Friday, July 17, 2009

Was Carl Sagan really all that?

Chris and Sheril have a new book out on scientific failures to communicate. I haven't read it, as it was not available in my local bookstore here in Oz. Fortunately, here in blog land, my failure to even see the book qualifies me to review it. From what I'm told, the late Carl Sagan is used as an example of a great science communicator. Trouble is, my local bookstore didn't have any of his books either. Lomborg and Plimer, yes, but no Mooney or Carl.

A lot of scientists enthusiastically cite Sagan as one of the inspirations for their careers. And that is fine. But here's the thing. Sagan was a great preacher, sure. But for the most part, he preached to the choir. Welders and car dealers aren't nearly as excited about him as astronomers are. So when it comes to finding a way to bridge the gap between science and the technophopic world, he is probably not the best example. In fact, I'm not really sure who is. but I reckon that the late Steve Irwin would be in the running.

7 comments:

Fault Rocks said...

I think Carl is better known to the public for his TV appearances. I think Steve Irwin was a holy terror and did more to encourage kids to grab wild animals than anything else.

Chris Phoenix said...

Eric Drexler may be an interesting case study. He tried to communicate with both scientists and the public about molecular manufacturing.

When I tell people, "He committed the unforgivable scientific sin - he wrote a popular book," they know exactly what I mean.

Thomas Joseph said...

I'm not sure there will ever be one single individual who will be universally cited for inspiring a generation to seriously consider scientific pursuits.

Interestingly enough, today the US is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. One would think that projects such as this, and not single individuals, would be more suited as inspirational devices.

The problem is, when will we have our next "scientific revolution"? The economy and political state of the world, clearly seem to be hampering such endeavors at the present time.

Genomic Repairman said...

Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye, Science Guy is what catapulted my generation to science. Heck I think Sagan died when I was starting high school so he really was not much of an influence, but the other two sure were.

Chuck said...

"I'm not sure there will ever be one single individual who will be universally cited for inspiring a generation to seriously consider scientific pursuits."

The point I was trying to make is that I'm not interested in who inspires scientists to become scientists. We have a glut of scientists at present.

What I'm interested in is how to get non-scientists interested and engaged (and paying for) scientific research.

Thomas Joseph said...

What I'm interested in is how to get non-scientists interested and engaged (and paying for) scientific research.

I think most non-scientists are more than happy to see their tax dollars going to projects that they see as benefiting them, either immediately or in the future. For example, I doubt you'd have a major outcry if you said you were going to funnel more money towards cancer research, or you were increasing spending on the development of a "swine flu" vaccine. In this regard, I think the medical sciences always have it easier. They can claim immediate impact. For those of us not in the medical sciences, the problem becomes somewhat trickier. Where I work, I am always asked to put things in terms of "impact". My findings will lead to how many dollars saved in agricultural inputs yearly, or how many tons of green house gases can my processes remove from the atmosphere a year?

They don't care if I find a novel organism that no one found before. If I cannot find a use for it, it was a waste of time and taxpayer dollars. The more I am able to discuss impact, the greater I have found that my work receives attention and support. That often means I need to carefully describe what I am doing and its results, and do so without relying on a lot of technical jargon. My goal is to lay out my work such that if a politician were to pick up a document I wrote, they'd be able to grasp the intent immediately, and then use that to write policy. If they understand it (and their knowledge of my areas of expertise will be no greater than your average citizen) then other non-scientists will understand it, and if everyone understands it, perhaps they'll then see why my area of work is necessary. So then when it comes time to fund, they know what I am doing, it makes sense to them, and they won't object to it.

That's the hope anyways. :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, Carl Sagan really was "all that"! He was quite simply the most effective popularizer of science in the second half of the 20th century.
Not only did he host and produce the classic "Cosmos" tv series he also was a best selling and pulitzer prize winning writer. And don't forget his one novel, "Contact", which was made into a very popular movie also.