The Uncooperative Scientist (or, Carl Sagan, we miss you)

There is only one community that I keep running into issues with in my efforts to bring “Outside In” to the screen. Ironically, it’s the community that stands to benefit most directly from “Outside In” being a success. It’s academic/scientific community around space and space imaging. It’s the complete opposite of what I thought when I started this effort.

To date, despite hundreds of emails, dozens of phone calls, a trip to  Las Vegas to a conference in 2006, face to face discussions with more than a dozen NASA folks  and many other efforts (not to mention the traffic on the website which has had plenty of visits from this community), here’s the official tally of support provided from this community:

  • Dollars = 0$
  • Images for the film = 0
  • Media mentions in their newsletters, website etc. = 0
  • Letter of endorsement, recommendations etc. = 0
  • Camera specifications & data for Cassini = 1 (this because an old friend of mine lives across the street from an JPL employee who helped me get it)

If you had asked me where most of my support would have come from back in fall of 2004 when the concept of the film (then as small planetarium film) first popped in my head, without hesitation, I would have thought this community. It’s one thing I was most wrong about.

But it gets worse. From time to time, I not only run into the standard “active indifference” (people going out of their way to be indifferent) but I also find unfriendly, uncooperative and occasionally arrogant behavior. That’s beyond a surprise to me. I wonder sometimes if it’s because the word “spirituality” is mentioned in the film’s synopsis. Or because I’m seen as a image hack lacking “scientific value or expertise”. But I suspect it’s not really about me or the film but deep underlying issues with much of science’s isolation from public life. What’s most ironic is how much this same community bemoans the lack of public interest and media coverage about the images being used in “Outside In”.

Of course, I’ve found and will continue to find other ways to bring “Outside In” to the screen. If you go to http://www.outsideinthemovie.com/info.html you can see the many people who’ve supported the film.

The interesting note about this is that non-professional “amateur astronomers” – those people who’s day job is not space and space imaging science are very big supporters of the film. It’s made me think a lot about the huge gap Carl Sagan’s untimely death has left. If you read a bit about his life and career, you will see how he began to get in trouble and conflict with the old guard of the science/academic community the more he focused on outreach and spreading his passion for science beyond traditional boundaries – especially with “Cosmos”. It’s what inspired me to what to be a scientist (although, I’m glad I figured out I would not be a very good scientist) and Sagan inspired more people to become scientists that anyone, ever. He has probably inspired tens of millions of passionate amateurs as well.

“Outside In” is a tiny drop compared to wave of achievement Carl Sagan contributed but it’s interesting to note what a rough road science has had the decade or so since Sagan died. I can’t help but wonder what he would be doing now if he had lived.

I’m going to repeat my favorite story – a standout moment for me seeing him speak in person on the subject of skepticism the late 1980’s. I’m a skeptic myself but never at others expense because of seeing him that day. After he spoke eloquently, he patiently took questions from a long line of people. One guy in line wore a Tupperware bowl with aluminum foil covering the outside (this was in Burbank, CA). As he got near the front of the line, loud snickers from the mostly science buff crowd began to grow.

When it was his turn, the audience laughed out loud as he asked a question about alien mind rays. Carl Sagan did not laugh at him. In fact, he remained unchanged and addressed the guy with same patience and detail that he did everyone, carefully explaining why found the evidence for alien mind rays not compelling.

A great moment and a great lesson to me.

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