A generation ago, Carl Sagan took on an exploration of space, which we had never previously understood. The American science documentary appeared on television in the 1980s. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, presented by Carl Sagan on the public broadcasting service was considered a milestone for scientific documentaries. In 2014, Neil de Grasse Tyson, who was once a young high school student inspired by Sagan now picks up where Sagan left off. The more important aspect this time around is the way the material is being presented to the demanding 21st century viewer.
According to Washington State University (source: themediaproject.com, 2016), by age 18, a teenager will have seen 350,000 commercials and that is just on television. Beyond the information age, Neil has a greater challenge because now the viewer is setting out to explore space in such a way that engagements and presentation makes scientific exploration more real and believable. While mathematics gives us the power of perception and centuries before we were only scratching the Socratic surface of inquiry. And while critical evaluation was highly valued, the emphasis was on the process of learning about the universe rather than attaining goals.
Today we are doing both.
In 1982, I was unaware of Sagan’s cosmic voyage but found myself on my own journey spending summers inside of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. At that time I had been introduced to hundreds of scientist and engineers and felt at home at JPL. My aunt, who is a scientist, would show me pictures that came in from the satellites. At the time the two Voyagers: Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 (satellites) had just explored Saturn and it’s moons. Their cameras transmitted over 60,000 photographs of the strange new worlds. As a six year old, I had no idea what I was looking at, no concept of Saturn or the discoveries that were being made. What I did understand and what I felt at the time, was the fascination that there was something bigger than myself outside of the world I lived in. Scientific data received from a mix of instruments that probed the planets and the fleet of moons that escorted them sensing and measuring data was being sent back to JPL scientists who had to then recontextualize the data to teams of reporters who would impatiently wait to receive reports on their findings.
Today the landmark discovery for physics of ripples in space-time, which Einstein predicted a century ago is the result of a worldwide collaboration between scientists. The tiny imperceptible “Chirp” made its way to social media faster than Hawking’s “there are no black holes” discovery.
Nearly 30 years later, my commitment and fascination to astronomy continues. The challenge is taking scientific data and making it accessible to those who do not have a scientific mind but may just inspire our next discovery or scientist. Learning about these discoveries via social media and digital platforms only makes the information that much more exciting and valuable.