Carl Sagan, and the Rise of the ‘Celebrity Scientist’

An excerpt from “The New Celebrity Scientists: Out of the Lab and into the Limelight.”

The following is an excerpt from The New Celebrity Scientists, by Declan Fahy. 

Beginning in 1970, the amount of science reported in the media exploded. In the United States, the 1970s and 1980s saw the creation of science sections in dozens of newspapers across the country, the launch of multiple glossy popular science magazines, and the inauguration of a new weekly television series—Nova—devoted to science. Popular science books reached a significant point in the mid-1970s. Before then, there were rarely more than ten titles in the New York Times best seller list each year. But afterward, there were rarely fewer than ten best sellers each year. The situation in Britain was similar. Science flowed through popular culture.

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The Rise of the Celebrity Scientist

Television allowed scientists to speak to vast numbers of citizens. The BBC series The Ascent of Man told a science-based story of human history. Broadcast in Britain and the United States in the early 1970s, it was hosted by mathematician and intellectual Jacob Bronowski, who had written and spoken about science to wide audiences in magazines and television long before the show granted him international prominence. During the same decade, across the Atlantic, a planetary scientist was proving himself an engaging media presence, a scientist who would became his era’s best-known public scientist: Carl Sagan.

Sagan symbolized an era when the television age met the space age. He was a planetary scientist at a time when space became a proxy battleground for rival Cold War superpowers. He was telegenic at a point where it was clear that television favored personalities, like him, who were articulate, attractive, eloquent, and enthusiastic. He was already well known at the end of the 1970s as a Pulitzer Prize-winning popular science writer who regularly explained astronomy to the hundreds of thousands of nightly viewers of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

But when he unveiled the universe to half a billion viewers in the 1980 television series Cosmos, he was propelled to unprecedented global fame. Viewers in sixty nations followed the planetary scientist on his 13-part personal odyssey through eons of cosmological and human history. His spin-off book of the series, Cosmos, spent more than 70 weeks on the New York Times best seller list and earned him more than $1 million in royalties. Time featured Sagan on its cover and called him a “Showman of Science,” “the prince of popularizers,” “the nation’s scientific mentor to the masses,” and “America’s most effective salesman of science.”

A producer of Cosmos, Adrian Malone, vowed to “make Carl a star.” And indeed the show led to a surge in media and public attention paid to Sagan. Journalists reported on his personal life, writing about his trademark turtlenecks and his distinctive orange Porsche 914 with its license plate, PHOBOS, one of the moons of Mars. He had to cope with the women who appeared at studios demanding to see him, convinced he spoke directly to them through their television screens. He sometimes sat facing the wall in restaurants to avoid the stream of autograph hunters and well-wishers.

His celebrity brought lucrative rewards. The $2 million he received for Contact, his 1985 novel about the scientific search for extraterrestrial life, was, at the time, the largest advance ever given by a publisher for a work not yet in manuscript form. It also brought him influence, granting him a public platform for his anti-nuclear advocacy, as he warned political leaders about the devastation that would occur in the radiation-soaked darkness of a global nuclear winter. Students who watched Cosmos wanted to become scientists. No modern scientist had yet achieved such reach, renown, and reputation.

The New Celebrity Scientists: Out of the Lab and into the Limelight


But his fame damaged Sagan’s standing in the scientific world. Harvard denied his bid for tenure, a lifetime appointment that a university awards to accomplished scholars. The nation’s most prestigious scientific society, the National Academy of Sciences, rejected him as a member. A number of influential peers dismissed him as a mere popularizer and not a real scientist, someone who spent too much time on The Tonight Show and too little time engaged in the painstaking grind of observing the planets.

He came to starkly illustrate a feature of modern scientific fame, a feature that critics later called the “Sagan Effect”: the perception among researchers that the level of scientists’ public fame was in direct opposition to the quality of their research work. Popular scientists, in effect, were not seen as strong scientists. Before his media career, however, Sagan had established a sound reputation as a researcher, known for his pathbreaking work that explained how Venus became boiling hot and violent windstorms raged across the surface of Mars. He accumulated 500 career publications—an astonishing rate of productivity that averaged one published academic paper each month. The Sagan Effect, for Sagan, was false.

Not that Sagan was the only scientist to spot the media’s enhanced power. He was one of several scientists in U.S. public life in the 1960s and 1970s who saw the media as a way to influence public and political attitudes to science. These “visible scientists”—including anthropologist Margaret Mead, biologist Paul Ehrlich, and chemist Linus Pauling—broke with conventional ways to shape science policy. They bypassed the traditional ways that experts gave behind-the-scenes advice to policymakers. They went directly to the public instead, using the mass media to put science on the public agenda and therefore shape citizen attitudes and, as a result, affect science policy. They showed that the individual scientist working in a cutting-edge area of science, once they were sufficiently articulate, controversial, and distinctive, could attract and hold the media spotlight.

These visible scientists ruptured the conventional ways researchers earned scientific and public attention. As described by a founding father of the sociology of science, Robert K. Merton, an individual scientist’s reputation was traditionally established exclusively within science. A scientist gained recognition only after their published research was validated by their peers. The more and better their research, the more their reputation grew, the greater their status in science. The ultimate accolade was the Nobel Prize, the public symbol of scientific excellence, a public award bestowed on those researchers deemed to have produced the world’s best science. But Sagan and other visible scientists had a reputation that was in part created outside science. As well as scientific credentials, what also mattered was how they communicated, how engaging they were, how their science was tied to public issues, and how interesting they were as personalities.

Excerpted from The New Celebrity Scientists by Declan Fahy. Copyright Rowman & Littlefield 2015

Meet the Writer

About Declan Fahy

Declan Fahy is assistant professor of communication at American University.

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