Simanaitis Says

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SOME PEOPLE THINK that scientists are inarticulate. Counterexamples are abundant, and I might wonder who are the inarticulate among us. Here’s scientific wisdom, wit, satire, and social commentary from three of my favorite scientists, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Richard Feynman. You’re encouraged to tell me your favorites.

Carl Sagan. In 1990, the space probe Voyager 1 sent back a photo of planet Earth from 3.7 billion miles away. (As of July 26, 2020, the space probe is 13.9 billion miles away and still communicating with us.)

Earth is the barely discernible bluish-white speck about halfway up the brown band on the right. Image by Voyager 1 in 1990 from NASA.

The Pale Blue Dot, as it’s known, inspired Carl Sagan to speak of our place in the cosmos: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Carl Edward Sagan, 1934–1996, American astronomer, cosmologist, science communicator.

Sagan could speak with irony too: “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

On genius, he said, “But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

He could be cutting: “A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism.”

Sagan also said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson. Neil is the rock star of cosmologists, well known to viewers of late night TV. Yet, at the same time, he is recognized by the U.S. National Academy of Science for his “extraordinary role in exciting the public about the wonders of science.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Manhattan-born, 1958, American astrophysicist, cosmologist, science communicator.

“Science,” Neil says, “is basically an inoculation against charlatans.”

He offers an example, “Let me tell you about full moons: kids don’t care about full moons. They’ll play in a full moon, no worries at all. They only get scared of magic or werewolves from stupid adults and their stupid adult stories.”

On math ken: “Somehow it’s ok for people to chuckle about not being good at math. Yet if I said I never learned to read, they’d say I was an illiterate dolt.”

Richard P. Feynman. Feynman could be seen as a bongo-playing iconoclast. However, his articulate explanation of a failed O-ring as the cause of the 1986 Challenger disaster made him an essential member of the Rogers Commission investigating that disaster. “For a successful technology,” he concluded, “reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Richard Phillips Feynman, 1918-1988, American theoretical physicist, Nobel Prize winner, scientific communicator.

My favorite Feynman observation: “Physics is like sex: Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”

I’m confident this is a theme to which we’ll recur. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. Tom Austin
    August 23, 2020

    Quite articulate of you, as well, DS

    – thanks,

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