The Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowship

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television series led me – I’m more or less convinced of this, as I look back  – into becoming a professional scientist. From watching Cosmos I learned about nucleosynthesis, the process by which fusion in stars cobbles atoms together from primordial hydrogen. I’d never been taught about the origins of the elements before, in any science class in grade school. Not once. Cosmos also taught me the basics of how evolution works, what a redshift is, and how I can thank fanatics and zealots for setting civilization back a thousand years when they burned the Library of Alexandria. Sagan was probably the first person I’d ever seen who depicted science as something more than a dry recitation of technical details, or some kind of arcane wizardry for the chosen few. I watched that show start to finish, I bought and read the book version, and my course in life was decided.

NASA now offers a Carl Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowship in Exoplanet Exploration, which is almost enough to make me wish I were back in grad school today. Establishing this fellowship is a wonderful thing for NASA to do, and places Sagan’s name alongside only two others for whom NASA has established named fellowships in astrophysics. The other two names are Einstein and Hubble.

In this video Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about how important Sagan’s legacy is. When I was in graduate school I knew people who dismissed Sagan because he went on television and talked to normals. I knew those critics were wrong, and I said so, but it was hard to push my point that educating the public about science was necessary and such a valuable activity. I was in grad school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, long before anyone imagined that in the 21st century we’d still have to fight against ignorant filth like intelligent design or “academic freedom” laws built to stifle real education. Back then Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson weren’t household names yet, and no one had ever heard of a science blog. Carl Sagan broke that ground for the rest of us. I only wish he’d lived longer. I’d love to shake his hand and tell him, “thanks”.


~ by Planetologist on January 8, 2009.

3 Responses to “The Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowship”

  1. Yes, I agree, Carl Sagan was a true genius. Cosmos was a superb series – I enjoyed it immensely, particularly those parts which exposed mankind’s superstitious nature – readily accepting religious nonsense, and astrological charts etc. He was one of the first to show his true atheist colours in a land heaped in religious dogma.

    • I think Cosmos was so effective because Sagan didn’t preach, he simply talked about science he found cool, and explained poetically and beautifically how we think the universe operates. He based what he described on verifiable knowledge and observations, wherein a god model does not easily fit. I’d have to look at a transcript to check, but I’ll wager – from all I remember of the series and the book – that the words atheist or atheism never appear in Cosmos. Neither did abigfootist or aunicornism. They aren’t mentioned specifically because they flow already as rational conclusions from an intellectually honest examination of the universe. Magical models fail, so there’s nothing useful to be gained in bringing them up.

  2. Thank Cthulu for scientists who take the time to talk to ‘normals’, or I’d still be stuffing my brain full of fundie/evangelical cotton candy, instead of the rich nourishing meat of science.

    The world needs more Sagans.

    You’re doing your bit, Dr. Haas. Thanks.

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