Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Carl Sagan and celebrity cosmology: Was he the best cosmology could do?

I am reading - and reviewing - American journalist Pam Winnick's A Jealous God (Nelson, 2005). She writes, among other things, about celebrity cosmologist Carl Sagan - and it is illuminating, for reasons Sagan enthusiasts might not wish it to be:

He was a handsome man, tall and casually dressed, more poet than scientist. As he walked alongside the ocean with its crashing waves, the breeze blowing back his hair, he was very much the Romantic poet - John Keats or William Blake - contemplating the wonder of the universe.

"There is a tingling in the spine," he said, ""and a faint sensation as though falling from a great height .... ""

For his role in the thirteen-part series that ran on consecutive Sundays from September until Christmas of 1980, Carl Sagan, already wealthy beyond imagination, received a hefty $2 million advance. A collaboration between Carl Sagan Productions and Los Angeles station KCET, Cosmos was the most expensive and glitzy production in the history of public television, ... Filmed in forty locations in twelve countries, the production's $8 million budget rivaled that of many movies from that era.

Sagan's subsequent book, The Cosmos, was read by 500 million people in sixty countries and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for seventy weeks, the most popular science book ever. The video cassette and DVD versions of the series remain widely available.

A foundation operated in his name after his death [in 1996] continues to market his products.

Like Inherit the Wind before it, the Cosmos television series, which won both a Peabody and Emmy (along with many other awards), helped shape the public's perception of science - while also perpetuating the supremacy of science over religion.
But Sagan's colleagues did not think of him as his public did. He was denied tenure at Harvard and in 1992 he was denied membership in the National Academy of Sciences. His colleagues may have been motivated by jealousy but the reality is that his main achievements were better recognized by Hollywood than by science. (Pp. 155-57)
After describing the way in which Sagan promoted his pet political causes, Winnick notes,

As he explains the origins of the universe in each episode, Sagan continuously - and gratuitously - sprinkles his narrative with the words "accident" and "random," descriptions that guard against any inference of the divine. To the more "naive," including the millions of Americans of faith, it might have been equally valid to ponder the beginnings of the universe and rejoice not in the "accident" of existence, but in its miracle.

While randomness is the very stalwart of neo-Darwinism, the concept of a universe created by chance alone is also a judgment call, a philosophy that wears the tenuous mask of science. Indeed, the words "accident," "chance," and "random" - all of them gratuitous - reveal far more about the narrator's own fear of God than they do about he nature of the universe.
As a friend likes to say, beware, beware, there's a God out there ...

An archive of Sagan's writings is here. It is clearly a rival religion. Behave as if in church.

See also:

So where are all Sagan's space aliens?, Guardian science writer asks

Dissing St. Carl in his own church