Carl Sagan Was Here

Earth as seen from somewhere near Saturn.
Earth as seen from somewhere near Saturn.

Of all the planets in all the solar systems in all the galaxies in all the universes—of the billions and billions of places he could have been—Carl Sagan was here; on the same pale blue dot that anyone reading these words calls, home. The image above was captured approximately 750 million miles from Earth by the Cassini spacecraft before its death plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn earlier this year.

Still farther from home, Alioth is the brightest star of the Big Dipper (third from the end of the familiar handle) in the constellation, Ursa Major. If the sky is clear tonight, you can see how that star looked on November 9, 1934, the day Sagan was born in Brooklyn, New York. The light you see from Alioth is reaching your eyes after a 500 trillion mile journey that began at the moment of Sagan’s first breath. So, if something momentous happens on Alioth tonight, even as you’re watching, your children or your grandchildren will be the ones to see it. “The immense distances to the stars and the galaxies mean that we see everything in space in the past, some as they were before the Earth came to be,” Sagan remarked in his book, Pale Blue Dot.

The Big Dipper
The Big Dipper

There has been a march of more than one hundred thousand million of our own kind (Homo sapiens) that have served witness to events in the cosmos for ten thousand generations. Which of us has not looked toward the sky in awe and wondered what it means, how it all came to be and what role we are meant to play. Carl Sagan helped at least one of those generations—mine—to better understand the Cosmos. How many more are there?

To honor Dr. Sagan on what would have been his 83rd birthday, I’m speaking with Callum C.J. Sutherland. Callum is a PhD candidate in science and technology studies at York University in Toronto, Canada. We met in the virtual universe while orbiting the same topic.

Robert: Callum, Carl Sagan was an American astronomer who gained notoriety with his 1980 public television series, Cosmos that has reached hundreds of millions of people all over the world. I watched the series during its original airing, but you’re a lot younger than I am. When and how did you get introduced to Sagan’s Cosmos?

Callum: That’s an interesting question, but also one that I can’t really answer without first providing some additional context and sharing some of my backstory, so I hope that you and your readers will bear with me while I endeavour to do just that.

Carl Sagan was a dedicated, if unremarkable, planetary scientist who, beginning in the 1960s, worked as an advisor for NASA in its decades-long exploration of the outer solar system. In the midst of the Cold War spinoff that was the Space Race, these missions attracted unprecedented media attention. Increasingly, Sagan found himself at the centre of this media spotlight. After all, here was a scientist who was as charming as he was passionate; a scientist who knew how to explain scientific ideas without resorting to jargon; a scientist who seemed to be a normal human being. From the perspective of the media at the time, Sagan was everything that a scientist was not supposed to be.

And, so it was that, on the eve of November 30, 1973, what it meant to be a scientist changed in a very palpable way – for it was on this date that Sagan made what would be his first of many appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In the years that followed, Sagan would leverage his new-found star power to secure a multimillion-dollar budget for what would undoubtedly end up being his greatest achievement: Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, a thirteen-part documentary series that first aired in 1980. Cosmos featured state-of-the-art special effects that, when coupled with Sagan’s pre-existing celebrity status, helped make it the most widely-viewed series in the history of American public television (for a time, at least). Science, it would seem, was ‘cool’ again.

I came to a similar revelation nearly three decades later, in late 2009, when a reddit post extolling the virtues of Sagan’s approach to science education led me to seek out the first episode of Cosmos. Within the space of a single day, I devoured all thirteen awe-inspiring episodes. I turned next to Sagan’s (1979) Broca’s Brain, a text which spoke to my experiences like few books have before or since. That is, while it was Cosmos which initially set me down the vocational path I am currently following, it was Broca’s Brain which stemmed the tide of self-blame that flowed from my earlier failings in science education. Sagan changed irrevocably the terms of this internal dialogue, along with my perception of science education, with his suggestion that my experience was by no means atypical. That is, whereas Sagan perceived an almost universal enthusiasm for science among elementary schoolchildren, he found no such passion in secondary school classrooms. There was something about how science was taught in schools, Sagan argued, that serves to “discourage their interest [in science] and it is not mainly puberty” (Broca’s Brain, Sagan, 1979, p. 46).

Indeed, this was precisely how I felt not only about my high school science classes, but also about education more generally. In fact, it was during this period that I was studying at a local community college, as my secondary school grades were much too poor to permit me direct entry into my desired university programme (i.e., business management). And yet, when I was admitted to this programme the following year, I found that I had become principally interested in matters relating to science education. It was for this reason that, in 2012, I opted to apply to the graduate programme in Science and Technology Studies (STS) at York University in Toronto, Canada.

Today, I am nearing the completion of my PhD – and, though the focus of my research has since shifted, and I have developed a more critical perspective on the role that science and technology plays in society, I would not be where I am today were it not for Carl Sagan, and for that I will forever be grateful to him, as well as to all those around him who helped make the likes of Cosmos and Broca’s Brain a reality.

Robert: That’s an excellent testimonial. I was able to read a paper of yours where you talk about history and the value of the ‘evolutionary epic.’ The Cosmos series is a great example of that. Can you explain the ‘evolutionary epic’ and its role in public discourse of the sciences?

“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers”

Callum: Before I do that, I should note that there are many different, equally valid ways of thinking about the ‘evolutionary epic’ (or the ‘epic of evolution’, as it is sometimes called), and that what follows is simply my understanding of the same. This understanding is informed in no small part by the work of Dr. Bernard Lightman, whose graduate seminar in science and print culture was responsible for introducing me to, and piquing my interest in, the idea of the evolutionary epic. Finally, as the evolutionary epic is not itself immune to evolutionary changes, I have focused below only on highlighting some of its most common features, as informed by Dr. Lightman’s (2007) Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences.

First, at its most basic level, the evolutionary epic is a “vehicle for conveying contemporary scientific ideas to a general reading audience” (Lightman, 2007, p. 220). Second, evolution is typically depicted in such narratives as a “gradual, lawful, and progressive” force (p. 220). Third, the ‘epic’ in ‘evolutionary epic’ refers both to the massive scale of the narrative, and its synthesis of scientific ideas from across disciplinary boundaries. Fourth, many of these narratives are centred around protagonists, or “evolutionary heroes” (p. 221). These protagonists are portrayed variously as struggling to overcome the obstacles erected by decidedly unscientific authorities, or as simply trying to reveal the secrets of nature. Whatever the struggle of the protagonist, the reader is compelled to draw inspiration from their heroic struggles. Accordingly, these narratives can be highly evocative, often employing a “rhetoric of spectacular display” (p. 221). Put more simply, the evolutionary epic aims to “provide the viewer with a privileged bird’s-eye perspective of a scene of grandeur” (p. 222).

These characteristics figure prominently in the narrative structure of Cosmos, and permeate the vast majority of Sagan’s popular science work. What’s more is that Sagan was often explicit in encouraging his audience to use their imagination, and he never shied away from speculation, even when such musings concerned matters thought to lie beyond his area of expertise. Accordingly, though Sagan is generally held in the highest regard today, he was deeply unpopular among many of his contemporaries. His divisiveness as a public figure was, I think, a consequence of Sagan’s affinity for the evolutionary epic as a narrative style. And, while this could be said to have rendered Sagan an outsider in the academy, Sagan’s evolutionary epics also permitted countless individuals (myself included) to ascribe their own meaning to scientific ideas, something which—prior to Sagan—had been principally regarded as the exclusive domain of elite scientists. In this way, Sagan’s career was far more subversive of the status quo than it is generally regarded today.

Carl Sagan, December 1996
Carl Sagan, December 1996

Robert: After struggling with 8th grade Algebra, I assumed I was destined to be a humanities guy rather than a science guy. But I’ve always harbored a love for the sciences in part, I believe, because of Sagan’s Cosmos. Tell me more about what other scientists thought of Sagan’s popular interpretation (perhaps, simplification) of the sciences at the time? Explain, if you would, the ‘deficit model.’

Callum: This is another complicated subject, and one about which I’ve plenty to say. Given the length of the interview up to this point, however, I will try my best to keep this brief.

The term ‘deficit model’ was first used in the 1980s by social scientists who were attempting to describe the then-prevailing view that the public’s (mis)understanding of science was simply the result of failures in top-down, science-to-society communication channels. Put in another way, the deficit model assumes that public opposition to, or skepticism of, scientific ideas, is rooted only in a deficit of scientific knowledge. Today, scholars in STS and related fields have largely rejected this idea, opting instead to speak of the public’s engagement with science, rather than its (mis)understanding of the same.

While, to reiterate the above disclaimer, a proper exploration of this concept is beyond the scope of this interview, Brian Wynne’s (1992) “Misunderstood Misunderstanding” provides a compelling illustration of the deficit model’s many mistaken assumptions. In this particular case study, the local knowledge of Cumbrian sheep farmers is dismissed by scientific and political authorities as being merely anecdotal, and largely irrelevant to determining the true nature and extent of the impact of the Chernobyl fallout on local livestock. Wynne shows not only that the farmers were justified in their skepticism, but also that the scientists and politicians involved had erred in not taking their local expert knowledge more seriously.

Here too, in other words, there exists a multi-directional relationship between the local knowledge of citizens on the one hand, and the abstract knowledge of scientists on the other. That is, the local and the abstract represent complementary, and not oppositional, forms of knowledge. And, though it’s incumbent upon me to acknowledge that Sagan would almost assuredly have disagreed with me on this point, he also taught me the value of following the evidence no matter where it leads. Or, as Sagan himself famously put it, it is “better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.”

Robert: I’m going to believe that Sagan would have easily forgiven any disagreements he might have with this conversation. Callum, I received a telescope at the age of eleven. What I saw was a vast and awe-inspiring universe. It made me think that earthbound problems were insignificant in comparison to the Cosmos. Indeed, looking through a telescope gives one a sense of humility. Sagan talked a lot about this subject. Why is humility so important as we look at the sciences today and the politics that often determine the livelihood of scientific research?

Callum: I’m of several minds on this particular question. On the one hand, I agree that our problems seem insignificant when compared to the vastness of space and time. On the other hand, I also think that this fact underscores (albeit paradoxically so) the urgent need for us to address several Earth-bound problems. Along similar lines, I think it is vitally important for us to recognize the unprecedented complexity and interconnectedness of the political, economic, environmental, and social problems we are currently facing. Unfortunately, many of today’s political leaders are content with simply dismissing all such problems as unimportant, or as somehow constituting “fake news.” When we adopt a more humble perspective, however, we are forced to acknowledge not only that we don’t know everything, but also that there is enormous value to be had in seeking out disparate perspectives rather than, say, simply relying on the undeniably distorted viewpoints of the small handful of wealthy, white men currently presiding over the White House.

Put more simply, there exists only one Earth, and it is incumbent upon us to protect it. And yet, we are increasingly engaging in large-scale activities which threaten to place our planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants in great peril. In order for us to safeguard the future of our planet, in other words, we must work together. But such large-scale cooperation is contingent, in my view, upon our ability to first address the many systemic social injustices (e.g., widespread poverty, racism, sexism, etc.) that are currently impeding our ability to address broader issues.

Robert: What is the most positive message that Sagan left us about our future as a species?

Callum: That, in spite of the relative insignificance of our existence in the grand scheme of things, “we make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.”

Robert: Thanks Callum. I think this is a good gift. And, if anyone reading this blog has been influenced by Carl Sagan, please leave a comment by clicking the gray dialog icon (it’s the lowest of the five icons on the left). Happy birthday!

Follow me on Twitter @RobertJBenz

Works Referenced

Sagan, C. (1979). Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science. New York: Ballantine Books.

Lightman, B. (2007). Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wynne, B. (1992). Misunderstood Misunderstanding: Social Identities and Public Uptake of Science. Public Understanding of Science, 1(3), 281-304.

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