Longevity Science Would Benefit From a Carl Sagan Figure

Here's a question for you: why does the triumvirate of astrophysics, astronomy, and cosmology get such good press and widespread public approval in comparison to, say, the fundamental life sciences? I have to think it has something to do with the succession of scientists who evolved into successful media figures, educators, and advocates for their field, such as Carl Sagan, the present day Neil deGrass Tyson, or Patrick Moore - and I'm probably dating myself here by knowing of the existence of the latter. If asked to name noted scientists who went on to become media figures, off the cuff, I think I'd be hard pressed to quickly come up with more than one or two who didn't come from an astrophysical or similar background (right now my brain is delivering Attenborough, Dawkins, and blank). So clearly there's been a lot of groundwork accomplished over the past decades: bringing the broad field of physics and cosmology to the masses, and along the way gaining public support for the ongoing and often thankless work of understanding the universe and its myriad components.

A cynic might think that that having a massive government agency like NASA floating around for a good number of decades and spending lavishly on flashy programs intended in part to assure its own popularity might have something to do with it. I'd be that cynic, but it seems to me that most of the comparatively less popular and less beloved fields of scientific research are also ridden by large government agencies in the US - big budgets and just as much need for popular support. So I do think that there's something interesting going on here in that small sliver of the media spectrum that scientists have colonized. Something we can learn from.

To be a media figure of this sort is a career path option that's certainly open to researchers who garner either sufficient fame or media experience across the years, but for best effect it requires you to remove yourself from the business of science. The scientific community tends to behave like an aggravated immune system when confronted with someone who is both a media figure and actively publishing scientific research. Throughout history a great many people have subverted the scientific method for personal gain, using influence, fame, money, and other forms of corruption - and the modern media is all that rolled up into one neat package. Taking your work to the press before taking it to your peers is thus a grand heresy in modern science, one which leads to harsh judgement and excommunication. Consider what happened to the reputations of Pons and Fleischmann, for example. From that, all things associated with the mass media come to be eyed with suspicion by the rank and file scientists: publicizing a field is very welcome, but even the slightest hint of use of position to influence matters of publication is going to stir up wrathful mutterings at the very least.

So the scientist turned media figure must feel strongly enough about his field to want to be an advocate and educator, but must also essentially give up his work in favor of talking about what he used to do. Not, I think, the easiest of paths for someone who truly enjoys the scientific life.

Regardless, the future of longevity science - or the foundations of rejuvenation biotechnology, or SENS-like research, or whatever you want to call it - must come to include scientist-educators in the media. A Carl Sagan for this presently minor field must eventually arise: to my mind that will be one of the signs of growth and progress, meaning that it will happen as a matter of course along with (a) the expansion of the community of researchers actively working on ways to repair the damage of aging, and (b) increasing public awareness. But sooner is always better than later.


I would have thought Aubrey De Grey is well on the way towards fulfilling that role for the anti-aging crowd? He's constantly being quoted in all the aging news articles that are published in mainstream news articles. More and more often, you are seeing further references towards his legitimacy in those same articles, as opposed to "fringe researcher, etc".

Posted by: Matt at October 28th, 2011 7:46 PM

Richard Dawkins opposes longevity, so he's out.

Posted by: Adam at October 29th, 2011 1:24 AM

You left out Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking, both also theoretical physicists.

Posted by: Hervé Musseau at October 31st, 2011 2:28 AM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.