I’ve just been reading a biography about Carl Sagan by Ray Spangenburg and Kit Moser. It is a fascinating story and gives some insight into his fantastic ability to communicate science. In my opinion, Dr Sagan was the most powerful science communicator of the 20th century (though David Attenborough would be a close second). There was something about his style that really struck a chord with me, and perhaps if I hadn’t found chemistry so, I might have been inspired to pursue a career in astronomy.
One of the reasons I’ve been reading about Dr Sagan, is that as a powerful communicator of science, I’m quite interested in trying to dissect what it is about his style that I found so fascinating. So far I’ve identified four key points.
1) Visible Passion for Science
Watch any of Dr Sagan’s Cosmos series and it is obvious he has a passion for science. While most scientists have a similar passion for science, few show it well. Perhaps it comes from trying not to stand out as a geek or nerd in high school?
The authors of Carl Sagan’s biography describes his parents, particularly his mother, as being very supportive and suggest this may be how his optimism for science, and life in general, developed. Though they also note that this optimism may have left him vulnerable to the type of politics which prevented him from being elected to the American National Academy of Sciences. Still, despite this snub, he has a legacy of having inspired many a young scientist some of whom are probably members of the aforementioned academy.
3) Breadth and depth of knowledge
Entering the University of Chicago at age 16, he studied a broad curriculum including literature, art, music and other disciplines before eventually focusing more on the sciences. And in watching his TV series I’ve always been impressed how eloquently and knowledgeably he describes other areas of expertise including biology and chemistry. Indeed, Isaac Asimov is reputed to have described Sagan as one of only two people he had ever met whose intellect surpassed his own.
When Carl Sagan describes science, he weaves it into an enthralling story. I think this is one of his greatest skills. There is a poetry in the way he describes things. Few other scientists seem to have mastered this approach to science communication, which is very different from the dry language of scientific writing. I’m hoping that, as I read and view more of his work, I will start to better understand how and why his explanations are so engaging.
On December 20th this year it will be the 15 year anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death, a loss to science and science communication. However, the great thing about good science communicators is that they inspire others to keep telling the stories of science. So while we have lost Carl Sagan, now have the likes of Brian Cox, Stephen Hawking and Neil de Grasse Tyson (who will be hosting a sequel to Sagan’s Cosmos series) as to keep the candle of public enlightenment burning.