“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”
Some individuals are born with great talents but among those, there are a few who will use their gifts generously to enlighten others. Carl Sagan is the perfect example of someone endowed with not only a colossal intellect but also boundless generosity to bring joy and knowledge to others. He devoted his life to science and was professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He also played a key role in several spacecraft expeditions such as Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo. Among countless awards he received the NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service.
Yet, alongside his successful scientific career, he made great efforts to popularise science among the wider public. His TV series “Cosmos” was viewed by over 200 million people in more than 60 countries and exemplified how to explain scientific discoveries rigorously and engagingly. In the book that accompanied the series (also entitled “Cosmos”), he explained the importance of making science relevant to all. After describing the intellectual achievements of the scientists and philosopher working at the Library of Alexandria and how their legacy was virtually obliterated, he says:
“Here clearly were the seeds of the modern world. What prevented them from taking root and flourishing? (…) I cannot give you a simple answer. But I do know this: there is no record, in the entire history of the Library, that any of its illustrious scientists and scholars ever seriously challenged the political, economic and religious assumptions of their society. The permanence of the stars was questioned; the justice of slavery was not. Science and learning in general were the preserve of a privileged few. The vast population of the city had not the vaguest notion of the great discoveries taking place within the Library. New findings were not explained or popularised. The research benefited them little. Discoveries in mechanics and steam technology were applied mainly to the perfection of weapons, the encouragement of superstition, the amusement of kings. The scientists never grasped the potential of machines to free people. The great intellectual achievements of antiquity had few immediate practical applications. Science never captured the imagination of the multitude. There was no counterbalance to stagnation, to pessimism, to the most abject surrenders to mysticism. When, at long last, the mob came to burn the Library down, there was nobody to stop them.”
Carl Sagan was fully committed to prevent that from happening again and was always ready to share his knowledge and take a stand in social issues. He resigned from the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board in protest over the Vietnam War. He was a vocal opponent to the escalation of the nuclear arms race and was even arrested for his participation in demonstrations. He fought against human irrationality and superstition using empirical evidence and force of argument rather than resorting to authority.
Unfortunately, I feel that authors like Carl Sagan are unjustly being neglected and checks in a few public libraries have confirmed my fears. Thankfully, we can still buy his books online and most of the “Cosmos” series is freely available on YouTube. Other personal favourites of mine are “The Dragons of Eden” and “The Demon-Haunted World”. I encourage anyone reading this entry to look for them , you will enjoy a rare combination of scientific knowledge, wonderful prose and lyric energy!!