everything else he has done.
    Whatever, < yada yada yada >. The point is: Never worship a person, only worship his actions.

  24. 24
    robb

    pick a Brian, any Brian:

    physicist rock star Brian Cox or rock star physicist Brian May

  25. 25
    jehk

    I totally have a crush on Brian Cox. Can I idolize him because his eyes are oh so dreamy? :p

  26. 26
    Rob Grigjanis

    Early influences? Arthur C. Clarke and Patrick Moore. Moore taught me that you don’t have to comb your hair to be a TV presenter.

    Because they’re rarely mentioned, I’ll give shouts out to a couple of textbook authors; J.D. Jackson and Albert Messiah. I still love these books.

  27. 27
    carlie

    jehk – someone here just posted Is Brian Cox on acid? the other day. :D (I love Brian Cox. And also Robin Ince, who is a comedian but devoted to science. And The Infinite Monkey Cage, which has both.)

    I was too young to see Sagan in full glory days, and never liked astronomy much, but what I like about him is his ability to connect with people and explain complicated things well. As mentioned above, there really isn’t a way to get the same kind of “oomph” factor now, because media is too fragmented. I think they made a brilliant choice getting Neil DeGrasse Tyson do to the Cosmos remake, because he shares so many of those qualities (and is simply amazing).

  28. 28
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Sagan was a great popularizer of science in his own day. He inspired many. And that’s great! He does in fact have an inspiring legacy.

    But at the same time, he died when I was in middle school. At the time, I’d never heard of him. While I acknowledge his legacy, he didn’t touch my life, and – given that I’d never heard of him until I was in college – didn’t affect my career decisions one way or the other.

    I must also admit that of that list of people that PZ says inspired him, I only recognized the names of two of them. But then, PZ is a generation older than I am.

    And I don’t think I’m atypical in that regard for the under-30 set.

    We need people to do the sort of thing that he did, today. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson meets that (it helps that he’s hilarious and is the subject of many a meme). Many people my age grew up watching Bill Nye.

    But both of them are past 50.

    We need more popularizers, and we need them in a hurry. Some women would be nice.

  29. 29
    Kagehi

    I am, I suppose, slightly embarassed to say that “In search of…” was pretty much the thing that dragged me into wanting to understand the world more. At one time I even found some of the stupider things in it semi-plausible, until later, when I learned how bloody absurd they where. Still.. wonder who now owns the island that they where having such trouble digging up a “buried treasure” on now. I don’t doubt that someone buried something there, even today, but the nature of how they seemed to have done it (with seep paths, and multiple wooden platforms, etc.), made who ever did it both paranoid as hell, and a complete idiot, with respect to every thinking, for one moment, that they would be able to come back and recover the contents. lol

  30. 30
    Rob Grigjanis

    Esteleth @28: Lisa Harvey-Smith is impressive.

  31. 31
    jehk

    @carlie – That was awesome. Thank you.

  32. 32
    PZ Myers

    Another point that Podolak made is that if you’re trying to reach young people, constantly harping on the older generation doesn’t help. I’ve tried introducing students to Sagan and Bronowski, and sad to say, their television shows bored the hell out of them. Tastes and expectations have changed. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remake is a great idea, if it updates the program to a more modern mode.

    Oh and hey, #15, Acolyte of Sagan: your name gives you away. Touchy, huh? I think you’re reading too much into it: no one is arguing that Sagan is bad or must be forgotten, but that it’s tiresome to have the old geezers constantly setting up someone of their generation as the role model we are seeking. Mozart is great, too, but are you really going to be the guy who goes up to Lady Gaga or Beyonce or Kanye West and tell them to be “more like Mozart”? Do you berate Sam Cooke and The Grateful Dead and Miles Davis for not sounding a thing like Vivaldi?

    Move on. Respect and enjoy what they did. Don’t tell everyone to repeat what the old masters did — that kills creativity and growth.

  33. 33
    scriabin

    I think that Podolak did herself a bit of a disservice by slightly misstating what the question should be…

    With respect, and quoting her own words, I think the message should be “we still need to get women, other minorities, and young people doing all kinds of science out in public view…[so that they can have the same impact on their demographics and generations that Sagan had on his]” (her words, my addition in brackets).

  34. 34
    nomadiq

    @15 Acolyte of Sagan

    If you tried to understand music through the works of only those old dead white European guys you wouldn’t really understand music. You would only understand European classical music. Such a shame to miss out on all the rest.

  35. 35
    brett

    Sagan was a pretty big influence on me turning to Atheism, and his book The Demon-Haunted World was one of my favorite skeptic books growing up (I still prefer the “garage dragon” to Dawkins’ “spaghetti monster”). But I wouldn’t really recommend his books these days as reading for anyone interested in skepticism or astronomy. They’re just too dated, even Demon Haunted World. I still think they might be interesting if you were looking into the history of skepticism in the US, but if you’re trying to bring people into it now, you need more contemporary sources.

    . . . That said, there is something #SlatePitch-y about this type of post. How many people actually talk about Carl Sagan anymore, anyways? I haven’t seen him referenced in years outside of occasional references to the Cosmos re-boot, not even on the astronomy blogs.

  36. 36
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    @ PZ

    Jacques Cousteau

    Au contraire, heretic! Hans and Lotte Hass!

    (Sadly, he died this year.)

  37. 37
    gussnarp

    @Sven, #5 – I’m with you on that. I’ve never actually seen an episode of Cosmos, but I’ve read The Demon-Haunted World and I think it’s an absolute must read. And I think it’s great that many people were influenced by Sagan and by Cosmos and I don’t particularly think we should ever stop talking about him, or many of the other great old white guy popularizers of science, but I’d say that we need to have people doing that stuff who are not old, white, or male and we need to be spreading the word about them at least as much as we talk about the old white guys, as PZ does in this post.

  38. 38
    congaboy

    I’m not a scientist, I’m an attorney. For me, Carl Sagan was the voice of science when I was a kid (I’m almost 50). I didn’t read science texts, I read comic books and watched a lot of TV (my siblings were years older than me, my parents divorced, and both parents working, teachers who just seemed to be doing time and really didn’t seem to care about actual teaching, I had a lot of unsupervised time on my hands). If it wasn’t for people like Sagan and Jacques Cousteau, (people who appeared on TV) it would have been years longer for me before I would have had any real introduction into science. I read Asimov, but just his fiction. We don’t have to and shouldn’t idolize Sagan, but it’s rather short sighted not to appreciate his impact on popularizing science. For non-scientists, he was an incredible influence, just like Neil Degrasse Tyson is today. And , as far as a role model for skeptics, it appears that Sagan was a decent human being; I’ve never heard any stories about him being a “pickup artist” or a misogynist or a rapist, or a bigot, or just a plain old jerk. It appears that he was really a decent, compassionate, liberal, caring human being. Here was a man, for all intents and purposes, who was a star and he didn’t let it go to his head. So, we don’t need to idolize him, but we should appreciate what he did and keep moving on with our lives.

  39. 39
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    The difficulty with that phrasing, scriabin, is that it implies that the only demographics someone can have an influence on are one’s own. I daresay Neil deGrasse Tyson reaches people who are not African-American and male. That isn’t to diminish or negate the great impact meeting a professional who looks like them can have on a kid who is from a historically underrepresented group – I can assure you that I understood that as a girl – but I don’t think balkanizing science popularizing by sending the white guy to talk to the white boys and the woman of color to talk to the girls of color is the entirety of the answer.

  40. 40
    Scientismist

    scottrobson @11: Yes, you really should look into this Bronowski character. It is a science communication tragedy that “The Ascent of Man” videos got tied up in copyright such that they were available in educational video tape format only, even long into the VCR and video disk era. The only place you could see them was in school, if you had a teacher who would show them. It was the first thing I ever recorded to keep on my RCA VHS machine (blank tapes cost over $20 each!) Now, the series is available on both DVD and YouTube, and is still well worth your time.

    And Jaques Monod before that — I bought a dozen or more paperback copies of “Chance and Necessity” and gave them to people I cared about, trying to start a conversation. A few read it; one wanted to discuss it; I married her.

    I just read this to her, and she adds that the main problem with Monod was that, after explaining how we have to get used to the idea of living in a universe that doesn’t care about us at all, he got all depressed. She thought that was silly.. but what the heck do you expect, he was French. Maybe he caught his angst from Camus. My wife is ordering “Brave Genius” tout suite.

  41. 41
    carlie

    PZ at 32:

    I’ve tried introducing students to Sagan and Bronowski, and sad to say, their television shows bored the hell out of them.

    AHAHAHAHAHA that reminds me of something I’d rather forget. So we all remember two years or so ago when PBS re-released Cosmos, and it all ended up for free viewing online? I thought I’d do a day of “here are changes in the communication of science” with my bio majors, and showed them a 50s clip from the Prelinger Archives and then the first episode of Cosmos, with an exercise to compare and contrast. Except here’s the thing: I hadn’t had enough time to watch the whole episode myself first. The intro moves me to tears every time I watch it, but I hadn’t gotten much beyond it. We were ALL bored, but the exercise was based on watching the whole thing, and I didn’t know how to extract and abort the whole thing, so we all just sat there. And then they kind of hated me for it. (although they got over it)

  42. 42
    Phiknight

    If Carl Sagan was good at scientific communication, and you are talking about scientific communication, then why wouldn’t you talk about Carl Sagan? His programs might not be the best for reaching a modern audience, but surely you would have to talk about him/his work to figure out how to have that sort of impact today. No matter what field you are in, you are going to have to talk about people and stuff outside of your lifetime and life experiences.

  43. 43
    Scott de Brestian

    How about if we talk about Jacques Monod instead, or Rita Levi-Montalcini?

    Both were active before Erin Podolak was born, so by her logic, both are completely irrelevant.

  44. 44
    Naked Bunny with a Whip

    @brett #35:

    That said, there is something #SlatePitch-y about this type of post. How many people actually talk about Carl Sagan anymore, anyways?

    Yeah, I was thinking I must spend my time in different places than Podolak does, because I see far more mention of Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye than Carl Sagan.

  45. 45
    consciousness razor

    PZ:

    Mozart is great, too, but are you really going to be the guy who goes up to Lady Gaga or Beyonce or Kanye West and tell them to be “more like Mozart”?

    To any of them? Yes, that would certainly be an improvement. Mozart wouldn’t be my first choice for a role model, but he’d be better than nothing. However, the analogy is very tenuous anyway, because there’s no message (e.g., about science) that they’re all supposed to be evangelizing. I also don’t think anyone has expressed interest in shitting on other, not-Carl-Sagan science communicators.

    Do you berate Sam Cooke and The Grateful Dead and Miles Davis for not sounding a thing like Vivaldi?

    The music sounding differently wouldn’t be the issue. You’re seriously missing the point with this. It can be “not sounding a thing like X’s music,” yet have many of the same qualities people want out of music. You don’t have to “repeat what they did” to get the same quality of results, which is not to say there are no qualitative differences between any two works to even talk about. I’m much more acquainted with Miles, so if you’d like a dissertation on why his music is the same yet not the same as Vivaldi’s, that could be arranged, despite being utterly misguided. But it wouldn’t be a list of superficial things, on a level like being old/dead and wearing turtlenecks and such.

  46. 46
    leftwingfox

    I’m surprised no-one has mentioned David Suzuki yet.

    He was the scientist I most wanted to be like when I was growing up, and perhaps the greatest influence on my original choice to go into biology. That didn’t exactly work out, but that background is a big part of the reason I’ve been a Pharyngula reader for so long.

  47. 47
    aggressivePerfector

    Funnily enough, not having seen Cosmos or much else from Sagan, as I read through the blockquoted text, I mentally translated everything to a discussion of Bronowski, from the same era, and with whom I’m more familiar. I found myself thinking, ‘well, the fact that it was done 40 years ago doesn’t make it not brilliant.’

    Despite Bronowski’s undeniable brilliance, one thing that always did make me cringe about ‘Ascent of Man,’ embodied in the title, is its overt ego-centrism. The whole thing is an attempt to explain why humanity is so brilliant and important – in my opinion, not a point of view supported by any reasonable naturalistic philosophy.

    As a cosmologist, I think Sagan probably took quite a more palatable view, his ‘Pale Blue Dot’ seeming to say “you think we are special, but really we are next to nothing.”

  48. 48
    PZ Myers

    #45, consciousness razor:

    To any of them? Yes, that would certainly be an improvement.

    And there’s the problem. You’re wrong. There are people who love to listen to Beyonce who consider Mozart to be abstract noodling; there are people who love Mozart who think Beyonce is trash. Who are you to say which music speaks to which people?

    If you’re trying to reach Beyonce-listeners and your first mission is to tell them to stop listening to that garbage and listen to Mozart instead, you’ve already lost them.

  49. 49
    consciousness razor

    If you’re trying to reach Beyonce-listeners and your first mission is to tell them to stop listening to that garbage and listen to Mozart instead, you’ve already lost them.

    Who the fuck ever said I’m trying to do any such thing?

  50. 50
    carlie

    Brett at 35:

    That said, there is something #SlatePitch-y about this type of post. How many people actually talk about Carl Sagan anymore, anyways?

    Because there’s a Carl Sagan day and it just happened for this year – I saw many comments about Carl Sagan last week.

  51. 51
    pacal

    If Carl Sagan means absolutely nothing to Erin why is he discussing him? As for the rest of Erin’s screed well… If you think that Carl Sagan is outside your experience, and is a stereotypical white Scientist. That merely indicates Erin’s ability to think in idiotic clichés. Just what is it about Carl Sagan’s science that is outside Erin’s experience? As for no high school kid giving F@#%a about Carl Sagan. Sorry that along with this screed says vastly more, and it isn’t pretty, about Erin Podolak and people like that than it does about Carl Sagan.

    Basically what Erin Podolak is complaining about is that Carl Sagan is no longer fashionable among the young and not as well known. So? Frankly all I see in this screed is someone whose horizon of Science and science education is limited and narrow. Erin Podolak makes about as much sense as someone who disparages modern popularizers of science in favor of older popularizers.

    PZ Myers no. 32. So modern students find Sagan and Bronowski incredibly boring. Absolutely pathetic. I wonder if they can read ten pages of any novel without being bored to tears. I do hope that is true of only a small subset of students.

    I guess I’m turning into that old fart that my parents said I would become.

  52. 52
    Naked Bunny with a Whip

    @aggressivePerfector #47:

    his ‘Pale Blue Dot’ seeming to say “you think we are special, but really we are next to nothing.”

    It’s probably a sign of the times it was created in, but I was struck when re-watching Cosmos a few years back how often Sagan, when speculating about the future, threw out a caveat along the lines of “assuming humanity doesn’t commit collective suicide first”. He seemed to be of the opinion that humans are smart, but maybe not so wise, and certainly still pretty clueless about the world around us.

  53. 53
    scriabin

    #39 Esteleth.

    Apologies for my lazy phrasing. I entirely agree with you. I was just quickly trying to agree with much of Podolak’s point regarding diversity and “current/relevant” voices while still using Sagan as a symbol of how they should aspire to influence their audience – whomever that audience might be.

  54. 54
    penumbra

    We were able to attend a lecture or two with Stephen Gould. Wow. Great speaker and we truly enjoyed his books. Sad he’s gone.

  55. 55
    Naked Bunny with a Whip

    @carlie #50:

    There’s also a Darwin Day that gets mentioned every year in these parts, but I don’t see people writing articles complaining that we can’t move past On the Origin of Species.

  56. 56
    David Wilford

    I’ve always thought Steve Gould’s best contribution to popular science literature was his monthly column in Natural History magazine. Always fascinating, always eminently accessible to a lay audience.

  57. 57
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    I’m not sure where people are getting the message of “Carl Sagan was shit” from either PZ or Erin Podolak, because that’s not what they’re saying. I read them saying, “Carl Sagan was great and inspiring in his day, but he’s also dead and his stuff is dated, so we need to find people who can popularize science today using modern methods, rather than just re-running Sagan’s stuff.”

  58. 58
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    I have to say that I am a fan of Sagan’s. I also listen to Mozart and Bach, Beethoven and Prokofiev. I think one benefits from reading not just Shakespeare, but also Moliere, Twain (Mark, not Shania) and Hemingway. I believe that long dead politicians like Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, and so on are relevant to our political struggles today. I’m fond of reading long dead scientists like John von Neumann, Claude Shannon and Richard Hamming. I do so not because I idolize any of these men, but rather because I feel they had deep insight into their fields. I benefit as a scientist from seeing how long-dead scientists came to understand science. They become the giants upon whose shoulders I stand.

    Carl Sagan was a real scientist who cared enough about the the role of science in society to try to increase the scientific literacy of the general populace. He had real accomplishments as a planetary astronomer. His students liked him–even his grad students, and that says a lot. He was one of the first public figures to talk publicly about being an atheist. If you want to understand his importance, look where scientific communication was before him. The success of Cosmos showed media moghuls there there could be money in science popularization–and those who have come since (from Bill Nye to Brian Greene) owe him a debt. So, no, you don’t have to like Sagan. It’s a mistake to ignore the role he played, though.

  59. 59
    PZ Myers

    Wait, I complain all the time that people can’t get past the Origin.

  60. 60
    screechymonkey

    Brett@35:

    How many people actually talk about Carl Sagan anymore, anyways?

    During the Accommodationist Wars, it was a standard attack on Gnu Atheists to say “Carl Sagan didn’t say mean things about religion! We need more Carl Sagans, not Richard Dawkinses [or PZ Myerses, or whoever]” as if Sagan was the One True Science Communicator. And sometimes the Gnu side would point out some of the blunter things Sagan said from time to time, but even that felt a little gross, like squabbling Christians quoting Jesus at each other.

    pacal@51:

    If Carl Sagan means absolutely nothing to Erin why is he discussing him?

    Yeah! And if atheists don’t believe in God, why do they talk about him? GOTCHA, ATHEISTS!

  61. 61
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Pacal @51:

    So modern students find Sagan and Bronowski incredibly boring. Absolutely pathetic. I wonder if they can read ten pages of any novel without being bored to tears. I do hope that is true of only a small subset of students.

    Charming.

    Maybe you could ask why modern students find them boring?

    Maybe it is that cinematography and scriptwriting have changed stylistically in the past 30 years, so students look at Sagan and Bronowski’s stuff and – rather than seeing them as exciting and new – see them as dated and stuffy?

    But then, if you were to ask students that, you’d have to be prepared to actually listen.

  62. 62
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    The work of Steve Zissou, more than any other, motivated my passion for deep sea exploration.
     _________________________________________________________________________________
     
    And also “Stop talking about Carl Sagan” sounds every bit as presumptuous as “Turn off the Beyonce and give Nina Simone* a chance”. Delivered to an individual, either of these two recommendations could be solidly good advice,…but for the People of the Internetz?
     
    PotI…talk about whatever you want to.
     
    *If you are currently listening to Beyonce, I recommend this, under the full realization that it is presumptuous to do so.

  63. 63
    jefrir

    Pacal, #51

    So modern students find Sagan and Bronowski incredibly boring. Absolutely pathetic. I wonder if they can read ten pages of any novel without being bored to tears. I do hope that is true of only a small subset of students.

    Yes, clearly it’s a fault in the students, and not just a change in tastes and techniques – and in knowledge, because we do in fact know slightly more now than we did when Cosmos was first broadcast. Young people today, eh?

  64. 64
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Wait, I complain all the time that people can’t get past the Origin.

    To get past it you have to get through it, no?
     
    What if the writings of Darwin don’t speak to the new generation? Cuz, I’m not sure that they do. If you think Sagan is stuffy, work your way through OoS is going to be a total buzzkill. I study evolution for a living AND have an abiding love for all things boring and stuffy; even for me OoS was a slog.
     
    On the other hand, as far as I know, Sagan didn’t discover anything completely seminal for those who study astronomy or cosmology or whatever.

  65. 65
    moarscienceplz

    I’m sorry PZ, but the fact that you totally failed to mention Isaac Asimov proves you are a hack and a poseur, and I will never sully my precious brain cells by exposing them to your thoughts ever again. God wishes he were as super-duper as Asimov!

    But seriously, folks, I’ve always been more interested in good ideas than in panting after a sciency rock star. Cosmos had a lot of good stuff (though I could have done without those interminable “starship of the imagination” sequences), but I bought a couple of Sagan’s book and was bored by them. I love Dawkins’ stage shows, but I also find his books overly wordy and I doubt I would stand in a long line to get him to sign one.
    Anyway, with YouTube, why do we even need a science ‘star’? I browse through whatever subject strikes my fancy at the moment, and if I don’t like the video I am currently watching, there’s usually five or ten others to choose from. If I find a video I do like, I will often seek out more by the same person, but I’m not likely to become a fanboy.

  66. 66
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Antiochus Epiphanes,
    Sagan’s most enduring work probably has to do with understanding planetary climates–especially Venus and Mars. He was also one of the first to posit liquid water on Jupiter’s moon Europa and liquid methane on Titan. Not a bad career.

    One of his students–Dave Stephenson at Caltech has done interesting work on planetary dynamos and credits Sagan with inspiring him to do so.

    As far as Origin of Species–I’m not a biologist, but I motivated myself to read it for the little gems of insight–the eye, social insects…

  67. 67
    smipowell

    Carl Sagan was a pioneer in science communication. I recall that there was an annual competition of some sort to identify the top ten books of the year–my memory is a little hazy on this point. At any rate, Sagan noted that no science books were even considered and campaigned to redress that problem. Moreover, the success of his own books encouraged other scientists to write. Finally, on this point, his campaign cost him dearly as many scientists criticized him roundly for working on science communication rather than on original research.

    Coupled with the latter point, Sagan was the subject of much criticism because he also espoused controversial positions such as materialism and nuclear winter–to mention just two.

    I was so glad to see that PZ mentioned my favorite author and his show, that is, Jacob Bronowski and The Ascent of Man. I still watch the show on my DVDs and marvel at his wonderful insights even as I note that his ground-breaking show has been surpassed in production methods if not in content. I also enjoyed James Burke’s Connections and used both Bronowski and Burke in classes.

    In conclusion, I am very appreciative of Sagan’s work and have profited from his insights, hard work, and communication skills.

  68. 68
    gillt

    Hopefully this article struck a nerve with Chris Mooney

  69. 69
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I have had the honor of hearing Carl Sagan and Steven Chu each speak – Sagan in 89 or 90 at some point, Chu in the fall of either 1994 or 5, I think 1995.

    One guess at which talk blew my mind more.

    If you need a hint, you can tell how boring a place Stanford must be by the number of paragraphs in this article.

  70. 70
    SallyStrange

    @Pacal

    PZ Myers no. 32. So modern students find Sagan and Bronowski incredibly boring. Absolutely pathetic. I wonder if they can read ten pages of any novel without being bored to tears. I do hope that is true of only a small subset of students.

    I haven’t watched any of either, because, yes, I suspect it would be quite boring to me, and the information contained within is not going to be new to me, as a thirty-something science-lover. Movies and TV shows from the pre-80s era do tend to be boring to me, mostly because of the slow pacing. But maybe it’s because I’m pathetic.

    I’ve read hundreds (tens of hundreds maybe? I dunno, I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood) of novels but my reading habits have changed lately, mostly because of the internet. I tend to listen to novels as audiobooks these days. I imagine these changes are fairly common among people my age or younger.

    So, I guess you need to go cry in the corner or something. People who get upset about other people being bored by things they think are interesting are the truly pathetic ones.

    ————————————–

    Folks, the point of foundational material, whether it’s in politics, science, or literature, is not that everyone should read all of it, but that it’s there if you want to deepen your understanding. I will probably never read the Origin of Species all the way through, but I will probably get around to reading a Darwin biography someday. This has nothing to do with whether I appreciate or understand evolution. We’ve moved on since Darwin and we’re moving on since Sagan. If Sagan is really “the greatest science communicator ever” then what you’re really saying is that science communication has gone downhill since the 70s and will continue to do so, which is very very silly.

    Personally, I have to credit my mother for being the main inspiration for my interest in science. Both my parents love the outdoors and took us on great hiking and camping trips, but my mom was the one who overtly displayed her interest and delight in how trees grow themselves to match the shape of the hill they’re growing on, and how the fossils in the rocks we found revealed New York State’s underwater prehistory, and so on. Too bad my mom never got her own TV show, eh?

  71. 71
    Rey Fox

    I still prefer the “garage dragon” to Dawkins’ “spaghetti monster”

    Dawkins doesn’t have anything to do with the FSM, that was created by college students.

  72. 72
    ChasCPeterson

    on-topic:
    I’m the same age as teh ECO, but I never got into Sagan even in his prime. Later I read some of his books, and I’ll agree that The Demon-Haunted World is awesome (on the other hand nobody mentions Dragons of Eden, a much, much sketchier effort…I forget about Broca’s Brain; may have to re-read). He really never ‘inspired’ me (although I was later impressed to learn of his Mr. X stuff, I never needed any inspiration in that sphere, heh).

    No, for me as a kid it was all about Cousteau…one of my earliest surviving drawings was a 1st-or-2nd-grade what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up assignment and mine was “underwater scientist”.
    Him and Marlin Perkins (“While Jim extricates himself from the deadly jaws of that crocodile, let’s hear from our friends at Mutual of Omaha…”).

    I’ve always thought Steve Gould’s best contribution to popular science literature was his monthly column in Natural History magazine. Always fascinating, always eminently accessible to a lay audience.

    Agreed; I subscribed for years for that reason alone. Of course his style got more and more turgid and self-indulgent with time, and by the time he finally stopped I had already quit in eye-rolling annoyance.

    off-topic:

    are you really going to be the guy who goes up to Lady Gaga or Beyonce or Kanye West and tell them to be “more like Mozart”?

    *raises hand*
    I’ll be that guy (see the recent air-guitar thread for examples)

    Do you berate Sam Cooke and The Grateful Dead and Miles Davis for not sounding a thing like Vivaldi?

    NOW you’ve gone too far!!!!
    But seriously, cr is 100% correct here:

    The music sounding differently wouldn’t be the issue. You’re seriously missing the point with this.

    Saying that [insert name of curent entertainment-media-pimped $uper$tar here] should “be more like Mozart” has nothing to do with how the music sounds. Vivaldi, Mozart, Miles, and (imo) the Dead* were artists of personal self-expression and ground-breaking innovation; they have that in common despite the diversity of their ‘sounds’. On the other hand, the current crop of airplay-mongers you list are pretty obviously in it for the money. People can and should enjoy whatever music they like and want to, but I reserve the right to judge their criteria.

    *Cooke was a fine and outstandingly soulful vocalist, but no musical innovator.

  73. 73
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    BTW: what’s up with Sagan as the standard if we’re picking from dead white guys?

    Seriously, William Thomson was the Thomas Paine of science. He would blow the doors off the joint whenever he spoke.

    So if we aren’t going to analyze what works today and just go by who was bad ass in the past, I’m thinking we should be kicking off a Thomson Day next June.

    That or we could live in the future: refreshing OKCupid NY every 5 seconds, hoping to be the first one to get a message in if a certain planetarium director shows up…

  74. 74
    Nick Gotts

    I can’t remember ever not being interested in science, but the nearest equivalent for me to Sagan, Bronowski, Asimov etc. was Scientific American. I used to stop off on my way home from school to see if the latest edition was in. Martin Gardner was always my first read, but usually, I’d read the whole thing. I think I still have some of the mid-1960s issues.

  75. 75
    witlesschum

    I think this is the most meaningful portion to me.

    That said, I still think it is a complete waste of our efforts to keep going on and on about WHO will be the next Sagan when we should really be talking about HOW we’re going to engage with a diverse audience about science and WHAT platforms and tools will we use to be effective. To me, those are far more productive conversations to have.

    Podolak doesn’t state it this way, but there will be no Carl Sagan today because he and his huge public profile was a product of the media environment of his time. Even if the new Cosmos with Neil DeGrasse Tyson is awesome and successful and then CBS responds by airing a Phil Plait-hosted knockoff that’s also a hit, they’ll be seen by less of the population than Sagan appearing on TV just because the fragmentation of media that’s gone on and allowed some bearded science-loving radical from the wilds of Minnesota to communicate with thousands of like-minded.

    Carl Sagan the guy is fine. I don’t have the sort of the emotional relationship with him and I’ve only read Demon-Haunted World, which was a great book, and loved the autotune someone made of him talking about the universe. But I read Podolak as being annoyed both at all the love being given to someone who’s not relevant to her, personally, (which is natural, but less reasonable) and reasonable annoyance at people’s blinkeredness at apparently thinking the answer to science communication is to find a new Sagan and put him on TV.

  76. 76
    ChasCPeterson

    I will probably get around to reading a Darwin biography someday.

    You want this one!

  77. 77
    SallyStrange

    The only way to experience classical music is from inside the symphony orchestra, if you ask me. I never put it on the speakers, but I love playing it.

  78. 78
    SallyStrange

    Thanks for the recommendation, Chas, that does look like exactly the sort of thing I’d want. :)

  79. 79
    Joel

    This one’s pretty easy for me – I was first enticed into science by Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene – obviously, there was enough there for me to pick it up in the first place, but that’s the book that really inspired me. His discussion of evolutionarily stable strategies was pitched at just the right level to twinge my interest (yes, I have peculiar interests…). And now I can acknowledge that while also acknowledging that he is a real a-hole at other times.

  80. 80
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    A year ago, I had a similar conversation with my niece about the Beatles. She is into the music of the ’60s and 70s, bit the Beatles did nothing for her. I pointed out that the #1 song all the month of January 1964 before the Beatles occupied top spot (w/ 3 songs) for 3 months was Bobby Vinton, and before that The Singing Nun!
    Sagan wasn’t the first or the best popularizer of science–but he showed you could make money doing it.

  81. 81
    grandolddeity

    For some reason, this discussion prompted the image in my head of opening my big new box of crayola crayons the first day of elementary school. Some colors I favored over others, but the collection lost something important if any one of them went missing or was broken.

    I just went to CrayolaStore.com to reminisce. Well, Crayola still has crayons and so much more…even digital options. Things do move on.

    Erin may be correct in some sense, but, for me, the collection is diminished if we lose site of any of these great science contributors.

  82. 82
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    Burke was a big one for me, and his writing informs my thinking still (The Axemaker’s Gift, about technology that brings damage which can only be solved by technology which brings damage et c., was my favourite, I just re-read it this summer. I met him once, after he spoke in my city, and (to his great amusement) stayed after to get his autograph.

    Someone mentioned Philip Morrison’s Ring of Truth, and that was pretty fantastic too, I’d love to see it again. Ronald Top, a Dutch TV presenter, did a pretty good couple of series not long ago on the Industrial Revolution, in the Burke style of how the web of technologies came together to create particular things.

  83. 83
    cartomancer

    As an English person looking out onto the grim, foreboding, and far-too-fast-approaching vista of my thirties, I am perhaps unusual in harbouring a massive fondness for the works of Carl Sagan. The Cosmos series was made years before I was even born, and it never showed in the UK, so I first saw it about five years ago on youtube. I only came across Sagan at all in the conversations of internet atheists at RD.net and here.

    And yet, I found his programmes and interviews and books utterly charming. The science bits were all fairly familiar to me from my schooldays, and the history bits were rather simplistic (the whole “thousand years of darkness” mantra grates on a postgraduate medieval historian), but beyond that I found myself captivated by the sheer humanity of it all. I suffer on and off from depression, and the sentimentality, hopefulness and warmth of Sagan’s delivery always helps to lift me up a little bit. More than that, it takes me back to the cozy, comforting world of the eighties, which reminds me of my very happy childhood. Whenever I get low, I generally watch the whole of Cosmos to arrest the onset of the anxiety and ennui.

    Pretty much every other British person I have spoken to who saw Cosmos thought it was unbearably cheesy and melodramatic and overblown. Those older than me compare it unfavourably with our native Civilization, Natural World and Ascent of Man, which inspired Cosmos in the first place, while those younger find Brian Cox’s programmes more exciting. But I’m a child of the eighties. I was born with cheese-coloured spectacles and thrive on overblown melodrama. That stuff really speaks to my emotions. I thrive on nostalgia, and change and the uncertainty of the future have always frightened me. Clarke and Bronowski epitomised a kind of stuffy 1950s worthy-but-dull vibe, and Brian Cox is too edgy, millennial and (unforgivably) Northern. Sagan was a presenter of my time and mien.

    Attenborough, of course, transcends time and culture. Not liking David Attenborough is widely considered definitive proof of sociopathy and/or vampirism where I come from.

  84. 84
    mikee

    I’ve always admired Carl Sagan for the passion and skill of his science communication. Demon Haunted World is a brilliant book and Cosmos, even though the effects are dated is memorable to me because of the clever turns of phrase he uses to describe science. He used storytelling to talk about science decades before many other science communicators understood the power of stories.
    Carl Sagan also made an effort to communicate science when other scientists looked down on such activities (much more so than today). Despite being a first rate scientist as well as a communicator, he was denied membership of the National Academy of Sciences, and also according to some denied tenure at Harvard because other faculty members did not like this popularisation of science.

    So I admire and respect what he has achieved and public good he has done, but I would never idolize him. I see idolizing any person too close to creating your own personal god, something that it does not make sense for an atheist to do.

  85. 85
    Rob Grigjanis

    cartomancer @83:

    Not liking David Attenborough is widely considered definitive proof of sociopathy and/or vampirism where I come from.

    He’s not bad, for a Southerner.

  86. 86
    mudpuddles

    witlesschum (#75) makes a very good point (…there will be no Carl Sagan today because he and his huge public profile was a product of the media environment of his time….) which I agree is probably very correct in the US; but this is not necessarily true for the rest of the world. Here in Europe, with a smaller and less fragmented media pool with lots of inter-regional product sharing, a popular science personality could still have wide multi-national appeal. The bigger challenge is rapidly changing youth culture, where sitting in front of TV for an hour to be educated is of less interest than it was even 10 years ago, and TV studios have tended to respond with shorter and less cerebral kids’ programmes.

    Nevertheless, in Ireland and in much of Europe, many of us who work in STEM academia or related policy areas are constantly hearing about how we need a new generation of great science communicators; and that we need smart, eloquent people who can inspire today’s young people with a sense of wonder and instil a desire for knowledge and exploration – like Carl Sagan, Jacques Cousteau, David Attenborough, Stephen J Gould, Richard Feynman, Desmond Morris, Johnny Ball, Bill Nye and so many others have done (yes, all white men, with one or two daft notions like Ball’s recent climate change denialism, but hugely influential on young people over the past 4 decades). We hear this from government departments, the European Commission, NGOs, and research institutes. And second level schools throughout Europe still show Sagan’s documentaries and other influential programmes from the 70s, 80, and 90s as a means of inspiring would-be scientists and communicators. Cosmos is on the curriculum at my old school in Dublin. A niece of mine, 18 years old and studying criminology, has The Demon Haunted world on her reading list, as do my own students in ecology.

    To suggest that Sagan isn’t relevant today is to overlook the fact that many people actively working and communicating in STEM today still fall back on Sagan (like others I mentioned) in their own teaching and outreach. It also ignores that many of today’s young people actually do watch and enjoy and learn from Sagan’s work – maybe not so much in Ms. Podlok’s or PZ’s sphere, but certainly in mine and elsewhere on this side of the Atlantic.

    Another perspective – are Led Zeppelin or Nirvana irrelevant today just because “no high school kid gives a f*&^ ” about them? Or do they still have a lasting influence through the many others who have learned from and been inspired by them? Maybe we could do with less talk about Sagan (and I agre 100% with PZ’s comment on idolatry), but to say he is irrelevant isn’t quite true.

  87. 87
    flex

    The thing about Burke is that his first series, Connections had 10 episodes and an over-arching theme of how history develops and where we might be going. There was a depth to the first series which couldn’t be ignored by simply following the forking path through history Burke followed. Burke took serious issues of the time, many of which are still pretty serious today, and showed the successes and failures of previous societies when similar issues arose. The DVD’s were (are?) expensive, but I spent the money for the DVD’s several years ago and I still watch them regularly.

    In many ways Burke anticipated Jared Diamond. Diamond looks at society in much more detail than Burke had time for, but the message in Connections is similar to that of Collapse.

    The subsequent series’ focused solely on the interconnections of neat bits of history without discussing the implications for the future. Now I don’t blame Burke for this. I suspect that most viewers enjoyed the linkages found through history without worrying about the theme of the series. And I don’t think that Burke could have continued to harp on those same issues without being seen as stale immediately.

    I would like to mention one other show which I feel is largely overlooked, but deserves much better recognition, Dr. Johnathon Miller’s The Body In Question. I doubt it will ever be issued on DVD. I suspect that the requirements for release of rights have changed since the 1970′s and the multitude of elderly patients who were on the show are no longer living to sign new ones. So when I wanted to expose my wife to this series I had no compunction about finding a torrent.

    I didn’t watch Civilization or The Ascent of Man until a few years ago, and they felt quite dated. I suspect I would have enjoyed them more had I seen them in the early 1970′s, but many of the ideas and knowledge contained in these series has been superseded and feels outdated. It may be that I’ve significantly older and have studied these topics (not extensively, I’m no expert), but I have more than a layman’s knowledge so I didn’t get the same feeling of awe that I probably would have felt had the knowledge being presented was new. So I can’t fault Kenneth Clarke or Jacob Bronowski, they clearly inspired my own teachers which then passed on the desire to study these topics to me.

  88. 88
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    Sorry… I’m having trouble with that link about Feynman.

    Fucking fuck. That’s yet another one off my list. Goddammit!

    As for Sagan (oh please don’t let him be a misogynistic douchebag… please)… I get where Erin’s coming from. I do admire Sagan, but I also admire so many other scientists and science popularizers. Sagan cannot be the end-all, be-all, and I’d bet he wouldn’t want to be.

  89. 89
    Aaron Ginn

    I was ten when Cosmos first aired. It had a lasting impact on me. Sagan was as much a poet as a scientist. Still, I do agree that it’s time to move on. 33 years is hella long in the scientific world. Much of Sagan’s ideas are viewed as loopy today. No one worries about nuclear winter. Everyone see the Drake Equation for what it is: a guess that tells us nothing useful. The world has moved on. If you’re under thirty and interested in science, Bill Nye probably had a much greater impact on you than Sagan. There is a touch of “Back in my day…” when it comes to St. Carl.

    Having said that, I am looking forward to the Cosmos reboot with NdGT. I know it won’t have the impact of the original series given the access we have to whatever information we want at the click of a mouse, but it should still be a great ride.

  90. 90
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    a_ray, 66: Cool. I stand corrected.
     
    muddpuddles

    Maybe we could do with less talk about Sagan (and I agre 100% with PZ’s comment on idolatry), but to say he is irrelevant isn’t quite true.

    I dig.
     
    From Podolak in the OP:

    I’m not saying I don’t like Sagan – I’m saying Sagan has zero influence on me or what I do.

    Maybe you don’t know this. Sagan likely influenced someone who influences you. Maybe influence thus transmitted is diminished, but nonzero nevertheless.
     
    I think for me the real value of reading the Origin of Species* was not that it helped me understand natural selection any better, but offered a very intimate view of the thought process by which Darwin came to that hypothesis. I find that following Darwin’s line of thinking is the easiest way to teach NS. Also, there are some really beautifully written passages, and possibly the best last paragraph of any book written in English in the 19th century**.
     
    *I admit with some embarassment that I was a graduate student when I first tackled this successfully.
    **This is a statement of objective fact.

  91. 91
    deadguykai

    Bronowski.> Sagan?!?!?!

    Yes! Was Sagan ever mentioned by Monty Python? NO! But Bronowski was! In the Penguin on the TV sketch he got a positive shout out as the man who “knows everything”.

  92. 92
    Inaji

    Chas:

    No, for me as a kid it was all about Cousteau…one of my earliest surviving drawings was a 1st-or-2nd-grade what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up assignment and mine was “underwater scientist”.
    Him and Marlin Perkins (“While Jim extricates himself from the deadly jaws of that crocodile, let’s hear from our friends at Mutual of Omaha…”).

    Oh, I adored Cousteau when I was a sprog, and never missed Marlin Perkins and poor Jim always in danger. :memories:

    I loved Carl Sagan’s stuff, but it was Brownoski who caught my imagination and inflamed it. I still vividly remember the poetry of The Grain in the Stone making me catch my breath.

  93. 93
    Inaji

    Pacal:

    PZ Myers no. 32. So modern students find Sagan and Bronowski incredibly boring. Absolutely pathetic. I wonder if they can read ten pages of any novel without being bored to tears. I do hope that is true of only a small subset of students.

    Oh FFS, why is this so difficult to understand? Things that were first being communicated 30 to 40 years ago have become basic knowledge now, so yes, boring. Things change in 30, 40 years, you know.

  94. 94
    sparks

    Oh my goodness! Those poor, bored millennials! Such a shame too as there isn’t enough ADHD medication in the entire Cosmos to properly medicate them all. I blame vaccination. (After all, Jenny McCarthy smoking a Blue E-cig can’t be wrong, eh?)

    If you’re too damned bored with the past to learn anything from it, you will likely repeat a shitload of mistakes. Have a lot of fun with that.

  95. 95
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Sparks, if you were aiming for sarcasm, you didn’t do a very good job, because I couldn’t tell if you were serious or not.

  96. 96
    sparks

    Not sarcastic, excepting the bullshit about vaccination and Ms. McCarthy and her stupid fucking Blue E-cigs.

  97. 97
    pacal

    Caine, Fleur du mal No. 93

    Pacal:

    PZ Myers no. 32. So modern students find Sagan and Bronowski incredibly boring. Absolutely pathetic. I wonder if they can read ten pages of any novel without being bored to tears. I do hope that is true of only a small subset of students.

    Oh FFS, why is this so difficult to understand? Things that were first being communicated 30 to 40 years ago have become basic knowledge now, so yes, boring. Things change in 30, 40 years, you know.

    Really the stuff that Bronowski and Sagan communicated is now “basic knowledge” and hence boring. Really?! I see zero evidence that modern day students are anymore knowledgeable about science today then 30 years ago. I suspect given what I have been told, that what really bothers some young people is that in these shows the graphics aren’t utterly mind blowing, the pacing isn’t fast enough and the delivery isn’t jippy like a video. Thus I suspect it is a bore because I doesn’t feed into a mindset that requires it to be hit over the head in order to pay attention to anything at all.

    Yes things change, but I suspect that War and Peace isn’t boring even though it tells us what we already know about human beings.

  98. 98
    jefrir

    If you’re too damned bored with the past to learn anything from it, you will likely repeat a shitload of mistakes.

    Learning from the past is not the same as relying on the media of the past.
    I remember watching videos at school that seemed incredibly out of date – the ones for sex ed stand out, and particularly one about HIV, but there were similarly dated ones in other subjects. They were programmes that were probably quite good at the time they were made, but had not aged well. They came across as cheesy and outdated, and as not really having much to do with our lives. The information was out of date, too – the HIV video was debunking myths we’d never heard of before watching it, and our general reaction was “Wait, people used to believe that? Was everyone in the 80s stupid or something?” (a conclusion at least somewhat supported by the clothing the presenters were wearing).
    And these weren’t even all that old – we were watching them in around 2000, and they’d probably been made 10-15 years before that. It’s been 33 years since Cosmos appeared. I’m not surprised it doesn’t really appeal to a lot of students today, any more than those of you who grew up watching Cosmos would have appreciated being shown the public information films of the 50s.

  99. 99
    Inaji

    Pacal:

    Thus I suspect it is a bore because I doesn’t feed into a mindset that requires it to be hit over the head in order to pay attention to anything at all.

    I suspect people of a certain age have a tendency to forget their utter boredom when what they considered to be very old material was placed in front of them.

    Y’know, I remember watching Cosmos when it first aired, and I loved it, because I was learning about things I didn’t know about. A few years ago, we decided to watch it again*, and guess what? A whole lot of it was tedious in presentation, flat, and yes, boring. There’s no need to dismiss earlier efforts, but it’s important to move with the times, eh? A fair amount of people are seriously defensive in this thread, and it’s worth it to ask yourself just why you’re so defensive.
     
    *By the way, on every disk, there was a postscript by Sagan, trying to update the material from the original. He himself was well aware of how outdated Cosmos was becoming.

  100. 100
    dannicoy

    Both Carl Sagan and Jacob Bronowski… are recent discoveries for me. I have seen both Cosmos and Ascent of man in the last 3 years for the first time. I think that you can add Life on Earth from David Attenborough and have a pretty descent trilogy.

    I found Cosmos a little jarring at first but have to admit that it has aged quite well for something that is nearly as old as I am. The strong points were that the explanations of basic concepts were really good and I found it covered quite a few gaps in my knowledge, I also like the way it weaved many different elements to make a single story in each episode. The other two good things I can say about it is that I have to deal with a whole bunch of new agey type people who come from a culture where the accepted wisdom is that science is a tool of the corporations and there not to be trusted. Cosmos is a great gateway drug for these types of people. The other is a bit more personal, although I am interested in science and somewhat rational, I am also an artist, musician and into stories and fantasy. While I intellectually agree with sceptic types I find them really emotionally unrewarding. I found Carl Sagan’s approach to it all helped me resolve some of that inner conflict.

    Ascent of Man I feel aged less well and was generally a much harder watch. Jacob Bronowski seems a bit like a drunken uncle in the way he talks. I had to focus a lot more to get information. Having said that a lot of it was genuinely interesting and there are some really powerful moments. The episode on 20th century physics was particularly good. It looked to me like Cosmos had the advantage of going second.

    I like both series in that they are quite dense compared to most modern documentaries and I happen to like this. It’s much better than a lot of modern documentaries where they pack ten minutes of content into an hour. I tried watching “Universe” series around the same time as I watched Cosmos and I found it almost unwatchable in comparison. The segments with Neil Degrasse Tyson were the only bits where I didn’t feel like butting my head against a wall.

    Anyways I am looking forwards to the new Cosmos.

  101. 101
    The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical

    pacal @ 97

    Yes things change, but I suspect that War and Peace isn’t boring even though it tells us what we already know about human beings.

    As the proud owner of an English degree…yes, a whole lot of books in the canon are fucking boring*. War and Peace, hilariously enough, is notorious for being considered incredibly boring.

    Literary styles change, language shifts so that old translations (or, hell, stuff originally written in your native language) might feel archaic, and a lot of the time the books weren’t all that scintillating to start with, but the right critics raised them up to prominence.

    And so it goes with any other communication. Styles change, knowledge changes, the forms of media used for the communication change, and the zeitgeist that got a specific emotional reaction from a previous generation might not be effective or even exist any longer.

    My little brother is in his early twenties and loathes the first Star Wars trilogy and sees them as just as shallow and stupid as the prequels. Just because someone from a previous generation shit their pants over something doesn’t, in fact, make it something everyone else has to worship.

    *Boring is itself a subjective measure. You cannot disprove that something is boring. If a reader finds a book boring, it is boring to them. Even if you think it’s the greatest book ever. I consider myself very lucky to have had professors who didn’t push us to worship the canon or to disregard our own tastes as invalid if they disagreed with literary critics.

  102. 102
    sparks

    @ jefrir #98:
    Way to miss my point, but thanks for playing!

    Hey…if something is just too outdated for you, by all means, please ignore it. Don’t bother with distinctions regarding message, messenger, or media.

    Engaging in the material is up to you. Learning something from the material is up to you. Improving yourself is up to you.

    I wish you success.

  103. 103
    Inaji

    MM:

    My little brother is in his early twenties and loathes the first Star Wars trilogy and sees them as just as shallow and stupid as the prequels.

    Heh. We went to see the first Star Wars flick at the theater. I thought it was enjoyable enough, but shallow and on the decidedly silly side. It was a surprise to me at how it took off, with so many people taking it ever so seriously.

  104. 104
    The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical

    Caine, our older sister (38yo) was in the right age range to become obsessed with the original trilogy. She’s always so distressed when little bro refers to Phantom Menace as “the first Star Wars movie”. It cracks me up every time.

  105. 105
    mnb0

    If I have to mention one name it will be Bertrand Russell, Anton Constandse and Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis.
    If you force me name a scientist I’d go with Archimedes.

  106. 106
    viggen111

    I agree with a lot of what PZ said, but there is one additional point in that argument that I flat out can’t stand:

    WHY as science communicators do we keep going around and around among ourselves about how Sagan – who is so far outside my life experience… We keep talking about who will (or won’t) be the next Carl Sagan but I promise you, no high school kid gives a f*&^ about Carl Sagan let alone whether or not science communicators think he was great.

    Einstein is outside of your life experience. Darwin is outside of your life experience. Newton is outside of your life experience. Pythagoras and Aristotle are outside of your life experience. This does not mean that they aren’t in some way still relevant. You don’t have to put them on a pedestal to know that they had contributions to our world that are relevant even now. Whether he was a womanizer or not, Feynman had some incredible things to say and the way he articulated them is something to learn from! Whether you idolize him or not, does Carl Sagan’s contribution to his field cease to be relevant simply because he’s no longer current and his contribution is not a podcast? Just because he “rocked the turtleneck and blazer” and doesn’t speak in modern Bieber-bonics that the insultingly entitled and pathologically narcissistic, four-texts-a-minute, social-media-addicted, teeny bopper crowd will understand doesn’t mean there are no lessons to be learned from what he did well. If the only relevant kind of science communicator is the one who is exactly current, I weep for the field; a big part of how endeavors are improved is by studying what came before. If anything, the group that is being “targeted” should be jarred in such a way as to knock them clean out of their ear-bud and smart-phone insulated compartments for a moment in order to take note that they can’t AdBlock the things they don’t immediately enjoy in the world around them and expect that to always work. Some things that happened before yesterday to people that aren’t on the friend list are actually important.

  107. 107
    jefrir

    Sparks, as far as I can tell your point is “Young people are rubbish because they don’t like the same things I do.” If that’s not the message you’re going for, perhaps you could try expressing yourself more clearly.
    And just for the record, I really like Sagan’s books; I’ve not seen Cosmos, being both too young and British. I just don’t get the idea that it is terrible that students today don’t like the same things as students a generation ago, and that if they don’t it must mean there’s something wrong with the students. Pacal definitely seems to be going for this argument; you might be, but honestly I’m having a hard time telling what it is you’re trying to say.

  108. 108
    anbheal

    When discussing pioneers, it’s useful to specify television or electronic pioneers. Lucretius and Democritus are still eminently readable, a bit of Newton, a bit of Lavoisier, much of Darwin.

    Science communication comes in all shapes and sizes. For me, it was Will Robinson & The Robot, Mr. Peabody & Mr. Whoopee, and of course Mister Spock & Scottie — science was definitely cool.

  109. 109
    Rob Grigjanis

    Dave Thomas of SCTV did a pretty good Sagan.

  110. 110
    ChasCPeterson

    If I have to mention one name it will be Bertrand Russell, Anton Constandse and Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis.

    uh…

  111. 111
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    I won’t go so far as to say everyone should watch Cosmos or for that matter The Ascent of Man. However, I think if you make that investment of time, it might provide some insight into how we got where we are today.

    I won’t say everyone should read the Old Testament, but it will change the way you read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural–and everyone should read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.

    And I will flat out say that everyone should listen to Mozart’s Requiem.

  112. 112
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    We have Phil Plait on TV and for science writers my favorite is Carl Zimmer.

    You can still get Phillip Morrison’s companion book, “The Ring of Truth: An inquiry into how we know what we know.” Amazon’s review average for it is 5.0. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. If PZ has an Amazon button, use it to order and give PZ a few pennies as well. It looks as if there are a couple of videotaped panel discussions (two hours long!) on other topics (nuclear risks, the Bush administration’s misuse of science) and there may be others.

  113. 113
    rrhain

    I’m a big fan of Sagan, but I have to call bullshit on the original post and Myers’ response.

    I don’t know anybody who values Sagan’s contribution, even to the point of gushing, who thinks he is the end-all, be-all of science popularization. Even among those who go on about “the next Sagan,” none of them think he was the only one anybody should read.

    Instead, we understand the true accomplishment he made. _Cosmos,_ when it came out, captured the entire country. I was in junior high school at the time and it was required viewing for one of my classes. There were educational materials created by PBS that were sent to the schools. It truly was a national phenomenon.

    Now, that hardly means nobody else managed to do this. Clearly, we all know about David Attenborough. I know lots of people who are very upset that when _Planet Earth_ was brought over to the US from the UK, Attenborough’s narration was replaced for Sigourney Weaver. But the fact that there are others does not diminish Sagan’s accomplishment.

    And from an atheist’s perspective, Sagan is important, too. He was unabashed in his refusal to pretend that magical forces were at work. His philosophical writings on ethics, morality, and more are quite valuable. There’s a reason his talks keep getting set to music and posted to YouTube.

    That doesn’t mean Gould’s writings on such or anybody else’s are any less valuable. Shakespeare’s been dead for 400 years, but that doesn’t mean his work is worthless or that you shouldn’t read anybody else.

    I see a great amount of exclusionary rationalization here, as if you can only have one person speak for science/atheism. I see a great amount of the fallacy of the new, as if just because something was written yesterday, it is somehow unworthy or less than.

    So yeah, trying to hang Sagan around, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s neck as if Tyson’s own work cannot stand on its own is inappropriate (that said, can you show me anybody who seriously does this?) But to denigrate Sagan as “old hat” completely misses the point. As scientists, we should know instinctively that all that we are today is built upon the lessons taught from the generations before us. We wouldn’t be where we are without them. And given the minority status that science and atheism have in this world, we need more examples, not less. Put Tyson forward and those who seek to deny reality have no problem saying, “But that’s just one guy.”

    It isn’t one guy. It isn’t a recent phenomenon. The foundations of science and of atheism run deep and Sagan is part of it.

  114. 114
    Eric O

    I enjoyed “Demon Haunted World” and reruns of Cosmos, but I have to agree that Sagan didn’t really resonate with me the same way that other science communicators have.

    I gained a lot of respect for science in general thanks to the work of Richard Dawkins (for that reason, it really, really pains me to see him acting like a douchebag, as of late). Jared Diamond helped me fall in love with archaeology despite the fact that he’s not an archaeologist and that a lot of archaeologists have a bone to pick with him. And while I don’t have any immediate plans to be an academic archaeologist (I have a non-academic archaeological job as a consultant), I’m particularly enamored with physical anthropology as a branch of archaeology, so I tend to admire people like the Leakeys, Nina Jablonski, Jane Buikstra, Tim White, and Svante Pääbo.

  115. 115
    Acolyte of Sagan

    32.
    PZ Myers
    14 November 2013 at 9:52 am

    Oh and hey, #15, Acolyte of Sagan: your name gives you away.

    That obvious, huh?

    Touchy, huh?

    No, not really, I just think it’s a ridiculous argument. Take this part of the excerpt for example:

    I think anyone can learn to appreciate science at any age in life, but we stand the best chance at convincing people that science is something they can understand (and even do themselves) early in life when their beliefs are not so entrenched.

    Does that mean than only the young can communicate the enthusiasm as well as the knowledge?
    There is an attitude among many here in the West that sees the elderly as having nil-value, that they have nothing to offer the younger generations, that they are hopelessly out of date, and as a result they are pushed into a corner and largely ignored; mere relics of a bygone age. By doing so, we cut ourselves off from a wealth of valuable knowledge, experience, and inspiration.
    The people who think the past is irrelevant will learn nothing from it, and these people, if they want to become effective communicators themselves, had better be pretty damn sure that they’re good enough to fill some pretty big shoes, or else they’re doomed to become tomorrows generation of jaded teachers, wondering why they failed to inspire the next generation of scientists.
    I’m not saying that the currrent new generation are the first to think this way; my generation did the same, as did the generation before mine, and so-on, but being in the middle of the current new and old generations (although very definitely closer to the latter) I can see both ways. I can appreciate that the young need their own role models from their own generation, and I’d be dishonest if I said that some of the current crop didn’t have the potential to shine as brightly as the traditional greats, but I think it’s just as important to see where we’ve come from as well as where we’re going.

    I think you’re reading too much into it: no one is arguing that Sagan is bad or must be forgotten,

    You might not be, but the excerpt you quote certainly reads that way:-

    We keep talking about who will (or won’t) be the next Carl Sagan but I promise you, no high school kid gives a f*&^ about Carl Sagan let alone whether or not science communicators think he was great. We spend so much time and energy talking about a guy that isn’t relevant anymore. The topics of space, the natural world, and how to communicate wonder are totally relevant to the public and to the science writing community. But, this one guy? Nope.

    Is the author falling into the trap of thinking that because science knows more than it did when Sagan died, that she not only knows more than Sagan did, but can better communicate it too?

    Anyhow, back to your comment, PZ;

    Mozart is great, too, but are you really going to be the guy who goes up to Lady Gaga or Beyonce or Kanye West and tell them to be “more like Mozart”? Do you berate Sam Cooke and The Grateful Dead and Miles Davis for not sounding a thing like Vivaldi?

    Absolutely not. Well….with one exception: I would berate Phil Collins for sounding like Phil Collins. But musicians don’t seem to mind taking inspiration from the past. Take rap or dance music or R&B, for example, they’re possibly the polar opposite of classical yet one hears a surprising amount of sampled and re-mixed classical pieces wafting gently on the air from nightclubs and those cars that are more speakers-on-wheels than modes of transport: Eminem plays with an orchestra, for Carl’s sake.
    In the same vein, I wouldn’t criticise a boxer for not fighting like Ali or Louis or Liston, but I think he’d be missing a trick if he didn’t think there was something to be learned by watching them.

    Respect and enjoy what they did. Don’t tell everyone to repeat what the old masters did — that kills creativity and growth.

    I wouldn’t want them to repeat the past, just learn from it.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that some people leave a legacy that elevates them above a mere footnote in the history of their subject, and whilst I have no desire to try and foist my own role-models onto the next generation, it would be a mistake to dismiss them as irrelevant if they have something to offer.

    Thinking about it, although they are poles apart in the level of callousness, there are some comparisons to be made between Podolak’s dismissal of Sagan;

    …Sagan – who is so far outside my life experience,……no high school kid gives a f*&^ about Carl Sagan let alone whether or not science communicators think he was great. We spend so much time and energy talking about a guy that isn’t relevant anymore.

    and this, from your Dick Cheney article;

    …it’s my new heart, not someone else’s old heart. And I always thank the donor, generically thank donors for the gift that I’ve been given, but I don’t spend time wondering who had it, what they’d done, what kind of person.

    “It’s our science now, we’ll give a generic nod to those who came before, but we don’t care who they were; we don’t care that the bulk of what we now know came from their discoveries, their teaching. They’re dead. They’re not important anymore”.

    So, no. Not touchy, PZ, just irritated by the pomposity of youth. And by the realisation that we were all just the same.

  116. 116
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    just irritated by the pomposity of youth.

    And your screed wasn’t pompous?

  117. 117
    Acolyte of Sagan

    Nerd of Redhead, &c, did you not read the eleven words following those seven?
    Oh, and no, I didn’t.

  118. 118
    Acolyte of Sagan

    Oops, I meant, no, it wasn’t.

  119. 119
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    My feeling is that ideas are important, and people you know personally are important… but making a person important because you hear important ideas from them? That’s dangerous ground, because everyone is infallible and getting it into your head that a person’s ideas are important because those ideas came from that person? That’s a road to ruin, a path to accepting bad ideas along with good, and defending them because you put that person on a pedestal.

  120. 120
    The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge

    Correador UK @ 16:

    …Lisa Jardine and Jim Al-Khalili spring to mind as people I’ll watch or listen to on pretty much any topic,…

    I assume you’re aware that Lisa Jardine is Jacob Bronowski’s daughter, right?

  121. 121
    fullyladenswallow

    I “third and fourth” James Burke as opposed to Sagan’s Cosmos. I enjoyed and learned a fair amount from both, (as they aired at the same time in our viewing area), but Connections seemed to have the edge somehow.

    But before Bronowski, Sagan, Burke and the others there was- Donald Herbert Kemske (Don Herbert), better known as “Mr. Wizard”! Definitely dating myself here. His show first aired in 1951, a bit before I was born. It turned out to be one of my favorite weekend programs, even among the typical kiddie fair of the time. Looking back now, I can also appreciate the fact that his program hosted girl as well as boy assistants which sent a positive message that science was for everyone.

  122. 122
    The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical

    Improbable Joe @ 119

    My feeling is that ideas are important, and people you know personally are important… but making a person important because you hear important ideas from them? That’s dangerous ground

    QFT

    This is a wonderfully succinct way of putting it.

  123. 123
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    I’m a bit ambivalent here. I’m not going to bother to read the rest of the post (if there is more), because what bis quoted here is piss poor enough. I think there is an important idea in there, but it’s all wrapped up in “if I never heard of you, how can you be fucking relevant to me?” I mean, I think I’ve heard of this Erin person once before, so, low prior relevance and low interest in whatever it is Erin wants to communicate. Right? It’s always old folks go home or kids get off my lawn with some people, innit?

    I was a huge fan of science, but not so much Sagan, back in the day. But he did grow on me a bit. Not that I was ever in the market for popular science communication – it’s like easy-listening music to me, so I was never part of the target population, and maybe therefore a poor judge of who should be held up as the science communicator example.

    But, I dunno – if people are still talking about Sagan, doesn’t that almost automatically indicate that he’s still relevant? Or are the people who apparently will not shut up about Sagan to Podolak’s satisfaction really the wrong people to be listening to at all in the first place, like “Sagan” is just the one name they happen to know of, remotely, and just throw into discussions of science communication?

    There sure are a hell of a lot of other examples, whether or not the individuals spend a significant fraction of their time on communicating science. Mention them, please. But like it or not, Sagan isn’t the stupid YouTube video meme of the week, mentioned a whole two months out of context by some total intarnet noobz.

    Also, am I to believe that someone who is interested in science communication, and has heard Sagan referenced in that context too many times, has never even looked at any of his work? Good job, if that is the sort of thing one cares about.

    I think there was a good idea in there. Crap communication execution though.

  124. 124
    grandolddeity

    Erin tried to patch it up, a bit, with a couple of blog addendums.

    I’m a little troubled with her attempt to draw a hard line in the sand with her position. It’s (hers) just an opinion, after all. Y’know, sand being how it is.

  125. 125
    geroche

    Did anybody else think the title said ‘hearsay’ when they clicked on it? Took me a second to realize my mistake.

  126. 126
    andrew

    Bronowski was the shit. When I first encountered ‘The Ascent of Man’ on youtube, I watched the entire thing almost in one sitting it was so mesmerizing.

    But if you’re looking for someone these days, why not check out Zefrank?

  127. 127
    chigau (違う)

    As an OldPerson™, I often refer to Urban Dictionary to find what words currently Mean™.
    Saying something is The Shit to mean a good thing seems to be about a decade old.
    How am I supposed to keep up if y’all don’t?

  128. 128
    Acolyte of Sagan

    93.
    Caine, Fleur du mal
    14 November 2013 at 2:15 pm (UTC -6) Link to this comment

    Pacal:

    PZ Myers no. 32. So modern students find Sagan and Bronowski incredibly boring. Absolutely pathetic. I wonder if they can read ten pages of any novel without being bored to tears. I do hope that is true of only a small subset of students.

    Oh FFS, why is this so difficult to understand? Things that were first being communicated 30 to 40 years ago have become basic knowledge now, so yes, boring. Things change in 30, 40 years, you know
    .

    (highlight mine. AoS.

    I agree that they might become boring to those of us who whave been hearing them for 30-40 years, Caine, but every no generation is born knowing these things (like the idea of acquired characteristics, what we have learnt does not become inherent in our children). What was ground-breaking 30-40 years ago might indeed be boring and basic now, but it’s still true that the basics need to be learned before anything more complex can be understood.
    Without wishing to re-open an old argument, do you remember the kerfuffle we had over the destroyed Monet? For how many years had people been looking at that picture without getting bored of it? Classics don’t date; they continue to inspire.

  129. 129
    Acolyte of Sagan

    Please ignore the ‘every’ in my first sentence. I must learn to preview more often!

  130. 130
    carlie

    There’s a difference between understanding and honoring the groundbreakers, and spending so much time reminiscing about the groundbreakers that you don’t pay attention to the smart, charismatic, energetic new people in front of you. That’s the point of PZ’s post: it’s not to ignore the contributions and importance of what has happened, but to not focus on it to the detriment of moving the field forward.

  131. 131
    Correador UK

    I assume you’re aware that Lisa Jardine is Jacob Bronowski’s daughter, right?

    No, I had no idea. She came to mind because of her excellent recent series of BBC radio programmes called “The Seven Ages of Science”. Not science communication as such, more an examination of the social history of science.

  132. 132
    bethy

    I call bullshit. Young person here, Sagan was way before my time but he utterly inspires me as a scientist, atheist, author and all round awesome guy. So much in fact that I had a Sagan quote as one of the readings in my wedding ceremony this year. .. something to the effect of the vastness of the universe being bearable only through love. You don’t like him? Fine. He doesn’t need to be worshipped but to call him irrelevant is ignorant. He still inspires people like me.

  133. 133
    consciousness razor

    Carlie:

    There’s a difference between understanding and honoring the groundbreakers, and spending so much time reminiscing about the groundbreakers that you don’t pay attention to the smart, charismatic, energetic new people in front of you. That’s the point of PZ’s post: it’s not to ignore the contributions and importance of what has happened, but to not focus on it to the detriment of moving the field forward.

    I don’t get what kind of focus is supposed to be detrimental. Who is doing this, and what are they doing?

    You’re right that there’s a difference between reminiscing sentimentally about history and learning from it. I take it that when people like PZ make noises about how it’s a matter of personal taste, they must not be talking about what is worth learning. And that makes me wonder what discussion they think they’re having. For example, it may be that someone does or doesn’t like Carl Sagan’s haircut, and if there’s no reasoning whatever to support that kind of a judgment, we can pretty safely call it a matter of personal taste. But I’m fairly sure that sort of thing was never what anyone considered something about the past (this particular piece of it, involving Sagan) which was worth understanding, at least not in the context of science communication. It is not science, science history, philosophy of science, math, engineering, technology, or anything remotely approaching those subjects. And I don’t think anyone is honestly confused about that, so if that isn’t the problem, what exactly is it supposed to be?

    If there’s something which is worth learning about so that it’s actually relevant, I don’t see how that could prevent people from learning about the present day (what science communicators are doing now, how they’re doing it well or badly, etc.). Understanding the past doesn’t undermine that in any way, as I’m sure basically everyone here would agree. So what’s the deal? Have some people just felt belligerent lately?

  134. 134
    markd555

    Improbable Joe @ 119

    “My feeling is that ideas are important, and people you know personally are important… but making a person important because you hear important ideas from them? That’s dangerous ground”


    While that sounds sufficiently ominous, it misses the point.

    HOW you hear an idea from a person can make them important.
    Communication is a valuable skill, and is useful in improving science knowledge in the general public. Can charisma and communication skill be abused? Sure. Does not make it evil FFS.

    When people say “Who will be the next Sagan?” It’s not hero worship. It’s moving forward. We want the NEXT science communicator and popularizer of that calibur. Somebody come up with a way & style to do it. Nobody has so far when looking at general public popularity vs what Sagan achieved.

    Sick of hearing about Sagan? Do more than him then, don’t cry about it. Nobody is stopping anyone from creating a piece of media that captures the general public’s imagination and sparks an interest in science and rationalism.

    We want somebody to get out there, and share science with the public in a clear, charming, accurate way that moves people that are NOT into science, and makes them honestly and deeply think about how all forms of mysticism are bunkus.

    Somebody to make people that would not normally bother with science or self analysis to think for a change and question.

  135. 135
    drivenb4u

    I’m surprised no one’s mentioned The Cosmic Consciousness – my personal favorite Sagan book.

  136. 136
    johnbyfleet

    I liked Connections but it was a bit scattergun and breathless, probably a reflection of Burke. Rather too much gallivanting around the world with stuff like “why was the development of European fortifications (walking over a castle in Italy) in part down to the discovery of sulphur by the ancient Chinese (walking over the Great Wall of China)”. Yeah, that would be gunpowder then. Cue old cannons banging off.

    However, Bronowski taught me something that has guided me for the last three or four decades. It was probably the last scene in the last episode of AoM.

    Bronowski was standing in the mud at Auschwitz with mud oozing through his fingers. I paraphrase but he said something like “this mud contains the ashes of some of my family, amongst numerous others. They were murdered by the Nazis. They were not murdered because all the Nazis were homicidal sadists, murderes, psychopaths or the like. They were murdered because the Nazis were utterly convinced that they were right and their belief in their rightness enabled them to kill six million people”.

    Compulsory viewing.

    Never trusted anyone who claims to be “right” ever since.

  137. 137
    Paul Zimmerle

    I have one substantial objection to this:
    “To me, Sagan is a stereotypical old white guy scientist who made some show that a lot of people really liked more than 30 years ago.”

    Personally, despite being only 25 as of this post, I find Carl Sagan to have been a very important figure in the history of skepticism. He was one of the few mainsteam, working scientists to act as a science popularizer. Deserving of hero worship? Perhaps not. But that’s something to be celebrated, as we make room for more people like him.

  138. 138
    Inaji

    Paul Zimmerle:

    But that’s something to be celebrated, as we make room for more people like him.

    And therein lies much of the problem, I think. Many people aren’t making room for more people as popular science communicators and educators. A great many people simply seem to waiting for the second coming of Sagan – they want someone just like him, and that’s preventing that whole ‘make room’ business.

  139. 139
    vaiyt

    We need a Sagan every generation.

  140. 140
    vaiyt

    Clarifying: I mean that in the most generic sense, nothing to do with having the same style and outlook as Sagan.

  141. 141
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    @markd555

    When people say “Who will be the next Sagan?” It’s not hero worship. It’s moving forward. We want the NEXT science communicator and popularizer of that calibur.

    No, it’s really not. You think NdGT isn’t a Sagan in his ability to communicate and popularize science?

    I have no doubt that Sagan could get an invite to the Daily Show, were he still around. But NdGT friggin nails it – almost every single time. He calls out Stewart on the show when he watches from the green room and sees the earth spinning backwards in the lead-in graphics. He nails O’Reilly – actually his worst performance because the audience is having a hoot and messing up his timing. The man is awesome.

    And though Sagan taught at a university and was amazingly attentive to any student there to learn, NdGT works at a **planetarium** and gets current research into the minds of 8 year olds.

    I stand by what I said about William Thomson being a barnburner. And I enjoyed the heck out of Sagan’s lecture I attended. But if you aren’t living in the past, asking “who’s the next popularizer and communicator of science with the talent of Sagan?” is a sure-fire bet to make people think you haven’t seen NdGT even once.

    And, look, I know it may be rude to judge people like this when they’re professionals doing professional work, but I’ll say it anyway:

    The man is *hot* in the same way that Sagan…wasn’t. I shook the guy’s hand. He was warm and smart and friendly. But NdGT is in another class entirely on the attractiveness scale. NdGT’s science is geek hot. His humor is geek hot. His skepticism is geek hot. His atheism, I’ll grant you, isn’t quite as hot. But his voice is much more attractive than Sagan’s. And NdGT’s endless love for sharing new things with **anyone** even if those things aren’t new to him? Geek-nova hot.

    Even the man’s TIES are geek hot.

    You **have to** be living in the past or not have English in your repertoire (see what I did there?) to be sitting on your thumbs waiting for a great science communicator to walk by when NdGT spikes the Daily Show’s web rating **every time he appears**. This is a general-audience comedy show – and they get more people watching their streams when they bring in the planetarium-manager from a couple miles up the street then they do on an average night when their guests are literally movie stars and famous politicians.

    I don’t slight Sagan at all when I say, “Who’s the next Sagan” is an insulting question. And, heck, I haven’t even gotten into the white men: Pollen and Attenborough and Hawking. They’re no slouches. You want women, Bettany Hughes is pretty awesome.

    Reminisce about Sagan all you like. It’s not inherently productive, but neither is it inherently bad.

    But when you imply that we’ve got no one of Sagan’s level *now* with you questions about the “next Sagan”, you’re sitting on the hard surface of a boat thinking, “How come I can’t find the ocean?”

    It’s your choice to sit on the boat instead of dive in, but don’t get upset when others think it’s ridiculous to pretend the water isn’t all around you.

  142. 142
    anchor

    Adrian Malone brought people BOTH Bronowski and Sagan. He produced and directed The Ascent of Man and Cosmos, and we can blame him for having the temerity to help popularize science, by engaging viewers’ innate yet otherwise neglected fascination of the world by showcasing the personal views of two provocative scientists after the fashion of Kenneth Clarke’s “Civilization” series. He liked to show people how individual scientists think and get excited by nature and how they apply science in understanding it. Its no accident those programs prominently employ the word “Personal” after their main titles (“A Personal View” and “A Personal Voyage”).

    Those series introduced huge numbers of people to science and the wonders of learning about the world they live in. The programs inspired many to think that way, and even to pursue careers in science.

    What a despicable and rotten thing to do. How dare he inflict on the virgin purity of science the ignominy of promoting science through the incidentally personal and human perspectives of these spokesmen. What a tawdry and hideous thing it is to exploit science that way. What a rotten shame these programs were so well produced and hugely successful, that these guys were elevated to pop-mega-stardom – and profited by it – a consequence that the righteous just can’t refrain from complaining about it.

    Had enough of Sagan? Oh yeah, let’s talk about it even more about how its coming out of our ears already, and while we’re at pointing out for the billionth time how we oughtn’t to try to find the next Sagan, lets be sure to RATE our personal alternative favorite scientific spokespeople (oh, and, by the fucking way, where ARE the woman, anyway???) because we all know how dangerous it is to put anybody on a pedestal, because people should learn at an early age they ought never ever have any role models, especially when they are youngsters who happen to be psychologically geared to be impressionable.

    It isn’t as if there’s anything in the slightest to whine about in the quality of cable television today, over a third of a century after those personal views first infested the airwaves, like that marvelous show I noticed last night about “Alien Mummies” on the FUCKING SCIENCE CHANNEL, right?

    I guess people like programs like it because they pound out the same reassuringly familiar beat and they can dance to it. Its obvious Malone just didn’t know how to get into the groove.

    /rant

  143. 143
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    @vaiyt:

    At bare minimum, every generation we need a Sagan for each language with at least 1 million speakers.

    We need a TON of Sagans.

    Fortunately, we have quite a few in English & French. My Yiddish & Hebrew are nearly non-existent, so I don’t know from personal experience there, but Ada Yonath is supposed to be wonderful in person – I just don’t know what sort of media presence she might have in Israel.

    So my question, really, is to all the speakers of so many languages other than English who read and write here:

    Who’s rockin’ it in Hindustani? or Portuguese? Or Hmong? Or Australian?* Or Swahili?

    Who is out there right the heck now? Cuz I bet it’s a lot more than 1 in a generation, even if it will never in my lifetime be too many.

    *Sorry, Aussies, but I just listened to a guest lecture on international trends in recognition & enforcement of foreign judgements and I don’t know what the heck I heard.

  144. 144
    Inaji

    Vaiyt:

    We need a Sagan every generation.

    We already have a Sagan. Not only a Sagan, but many! They’re out there, but a lot of people still prefer to focus on and talk about Sagan.

  145. 145
    Carlitos@LX

    Well, I’ve never actually watched Cosmos.

    On the other hand, I didn’t miss anything by David Attenborough or Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

    Oh, and the animated series “Il était une fois… la Vie / l’Espace / l’Homme”.

    For those who don’t know what those series are, here you go:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsJ4rQz0Sq0&list=PL00555CD7351904CF
    (yeah, I could have looked up the english version, but I’m lazy)

    And yes, that is a kid’s show.

  146. 146
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Chris:

    I will say again that there is more to evolution and evolutionary theory than having a common ancestor.

    Then Chris, it is up to you to provide the peer reviewed scientific evidence to back up that claim. Or, if you have honesty and integrity, shut the fuck up about it if you cannot or are unwilling to publish your alleged evidence in the peer reviewed scientific literature. All you have is unevidenced and fuckwitted OPINION which is dismissed.

  147. 147
    carlie

    I would like to stand up and applaud Crip Dyke at 141 and 143. Because YES.

  148. 148
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Caine said: “Things that were first being communicated 30 to 40 years ago have become basic knowledge now, so yes, boring. Things change in 30, 40 years, you know”

    Some do and some don’t. For instance, one of my pet peeves has always been a scientist doing a computer model and writing down the results as “the answer”. I am sure my colleagues have gotten tired of hearing me say again and again: “You don’t run models for answers but for insight.” It seems such an obvious thing to me (and seemingly only to me) that I wondered if a)I were missing something or b)this might be an outgrowth of our increasing dependence on computers.

    So, then I came across a quote by Richard Hamming (inventor of the first data error correction code and all around smart guy): “The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers.” Not only does it provide a degree of validation for my position–it shows Hamming was concerned about the same things I was nearly 50 years ago.

    Sagan is worth watching and listening to for the future Sagans of the world not because of his eloquence or his depth of understanding. Rather, the thing Sagan did that no one has done better before or since is make science popularization pay. Cosmos at the time was huge–and this was accomplished by an unrepentant even proud atheist clear back in the late ’70s! The question to consider is what did he do right that no one else has been able to pull off.

  149. 149
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Gack, apologies for the non-sequitur.

    My #146 should have been posted in the Thunderdome. *walks off muttering “hail ramans”*

  150. 150
    Inaji

    A_Ray:

    Rather, the thing Sagan did that no one has done better before or since is make science popularization pay. Cosmos at the time was huge–and this was accomplished by an unrepentant even proud atheist clear back in the late ’70s! The question to consider is what did he do right that no one else has been able to pull off.

    Carl Sagan was always very careful to not overly offend the sensibilities of religious people. He was much more accommodationist than a lot of people think. As for science popularization, the amount of scientists who are perfectly capable of doing that very thing right now are out there. What a lot of people do not take into account was the culture in place at Sagan’s time. There was the threat of nuclear war hanging overhead, and a great deal of hope still directed toward the space program. Shit has changed, and not for the better. You simply cannot remove Sagan out of the culture he was operating in.

    Also, Sagan was far from alone in popularizing science and making it pay. What about Attenborough, ffs? He grabbed the attention of a great deal of the planet, and kept it, for years. What about Cousteau? Same thing. They both had me riveted, and kept me that way. Everyone acts as if Sagan was a completely lone wolf in popularizing science, and that’s just not so – there’s one example after another in this thread of people, not Sagan, who had a tremendous influence in that regard.

  151. 151
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Caine, I certainly do not pretend Sagan was the only popularizer of science out there, nor was he anywhere close to the best. The question that interests me is how he made it mainstream. Asimov was much more of a polymath. Bronowski stayed with me far longer. Stephen Jay Gould was far more profound in his insights. Costeau, Paul Davies and on and on all arguably did it better in some way.

    None of them wound up having the cultural influence Carl did. Somehow, Sagan managed to project his not insubstantial ego out of the boob tube into American’s living rooms and make them welcome a geeky, atheistic Poindexter as part of the family. He showed publishers who wouldn’t know science if it bit their collective peckers off that they could make money off of popularized science. That is a helluva legacy.

  152. 152
    Inaji

    A_Ray:

    That is a helluva legacy.

    Sure it is. However, people waiting for the second coming of Sagan are keeping a perpetual cloud over those who would be the next great populizers, communicators, and educators. This is the problem. People keep wanting Sagan, in both definable and indefinable ways. Not gonna happen, so people should be focusing on the people out there, who are trying like hell to bring science to the masses, in the midst of an ongoing lousy economy, the ongoing removal of personal rights, the massive increase in poverty, no healthcare, and one scary ass government (in the U.S.).

  153. 153
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    I agree with Crip Dyke. Some of the ignoring of Neil deGrasse Tyson while plaintively looking for the “next Sagan” grates on me. I wonder how much of it is the image: an average-sized nerdy-looking white guy versus a big black guy who looks like the ex-wrestler he is. Tyson, as Crip Dyke says, appears on Stewart and Colbert regularly, and there’s a huge ratings spike when he does. Tyson has amazing ties, great charisma, and publicly dissed Titanic in a hilarious fashion. Tyson appeared in a friggin’ Superman comic.

    Where is the next Carl Sagan? His office is at 81 Central Park West in Manhattan.

    But, yes – we don’t need one “next Carl Sagan.” We need dozens of them in this country alone – we need some of them to be people of color, we need some of them to be women, we need some of them to be women of color. We need more abroad.

    Here’s another thing that gets me: Sagan was, indeed, extraordinary. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of expecting someone to come along who is Sagan-esque to everyone. It is perfectly fine – and I’d argue better – for there to be 50 niche-Sagans than one “next Sagan.”

  154. 154
    Paul Zimmerle

    I wonder how much of it is the image: an average-sized nerdy-looking white guy versus a big black guy who looks like the ex-wrestler he is.

    Tyson himself is reluctant to enter into the skeptic movement – and given the recent sexism problems, I’m not sure I blame him.

    He is becoming popular, though, in much the same way as his teacher. He’s even getting his own version of Cosmos.

  155. 155
    ChasCPeterson

    one of my pet peeves has always been a scientist doing a computer model and writing down the results as “the answer”.

    oh, my, hell, yes!
    And this attitude is rife, even in applied conservation biology.
    I’ve reviewed (rather harshly, I’m afraid) several papers in which people gather empirical data, fit a model to the data, and then statistically analyze the model parameters instead of the data. Unclear on the concept, in my view.

    this was accomplished by an unrepentant even proud atheist clear back in the late ’70s!

    not to mention a proud and unrepentant (if surreptitious) pothead.

  156. 156
    markd555

    – “No, it’s really not. You think NdGT isn’t a Sagan in his ability to communicate and popularize science? ”

    ——

    Yeah, Niel dGT is a good science communicator…

    What what he does not do is promote rationalism and trash mysticism.

    Sagan’s Cosmos #1 covers the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, and describes in painful detail the flaying and mutilation of Hypatia; after going over all her achievements and potential; pointing out strongly exactly where mysticism leads us. Even religious people watched this aptly, becoming outraged; and Sagan pointed the finger directly at them capping off the episode.

    The rest of the episodes continue to pound away at every form of mysticism as much as possible.

    NdGT – Go there. Do it. And keep it up. This isn’t about astronomy or even just about science.

  157. 157
    Paul Zimmerle

    …Yes, he liked pot. And? I’m not sure what that’s meant to prove.

  158. 158
    Inaji

    Paul @ 157:

    …Yes, he liked pot. And? I’m not sure what that’s meant to prove.

    Chas was showing his appreciation and approval of the potheadedness. As do I.

  159. 159
    rrhain

    @141: You do realize that the equivalent of the Daily Show back when Sagan was the shit was the Tonight Show, yes?

    He was a frequent guest, nailing it every time.

    Yeah, Sagan was a product of his time. So? How does that diminish his work in any way? To claim that reminiscing about Sagan isn’t productive is to denigrate any work in history or philosophy. Part of the problem with communicating the minority position that science and atheism are is the fact that people think all this stuff is new. We need to impress upon people that this stuff is actually very old. Sagan wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last. But to discard him is folly.

    But again, I ask: Who actually does this mindless idolizing that is being put forward? Can you name one person of any significance who is, as someone put it, “waiting for the second coming of Sagan”? Just one name. It sounds very much like a strawman.

  160. 160
    Paul Zimmerle

    Oh, cheers!

    For the naysayers out there – appreciate history. Carl Sagan may have been the voice of an older generation, but his message is no less relevant today. At the same time, don’t devolve into hero worship. Really, these rules are not complicated!

    Though I’m still gaping over that “stereotypical white man” comment.

    For a guy who devoted a good chunk of his life to opposing bigotry, it strikes me as insulting to characterize him so dismissively.

  161. 161
    carlie

    markd555 – have you ever listened to his podcast?

  162. 162
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Frankly, I like Tyson more than I liked Sagan. For one thing he’s funnier. Sagan also had a tendency to let politics interfere with his scientific judgment–for instance hanging onto the Nuclear Winter banner long after it had been torn to shreds.

    And my, but he did have an ego.

    That said, both his tenacity and ego probably played a big role in his success. Tyson seems a lot more modest, and he certainly doesn’t seem to revel in fame as much as Sagan seemed to.

    And yes, maybe it was a different time. Certainly, liberal was not yet a profanity in the US, and we did still have a semblance of a space program then. Also, maybe Sagan was as successful as he was in part because to the lack of competition. The Nerd culture has fragmented now. Hell, we even have our own sit com.

  163. 163
    Inaji

    Paul @ 160:

    Though I’m still gaping over that “stereotypical white man” comment.

    For a guy who devoted a good chunk of his life to opposing bigotry, it strikes me as insulting to characterize him so dismissively.

    That has to do with privilege and the problem of exclusivity, rather than inclusivity. If you’re male, you’re up toward the top of the privilege pile. If you’re a white male, bingo! On top of the pile. The effort to shift focus from it always being the ‘stereotypical white man’ is ongoing, and all too often, herculean. See here for just a bit on that topic: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/11/09/its-the-silences-the-neglect-the-moving-on-to-more-important-matters/

  164. 164
    Inaji

    Also, for those who might need it, to quote someone, use:

    <blockquote>Place Text Here</blockquote>, which gives you:

    Place Text Here

  165. 165
    Paul Zimmerle

    Yes, the privilege bit is something that concerns me greatly, but Carl Sagan strikes me as someone who transcends simple barriers. Moreover, he stood against bigotry—he was a very sincere advocate for feminism in a time that was really not very friendly to that (not that it is today, either.)

    I just find it a little insulting to his memory to dismiss him with a label. That strikes me as unethical.

  166. 166
    carlie

    He’s not being “dismissed” with a label, an accurate label is being applied to him. As egalitarian as he was, he was still a member of the dominant privileged group. That means that, as a symbol of what one can achieve in science, he still was status quo. Think about it – if you’re a white man, all of the role models throughout time have been people who looked just like you. You’ve never had to think about that before, but it’s true. You have a certain cultural identification with them just by looking at them. For someone who doesn’t look like that, who do they have who looks like them, who maybe has been through the same kinds of discrimination they have, who has something they share culturally? You don’t think that’s important because you’ve always had it just be that way for you. You’ve never even had to try to identify with someone who didn’t look just like you, so you think that any difficulties in doing so don’t exist.

    It’s like not even noticing that there are problems with the standard height that cabinets are mounted at, because they’ve always been just the right fit for you, when someone shorter has to always struggle to get to the top shelves, always, always, and wonders why the hell no one ever thinks to mount the damned cabinets a foot lower. You don’t even notice, because it’s always made to fit you. It’s not that anyone’s being malicious about the cabinet mounting, it’s not that anyone is doing it on purpose, they just don’t… notice. And so they think it’s ok for everyone that it is that way.

  167. 167
    Paul Zimmerle

    I’m aware of the problem, yes. I’m not sure I buy that he isn’t being dismissed, however—

    To me, Sagan is a stereotypical old white guy scientist who made some show that a lot of people really liked more than 30 years ago.

    Those exact words sound to me like a dismissal. “He’s an old, stereotypical white guy, why should I care what he said?”

    I may be reading it wrong, I admit, but it seems very clear to me. I’m certainly not objecting to the need for more diverse speakers and communicators of science—to me, that need is incontrovertible.

  168. 168
    Rob Grigjanis

    If you meet Carl Sagan on the road, kill him.

  169. 169
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Paul,
    In science, we’re all pretty much stereotypical old white guy scientist. It has been and remains a white-male dominated field. So, yes, Sagan is labeled. If that label makes him irrelevant to some audiences, well, what can you do. It certainly didn’t keep Sagan from laughing all the way to the bank.

    Labeling is an asymmetric weapon–it hurts the un-privileged a lot more to be labeled and stereotyped than it hurts those of us who look like the patriarchy.

    Do you find it uncomfortable? Good. There’s hope for you. Maybe we can try to help change things by helping forward some folks who don’t look like us as we step to the rear.

  170. 170
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Rob Grigjanis: “If you meet Carl Sagan on the road, kill him.”

    Too late.

  171. 171
    chigau (違う)

    Rob Grigjanis
    Or spit on him.

  172. 172
    markd555

    -”markd555 – have you ever listened to his podcast?”

    Nope.
    If he can only get away with or dare saying “controversial” things on a *podcast*; and does not bring up wider topics in a mass market media form, that’s a problem.

    I hope he can get a mass market platform that he feels comfortable bringing up such things, and does a good job reaching people that aren’t science minded; making them think deeply about how mysticism negatively affects the world.

    Or I could just say “Hope he becomes the next Carl Sagan”. Bit easier to say – even if it does piss people off.

  173. 173
    Rob Grigjanis

    chigau
    That wouldn’t be polite.

  174. 174
    John Horstman

    I might have had something to say, but Caine has been killing it so… listen to hir.

  175. 175
    carlie

    Hemant at Friendly Atheist recently posted this video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson in his element, talking with a 9 year old about saving the earth from asteroids. That is a kid who is now in love with science even more than he was before.

  176. 176
    Acolyte of Sagan

    162.
    a_ray_in_dilbert_space
    15 November 2013 at 4:19 pm (UTC -6) Link to this comment

    Frankly, I like Tyson more than I liked Sagan. For one thing he’s funnier. Sagan also had a tendency to let politics interfere with his scientific judgment–for instance hanging onto the Nuclear Winter banner long after it had been torn to shreds.

    Shit! Have I slept through Unilateral nuclear disarmament? Only the last time I checked the world still contained enough warheads to plunge the planet in below-freezing temperatures for years if they were deployed in sufficient amounts.
    The Cold War might be over – at least for now, but possibly being wrong about the cause doesn’t make Sagan wrong about the potential for a nuclear war.

  177. 177
    Acolyte of Sagan

    I’d swear I did the html proplerly for that. From ’162′ to ‘shreds’ should be blockquoted.

  178. 178
    Louis

    It was all better in the old days when {insert science communicator here} was alive and active. Why these {insert more modern science communicators here} are no match for {insert science communicator here}. Everything that’s wrong with the world could be cured by more {insert science communicator here}. Whaddya mean {insert science communicator here} was {insert group that science communicator was member of here}? So what? Why dismiss {insert science communicator here} like that?

    Have I about summed it up?

    Louis

  179. 179
    chigau (違う)

    Louis #178
    I read that in the accent of Yorkshire.

  180. 180
    Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall

    It’s all gone downhill since James Jeans.

  181. 181
    David Marjanović

    I read Hans Hass’s book whose title translates as “Among corals and sharks” when I was very little. But then, I am from Austriaaah.

    I had never heard of Sagan before I read the German translation of The Demon-Haunted World (retranslates as “The dragon in my garage”). That was in the late 90s. I read it several times, it’s fucking awesome, it actually improved my sanity. Then I read the German translation of Billions And Billions (retranslates as “God and the leaking faucet”, because Cosmos was never translated, so nobody would get the allusion), which is also really great and has a foreword mentioning that he had just died.

    Bronowski I only learned of when someone linked to The Ascent of Man from Pharyngula a few years ago.

    Cousteau was a rare presence on Austrian TV in the 90s, but somehow I didn’t think he was something special… *shrug*

    Attenborough? Yes. Yes. Yes!!!

    Bakker was an influence on me, though I have to say it turns out science journalists hyped him a bit. Anyway, it was only in the mid-90s when I got my hands on The Dinosaur Heresies and knew enough English to read it – it still hadn’t been translated to German.

    Excellent idea, Podolak. While we’re at it, we can stop talking about [...]

    Who’s Piranesi? Never encountered that name (though I think I’ve been to Piran).

    someone here just posted Is Brian Cox on acid? the other day. :D

    :-D :-D :-D ♥

    tout suite

    Tout de suite. Sneakily, the first e is just as silent as the second.

    Pretty much every other British person I have spoken to who saw Cosmos thought it was unbearably cheesy and melodramatic and overblown.

    Not just British. I get the same reaction to the few YouTube snippets of Cosmos I’ve seen, and I only have a blank stare to offer when Americans say on Pharyngula that it makes them cry.

    Much of Sagan’s ideas are viewed as loopy today. No one worries about nuclear winter.

    Uh, that’s because the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore!

    The paper that showed that full-scale nookular war (with the arsenal of the 80s) would only cause a nuclear autumn instead of a winter was published many years later.

    If you’re under thirty and interested in science, Bill Nye probably had a much greater impact on you than Sagan.

    If you live outside the US, chances are great that you’ve never heard of either; and if you’ve heard of one, that’s much more likely to be Sagan. I only know Nye’s very name from Pharyngula.

    Oh, and the animated series “Il était une fois… la Vie / l’Espace / l’Homme”.

    Oh yeah, I grew up with that. :-)

    Stephen Jay Gould was far more profound in his insights.

    …though he himself often found them so profound that he ended up overstating them. Two words: punk eek.

    Rob Grigjanis: “If you meet Carl Sagan on the road, kill him.”

    Too late.

    It’s a Zen saying – “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him” – that means you really, really shouldn’t deify anyone.

  182. 182
    DanDare

    What’s the goal? Spread science enthusiasm and understanding.
    What does pushing back against Carl Sagan’s fans achieve? An introspective focus on Carl Sagan.
    What should we do instead to achieve the goal? Keep seeking new science communicators and promoting them. Add them to the mix. Let older things settle and find their place. Where are the great female science communicators? If a promoted communicator is not to your taste, so what, move on and find one you do like. better still, become one!

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