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Carl Sagan’s Secret Sauce: Tapping Into Our Religious Sense?

What's Carl Sagan Got That Michio Kaku's not?

Yesterday I mentioned Carl Sagan and Cosmos to one of my summer research interns.

"Who is Carl Sagan?" he asked.

"You know, billions and billions of stars...," I implored. [Yes, I know he apparently never actually said that in the show.]

"Nope. Never heard of him," he responded, worried now that I was disappointed in his knowledge base.

I was disappointed. Not at my student, but that the show that had helped coax me forward in the sciences has lost so much ground that many of today's college students have never even heard of it, much less seen it.

What's the big deal with Sagan's Cosmos? There have been, after all, loads of television shows about the sciences and cosmology over the years, and many of the more recent ones have been much more elaborately produced than Cosmos.

Cosmos is different, though, and in my experiences over the years I have found many (mostly of my generation) that agreed. More than any other show (it seems to me), Cosmos affected people and propelled them into the sciences.

As an undergraduate, I had noticed that my fellow physics majors could be approximately split into two categories. The first group I called "radio-kids." These were the students who, as children, had enjoyed disassembling the radio and putting it back together again, sometimes with improvements. The second group of physics students I labeled "Sagan kids." These were the students who, as kids, hardly knew that radios were built out of parts, but had watched and were propelled forward by Carl Sagan's Cosmos series. I was a Sagan kid.

The distinction between radio kids and Sagan kids also maps nicely onto two broadly distinct strategies for motivating kids to enter the sciences.

Radio kids represent the "get practical" approach to science motivation. You want students to be pulled into science? Then make it relevant to their everyday lives - show them that science is useful.

That's the argument, at least. But there are at least two glaring problems with the "get practical" strategy.

The first problem is that it is not quite true that the sciences are useful. As a scientist, I tend to feel that I employ my training in lots of aspects of my life, although I may be fooling myself. And even if we scientists do tend to employ our "science" for practical reasons, there's no avoiding the fact that much of the world gets on with the practicalities of life without much science in their head. And, at any rate, wouldn't an MBA be more practical than a physics or science major for most students, in terms of helping to ensure themselves a good job?

The second problem with the "get practical" strategy to science motivation is this: ‘practical' is boring! People aren't motivated to change the direction of their life for practicality. They can certainly be brow-beaten into choosing a practical major (e.g., by their parents or by "good" practical sense), but this is a grudging and unromantic choice.

Whereas radio kids represent the "get practical" approach to science education and motivation, Sagan kids represent the "life, the universe and everything" strategy. Such a strategy taps into one's "spiritual" or "religious" brain, getting at one's romantic desire to figure out "what it all means" and "why there is all." That's the kind of motivation that can redirect a life into a science.

And this is what Sagan's Cosmos had in spades. If you haven't seen the series, then it will sound ridiculously corny when you learn that Sagan would sit in a futuristic space ship and travel at much-greater-than-light-speed throughout the universe, with inspiring electronic elevator-esque music by Vangelis Papathanassiou (probably corny to kids today, but still awesome to me). When Sagan wasn't riding his sleek space ship, we were treated to the great scientists over history in period garb, struggling with their attempts to grasp the universe.

The result: a show designed to harness our "religious sense," even though Sagan was resolutely non-religious (as am I). That's what Carl Sagan's got that Michio Kaku's not (although Kaku comes closer than anyone else since Sagan).

The moral of Sagan's Cosmos is to utterly reject the "get practical" strategy, and instead aim for the least practical direction of all, toward life, the universe and everything.

Lucky for us, Cosmos is available for free on Hulu and Netflix. But it's time for the next generation of science educators to comprehend Sagan's secret sauce, and to use it liberally on the kids of today.

Mark Changizi is the author of The Vision Revolution and a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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