Sci doesn't usually dip her toe in the water with regard to metabloviation on science outreach and science communication (though she does a lot of both outreach and communication). While I love to run with and develop and perform and output new ideas in science communication and outreach, I find the controversies and discussions surrounding it difficult to break into. I simply don't have the background, and thus any time I try to say anything, I usually end up looking stupid. Sci doesn't like looking stupid (sure, we should all have stupidity in science, but not the kind that makes you hang your head in shame), and so I generally don't like taking it on, though I follow the conversations with a great deal of interest.
But something happened to me today that I wanted other people, who might do more with the ideas around modern scientific communication, to hear about. Who knows? They may have already encountered something like this themselves.
And it started with the question above.
"Who is Carl Sagan?"
The girl who asked me, a friend of mine, looked totally lost and puzzled. We were playing a game of "apples to apples" which is a card game where you pick nouns to match adjectives, and one person picks the best, which is really a lot more entertaining than it sounds (for example, we had two adjectives of "perfect" and "horrifying", and the final winner was "Spam", though I really think it should have been "Cher"). The card which had the name "Carl Sagan" had simply some dates and the phrase "an exobiologist".
I was the only person there who knew who Carl Sagan was, and the only one who had a good guess as to what an "exobiologist" was.
But here's the thing. The person who asked me who Carl Sagan was was incredibly bright. She is very talented. She's a generally great person to be around.
She's a pharmacist, and she's taken piles of science courses, including biology, a lot of chemistry, some physics, etc. And she had no idea who Carl Sagan was. She had never heard of "Cosmos".
Now some of you might GASP in horror and say "well, obviously she's not a good scientist/pharmacist/educated person". I would beg to differ, this girl is great at her job, well educated, and generally an interesting person to be around.
But it really made me pause. What does it mean that she didn't know about Carl Sagan? Was it because she wasn't really interested in science outside of medicine? Was it because she didn't get into science until she was older?
Or was it merely because she was under 30?
When we talk about science communication and the future, we often say we need another Carl Sagan. But is the model of Carl Sagan really relevant anymore? Who else is inspirational? Do we need another Bill Nye? Another Mr. Wizard? More Mathnet? What does it mean that model we have always thought of as reaching the scientists of today may not in fact have reached them at all?
I don't know the answers. I don't even know if I'm asking the right questions. I'll even be totally honest. I've never seen "Cosmos" myself. I have never seen Carl Sagan in action and I can certainly not say I've been inspired. I heard it's still being shown on science channels, but I don't watch a lot of TV, and so that sort of thing doesn't get to me. Does this make me a bad scientist? Does it make me a bad science communicator?
For all I know, other people have asked these questions and this whole post is irrelevant. But I want to know what you all think. What does it mean that some (or many) modern day scientists don't know who Carl Sagan is? Is that good or bad? What does it mean for science communication in general?
And if we need a modern Carl Sagan, what would they look like? What would they DO? And how would they capture the hearts and minds and imaginations of millions?
And if I'm being stupid about this, please let Sci know. She's tough and she can take it. And I will certainly learn.