Carl Sagan, Patron Saint of Science Monks

By Mark Changizi | November 4, 2011 1:22 am

This summer I had the privilege of going to Scifoo, where I met interesting folks and heard about a lot of interesting successes in science. But my story here involves something that was rather less than success. One session was about education, and set itself to address the question, “How can we better motivate youth to enter the sciences and engineering?” As I listened to an influential policymaker, I became more convinced than ever that policymakers really aren’t the people who should be answering this question—they don’t know how to inspire scientists. And it struck me that the preceding session in that very same room, wherein a presenter showed us his mind-searing video taking the viewer on a “flight” through a brain replete with hundreds of thousands of real-data-generated neurons, implicitly had the answer. So did Carl Sagan and his influential PBS show, Cosmos:

The trouble begins with a central term used among those who think about science and technology education. That word is “STEM,” and it is an acronym for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” On one level, the term makes perfect sense: there is a core set of technical skills that each of those in STEM must acquire. But there are big differences within the group. Engineers and scientists tend to be different sorts of folks. They require very different sorts of training. And they lead fundamentally different sorts of work lives.

These differences were apparent in two videos that won a contest for inspiring young people to aim for STEM careers. The first video communicated that STEM careers are…useful. “You’ll get a job by going down the STEM route,” was the message. A good job. A good career. A fine life.

The second video showed STEM not as a tool, but as something…cool. “Geek is the 21st century cool,” was the theme. It wasn’t merely saying that the topics you get to work on are cool—as in “neat.” No, the point was that STEM people themselves are cool, in the black-leather-and-motorcycle, people-will-dig-you, sense. (The “cool” video happened to soundly fail, repeating “STEM is cool” so many times that it made me want to beat up and steal lunch money from the nearest nerd I could find. But I can certainly envision videos that would convey how STEM really is, nowadays, cool.)

Useful and cool. Is this sufficient motivation for the next generation of science and engineering students? Yes and no. Whereas “useful and cool” may suffice for those aiming for careers in engineering or technology, it falls woefully short for careers in science and mathematics.

Choosing to be an engineer typically means doing a four-year degree, and then going out to work. The average engineer can start his or her adult, money-making career at around 22 to 25 years old, and begin moving up the ladder or branching out as an entrepreneurs on his or her own. “Useful and cool” works for such a life plan.

The situation is utterly different for careers in science and mathematics. Most who enter science and mathematics are not aiming to get a job right away in industry. Instead, they aim to make discoveries, as a researcher or professor. And that requires considerably different training—more like training as an academic monk than than the four-year undergraduate degree. The Ph.D. will take 4 to 6 years. After that is the embarrassingly low-salaried postdoc, which can very easily take between 4 and 10 years. And then there is the fact that there is no guarantee that all this training will get one a coveted tenure-track job. Even when things go as planned, the successful academic scientist doesn’t start getting an adult, money-making, salary until his or her late 30s, potentially 15 years after his or her engineering buddies began working at often higher (inflation-adjusted) salaries. (And, needless to say, in fifteen years the engineering friends are far beyond their entry positions. They may be CTOs or even presidents of their own companies by the time the scientist gets a first real paycheck.) There are times in a growing scientist’s life that one can’t help but feel a little useless, and a little like a chump. Chumps are not cool.

“Useful and cool” is not sufficient motivation for a life of science (or any academic field). And not just because it’s a false promise. The scientist needs a more potent inspiration. The best medicine for propelling a young soul into a successful middle-aged academic is this: a romantic, nearly religious, zeal for comprehending the universe.

In my case, for example, for as long as I can remember, my goal in life has been to “answer the questions to the universe” (although my opinion about what the questions to the universe are has varied from nine years old to the present). Useful and cool had nothing to do with it.

Useful and cool also has nothing to do with why people take to religion. They take to it because it fills a certain spiritualicious spot in their brain. For me, that spot got filled with cosmology, Gödel’s Theorem, consciousness, evolution, and so on. Just as religion can be very effective at helping people bear through difficult times, religious-like inspiration can be key to getting a scientist to withstand the years of asceticism on the way to great discoveries.

The question, then, is, How can we give this sort of spiritualicious scientific feeling to young people? And, more specifically, what video would I recommend for inspiring youth into science?

This is where the Scifoo session with the amazing brain video comes in. In possession of more neuroanatomical data than ever before, a brilliant neuroscientist had created a movie taking us on a journal through a real brain. But what made it work as science inspiration for youth was that, in addition to the gorgeous visuals, he had his musically talented daughter compose a soothing, mystical piece for it. In its totality, the experience went from a clinical presentation of science data to, well, the sort of experience that can rock kids’ souls and redirect them permanently toward a life of discovery.

In fact, the journey through the endless neurons sprinkled through space with sappy music in the background is reminiscent of a key ingredient to perhaps the most successful science inspirer of my generation, Carl Sagan.

In his series, Cosmos (soon to be resurrected by PBS and Neil deGrasse Tyson), Sagan flowed through seas of stars in his intergalactic-capable crystal spaceship, all the while accompanied by the awesomely sappy music of Vangelis Papathanassiou. The experience—I can tell you personally—tinged young minds with excitement and purpose. Cosmos inspired because of the life-the-universe-and-everything it tapped into. Sagan motivated a young generation of scientists because science and discovery in his eyes was a devout calling.


“Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist, and Director of Human Cognition at 2AI Labs. He is the author of The Brain from 25000 Feet, The Vision Revolution, and his newest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.

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  • sciencegoddess

    Thanks for the article. This is so very true. I worked for eight years as a biologist (scientist) in a bioengineering department in the College of Engineering. It is an entirely different way of thinking!

  • Bill Benzon

    Yep, science and engineering are VERY different. I talk about this is a post I did about two months ago, though to a somewhat different end:

    And here’s a post about an elegant bit of engineering design my father did:

  • Stephen Crowley

    Science is amazing but there is far too much focus on space and astronomy these days.

  • Messier Tidy Upper

    Great clip with Cosmos there. Love that, cheers. :-)

  • Messier Tidy Upper

    @4. Stephen Crowley : I very strongly disagree with you there!


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About Mark Changizi

Mark Changizi is the director of human cognition at 2AI Labs and the author of several books, including Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and The Vision Revolution.


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