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.

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.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

4 reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for universal basic income

In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.

(Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
  • The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
  • Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
Keep reading Show less

Dead – yes, dead – tardigrade found beneath Antarctica

A completely unexpected discovery beneath the ice.

(Goldstein Lab/Wkikpedia/Tigerspaws/Big Think)
Surprising Science
  • Scientists find remains of a tardigrade and crustaceans in a deep, frozen Antarctic lake.
  • The creatures' origin is unknown, and further study is ongoing.
  • Biology speaks up about Antarctica's history.
Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

Videos
  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
Keep reading Show less