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My Father

My father’s work made science cool. He showed that it was good to be smart, to be open to wonder but also critical, both of superstition and political authority. The universe was our home. Space exploration and evolution were part of a story based on evidence that belonged to all humanity, not a religious or political elite looking out for their own interests. He criticized Congress (most of whom are lawyers) for not knowing science, and he empowered the public by revealing the multicultural truth of our belonging to a cosmos that was beautiful, understandable, and open to human discovery. He showed not only that science belonged to everybody, but that a scientifically educated public was necessary for the health of society. In short he used television to democratize the advances of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Cosmos was one of the most watched TV programs in history, and it wasn’t drama or sports but the story of who, what, why, when, and where we are. Rather than being local or international news, it was cosmic news: a taking-stock and popularization of where we are in our voyage of self-discovery of the cosmos from which we have evolved. Although Jacob Bronowski had preceded and paved the way for my father in his TV series The Ascent of Man, and David Attenborough had expanded the form in his nature series, my father inaugurated and embodied the idea of exciting television that was about the beauty and truth of our place in a universe that is far bigger than humanity. He showed science as both an intellectual adventure and a spiritual experience. As the Protestants dispensed with priests to show that the individual could have a personal relationship with God, so my father showed that anybody on the planet, employing the nondenominational method of science, could have a personal understanding of the cosmos—a kind of God (the God of Einstein and Spinoza) but one that was open to rational and mathematical inquiry. Cosmos may be dated in terms of production value and special effects, and certain scientific and philosophical aspects of it could be tweaked, but its spirit remains timeless. Because of the backsliding in science education, in some ways it is more relevant than when it appeared. The emphasis on evolutionary biology, scientific history, critical thinking, free inquiry and the role of evidence in the growth of humanity’s understanding in a universe that dwarfs us and in which we are not masters but an immature life form—these continue to be crucial themes. My father was unparalleled in his ability to convey the essence of science in poetic language. He was pleasant to look at, hypnotic to listen to, and the conviction and enthusiasm of his presentations—which took the form of a moral imperative for us to know ourselves—were infectious. I miss him; the world misses him. He was not just a good popularizer, but a man in love with the truth. He was not afraid of the powers that be or, if he was, he had the courage to face them in the name of a cosmic human heritage that transcended class, sex, and racial-cultural differences. He oversaw a leap from an age of science fiction to an age of scientific reality, where we really did go to the moon and beyond. He was asked to lend his image to advertising campaigns—but he steadfastly refused. Although he was famous, he was motivated to educate and empower through science, not to cash in or compromise. Here he differs from the many celebrities and sports stars who do not think twice about attaching their name to a product to make money. When my father as a child became interested in numbers, his father indulged him by trying to count them as high as they could go–of course they went on forever; his mother took him to the library to find a book on stars and persevered beyond the initial advice from the librarian to look at a book of Hollywood stars. Parents need to learn some science but, more importantly, to stay open minded as well as critical as they encourage their curious youngsters to pursue their interests in a new world of informational riches. Is the sun a star? Why is the sky blue? How old is the universe? Where do I come from? What sometimes seem like inexplicable mysteries often have scientific answers. The sky is blue because oxygen atoms are the right size to bounce around blue wavelength light. They are even better at reflecting ultraviolet light, which we can’t see but bees can. The sky is not even blue for everybody. Moreover oxygen gas only became prevalent in the atmosphere two billion years ago, so even if we were there to see it the sky wouldn’t always have looked blue. Science is a thrilling adventure that begins with simple questions. My father’s example influenced me both directly and indirectly, as well as by counter-example. As a boy he told me stories about collapsing stars and black holes, about time travel and space exploration that he would later explain to the world. I felt abandoned by him when my parents split when I was five but we still talked and had many fascinating intellectual discussions. His emphasis on natural and rational explanation, of intellectual exploration and critical appraisal—of learning—continues to be empowering and enlightening. The hard-won heritage of the ancient Greeks, of the Italian Renaissance and the Scientific Enlightenment belongs to us all. I have collaborated with my mother to show the role of ancient evolutionary history, which stretches beyond primates and other animals to symbiotic environment-changing bacteria. And I have explored the simple but profound question of why we are here in material terms; it turns out that all life shares traits with nonliving systems that maintain complexity and grow to accommodate energy’s tendency to spread—life seems to be a natural form of energy transformation in a thermodynamic universe. My father’s emphasis on returning to the classics, integrating science with philosophy and history, and looking to science and the simplicity and beauty of universal truths continues to be a source of inspiration in my own work. Most scientists, like most people, are not very articulate. And if they can articulate their thoughts and results, responsible working scientists in the academic world do not like to see their careful and qualified descriptions butchered and truncated by the news media which, requiring advertising revenues, is more concerned with sensational headlines and selling newspapers or time slots than the quest for truth. Scientists working for corporations may be prohibited from discussing their results, and these results in turn may have little of universal importance but more to do with making money for their sponsors. Moreover, the average working scientist in both the academic and the corporate setting is too much of a specialist to say much of interest to the general public. Corporate influence, media sloppiness and sensationalization, and scientific overspecialization all make it difficult to communicate science to the public. There is no easy solution but we should always encourage both curiosity and critical thinking. I believe both philosophy and science should be taught from an early age. Kids need to know not only that it is okay to be wrong, but that science is a continuous process of learning from mistakes and moving on. People want certainty and authorities to provide answers; they tend to care more about being right and belonging than finding out, and the modern media thrives on short attention spans and emotional reactions. But science and philosophy are about thinking things through carefully, looking for consistency and beauty, staying critical and enduring uncertainties in the search for truth. I would say that literature, philosophy, and history are important background disciplines that must be learned before “science” can be fully communicated. Science has a long cultural history. My father described it as a means of error-correction. If you are a reporter and you simply relay what a scientist tells you, you are not doing your whole job. You must keep an open and critical mind—be scientifically minded yourself—to most effectively convey science in the breezy news world of today. Samuel Butler in the 19th century said scientists are the priests of the modern age and must be watched very closely. Science is so effective that scientists and scientific spokesmen are considered authorities. But, as my father emphasized, science belongs to the people and its methods and results must be studied by everybody if we are to thrive, or even survive, as a species. My father would have been ecstatic about the discovery of extrasolar planets, and he would have focused the world’s wonder on them in their particulars in ways that have not been done. The Internet was already underway when he died but its recent rapid growth would have posed new problems and opportunities for him. On the one hand, there is a very low threshold for truth on the Internet; lies and rumors, conspiracies and pseudoscience, mediocrity and misinformation flourish. On the other hand, it is arguably the greatest boon to democracy since the invention of voting. Similarly, genomics and bioinformatics may have both excited and worried him. For example, gene sequencing has recently shown that Hitler had both African American and Jewish genes—showing the hypocrisy of racist ideology and underscoring our Darwinian relatedness. But market-based genetic testing could also be a new doorway into eugenics and different forms of exploitation and racism and class exclusion. It would be fascinating to see how my father put science and politics and technology together, as only he could, if he were alive today. Read the original essay at Dorion Sagan is the author of, most recently, Death and Sex.

Dangerous Ideas: Memes and the New Orwellianism

“If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.” – Somerset Maugham “The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down […] Read More..