Carl Sagan Presents a Mini-Course on Earth, Mars & What’s Beyond Our Solar System: For Kids and Adults (1977)

Despite the inten­sive focus on STEM (as opposed to STEAM—a debate for anoth­er day), Amer­i­cans still find them­selves falling far behind in sci­ence edu­ca­tion. Accord­ing to the Nation­al Math and Sci­ence Ini­tia­tive, U.S. stu­dents placed 20th in sci­ence in a recent rank­ing of 34 coun­tries. “The way the U.S. teach­es sci­ence,” argues Pop­u­lar Sci­ence, “sim­ply doesn’t work…. Since sci­en­tists don’t just stand around mem­o­riz­ing stuff, stu­dents shouldn’t either.” The approach isn’t only counter to the sci­en­tif­ic method; it’s tedious and doesn’t engage that most impor­tant of intel­lec­tu­al fac­ul­ties: curios­i­ty.

The prob­lems are beyond ped­a­gogy, as we know from polls that show upwards of 42% of Amer­i­cans sub­scrib­ing to lit­er­al­ist inter­pre­ta­tions of their reli­gious texts, and active­ly reject­ing sci­en­tif­ic think­ing. These cul­tur­al road­blocks were very famil­iar to Carl Sagan, who spent a good part of his career attempt­ing to coax the pub­lic out of its belief in a “demon-haunt­ed world.” As a sci­ence edu­ca­tor, Sagan not only knew how to draw out the child­like awe in grown-ups, but also how to engage the nat­ur­al curios­i­ty of chil­dren, who—as every par­ent knows—long to know the why of every­thing.

“As a child,” Sagan said of his for­ma­tive years, “it was my immense good for­tune to have par­ents and a few good teach­ers who encour­aged my curios­i­ty.” Now, whether or not kids have such par­ents or teach­ers, thanks to the inter­net, they have Carl Sagan, and specif­i­cal­ly, they have Sagan’s Roy­al Insti­tu­tion Christ­mas Lec­tures, six talks he deliv­ered in 1977 to eager, curi­ous kids. Sagan taught on his usu­al top­ic: Plan­ets, begin­ning with “The Earth as a Plan­et,” at the top of the post. As he men­tions in his intro­duc­tion, his lec­ture almost falls on the 150th anniver­sary of the first Christ­mas Lec­ture, a dis­tin­guished sci­en­tif­ic tra­di­tion begun in 1825 by Michael Fara­day at Britain’s Roy­al Insti­tu­tion.

Sagan’s first talk “explores the diver­si­ty of life on our own plan­et,” writes the Roy­al Insti­tu­tion, “and the build­ing blocks behind it.” Then, he moves on to “ques­tion­ing whether the same organ­ic chem­istry is occur­ring on plan­ets in the out­er solar sys­tem” in his sec­ond lec­ture, above. In the fol­low­ing three talks, below, Sagan takes us to Mars, a plan­et he helped explore with­out ever leav­ing the ground with his the­o­ries in the late 60s about the nature of the planet’s surface—theories lat­er con­firmed sev­er­al years lat­er by the Viking Project. Sagan’s talks below—“The His­to­ry of Mars,” “Mars Before Viking,” and “Mars After Viking”—share the lat­est research with his young audi­ence. With mod­els of the plan­et and the Viking space­craft, Sagan demon­strates in detail how NASA obtained its data.

The His­to­ry of Mars

Mars Before Viking

Mars After Viking”>Mars After Viking

In his final Roy­al Insti­tu­tion Christ­mas Lec­ture, below, “Plan­e­tary Sys­tems Beyond the Sun,” Sagan ven­tures far beyond the reach of NASA’s instru­ments (at the time) to spec­u­late on what might lie beyond the Solar Sys­tem. But first, he ori­ents us—again using mod­els and space photography—by explain­ing what a solar sys­tem is, and why oth­er sys­tems like­ly resem­ble ours. In his own sci­en­tif­ic career, Sagan was instru­men­tal in pro­mot­ing the SETI Institute—which now has a cen­ter named after him. He believed unflag­ging­ly in the pos­si­bil­i­ty of extrater­res­tri­al life, which he hypoth­e­sized based on many of the obser­va­tions he shares below.

When Sagan deliv­ered these lec­tures, the Roy­al Insti­tu­tion points out, “NASA had only just begun its Voy­ager pro­gram to the fur­thest plan­ets in our solar sys­tem and no extra-solar plan­ets were known to exist. Now, over three decades lat­er, astronomers are look­ing at plan­ets that lie beyond our solar sys­tem to ask the very same ques­tion we pon­dered over Mars: is there life out there?” As you may have heard, NASA’s Kepler mis­sion has dis­cov­ered a “hab­it­able zone” of plan­ets in anoth­er solar sys­tem with two suns—a find sure to pique the curios­i­ty of kids of all ages, and one that would have excit­ed Sagan to no end.

See Sagan’s Christ­mas lec­tures with bet­ter video and audio qual­i­ty at the Roy­al Institution’s web­site, and please—whether you’re a par­ent, teacher, old­er sib­ling, etc.—share these with the kids in your life.

These lec­tures will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Sagan Presents His “Baloney Detec­tion Kit”: 8 Tools for Skep­ti­cal Think­ing

Carl Sagan Explains Evo­lu­tion in an Eight-Minute Ani­ma­tion

Carl Sagan Issues a Chill­ing Warn­ing to Amer­i­ca in His Final Inter­view (1996)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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