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SCIENCE!: I Need a Hero…

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November 9th was Carl Sagan’s birthday. It would have been his 78th had he not died in 1996 of the rare disease myelodysplasia.

In his 60 short years, Carl Sagan left an impression on the world of science like few others.  He was more than just a brilliant astronomer. His passion for science extended beyond his achievements in the laboratory or his contributions to theory. Carl Sagan was a voice for science, and an avid and charismatic one at that.

Personally I don’t recall ever watching much of Carl Sagan as a child, although it’s highly possible that I did. In researching this column, I did go back and watch some of COSMOS, which is a pretty mind blowing show if I say so myself.

Growing up, PBS and other educational programs were my babysitter; guys like Mr. Wizard, Bill Nye, and Beakman shaped my formative years. My earliest memories are of mornings that started with Sesame Street already tuned in to the TV. The learning was only interrupted when it was time for my mom’s soap operas. I was really in love with any show that was science related; the cheesy computer animated physics specials, the Disney anthologies including the outlandish “Mars and Beyond”, and a wide range of nature documentaries.

Those were the shows and the personalities that taught me to marvel at the world, to question it, and to seek the answers to my curiosity. They shaped my life trajectory in ways that I could have never dreamed. Guys like Carl Sagan (and those who came after him) took science out of the ivory tower and brought it to the masses in a way that most people could digest and understand if they really tried. Voices like his are sorely missing in today’s TV programming.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that guys like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are still out there, talking to the media, confronting misconceptions, and trying to educate the masses. Unfortunately their voices are a drop in the bucket compared to the deluge of Honey Boo Boo’s, Alaska “reality” shows, and gypsy weddings (yes those are all on former “educational” channels).

Even watching “Shark Week” leaves me sorely disappointed. The fascination of real science is replaced with the same stock footage of sharks blasting away at seals off Africa’s southern coast, complete with sensational “man vs. beast” and “shark vs. everything” narratives.

The greatest thing that the world of science could do to honor the memory of Carl Sagan is to find and promote those who have the charm, the drive, and the knowledge to bring education back to the masses. We need more shows that make science interesting and easy to understand. We need shows that deliver that message without cheapening or sensationalizing the power that the scientific method has on illuminating our world.

There’s no better place to start than right here in Alaska, one of the last great ecological landscapes. Instead of gold digging and crab fishing and taxidermy, we could be highlighting  the changing climate, pioneering energy research, and complex human and environmental interactions that are everyday occurrences here. I’d even be willing to throw my name in the hat as a host if any producers/directors out there were willing to bite *cough*.

But shameless self-promotion aside, the scientific community needs to do more. We need to come out of the dark recesses of our labs, put our jargon heavy technical papers aside, and begin engaging society again as expert educators. We need to teach the world that it’s not just about the answers, but how you ask the questions. Only then can we begin to battle the growing fear and paranoia of anti-intellectualism and anti-science. Doing so would preserve the legacy of people like Sagan far better than any holiday would.

In honor of Sagan’s work in astronomy we feature some recent Space SCIENCE! News:

On Mars, Curiosity smells it, but can’t figure out who dealt it:

And apparently Curiosity likes long walks on the beach and feeling the sand between its toes…

Usually we hear about scientists controlling rovers in space from Earth, however a recent test from the ISS attempted to do the exact opposite (using Legos!):

China is ramping up its manned spacecraft operations with a 15 day cruise scheduled for June of next year.

And finally, a new evolutionary theory holds that the presence of asteroid belts may indeed hold the key to finding inhabited solar systems, because nothing encourages evolution like giant space rocks smashing together.

James Shewmake was the science and nerd culture columnist for the Alaska Commons. He also provided photojournalism and general editorial content for the site. He was the 2nd place finalist for the 2013 Alaska Press Club Leslie Ann Murray Award for his editorial piece on science and religion. James holds a Master’s of Science degree in Natural Resource Management from the University of Alaska - Fairbanks. When he is not working on content for the Commons, he is usually dedicating himself to research on subsistence fisheries, time travel, and/or the establishment of a new Galactic Empire.

What do you think?