Growing up in an era where schools easily isolate science from humanity studies and the arts, it’s easy to forget that scientific principles often begin with a journey within ourselves.
Alexander Humboldt, a passionate walker who traversed the mountains 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.
Some artists and poets have bridged the scientific and the everyday, giving us a new language to reconnect with nature in ways that evoke our primal need for a cosmic wholeness. And to me, no one does it better than Carl Sagan, the elusive astronomer and storyteller who gave us a grandeur pic of Earth, looking like a meaningless dot in an infinitely empty space.
In his TV Series Cosmos, Sagan weaved scientific facts with daily anecdotes, showing us what the Native Americans call mitakuye oyasin, or the interconnectedness of everything. Throughout his transformative poetic power, Sagan provoked us with existential questions that we often neglect when pursuing scientific inquiries. The 9-episode of cosmic exploration, then, becomes a self-exploration as well into the depths of the unknown.
Both Sagan and his wife who co-wrote with him, Ann Druyan, wanted this TV series for the families. And they achieved exactly that. Over 500 million people in 60 countries gathered in front of the TV ever since.
But it’s a whole different story with the scientific community. Not pleased with the public fame that Sagan garnered, 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.
Grinspoon was talking about Sagan, probably one of the very few scientific writers who successfully charmed a wide audience.
In the early 1990s, Sagan was nominated to join the highly prestigious National Academy of Science. But out of 60 nominees, he was the only one who got unanimous rejection 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 posited by Kuwait oil fires in 1990. Concluding that the excessive smoke and fire would disrupt 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 few years of defending his own research, Sagan revised his research findings. In the end, “extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence,” and Sagan had to come to terms with his own statement. His misreading of the situation in Kuwait risked him the National Academy of Science membership, an organization that advises politicians and lobbyists nation-wide.
Nevertheless, 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 seemed to perpetuate the ivory tower attitude. And this mindset leaks into schools and the working life; where science is just another subject with neat distinction from the arts and social studies.
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 connection 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.