Bringing science into the pop culture

Throughout history, there has been plenty of people who bring new meanings into the sciences, to keep it out of the lab boxes, and to explore the human and spiritual side of science. Growing up in an era where schools easily confine science into a specific class, it’s easy to forget that underneath its numerical clothe, is scientific principles driven by beauty and awe. Alexander Humboldt, a passionate walker who traversed the mountainous regions of South America while meticulously documenting hundreds of new plants and animal species, spoke on how “nature can be so soothing to the tormented mind.” Decades later, Rachel Carlson, a marine biologist and gifted writer who once protested against government and chemical corporations, wrote:

The pleasures, the values of contact with the natural world, are not reserved for the scientists. They are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of a lonely mountain top — or the sea — or the stillness of a forest; or who will stop to think about so small a thing as the mystery of a growing seed.

In the modern post-war era, where mass media conquers a majority of our waking lives, Carl Sagan’s monumental TV Series Cosmos—a 9-episode of space and self-exploration into the depths of the unknown—comes to mind. Transcending age and nations, the typically dry scientific information was conveyed so elusively, that in its transformative poetic power, reminded us that science—like the arts—carries existential questions that worth our attention.

Both Sagan and Druyan wanted this TV series to be watched by families. And they did exactly that. Over 500 million people in 60 countries gathered in front of the TV ever since.

However, Sagan’s popularity in the entertainment industry wasn’t particularly met with enthusiasm by his fellow scientists. His Harvard friend, Lester Grinspoon, a senior psychiatrist, testified:

Wherever you turned, there was one astronomer being quoted on everything, one astronomer whose face you were seeing on TV, and one astronomer whose books had the preferred display slot at the local bookstore.

In the early 1990s, Sagan was nominated to join the highly prestigious National Academy of Science. But out of 60 people, he was the only one rejected, most likely on the basis that his TV personality and ‘hobby’ were seen as interfering his scholarly works. A Nobel Prize winner and an astrophysicist, Harold Urey, claimed that Sagan was getting too much publicity as a scientist and was treating some scientific theories too casually.

True, Sagan’s lowest point as a scholar came around this time too, when he miscalculated the danger posed by Kuwait oil fires in 1990. Concluding that the excessive smoke and fire would disrupt much agriculture in Asia, his conclusions was assumed to be exaggerating the data and highlighting more of his ideals, rather than presenting actual findings. Later on, his conclusion proved to be an overestimation, as had already been debunked by some scientists; giving way for Sagan’s own flawed focus and biases.

Making wrong predictions in science shouldn’t be judged so harshly, but when it happened to someone who was widely known for the statement: “It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring,” then his integrity was at stake.

After a few years of defending his own research, Sagan revised his research findings.  His sloppiness risks him the National Academy of Science membership, an organization that gives advises to politicians and lobbyists, nation-wide.

Even though Sagan couldn’t careless about this rejection, the fact that National Academy of Science once dismissed Sagan’s world-wide contribution to the creative and intellectual culture seemingly perpetuating the ivory tower attitude, where certain subjects remain exclusive to the privileged, including the discussion of sciences that should be kept away from the masses, just like the bibles and religion. And this mindset leaked into schools and careers; where science is just another subject with neat distinction from the arts and social studies.

But in facing today’s complex life riddles, we need the flexibility to move through different disciplines; to weave one subject with another; to let them mirror and inspire one another because as Maria Popova said, “The moment we separate science from life, including the civic aspect, we diminish both.”

We owe so much to the people who bring science down from the ivory tower and imbuing it with poetries and romance. And when we begin to see the connection between science and poetries, we can see that the stretch between the scientific and the romantic; the imagined and the facts; are indeed quite vast. Thanks to some people, we are now free to dance along, and together, on this tapestry of interweaved wisdom.


P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase

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