Carl Sagan's most important lesson about science
The thing that Carl Sagan did better than anybody else was connecting to the science through emotion and stories, says NASA's Michelle Thaller.
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer who studies binary stars and the life cycles of stars. She is Assistant Director of Science Communication at NASA. She went to college at Harvard University, completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif. then started working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Spitzer Space Telescope. After a hugely successful mission, she moved on to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in the Washington D.C. area. In her off-hours often puts on about 30lbs of Elizabethan garb and performs intricate Renaissance dances. For more information, visit NASA.
Michelle Thaller: So when I was growing up as a young girl—in Wisconsin actually—I was ten years old when Carl Sagan’s show Cosmos came on public broadcasting. And as a ten year old kind of living in rural Wisconsin I had never really met an astronomer. That’s not someone you routinely meet.
Whenever people tell me, you know, you don’t really seem like an astronomer. The wonderful next thing to ask is, “How many astronomers do you know?”
So my vision of what an astronomer was was this man on this television show, on public television, Carl Sagan.
And the thing that Carl did better than anybody else I’d ever seen was this emotional connection to the science. He loved to tell stories. He would tell stories about the history but also it was from him that I learned where all of the atoms in my body come from. The fact that they were all formed in stars. And when Carl talks about that on the show I mean we sort of made a joke that there are these things called “Carl moments” where Carl sort of gazes dramatically off into space and the camera sort of close up, you know, close up on his face. And you can see him sort of emoting at how wonderful this is.
And these days, you know, decades later those scenes seem a little bit silly and a little bit contrived. But as a child I was taken along for this incredible emotional journey. Carl was a real rock star. He had this charisma and people would just listen to what he was saying and they would love to follow along with his stories. And that became to me the image of what a scientist was, what an astronomer was, was somebody that could tell the stories of the universe.
So I never ended up meeting Carl. I always wanted to. He unfortunately died very young, he died in his early 60s and I was a graduate student at the time. I always figured I would see him at some astronomy conference, I’d somehow, you know, wander past him at one of these scientific meetings and tell him how much that his show had meant to me. But I never got that chance.
I never left though that idea, that what a scientist really does is tell stories. It’s about the narrative and it’s about the emotions. And Carl did that better than anyone I’ve ever seen.
The thing that Carl Sagan did better than anybody else was connecting to the science through emotion and stories, says NASA's Michelle Thaller. Watching him when growing up formed Thaller's vision of what an astronomer could be and inspired her for the rest of her life.
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