Carl Sagan Skewered

I didn’t have time this week to write a proper blog post, so I thought I would pass on something I read recently. Not necessarily here on the blog but I tend to annoy people when I make rude comments about the American astrophysicist and science populariser Carl Sagan. Many people grew up watching his 1980s TV series Cosmos and regarded him as some sort of science saint. However, whatever his abilities to communicate science Sagan’s presentation of the history of science was terrible. Another thing that is likely to bring out the HIST_SCI HULK is mention of the biopic Agora, supposedly the life story of the ancient Greek mathematician Hypatia. Unfortunately the story line of Agora has more in common with a fairy tale than real history of science.

The medieval volume of the Cambridge History of Science[1]skewers both Sagan and Agora in just one paragraph and one footnote.

Many otherwise well-educated people have long taken this picture for granted. [Complete lack of science in the Middle Ages] No one has diffused it more widely than astronomer Carl Sagan (1934–1996), whose television series Cosmos drew an audience estimated at half a billion. In his 1980 book by the same name, a timeline of astronomy from Greek antiquity to the present left between the fifth and the late fifteenth centuries a familiar thousand-year blank labelled as a “poignant lost opportunity for mankind.” (a) The timeline reflected not the state of knowledge in 1980 but Sagan’s own “poignant lost opportunity” to consult the library of Cornell University, where he taught. In it, Sagan would have discovered large volumes devoted to the medieval history of his own field, some of them two hundred years old. He would also have learnt that the alleged medieval vacuum spawned the two institutions in which he spent his life: the observatory as a research institution (Islamic civilization) and the university (Latin Europe).

(a) Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), p. 335. Sagan’s outlook recently regained currency thanks to Alejandro Amenábar’s spectacular and spectacularly anachronistic film “Agor” (2009), which portrays Hypatia (d. 415) as on the verge of discovering the law of free fall and heliocentric planetary ellipses before she is murdered by fanatical monks.

[1]The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 2 Medieval Science, ed. David C. Lindberg & Michael H. Shank, CUP, New York, ppb. 2015 pp.9-10

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “Carl Sagan Skewered

  1. I haven’t seen it but here is a review of Agora, with some fairly interesting skewering (of christian critics) of its own: https://www.ancient.eu/article/656/historical-accuracy-in-the-film-agora/ and rather more gently here: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/agora-2010 Probably they are countering this Dangerous Silliness from the catholics: https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/persecution/the-dangerous-silliness-of-the-new-movie-agora.html

    In my interest in women in engineering history I often find Hypatia offered as the first named woman engineer but I really dont accept her as such. I feel she is more like Ada Lovelace in being an interpretive mathematician.

    However given the paucity of any films on women involved in STEM, I am inclined to be generous to the few that appear!

    • Hypatia is an interesting figure in the history of the mathematical sciences in late antiquity about whom we know unfortunately next to nothing. Fairy tale version of her life like Agora are in my opinion more destructive than helpful.

  2. three eye

    thank you for this! my dad, an electrical engineer, despised Carl Sagan and explained why – in detail – to his kids
    you’re just scraping the surface

  3. Mike from Ottawa

    Amusing that one of Cornell’s founders was Andrew Dickson White, proponent of the conflict theory of science and religion and author of ‘A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom’.

  4. Who is your favorite historian of science TV star?

  5. John Kane

    Hypatia (d. 415)… on the verge of discovering the law of free fall
    But of course she was. She had been dropping rocks of the lighthouse at Alexandria for months. Oh wait, I may be thinking of her research into gravity.

  6. The fanfare and uncritical praise for Sagan among scientists and science enthusiasts is really nauseating. While I did enjoy Cosmos when I was young, it has to be said that Sagan’s advocacy to promote science as overly sweet and “magical” as possible has spawned legions of uncritical supporters, especially within the science communication community. Thanks to him, we also have Bill Nye the nice try “science guy” whose history of medicine is terribly atrocious.

  7. C. M. Graney

    These comments are available in an on-line preview for Cambridge History of Science (Volume 2: Medieval Science) — see

    See pages 9-10. The material surrounding these quotes is pretty interesting, too.

  8. Curious Wavefunction

    I won’t go so far as to say that Sagan should be despised since he did communicate a sense of wonder, and his take on the dumbing of the American mind was spot on.

    But his history of science was indeed bad and incomplete, and ironically, in misunderstanding this history he displayed the same simplistic biases of casting historical periods as “good” and “bad” for science as he leveled criticism against.

  9. philalethes

    I happened to read this introduction just recently, and it outlines very well the uphill slog medievalists (not just in medieval science) have had for a very long time now. It still is the period, as Sagan and others have said, “where nothing happened.”

  10. Simon

    My career as an historian of science owes a heck of a lot to Carl Sagan – yes I am one of those who watched Cosmos circa 1980, loved science, and the rest followed… including a full-blown constructivist, critical view of the history of science. I might not agree with Carl Sagan on medieval science but I respect how he got half a billion people to think about it. It is surely possible to recognize that we can have more than one discourse running on science at any one time and they might have different emphases and values and uses – so I have no problem at all with Sagan’s peculiar views on history. if I hadn’t been totally hooked by things like “Harmony of the Worlds” I definitely wouldn’t have gone on to spend 38 years thinking about it all.

    • Gavin Moodie

      I take this to be arguing that interesting falsehoods can be more useful than dull facts. I disagree. Yes, some people can be inspired by a false depiction of the Middle Ages as ‘the dark ages’, but many more have their understanding of European history and the implications they draw from it blighted by such nonsense.

    • Carl Sagan’s arrogant five word dismissal of one thousand years of the history of science is not in anyway a ‘discourse’ it is a total and utter piece of crap and any attempt to defend, justify or explain it away is not only completely ridiculous but also a massive insult to all the historians of medieval science who have devoted their lives to showing it to be so.

  11. Jim Harrison

    Sagan’s first wife was Lynn Margulis, who was a wildly speculative biologist who got it right about mitochondria, but went off the deep end chalking everything under the sun up to symbiosis, literally everything under the sun. She was a big proponent of the Gaia hypothesis. Sagan and Margulis did have two children, but it’s hard to imagine two such extravagant characters living together for very long. Seems like a violation of the Pauli exclusion principle.

  12. Sagan’s badhist and Sagan’s appeal both come from his view of science as a moral pursuit: that the Arms Race was definitely not the fault of the scientists, it’s all those outside interests: WWIII would start from the politicians and maybe Velikovskyites

    a good Popperian, he firmly believed good science was possible only under an “open society” (too bad about that Sputnik and Gagarin, Russkies musta cheated)

    scientists weren’t just a measure of a society’s health but also constantly under threat, if not from the state then from ostrakon-wielding masses: despite his weed-friendly dovish candle-in-the-dark imagery he was genuinely afraid the crystal-waving New Agers were the true start of a Second Dark Age, where the libraries would be burned and the eggheads put on pikes: IOW his badhist’s informed by the 60s professors’ fears that they’d raised a generation of vipers who were now throwing Molotovs and leaving “surprises” in file cabinets

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