The Cosmos in Short: How Carl Sagan Bringing the Unexplained Into Every Classroom | Culture | ICON

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Carl Sagan poses in 1984 in Tallahassee, Florida, superimposed, how could it be otherwise, by an image of the universe obtained by NASA.
Carl Sagan poses in 1984 in Tallahassee, Florida, superimposed, how could it be otherwise, by an image of the universe obtained by NASA.Mickey Adair (Getty Images)

Carl Sagan (New York, 1934 – Seattle, 1996) wore a turtleneck sweater, had black bangs and a deep voice that he counted on simply, in his series Cosmos, the wonders of the Universe to connoisseurs and laymen. My mother found him an interesting and attractive guy. Me too. We frequently and revered the episodes of the series that we had purchased on VHS tapes. One day I said to my mother: “I want to be an astronomer, like Carl Sagan.” And I enrolled in Astrophysics. It seemed like a very difficult thing to me, but when the subjects became impossible, I would go back to see a chapter of the series, go back to leaf through a Sagan book, and that comforted me and kept me going. When I managed to graduate, with sweat, tears and almost blood, I became a journalist, which is easier. In spite of everything, I think it would not have disappointed the American astronomer.

Sagan premiered Cosmos in 1980, a series created with his partner Ann Druyan and based on the homonymous book that reached world fame, inspiring thousands of scientists, popularizers and fans, creating countless scientific vocations. The series, which Sagan himself presented, focused on the account of the intricacies of the universe, from the solar system to galaxies, from thermonuclear reactions inside stars to the eccentric orbit of comets, but without disgust other matters such as the functioning of a cell, space in four dimensions, the nature of the largest numbers or the history of the oldest science.

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“Sagan is a reference in terms of relaxed but enthusiastic tone, clarity in the exposition and constant search to convey a deep message, not superficial,” reflects the scientific communicator Pere Estupinyà, creator of the television program The brain hunter (in La 2) and author of several books. “He did not frivolize or take science as a spectacle, but as what it is: the best tool we have to understand how the world works.” Today marks the 25th anniversary of Sagan’s death, in 1996, a victim of myelodysplasia and too young, only 62 years old. On the occasion of the anniversary two of his most famous essays are reissued, The dragons of eden (Review, which won a Pulitzer Prize) and The diversity of science (Peninsula).

Two and a half decades later, Sagan is still a popular figure. It is not difficult to find memes on social networks, the kind that associate a famous quote with a face (and that are often apocryphal), starring the scientist. A video of Sagan is very celebrated on the Internet: it is the one titled A pale blue dot (A pale blue dot) where Sagan’s deep voice accompanies the most distant image that has been taken of our planet, since the Voyager 1 probe, when it was 6,000 million kilometers away about to leave the Solar System forever.

The Earth, as huge and important to us as the ground under our feet (because it is), seems from those confines an insignificant speck of dust floating in a ray of sunlight, as when you raise the blind of the room on a sunny day . There Sagan reflects on our smallness in the face of the vast emptiness of the Universe: “Look at that point. That’s right here. That is our home. That is us. In it, everyone you love, everyone you meet, everyone you ever heard, every human being that has ever lived, lived his life ”. Sagan wrote the book A pale blue dot (Planet) inspired by that image. Already in it he warns about the need to preserve that tiny point that floats against the sea of ​​stars, because it is the only thing we have.

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In his scientific investigations he dealt with topics that are still of interest. He collaborated with NASA on planetary exploration missions. Investigating the atmosphere of Venus, Sagan observed the consequences of the greenhouse effect and, therefore, the dangers that climate change could bring to our planet. He hypothesized about the possible presence of water on the moons of Jupiter, specifically in the so-called Europa, and with it the potential existence of life. He was a supporter of the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life through the SETI Project, which sent messages into space, like someone throwing a bottle into the sea, and analyzed electromagnetic radiation in search of an alien trace.

Portrait of Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan in 1984.
Portrait of Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan in 1984.Mickey Adair (Getty Images)

Another bottle from the sea was the gold record launched on the Voyager probe, with different characteristic sounds of the Earth, which was devised by a committee chaired by Sagan. It was unlikely that an alien civilization would find the probe in the vastness of interstellar space or have a record player, but it was taken as a symbolic act. A hope thrown into the cosmic void. (Although tomorrow we could have an answer, how scary).

If Sagan raised his head he would be satisfied with the growing interest that has arisen around science and technology in recent times, both in journalistic information and in dissemination, after some years in which such an important issue, in a society eminently scientific-technological, it seemed to be in the background. The technological acceleration itself, in addition to planetary events such as the pandemic, or local events, such as the Palma volcano, has made us turn our heads towards researchers.

At the same time, the same processes have generated a certain distrust in science and the resurgence of pseudoscience and superstition, something that Sagan would no longer be so excited about and that the author fought so hard in his series (where he strongly criticizes astrology , which now resurfaces on Instagram to millenials modern) as in books such as The world and its demons: science as light in the dark (Review). This is how we have seen movements such as flat Earth or anti-vaccines grow, and crazy conspiracy theories are generated that lead us to polarization and totalitarianism.

Astronym Carl Sagan during a NASA press conference in 1990.
Astronym Carl Sagan during a NASA press conference in 1990.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

Dissemination has for years been the great unresolved issue for scientists, who many times considered it a secondary issue with respect to research, although that view seems to be changing: it is also the task of researchers to communicate the findings that so often have an impact. in society and are paid for with public money. “Disclosure should be a priority for science itself today, because science itself plays a lot in maintaining its public image,” says Antonio Diéguez, professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of Malaga. “It is necessary to promote respect and consideration for science if we want it to continue to occupy the prominent role it occupies today in culture.” Sagan himself suffered the mistrust of his colleagues, who generated the call sagan effect: the belief that a scientist who is too focused on dissemination, with too much media presence, abandons his research work (which in Sagan’s case did not happen).

“Who knows if today Carl Sagan would be told that his explanations and reflections were too long for the way information is consumed?” Asks Estupinyà. In recent times, dissemination has jumped to another screen, that of the Internet, in shorter and more vertiginous products, adapted to the new generations: there are many young disseminators who continue the work from platforms such as YouTube or Twitch. José Luis Crespo, young creator of the successful channel Quantum Fracture, admits that he did not drink from Sagan’s sources but from others youtubers Anglo-Saxon scientists. However, he knows how to recognize Sagan’s work. “On YouTube clips of his interviews or statements are still very easily moved, in which he puts answers bombastic”Says Crespo. “And although I think that for current generations it is no longer the reference disseminator as it was in the past, it continues to surprise many people.”

The Serie Cosmos He returned to screens in 2014 and 2020, in two new seasons from astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan. Sagan’s seed continues to create scientific vocations, which are rare, around the world. And who knows, maybe in outer space.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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