The Carl Sagan Institute Opening: Two Rules for Science Communication

On May 9th, I was privileged to attend the opening of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell. It was a wonderful day. I met Ann Druyan, and I unexpectedly had a chance to catch up with Ian Cheney, the director of The City Dark (among other films).

Lisa Kaltnegger, the Institute’s founding director, should be commended for putting together an incredible slate of speakers. Arranged in rough chronology, each of them told the story of the discovery of extrasolar planets from the 1980s to the present day. Not only did the speakers explain a lot of the exciting science behind the search for other planets, they also provided a lot of food for thought about science communication in general.

First off, Ann Druyan is remarkable in her ability to channel her late husband Carl Sagan, but she has a calm power that is very much her own. She has the rare ability to align and open both heart and mind to an intellectually-attentive state of awe. Her opening talk not just set the stage for all that followed, but the tone as well. It’s hard to pinpoint, but I think it’s the same thing in the original Cosmos that can make me teary-eyed, and the same thing in the new Cosmos that had my ten year old daughter Zora excitedly talking about the connections of scientific ideas through the ages. Druyan is one of our most talented science communicators.

All of the talks are available on the Carl Sagan Institute homepage, and they are all well worth the time. My favorite presentation was given by Natalie Batalha, an astronomer with Nasa who works on the Kepler mission. Now, she was in a good position to steal the show; Kepler has provided evidence for thousands of planets, many of them rocky and small like our earth, and some of them in their star’s habitable zones. The Kepler Mission has literally blown open our vision of the galaxy in terms of the abundance of planets:

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The yellow dots are the confirmed planets found by Kepler. Until this space telescope came on line, instruments on earth were limited to finding large planets, most of them gas giants orbiting near their stars (“hot Jupiters”). Kepler was designed to find smaller, rocky planets, like Earth or Mars, and as you can see, it has done that in spades.

Now, read this paragraph and then go outside and look up at the stars. Because of Kepler’s data, we can now say with reasonable confidence that half of all the stars you see above you have planets around them. It’s entirely possible that almost all solar systems have planets, but the data isn’t there yet. Now, go back inside.

Ponder for a minute how earth-shaking that revelation is. Many readers conscious before the advent of the internet may remember looking up and wondering if there were planets around any other star in the night sky. And now we know about thousands of them.

What made Natalie’s presentation my favorite, in addition to this wonderful information, was that it started with the moment she became aware of science. In fact, when I had a chance to ask a question at the end of the day, it was this What was it that provoked you to an awareness of science?

For Ann Druyan, it was her Dad telling her about the deep time we see in a single starry sky; for Steve Squyres, it was the predictive ability of a program his Dad wrote for him calculating the position of Jupiter’s moons. For the astrobiologist Lynn Rothchild it was a microscope, and the “private universe” it opened up for her. These were all great stories!

All of the speakers seemed to understand that the real story they were telling was that of the scientific method itself. They spoke to the method not only in the micro scale of their individual research, but also in the macro scale, across human history, the great cathedral of knowledge taking shape slowly, a stone or piece of colored glass at a time.

Bumping into Ian Cheney was fortuitious. Currently a Knight Journalism Fellow at MIT, Ian shares three of my passions: science in general, astronomy in particular, and science communication. We watched the Institute opening in part through those shared lenses and it was great to compare notes at the end of the day (joined by three other Knight fellows).

I think there are two lessons I learned from the Carl Sagan Institute opening. In fact, they might even be rules. So here they are, tenuously: Two Rules of Science Communication:

1. Always tell the story of how you became aware of (and enthralled with) science. This story helps your audience understand your motivation and provides a vital context: that science is compelled and sustained by wonder.

2. Always remember that your first goal as a science communicator is to help people understand the scientific method. In the simplest formulation, a scientific talk is not about a topic, it’s about how science has illuminated that topic.

Now, go watch those talks on the Carl Sagan Institute web page, and be inspired. These folks are not just the best at what they do, they are the best at telling the story of what they do.

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