Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Who Will Lead?

Every so often, I mark with sadness the passing of one of the great vanguards of science in this nation, if not on this planet. It is so very rarely that a figure such as Carl Sagan, who combines a wealth of innovation, distinguished academic research, and public awareness and education, exists to the enlightenment of society. His boundless energy and enthusiasm were, for generations, the face of science in the public’s eye. He was balanced, concerned for us as a people, a society, a species, and made us realize our own special nature in his own reflections. Prolific writers such as himself, and the indomitable Isaac Asimov, helped propel science to new levels in a variety of ways, inspiring countless numbers to take up the practice and delight of scientific discovery. Such towering figures, especially Carl, would lead to a natural conclusion that their shadows would long influence the scientific community. Sadly, this is not what has transpired.

While the passing of any great man of learning and the people, of whom Carl was both, has repercussions that are unknown in scope and magnitude, the vacuum left by his death ushered in an even more dangerous situation. Today his absence is sorely felt. Instead of a persona, or a collection of personalities, promoting the positive, and realistic, aims of science, science is continually sniped by various segments of society. There is no respite; most famously in recent times the concept of evolution, one of the soundest scientific theories developed since gravity, has come under attack. Indeed, by questioning the “fact” of this theory, the skeptics call into question the very notion of the scientific method, something every scientist should be appalled at. Science funding is cut at every level; concrete science, which is accepted by institutions across the globe, is endlessly disputed for short-term financial gain.

The list of affronts to science, and to our own position as a progressive technological society, are maddeningly endless. And who stands up to defend them? There is no face, no organization, that presents itself in the front of the maelstrom in order to defend what they knew was right.

Even more pressing than these issues now confronting our attention is this lack of a leader to serve within the public awareness and work to bring science as a whole back to our collective priority list. Carl Sagan provided a much-needed voice and image to science. A person who was so honored and yet understood the ramifications that science has on the public, and is able to work with the public to help promote science education and awareness. These qualities of leadership are sorely lacking in the modern science community. While there is still, and will always be, a need for pure scientists, the whole community seems to have fled to that proverbial ivory tower, content to put-put about their experiments and divest themselves from the world around them. Their isolation is made plain on so many levels, from their instruction in the next generation of scientists and engineers, to the relative silence on so many of the issues named above. It is impossible for them to remain so aloof.

Throughout history, there have been scientists who are prominent in the public eye. Even, to a degree, minor celebrities. This benefited not only the person in question, but also the pursuit of science in general. These persons brought positive discoveries to the forefront of the nation’s, and even the world’s, attention. Such personalities, like Einstein was in the early part of the century, are another necessary point of public contact for scientists. They form the relations team that conveys a human face to a discipline that is all too often viewed as impersonal, cold, distant. And it is this face that needs to be projected to the public, both to garner additional support for science research and implementation, but also to inspire the next generation of children to consider scientific endeavors as a positive life choice. To integrate the scientists in the lab and the public at large can only benefit both, and isolation works counter to that optimistic future.

Science does not remain in the ivory tower forever, however much pure scientists’ supporters want to believe. It makes its way into the public realm, and it is ultimately the public, though perhaps indirectly, that dictates how this science will be conducted in the future. If it is allowed to get mired in politics, superstition, lobbying, how will this affect the future of science? Of our entire society? Scientists can be marshaled into their own individual self-preservation, but it requires adroit work with the public that only a few can provide in order to bring science back into the positive light of this society and create an overall benign atmosphere in which science, and therefore all of society, flourishes. The bridging of the gap between laboratory scientists and the public was Carl’s greatest gift. He did not speak from a pure scientists’ point of view, nor from any prejudiced position, but merely as a human, as part of this era and this society. He convinced us all that science was worth knowing, not because it is profitable or politically correct, but because it is human nature to be curious and wonder about the world around us. That is the power, and beauty, of science as he described it. Science can be beautiful, it can be fun, it can even be spiritual. A voice of such unification and universal appeal is not often uncovered. And now we are bereft of such leadership, perhaps when we need it the most.

Carl, we need you to help work towards a better future in a science-driven society. We need your successor to help make us believe again why we pursue the unknown.

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