I was a weird kid. Ya can tell.
I was a weird kid who was intensely curious. Not about what was known, but what was unknown. Bill Murray and the dearly-departed Harold Ramis spurred within me an interest in ghosts at a young age, which eventually gave way to UFOs and all other manners of what they called “unexplained phenomena.” It irked me that the stodgy scientific mainstream refused to acknowledge the existence of these things that were, to me, so well-documented as to be obvious realities.
I must have thought Ghostbusters was a documentary.
I got confused, though, while reading a book called Revelations by Jacques Vallee, a computer scientist and venture capitalist who had the gall to be a ufologist that didn’t believe in extraterrestrial visitation. He instead thought the ship pilots were actually interdimensional beings – whatever that means. But still, he asked questions that I had never thought of.
The passage that got my wheels turning was a conversation with a group of those government conspiracy mongers. You know the types. They told him of an underground alien base in New Mexico the size of Manhattan. In turn, he presented them with a simple query.
Who takes out the garbage? You just told me there was a city the size of Manhattan underneath New Mexico. They will need water. They will generate solid waste. There would be massive changes to the environment. Where is the evidence for it?
His peers were not amused. There are ways to hide it, they said. And ways to hide the enormous heat signature that even the most rudimentary satellites could pick up on, even those operated by powers antagonistic to the United States. Vallee didn’t buy it. Neither did I.
“I took it out last week! It’s Glarnax’s turn!”
So 15-year-old Dog had a bit of an existential crisis as I tried to figure out how you can ever really “know” something. Why hadn’t I thought of those questions? Maybe all that “evidence” isn’t as good as I think it is. Where can I learn to differentiate sense from nonsense? I accidentally stumbled upon a worn copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in the school library and through his poetic prose and the vivid imagery presented within, he described to me the scientific method in ways my classes never had, so that its power and utility finally stuck. “Oh,” I thought. “So that’s how you know.”
The Great Communicator
I was late to the Cosmos party in the 90s. I lived in the mountains; we had to wait for everything. The book was published in conjunction with a 13-part television series that aired on PBS in 1980, the year I was born. The most watched program in public television history until 2009, it inspired a generation of Americans—and a few future stragglers—to wonder and think about the universe in the ways that have brought the greatest natural discoveries to light.
Cosmos couldn’t have happened without Carl Sagan. A prolific astronomer in his professional life, Sagan’s pedigree and unique charisma earned him the reputation as the greatest popularizer of science in the 20th century. Regularly appearing on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and elsewhere, Sagan was a scientific celebrity of a magnitude not seen since Einstein.
Since his death in 1996, many have wondered where the “next” Carl Sagan will come from. A person who can capture imaginations and remind us all that science is a human endeavor that helps us unlock the greatest secrets of the universe, and in turn teaches us about ourselves. Some have gone so far as to call Sagan irreplaceable. But someone’s stepped up to take the challenge. The guy who…writes giant chicken jokes?
An Unlikely Successor?
As you might have noticed this past Sunday, Cosmos is back, with a little help from Peter Griffin and Stan Smith. Or, at least, their creator Seth Macfarlane, who decided to use the mammoth stacks of cash he’s accumulated from the TV shows Family Guy and American Dad!, as well as the feature film Ted, to give something back. A science buff since early on, Macfarlane wondered aloud to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson if there was a research project he could fund. Tyson, who’s quickly becoming the public face of American science here in the 21st century, instead suggested the endeavor that would become Cosmos, presumably thinking that would be a greater contribution to science as a whole.
I guess he started with, um, a lesson on elasticity?
Of course Macfarlane’s just the man with the money and the stroke, enough to help get the premiere episode of the updated Cosmos into primetime slots on 10 different television networks. Tyson is the one in front of the camera, a potential heir apparent to Sagan’s legacy, one that, as he described on the inaugural installment, touched him directly in 1975. Whether Tyson can tantalize the world in the same manner as Sagan remains to be seen, but he knows enough to understand he’ll have to do it his own way.
“If I tried to fill his shoes I would just fail,” he told Smithsonian magazine. “But I can fill my own shoes really well.”
A Candle in the Dark
It’ll be a tough road to hoe. The new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is co-produced by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, who is saddened by our society’s “retreat into magical thinking” since her husband’s passing. It’s easy to see that fundamentalism has made a resurgence and hard science is often unfairly politicized and denied by those who are uncomfortable with its implications.
But maybe the worm is finally turning. As I watched the original Cosmos on National Geographic Sunday afternoon, two of the top trending items on Facebook were the new version and the announcement that The Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson would produce a program for the Science Channel based on the enormously popular “I fucking love science” page, which boasts over 10 million “likes.”
Coming to the Science Channel in late 2014.
What sets these outreach efforts apart are the stories, not the statistics. The practice of science can be tedious, but the communication of same cannot be if it hopes to connect with people. A lesson from Cosmos that seems to have been lost over the decades. We’ll try again over the next 12 weeks, and it’s largely thanks to Peter, Lois, Brian, Stan, Roger and their special brand of off-color humor. It’s good to have friends at the top.
Lucky there’s a “Family Guy.”