Emily LakdawallaSep 28, 2011

Sagan and Snooki

This image has been making the rounds of Google+ and Facebook today:*

I believe that among my readers there is likely a higher-than-average number of people who, in fact, do know who the man on the left is, and who do not know who the woman on the right is. Let me advise those of you for whom that is true not to soil your innocent minds with what you would find if you Googled Snooki's name.

Although this comparison made me sad, it wasn't for the implicit reason. There's a whole generation who can't really reasonably be expected to know who the man on the left is, while Snooki is enjoying her fame now, deserved or not. Carl Sagan was a revered scientist and public communicator and of course one of the three founders of the Planetary Society, but let's be realistic here: he last communicated with the public fifteen years ago, and reached his peak fame several years before that. He had several contemporaries, science communicators who enjoyed similar fame and recognition. How many twenty-somethings today would recognize the faces of David Attenborough (who is still making TV series!) or Jacques Cousteau? Even among older people, how many would? I would. But I'm spectacularly geeky about science, and am shockingly ignorant about other things that I really should know more about.

Could the original creator of this comparison have used anyone else's face in Sagan's place? Neil Tyson's pretty famous, as is, of course, my current boss, Bill Nye. In the U.K., Brian Cox would be the obvious choice (as far as I'm concerned, he's the only science communicator who I've ever heard compared with Sagan who is actually like Sagan in any sense other than "famous scientist who talks to the public"). But in the U.S., there isn't really anyone who has managed to fill Sagan's shoes as an inspirer of awe and wonder about our place in the universe since he passed away.

Why is that? Is it just because of the fragmentation of the media, that no one person can command the imagination of a wide swath of the public anymore? Or is a great science communicator such a rare thing? For those of us who care about science, is there anything we can do besides wring our hands and bemoan the unwashed ignorance of the general public? How can we command attention to the natural wonders of our world and our solar system and our universe, to help others acquire the perspective that we cosmophiles find so awe-inspiring?

Snark is funny but, like complaining, it's not productive; in fact, it's counterproductive, inspiring nothing but despair. Despair is a cancer. Hopefully, someday, there will be another person as famous as Sagan, probably (hopefully) quite different from him but still able to occupy the same position as a revered scientist living in the public sphere. But until our next great leader rises, we in the trenches have to do what we can. And actually, we can do quite a lot.

Tell your friends about upcoming launches and arrivals. Stand outside and look up, and if any passersby look up too, point out the planets to them. (That amazing star that rises a couple hours after sunset? That's Jupiter.) Take your young children outside to watch the Space Station fly overhead, and say night-night to the astronauts. Post the occasional beautiful space photo to your Facebook page. Then print it out or email it to your kids' science teacher. Bring a few pictures to Rotary club meetings, show them to Cub Scouts and Brownies. Buy recent space books -- buy them used and save money -- and donate them to your public library or to your local school library. Help people become aware of this wonderful universe that is so much larger than they are, larger than all our storms and wars. It's a huge, awe-inspiring, yet echoingly empty universe. We're privileged to live on our comfortable world, and to have the intelligence and craftiness to see beyond it. And we still don't know if we are the only living beings to enjoy such privileges. Are all these worlds, in fact, ours? Or is there someone else out there, gazing outward from their busy planet, wondering if other stars hold other life, looking back at them?

*(Lots of people have reposted this, but all without attribution, and I couldn't find the original source. Anyone who has information on where it originated, please let me know.)

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