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Bright Star Among Billions

by Stephen Jay Gould


A
s Saul despised David for receiving ten thousand cheers to his own mere thousand, scientists often stigmatize, for the same reason of simple jealousy, the good work done by colleagues for our common benefit. We live in a philistine nation filled with Goliaths, and we know that science feeds at a public trough. We therefore all give lip service to the need for clear and supportive popular presentation of our work. Why then do we downgrade the professional reputation of colleagues who can convey the power and beauty of science to the hearts and minds of a fascinated, if generally uninformed public?

This narrow-minded error—our own philistinism—arises in part from our general ignorance of the long and honorable literary tradition of popular presentation for science, and our consequent mistake in equating popularization with trivialization, cheapening, or inaccuracy. Great scientists have always produced the greatest popularizations, without compromising the integrity of subject or author. In the seventeenth century, Galileo wrote both his major books as dialogues in Italian for generally literate readers, not as formal Latin treatises designed only for scholars. In the eighteenth century, the Swiss savant J. J. Scheuchzer produced the beautifully elaborate eight-volume Physica sacra, with 750 full-page copperplate engravings illustrating the natural history behind all biblical events. In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, the most important and revolutionary of all scientific works, as a book for general readers. (My students often ask me where they can find the technical monograph that served as the basis of Darwin's popular work; I tell them that The Origin of Species fulfills both allied, not opposing, functions.)

With the death of Carl Sagan, we have lost both a fine scientist and the greatest popularizer of the twentieth century, if not of all time. In his many books, and especially in his monumental television series Cosmos—our century's equivalent of Scheuchzer's Physica sacra and the most widely accessed presentation of our subject in all human history—Carl explained the method and content of our discipline to the general public. He also conveyed the excitement of discovery with an uncanny mix of personal enthusiasm and clear presentation unequaled by any predecessor. I mourn his passing primarily because I have lost a dear friend, but I am also sad that many scientists never appreciated his excellence or his importance to all of us, while a few of the best of us (in a shameful incident at the National Academy of Sciences) actively rejected him. (Carl was a remarkably sanguine man, but I know that this incident hurt him deeply.) Too many of us never grasped his legendary service to science.

I would epitomize Carl Sagan's excellence and integrity in three points. First, in an age characterized by the fusion of high and pop culture, Carl moved comfortably across the entire spectrum while never compromising scientific content. He could joke with Johnny Carson, compose a colunm for Parade, and write a science fiction novel while maintaining an active laboratory and publishing technical papers. He had foibles aplenty; don't we all? We joked about his emphatic pronunciation of "billions," and my young son (much to Carl's amusement) called Cosmos the "stick-head-up show" because Carl always looked up dreamily into the heavens. But the public watched, loved, and learned. Second, for all his pizzazz and charisma, Carl always spoke for true science against the plethora of irrationalisms that surround us. He conveyed one consistent message: real science is so damned exciting, transforming, and provable; why would anyone prefer the undocumentable nonsense of astrology, alien abductions, and so forth? Third, he bridged the gaps between our various cultures by showing the personal, humanistic, and artistic side of scientific activity. I will never, for example, forget his excellent treatment of Hypatia, a great woman, philosopher, and mathematician, martyred in Alexandria in A.D. 415.

You had a wonderful life, Carl, but far too short. You will, however, always be with us, especially if we as a profession can learn from you how the common touch enriches science while extending an ancient tradition that lies at the heart of Western humanism, and does not represent (when properly done) a journalistic perversion of the "sound bite" age. In the words that John Dryden wrote about another great artist, the composer Henry Purcell, who died even younger in 1695: "He long ere this had tuned the jarring spheres and left no hell below."


[ Stephen Jay Gould, "Bright Star Among Billions," Science 275 (January 31, 1997): 599; Reprinted here with permission from The Lying Stones of Marrakech, New York: Harmony Books, 2000, pp. 237-239. ]


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