Carl Sagan – Science Communicator Extraordinaire

By Michael Edmonds 08/09/2011

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?

2) Optimism

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.

4) Articulate

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.

0 Responses to “Carl Sagan – Science Communicator Extraordinaire”

  • He was amazing. I do wish he was still around. Of course, he wouldn’t be at all pleased with the way the sciences are treated in many parts of the world today (especially in the US, where I’m origially from).

  • Yes, it is a pity he is not still around. I would love to have meet him in person. However, his videos still inspire so many people which I guess is his legacy.
    Actually, another aspect of his communication which comes through very clearly in the clips above is his concern for humankind’s future. I think too often scientists are perceived as tinkering away in their labs oblivious to the “real world”.

  • He was an amazing AMAZING human being – certainly my greatest hero. We may not all be able to be able to be ‘Carl Sagan’s, but with a little training and exposure i think that we scientists can probably do a lot more for science that we currently do (of course I’m preaching to the converted given that I’m posting this on Sciblogs!)

    But for anyone that’s interested in increasing their storytelling skills we are putting together some storytelling workshops as part of that will be recorded and posted online over the coming months as a free resource for scientists to practice putting their passions and enthusiasm to good use. when communicating. I’ll be publicising them over at Just So Science too!

    One final thing, Michael – do you believe that we could ever have someone else with as much breadth and depth as Sagan again? Or has science become too broad for any one person?

    My favourite thing about Sagan was his humanity. Perhaps one day more scientists will realise how important showing their humanity is when communicating.

  • Elf,

    couldn’t agree with you more. I wonder if we at sciblogs could do a tribute or something for the 15th anniversary of his death?

    I think there are still people capable of a wide breadth of knowledge but perhaps that is not important for a science communicator. If one is enthusuastic and knowledgeable about some fields and has the good sense to be cautious about talking too much about those beyond one’s capability then he/she is still a good advocate for science.
    That’s one of the things I like about sciblogs – the shared community expertise and knowledge is really awesome.

  • I’m still well keen to organise group screenings of Cosmos, as I get the impression many people have never seen it (which might go a ways to explaining why the world’s in the state it’s in currently) 🙂

  • There will never be another Carl Sagan. He was the perfect combination of passion, knowledge and humanism. I can’t think of another human being that left a more profund legacy. I’m happy that finally, Cosmos is finally coming back and my hope is that it will enlighten another generation, even if for a short amount of time, to appreciate science.