Famed astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s obituary featured the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce Alberts extolling him thusly: “Carl Sagan, more than any contemporary scientist I can think of, knew what it takes to stir passion within the public when it comes to the wonder and importance of science.” The television program Cosmos (now in its third season) has been a reliable, interesting, educational experience for me and for millions of others; it’s like Sesame Street for this millennium. If you want to learn more about science by that, I mean astrophysics, astronomy, geology, and even the history of science, this is the show for you. Now that the third season is out, I have collected some quotes by those involved with the show, those who are practitioners of applied science, and so on. Especially in a time when every single day folks are hearing public health officials, physicians, and biomedical researchers speak on television (the pandemic), there is both a desire for diversion, and there is an “attunedness” to applied science. If Trump and others are turning out to be the buffoons and the charlatans in this crisis, scientists, doctors, nurses, paramedics, nursing home staff — even meat packers and workers at Amazon.com — are the bright lights in the dark.
A word about science and technology and how that should inform us. I personally think that science – proper science, that which is minimally affected by moneyed interests and self-concerned politicians – is one of the best methods of knowledge-creation at mankind’s disposal. It is far superior to “looking stuff up on the Internet”, cruising around Facebook to see what your friends from high school think about modern events, religious revelation or writings, happenstance, or worst: anti-scientific mumbo-jumbo that comes out of the mouths of hacks, kooks, and charlatans. Unfortunately, we have elected the world’s biggest schmuck to lead us through a crisis of gigantic proportions.
We are paying for that drastically bad decision on the part of low-information voters, far-Right extremists, dunces, and folks who think voting is not important in 2016 dearly in lives and in treasure.
This is what you experience when you make unwise choices, either personally or as a community or as a society.
Back in Ancient Athens, they made the decision to try to control trade, commerce, and militarism in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. This put them on a collision course with their rivals, Sparta. They engaged in a hugely destructive, expensive, and brutal war — the Peloponnesian War — that lasted for a decade. Disease, barbarism, and vengefulness were the words of the time. Politicians schemed, military leaders bumbled, and citizens suffered. It was neighbor hating neighbor. Well, Athens lost. They largely brought the defeat upon themselves by their decisions (Sparta’s sphere of influence and geopolitics, aside). Things were not easy, as Sparta is not a kind master. Then, Athenians put Socrates to death, and put a chill on the nascent phenomenon of philosophy, which was, for all intents and purposes, born on the Greek peninsula. They murdered it in its cradle. Aristotle fled the city, about 30 years later, “lest Athens sin a second time against philosophy,” as it were.
This is what a lack of wisdom looks like writ large.
A national paucity of wisdom can have disastrous consequences. If you don’t believe me, think of the number of now-extinct civilizations which perished from its own ignorance, superstition, love of money, lust for power, base politics, and the dark side of human nature. Indeed, there was evidence that Rome knew its leaden goblets might be harming mental health and reproduction, but they did not successfully deal with the problem (LINK – p. 3-4). That highlights one clear sign of a society in trouble: an inability to solve “relatively-solvable problems”.
I won’t go down this rabbit hole much further, just cap that tangent off by noting that we in America are not guaranteed either peace or prosperity in the future — let alone our very existence. Thrace, Troy, Mesopotamia, Minoa, Pompeii, Carthage, the Holy Roman Empire, as well as Egypt, Rome, Macedonia, Judea, the Ottoman Empire, and Persia (in their original, grand forms, at least) were born, ascendant, dominant, in decline, and perished. None probably “saw it coming” and most thought they were, as America does, exceptional and God-protected.
We, especially in America, as I write this blog, are getting our asses kicked by a virus that is too small to even see. Indeed, most empires have fallen due to internal problems within rather than military invasion from without. Patrick Lynch (LINK) indicates that:
“[Rome chronicler Edward] Gibbon’s claim that Rome was subject to moral decay probably holds … water. In the 2nd Century BC, Polybius wrote of a decline in moral virtue that led to the fall of the Republic. The same affliction appeared to damage the empire. The original ideals, values, and traditions upon which Rome was founded declined and were replaced by a notion that life was cheap and depravity, gluttony, and cruelty were the norm.”
America ignores sound scientific principles, philosophy, and virtues & values such as justice, progressivism, service, and honor at our peril. We are the country that virtually exterminated the American Indians, enslaved Africans, and didn’t lift a finger to save Jews during World War II. If we think that our wisdom, goodness, righteousness, spirit — even our national karma (assuming there is such a thing) — can insulate us from a reckoning, we would be wrong.
“I tremble with fear for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Thomas Jefferson said.
In sum, my point is that America may be entertained by The Masked Singer; it might supply tax cuts mostly to the rich; it might have to pay unemployment insurance payouts to thirty million citizens. Its David Geffens may seek the safety of their $600,000,000 yachts during national pandemics and its far-Right activists may decry the stay-and-home orders sent down from Democratic governors. But if America does those things in the absence of a proper refurbishment of our national infrastructure; if it allows student debt to cripple potential professional workers; if it essentially fails to combat climate change starting yesterday, we will not be able to stave off a creeping decay. Like a cancer, this devolution of American values, strength, and promise will foment a societal decline none of our parents or grandparents or great grandparents or great-great grandparents could have foreseen. The American Dream will seem like a slow-moving nightmare. The coronavirus pandemic is laying bare our political, societal, and public health inadequacies, and it’s hard to bear.
The growing inability of the nation to prioritize science, wisdom, and morality surely should worry any wise observer.
In the words of hugely-successful science communicator, Ann Druyan:
“The aspirations of democracy are based on the notion of an informed citizenry, capable of making wise decisions. The choices we are asked to make become increasingly complex. They require the longer-term thinking and greater tolerance for ambiguity that science fosters. The new economy is predicated on a continuous pipeline of scientific and technological innovation. It can not exist without workers and consumers who are mathematically and scientifically literate.”
Or, as her late, great husband Carl Sagan said, “If we continue to accumulate only power and not wisdom, we will surely destroy ourselves.” As well: “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
Link to an article about the show Cosmos
Now, I would like to share some more optimistic and reassuring thoughts: quotes about science, wisdom, and the future.
First, interviewer Ron Sparkman suggested to Neil deGrasse Tyson: “Now is a really interesting time for the new season of Cosmos to come out!” because we are in the midst of a pandemic, out of which we will only proceed successfully if we concern ourselves with medical science, public health, and other non-fringe, non-alternative disciplines and viewpoints. If we were to listen to irrational anti-vaxxers, or to deluded anti-government extremists, we will find ourselves in a world of hurt — measured in both lives and in treasure. Neil’s response to Mr. Sparkman was the following:
“Heck ya! Bring it on. Everybody’s home, AND you want to understand what it means to heed the warnings of a scientist! Oh my gosh, every episode of Cosmos we’ve got stories in there where people didn’t heed the warnings of scientists (and then, [we feature] the people who then study the problems that society — and even civilization [as a whole]. …Even consider the long-running television program CSI (Crime Scene Investigation). There, you have admittedly-good-looking actors portraying scientists solving crimes using their knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, etc. Further, there is evidence that students — especially women — tend to major in chemistry and other STEM-type degrees in correlation with the advent of the program CSI.”
“[Neil deGrasse Tyson] emphasized that we have the knowledge, but the question is whether we have the wisdom to apply the knowledge in nature and the world around us to assure we will survive—and thrive. Neil added that he hopes Cosmos: Possible Worlds leaves viewers with a sense of enlightenment coupled with duty to do something about this world.” (Tony Bradley)
“There are the personal values — respect, sensitivity, tolerance — without which science could not be carried on. They are the is values, the values of the man working by himself. And then there are the communal values, the ought values — honesty, integrity, dignity, authenticity — which bind the scientific community together.” (
“I don’t have any faith, but I have a lot of hope, and I have a lot of dreams of what we could do with our intelligence if we had the will and the leadership and the understanding of how we could take all of our intelligence and our resources and create a world for our kids that is hopeful.” (Ann Druyan)
“When it comes to science and exploring the nature and the laws of the universe, there are thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of people around the world and throughout history who work diligently to explain the world around us. Among those, there are a few who emerge as the personalities of science—the story tellers who share the sense of wonder with those of who are not scientists and help us to understand our place in the universe and our role in the continuing saga yet to come.” (Tony Bradley)
“Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived.” (Brannon Braga)
“[The television program] Cosmos is much more than a dramatic, cinematic journey; we hope that it will awaken the widest possible global audience to the sacred searching at the heart of science. You will meet new heroes who were willing to give up their lives rather than tell a lie or jeopardize the future. Cosmos: Possible Worlds is a vision of the future we can still have if we have the wisdom and the will to act on what the scientists are telling us.” (National Geographic verbiage)
“We are living in a society that is totally dependent on science and high technology, and yet most of us are effectively alienated and excluded from its workings, from the values of science, the methods of science, and the language of science. A good place to start would be for as many of us as possible to begin to understand the decision-making and the basis for those decisions, and to act independently and not be manipulated into thinking one thing or another, but to learn how to think. That’s what science does.” (Ann Druyan)
“Over a quarter-million math and science teachers are needed . . . That is like a ticking time bomb not just for technology companies, but for business and the U.S. economy.” (
“We’re not just showing possible worlds around other stars [in the show]. More metaphorically, there are possible worlds … for Earth, going forward. One of the possible worlds is: We’re all extinct, because we were bad shepherds of the effects of civilization on the ecosystem. Another possible world is that we thrive, not just survive but thrive in the future harmoniously with the ecosystem that has so unselfishly given of itself in the history of civilization.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
“Human beings are prone to error, prejudice and superstition. However, human beings are also capable of learning from error, and science employs systematic means to do so. Thus, science is not only systematic in displaying orderly structures of nature, but also in how it establishes knowledge claims and improves their precision. A large variety of critical methods designed to locate and contain different kinds of errors have been developed. As science is a human endeavour, it cannot entirely eliminate error, but it can minimise the probability of errors and evaluate their magnitudes.” (link)
“[The television program] Cosmos is successful because we make big scientific ideas easier to understand and connect to. Science has been so compartmentalized and kept separate from our spiritual longing. But for me personally, there is not greater spiritual uplift than knowing about nature. The tragedy is that the sciences are all separated from each other, which doesn’t make sense. They’re taught in a way that forgets to tell the stories of the people behind science discoveries.” (Ann Druyan)
“As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, imposing illness on millions and lock downs on billions around the world, we’re reminded of the ever-present tension that exists between nature and humankind. At the same time that entire nations shelter in place, we see pollution receding in our seas and in our skies. But a global health crisis shouldn’t be a necessary precursor to healing the environment, should it?” (Chris Haydon)
“The evolutionary issue here is not going to be morphological or biophysical; it’s going to be intellectual and emotional. Are we wise enough to make the right decisions at the right time in the interest of our health and our wealth and our security? If we’re not wise, it seems like that’s what has to evolve here. And if we are [wise enough], then I don’t see why [humanity living for another] billion years wouldn’t be easily within our reach.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
“I so desperately want to see us put this planet right. It’s so horrifying to me that a fifth of us are starving every night, and that forty thousand children die every single day.” (Ann Druyan)
“[Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow], told me that it struck her that the 1939 World’s Fair expressed so much optimism and such a wondrous vision for the future at a time that sat between the wake of the Great Depression and the dawn of World War 2. It motivated her to imagine the world 100 years later and consider what a 2039 World’s Fair might have to offer. In spite of the resurgence of fascism around the globe, the spread of pandemic diseases, and impending doom of climate change, what might the future hold If we remain optimistic and curious—focused on exploration and progress instead of chaos and destruction?” (Tony Bradley)
“Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” (
“Thus, while closer co-operation between science and industry contributes to the public good by promoting increasingly effective mechanisms for technical applications, traditional academic norms, such as the commitment to the free flow of information and the full public disclosure of research results, threaten to deteriorate. This is an important trade-off for society which generates important policy issues: should we halt the contraction of the institutional space of open research? How can we protect the autonomy of science without inhibiting the benefits of closer ties between science and industry? How can fundamental research be managed in a context favouring market orientation?” (link)
“Before the coronavirus began its destructive path, disruption took another form in my native Australia when devastating bush fires swept across the land. The fires prompted many of us to reexamine how we interact with the natural world. How, in our daily activities, can we all contribute toward a cleaner, more sustainable environment?” (Chris Haydon)
“Part of the DNA of Cosmos is its capacity to blend the science with storytelling. We all know storytelling from the beginning of our species. We all know science because you learned it in your science textbooks. Previously, when you wanted to communicate science…it felt very lecture-y.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
“By tracking progress toward these objectives through the transparency of digital networks, all organisations can run their operations in a manner both responsible and mutually reinforcing. The fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day presents a timely reminder that a greener, more sustainable future lies within reach through persistence, passion, and procurement with purpose.” (Chris Haydon)
“Science is one thing; wisdom is another. Science is an edged tool, with which men play like children, and cut their own fingers.” (
“[Working on the original series, Cosmos, my late husband, the astrophysicist, Carl Sagan] and I had many differences with our government, but we felt tremendous pride in the achievements of the space program and what it was doing. Now something has really changed in the government’s attitude towards science, which was once its shining jewel. It’s hostile and cynical. When anybody is hostile and cynical about our most powerful tool for apprehending reality, you know they’re up to no good. Cosmos is our way of standing up for the awesome power of science.” (Ann Druyan)
“Our culture or our institutions may lead us to believe that the big issues are beyond us; but then we need to change those assumptions, and a social science that takes its public responsibility seriously can help us do so.” (
“Rather than hit people over the head for their beliefs, we present the notion that if we’re going to survive … at some point we have to establish what is true and what is not. If you understand that, you’ll be in a much better position to make decisions that affect the survival of humanity. It’s an appeal for all of us to gather together and imagine the future as a community — not as a country, not as a faction, but as a species.” Neil deGrasse Tyson
“It is mainly because of his social nature that man is faced with ethical problems. Science can tell him how certain ends might best be reached. What it cannot tell him is that he should pursue one end rather than some other.” (
“[The vaccine debate] is really about science and about whether we believe in science or not. There are people who dispute basic scientific facts.” (