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.
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