Thursday, April 23, 2009

I Miss Carl Sagan

I grew up watching Cosmos. For those of you unfortunate enough to not know what Cosmos is, it's a science mini series developed and hosted by Carl Sagan that was broadcast in 1980. Think "Shakespeare of science documentaries" and you wouldn't be far off.

Lately I've been showing the 2000 re-release (on DVD) of Cosmos to my two sons who are 6 and 4 years old. The 4 year old likes the imagery, but I think most of it is still over his head. My 6 year old, on the other hand, always has basketfulls of questions after each episode is over, and he's always shushing his younger brother while the show is playing. Seeing him enjoying Cosmos has brought back a flood of memories for me of what I thought when I watched it as a child (even though I first saw it when I was several years older).

Cosmos is by far the most inspiring and mind opening treatment of science ever produced. The Vangelis sound track is inspiring. Carl's monologue is worthy of a literature award. The vision he shares is clear and wide ranging. This program is what got me interested in science and started me down a technology career. Watching the program again makes me wonder if I should have chosen a science career rather than technology.

Sure, the program was broadcast in 1980, but other than the shots of people with big hair and bad clothes, the content needs little updating. That's how good it is.

If you haven't seen Cosmos, or haven't seen it lately, I highly recommend watching it again. I recommend the DVD set. The episodes can also be found on YouTube.

Carl Sagan, who definitely also had some serious flaws, was a brilliant science popularizer. I read in one of his biographies that he was always the life of any party or social event he attended. Not because he was funny or loud, but because he could take complex concepts (usually about science) and explain them in interesting and stimulating ways and he often did this at any chance he got. This skill becomes apparent any time I've ever seen a video of him. His hope for humanity, including his acknowledgement of our weaknesses, was inspirational.

The fact that the public responded so well to his explanations and monologues demonstrates the desire for people to understand the world around themselves. Now that he's no longer with us, where is the Carl Sagan of 2009? There have been a few people who seem to have tried (perhaps not consciously) to fill his shoes. Neil deGrasse Tyson (the director of the Hayden Planetarium) gives it a good shot, but he's not a generalist and certainly not a wordsmith like Carl (plus he really needs to get rid of the mustache). Brian Greene did an alright job in "Elegant Universe", but I haven't seen him popularizing science in more forums (such as the Tonight Show, to which Carl was a regular guest) and he also doesn't have the word skills. 

We need another Carl Sagan for the public now more than ever with stem cells, nano technology, space exploration, global warming and the numerous other science-based issues facing us. it seems emotion and politics play a much greater role in our decision making than ever. An educated public is the cure for this situation.

Perhaps one of the defining characteristics for Carl is his classical education. At the University of Chicago in the 1950s, Sagan was taught history, Greek philosophy and art as part of his degree in Physics. Current educators take note. More likely than not, the jobs students will have when they graduate don't exist right now. The current trend I see where college and universities are teaching students how to do something, not why to do something is a disservice to our next generation.

The eloquent speaker, writer and thinker that resulted from this classical education combined this knowledge, hard-won from human history, with modern science to inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers. Perhaps he is still stirring these feelings in two little boys living in Omaha.

Rest in peace, Carl.