I am crushingly busy right now– massive book rewrites needed, papers to grade, etc.– so I’ve actually been fairly happy with the general lack of topics that inspire a deep desire to blog. which of course, was promptly upset this morning, when a brief outburst of hating on Carl Sagan erupted on Twitter just as I was about to head to the gym.
The catalyst was the hoopla surrounding the donation of Sagan’s papers to the Library of Congress, which though it isn’t specifically cited was the cause of a flurry of Twitter discussion that I think led to Erin Podolak’s anti-Sagan manifesto, which in turn produced a bunch of ephemeral follow-on discussion on Twitter.
As is usually the case, my take on this is slightly different than most of the argument, which pretty well ran its course while I was playing basketball. But on the off chance that anyone still cares, I will explain the theory I alluded to on Twitter.
My read of this is that most of the wistful longing for a “next Carl Sagan” doesn’t actually have much to do with Carl Sagan the person or writer, but “Carl Sagan” the cultural phenomenon. That is, at the time that Cosmos aired, he was everywhere– the cover of Time, the Tonight Show, etc. He wasn’t just a science popularizer, he was a pop-culture phenomenon, nd everybody loved him in a way that really hasn’t happened since.
And the mistake everyone makes about this is thinking that that success was a result of his personal qualities. But it wasn’t. At least, it wasn’t exclusively about his personal qualities– to be sure, he had a good deal of charisma in a late-1970’s sort of way, and Cosmos was, at the time, a rather impressive achievement (it’s kind of slow and rambling to modern tastes, alas).
But that success was also a result of the fortuitous collision of a lot of other factors– PBS was in a relatively stronger position at the time, he didn’t have to compete with a vast and fragmented cable tv universe (let alone the Internet), space stuff had greater salience as the Apollo program was not too far in the past and the Space Shuttle program still seemed like a great idea, his tone and topic were generally hopeful and relatively apolitical, etc. All those factors came together for him in a way that they haven’t since.
Asking for a “next Carl Sagan” isn’t, to my mind, specifically about a desire for a white dude in a turtleneck talking about astronomy, it’s nostalgia for a time when a guy talking about science was one of the most recognizable figures in pop culture. I don’t think it really matters what science it is, or what the person looks like, people just want to see a science communicator on the cover of Time again.
It’s a little like the periodic lamentation about the lack of a “new Einstein” in physics. People saying that aren’t so much talking about Einstein the person or Einstein the physicist, but Einstein the cultural phenomenon– the guy who was so universally famous that fifty years after his death, he’s still the name people reach for when asked to name a scientist. Like Sagan, that was only partly a product of his personal qualities– the phenomenon that we know as “Einstein” came about through a combination of physical insight and clarity of expression, yes, but also personal charisma and a lot of factors particular to that historical moment. He was working on the right problems at the right moment, and caught the public imagination in just the right way. He had contemporaries and successors who made contributions to physics that were just as deep and revolutionary– Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, Feynman, Gell-Mann, etc.– without ever attaining the same level of fame.
People asking for a “next Carl Sagan” or a “next Einstein” aren’t talking about the specific people attached to those names, but the vast cultural phenomenon associated with them. Because those things are nearly impossible to disentangle at this point.
And the problem is that saying “We need a new Carl Sagan” or “We need a new Einstein” is a lot like saying “Hey, remember that time when a solid-gold meteorite landed in the field next to our house? We should totally do that again.”
The cultural phenomena that we associate with Carl Sagan was a product of a particular moment, and that moment has passed. It passed within his lifetime, if you want to be honest about it– the peak of his fame was circa 1980, and while he continued to be a go-to scientific commentator for the media for many years after that, by the time of his death in 1996, the general reaction was not so much general lamentation over the loss of a beloved figure as “Oh, he was still alive?”
The culture is so different right now that the chances of someone attaining Sagan-like status by doing the same sort of things that he did is basically zero. The media environment is different, the political environment is different, everything is different. It’s not going to happen again, not the same way.
I could be wrong, of course– Neil de Grasse Tyson is on the edge of iconic status, and maybe the Cosmos reboot on Fox will take off and catapult him to vast fame. And 20 years from now, people will be wondering who the next Tyson is going to be, working on the mistaken assumption that his fame had something to do with his ridiculous vest… but I don’t think so.
Does that means it’s hopeless? No, I think it’s possible that somebody else might somehow bubble up through new media channels to pop-culture icon status. But whatever they do will be different than what Sagan did.
So, like I said on Twitter, everybody’s wrong on the Internet. People getting too hung up on Sagan specifically, in either direction, are missing the point. It’s not the person that matters, it’s the phenomenon, and that’s not something you can engineer, or reasonably expect to happen on cue.