From Sputnik to Sagan: Some Views on Science

I decided to obtain a copy of Unscientific America by Mooney and Kirshenbaum via my Kindle App on my iPhone, and started reading immediately.  A few days later, the book arrived.  In an early part of the book, “the rise and cultural decline of American science,” the authors have a chapter entitled: From Sputnik to Sagan.  It is an interesting chapter in that it provides a context to help us understand where we are today when we look at science and society.

Starting with WWII, the authors explore the social and political history of science in American society beginning with Vannevar Bush’s report Science: The Endless Frontier which President Roosevelt requested to explore how institutions of science could continue (given the development of the bomb, radar and other scientific developments of WWII) to serve the nation.  The report called for a heavy investment in science by the government, and one result of this was the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950 to promote the progress of science, advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare, and secure the national defense.

But of course, after WWII, the Cold War created a scientific and technological war between the USA and the Soviet Union.  In 1957 we all found out that the Soviets, headed by an engineer by the name of  Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov, had launched the first Earth satellite, Sputnik.  It was one of the most significant events in the history of science, and science education in America, in that it led to further pouring of funds into the NSF budget, and creation of a vast number of elementary and secondary science curriculum projects developed from the late 1950’s into the 1970’s.  The first NSF science curriculum project (PSSC Physcs), developed at MIT, was field tested in the high school I attended in the late 1950s, and then more than twenty years later, I was one of the writers on one of the last NSF projects in this string of curriculum projects, ISIS, developed at Florida State University.

Science took a prominent role in the federal government during the administration of President Eisenhower.  He created the President’s Science Advisory Committee, and it was President Kennedy who created an office of Science & Technology in the White House.  Eisenhower also established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a direct response to the launching of Sputnik.  ARPA was the organization that was responsible for the creation of Internet through the predecessor ARPA-Net.  Science seemed to follow the outline established in Vannevar Bush’s report, and science flourished.  For example, the budget of NSF went from about $15 million in 1957 to $135 million the next year, and now the budget is more than $7 billion.  But between 1957 and now, science has gone through changes in the public perception of science, and as Mooney would say, The Republican War on Science which started in the 1980s.

Although the authors of Unscientific America talk a bit about the development of science curriculum by elite scientists, they fail to point out that there were two phases of curriculum development from 1958 – 1977, with the first phase primarily organized by professional scientists and science professors, and the second organized by science educators, science teachers, and scientists.  Although not a revolt, it was clear that scientists knew science, but there was a huge gap in what they knew about science teaching.  Mooney and Kirshenbaum do not explore the nature of science education enough to shed light on the true meaning of “unscientific America.”

But they do explore science in American culture, and shed a lot of light on one of America’s most prominent scientists, Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996).  It was during the 1970’s that most Americans became familiar with Dr. Carl Sagan, Astronomer, and populariser of science.  In fact, Sagan helped educate more Americans about the world of science through his PBS program Cosmos which was the most popular science program every produced by PBS, and the book version of Cosmos sold more than a million copies.

Sagan was probably the most well known scientist of the 1970s and 1980s.  Not only did he produce the Cosmos program, he was a scientific advisor to NASA, was director of the Planetary Studies Program at Cornell (where he was full professor), author of hundreds of scientific papers, and author of more than 20 books.  But, I think, more importantly, he spoke to ordinary citizens about science in terms that all could understand.  It was his outspoken behavior that rankled a number of other scientists (especially I am sure his appearances on the Johnny Carson Show), and when he was nominated to be a member of the National Academy of Sciences, he was denied admission.  So this brilliant scientist was denied admission to this society, and as Lynn Margulis wrote to him: “They are jealous of your communication skills, charm, good looks and outspoken attitude especially on nuclear winter” (Mooney & Kirshenbaum, p. 40).

Sagan, according to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, was a “fierce advocate for the proper use of science.”  This is an especially relevant statement today given the attitude that the current President has toward science, compared to his predecessor.

Sagan took issue with two significant developments that occurred during the Reagan administration, namely the Strategic Defense Initiative (using X-ray lasers in space to shoot down enemy missiles), and the idea that nuclear war was winnable.  In the later case, Sagan developed the concept of a “nuclear winter” arguing that fires from a nuclear holocaust would create smoke and dust that would cut out the sun’s rays leading to a global cooling—perhaps threatening agriculture and leading to global famine.  He incensed the right wing, according to Mooney & Kirshenbaum, and in particular William F. Buckley.  But Sagan held firm on his ideas, supported by other scientists, and even resisted accepting White House invitations to dinner.  Sagan’s criticism of SDI was supported by other scientists, especially Han Bethe who authored a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Unscientific America helps us understand the gap that exists between the world of science—scientists, scientific developments, scientific theories—and the political and public interpretation and use of science.  Since the 1970s battle lines were drawn over issues such evolution, SDI, climate change, energy crises, nuclear proliferation, and global pandemics.  In each of these cases, all of which have a scientific base, political views and media hype have created vast gaps in the way people view these issues specifically, and science overall.

At the heart of a solution to these issues is science education.  Although Mooney and Kirschenbaum do not explore science education in any depth, they allude to it.  When I use the term science education, I am not just referring to K-college science education, but also how the media does or doesn’t help educate the public on important science issues.  Over the past number of years, the print media, especially newspapers, have reduced the amount of space and number of reporters they devote to covering science.  And media such as TV spent very little time reporting on science.

There is more to discuss here, and I’ll return to this topic over the next several days.  In the meantime, I recommend that you take a look at the book, Unscientific America, and also read about some of the work of one science’s greatest spokesperson’s, Carl Sagan.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University