I am reading again of Immanuel Velikovsky, this time of his public interactions with Carl Sagan, widely regarded as a go-to source in the field of astrophysics. I am reading a book by Charles Ginenthal, who apparently had low regard for Sagan. I have read much of Sagan’s popular work, and would not call him a fraud. However, he did not put actions behind his words, and that is Ginenthal’s complaint, as will be apparent below.
Ginenthal published Carl Sagan & Immanuel Velikovsky in 1995, and so knew of the transparency of the Sagan figure long before I even knew of Velikovsky. I take heart that Sagan, who died in 1996, must have known of Ginenthal’s work, published a year earlier. But of course, being Sagan, he would have smugly set it aside. (Ginenthal has also written Stephen J. Gould and Immanuel Velikovsky and Newton, Einstein and Velikovsky. Hallelujah! I’ve been dying for fresh reading material.)
What interests me most in the Velikovsky matter is how few people accessed him directly rather than via Sagan and others. We are dealing with the phenomenon of reliance on authority figures. It is understood that the general public runs to supposed experts to form opinions on everything from astrophysics to zoology*. The news of our day is littered with “experts” called to weigh in on every subject. Hardly any are truly expert, so that the regime of so-called experts is nothing more than another means by which the public is kept in a state of dark ignorance.
In the Velikovsky matter, Sagan took a front and center posture, and it wasn’t just the public that hid behind him. It was the scientific community as well. Velikovsky was viciously attacked by prominent people who had not read his work and would refuse to do so. But most relied on Sagan to put him in his place.
The Velikovsky figure has caught my attention not because of his work, most of which I have read. I am not qualified to pass on it, but I have also read those who are so qualified. The work has withstood a lot of criticisms over time and many of his theories have been shown to be reliable, such as the temperature, rotation, and surface features of Venus, and the fact that even today it has a comet’s tail, though it is not visible to us. Further, Earth and Venus appear to be tidally locked, that is, when they reach their closest points in their respective orbits, we always see the same face of Venus. That means, I am told, that they were once very close.
That is all above my pay grade, but I love the intrigue. The truth is that Velikovsky appeals to me because of his contrarian views. He’s my kind of guy. I don’t truck with the ‘go with the flow’ crowd, never have.
Looking back I now see that Carl Sagan was set up to be the voice of science, given wide public exposure via the means most often used to control the herd, television. His Cosmos series caught the public mind. The images and science of that series is so deeply ingrained now it is regarded as the ‘real’ science of our existence in space. This was the Great Sagan at his best.
That shows me that much of science is a confidence game. I have come to know and understand that Stephen Hawking, the real man, died in 1985, and was played for decades thereafter by actors. Why? At least in part it is because the Hawking name had a Snopes quality about it, a place where people would go for the “final answer.” (Snopes is fake too, I know.) When Stephen Hawking spoke, the world listened. They needed to keep that image alive, and so kept the man alive in our minds.
Here is a story that has been bugging me for some time now:
“At the end of the day, he drove me back to the bus station. The snow was falling harder. He wrote his phone number, his home phone number, on a scrap of paper. And he said, “If the bus can’t get through, call me. Spend the night at my home, with my family.”
I already knew I wanted to become a scientist, but that afternoon I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become. He reached out to me and to countless others. Inspiring so many of us to study, teach, and do science. Science is a cooperative enterprise, spanning the generations.”
[Neil deGrasse] Tyson eventually went to Harvard for his undergrad, but he says: “To this day I have this duty to respond to students who are inquiring about the universe as a career path to respond to them in the way that Carl Sagan had responded to me.”
Tyson, with the help of Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow, has redone the Cosmos series, though I do not sense it has caught on like the original. He has also become the public voice and face of science. He proudly proclaims to all within shouting distance that “I am an astrophysicist.” Such bravado is, to me, off-putting. I wonder why he is so assertive about something that is well-known about him. Hmmm.
I have long wanted to delve into the deGrasse Tyson figure, as I suspect that like Sagan, he is more a public voice than a public mind. I don’t question that he has the education and credentials he is cited as having. That would be too cynical. I don’t doubt that, like Sagan, he has a high IQ. But the story told above about snow and a bus stop and Sagan inviting him to his home that night … reads like apocrypha. I don’t buy it. I don’t think it happened. I think it is merely a means by which DeGrasse Tyson supplanted the late Sagan as the public face of science, a connection dreamed up by writers to assist Tyson in stepping into Sagan’s shoes. It is a tale written as back story to give him credibility.
The following from a Quora thread by a fellow named Mark Eichenlaub, listed only as having studied at Johns Hopkins. Credentials aside, I loved his ability with prose.
“Tyson is a science popularizer, and one of the few good ones active today.
The main job of physics popularizers is the same as it is for any celebrity: get more famous. Most do this by finding increasingly mindfucky things to say that are just barely justifiable in modern physics, if you turn your head and squint hard enough. So you get sound bites from Brian Cox saying that when he moves some crystal around, all the electrons in the universe respond instantaneously and the whole universe is all one big connected web, or Lawrence Krauss telling us there’s definitely no God because the whole universe popped out of nothing, or Hawking declaring that philosophy is dead, or Michio Kaku saying that cyborg hypercube superhumans will mindmeld with topological aliens made out of dark energy Calabi-Yau manifolds (or whatever he’s talking about these days). Theoretician popularizers who refuse to go down this road (Steven Weinberg, Sean Carroll, Scott Aaronson, Kip Thorne) don’t seem to reach the same level of popularity.
Tyson finds his voice elsewhere. He’s effective at talking about science. He stays on top of astronomy and planetary science news, understands the fundamentals of physics and astrophysics, and is good at explaining them. However, his message is not primarily about the content of scientific discoveries. Instead, it’s rooted in science as a shared human endeavor. Tyson tells a story of cooperative discovery and exploration, like Sagan did. He recounts history (accuracy of Cosmos notwithstanding), talks about modern space exploration, and looks towards where we will go next. That tack separates Cosmos from the endless modern physics documentaries with the fundamental message “Shit be trippy, yo!”
I’ve taught astronomy to teenagers at a summer camp the last two summers, and they all knew and liked Tyson. He inspires children and young adults, advocates for science in society, and is a strong voice on the issues of equity and access for people from all backgrounds that science struggles with today, and will continue to struggle with for a long time. (see). He’s grounded in a time when so few others are, and he makes it work.
I saw Tyson speak sometime when I was in college, maybe a decade ago. He wasn’t a household name at that point; I didn’t know who he was. It was only some time after he became one of the leading American science popularizers that I realized I had seen him speak.
At the time, I found his delivery offputting. He walked out from behind the podium during his talk, bent over at us with his hands on his knees, and practically shouted when he wanted to emphasize a word. The level and delivery of the talk didn’t fit the setting, but ultimately he was effective. I don’t remember what the precise event was, who any of the other speakers were, or what they said, but I remember Tyson. He said huge expensive projects like going to the moon or building the pyramids have always been driven by war, religion, or insane dictators. Since there’s no war right now, religion doesn’t want to go to Mars, and the US doesn’t allow insane dictators, we won’t be going to Mars. He was almost right, but what he didn’t see coming was Elon Musk privatizing insane dictatorship.
I don’t see much point in evaluating Tyson as a research scientist, although I understand it’s inevitable that physicists will do that. Physicists aren’t his audience. He doesn’t have Nobel-worthy technical chops or the sparkling creativity of Richard Feynman or George Gamow (or Randall Munroe, for that matter), but that’s not the role he’s trying to fill. He’s a public figurehead for astronomy and space exploration, and he’s doing it very well.”
In my view, considering that we have yet to reach the moon, talk of going to Mars is but another scam to loot the public treasury. Public scams need popular advocates. John F. Kennedy must have known in May of 1961, when he made his famous statement about putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, that he would by then be a fallen hero whose words would create enormous public support. He was part of the scam.
I digress, as always. Eichenlaub did not like the way Tyson presented in public, found him off-putting. I find him to be glib and easy and well-spoken. He has a sense of humor, and can own a room. This does not fit with my image of a scientist, as the nerdy Sagan did. He is more like a master of ceremonies cracking easy jokes between boring speeches.
Carl Sagan had remarkable skills in use of language. He was not funny, but he was skilled in wrapping words around ideas, polishing the science of his time and giving it credibility due to gravitas of his verbiage. Take, for example,
“Scientists, like other human beings, have their hopes and fears, their passions and dependencies – and their strong emotions may sometimes interrupt the course of clear thinking and sound practice … The history of science is full of cases where previously accepted theories and hypothesis have been entirely overthrown, to be replaced by new ideas that more adequately explain the data. While there is an understandable psychological inertia – usually lasting about one generation – such revolutions in scientific thought are widely accepted as a necessary and desirable element in scientific progress.” (Broca’s Brain, a quote I clipped from Ginenthal’s work.)
This is where I have the problem with Sagan – not that he was not an effective public salesman for science, not that he did not write and speak with eloquence. The question here is not the validity of his statement, which is dead-on. It is whether he lacked self-awareness, or was knowingly providing window dressing for his colleagues. In the Velikovsky matter he was the leading force in suppressing the new ideas, the revolution that is only now (and slowly) gaining more traction.
The problem with Sagan, and perhaps Tyson as well, is that in performing their duties as public spokesmen for science, that they, whether knowingly or not, give us the wrong image. Science is not at all as they preach to us. It is not open to new ideas. It is a club that is hostile to outsiders. Sagan only softens that notion with his words a above. Scientists went to great lengths to destroy Velikovsky because he was not in the club. As Ginenthal points out in the pages of Carl Sagan & Immanuel Velikovsky, Sagan went beyond mere unfairness, and introduced misrepresentations and even outright lies into his attacks on the man. He cannot be both the the man who wrote the quote above and the man that so scurrilously demeaned Vilikovsky. He was not genuine.
That shit not be trippy.