Opinion | Columns

The importance of awe in academic progress

For a short stretch in the late ’90s, I had lofty aspirations of someday “making it” as an astro-something (-naut, -nomer, -physicist—it was all the same to me). Most who had the good fortune of experiencing Carl Sagan’s Cosmos during their formative years will, I think, admit to a similar pipe dream. 

It doesn’t take much—one panoramic, post-Cosmos scan on a cloudless solstice evening into the glossy stellar tray, and the fire is stoked. Many will go on to concede that the future-cosmonaut fantasy (however vivid) lives and dies in the same year, if not the same month, but the root sentiments—a hunger for the unknown and unknowable, a religious adoration for the natural order—persist for much longer. Those of us who grew up riveted by Sagan’s cosmic poetry aren’t all fated to pilot shuttles or sift the skies for exoplanets. We disperse, wistfully, into assorted vocations, scientific or otherwise, where that first rash of raw intrigue is remembered but rarely revisited—a childhood friend.

We are lucky, then, to have this rebooted Cosmos—a chance for Sagan’s children to recapitulate old curiosities, a chance for today’s children to cultivate a new ardor for science. Indeed, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s show is now three installments deep into its 13-episode lineup, and the overall project looks to be a worthy successor (the artistic execution is deft, the narrative arc poignant). But when I revisit Cosmos today, the romance is different. There was a time when you and I—young, green, generally unconcerned with global emergency—could appreciate the programming for nothing more than the simple sense of awe afforded by its spectacle. That time is long gone: The wonder is still there, is still intense, but with the loss of youth comes a new dimension which pervades and rules all others—a moral dimension.

For all its grandeur, the central narrative of Cosmos is still a grounded history lesson and morality tale. It is the story of everything “that ever was or ever will be” and how we as a species came to learn it, even in the teeth of bronze-age superstition and institutionalized denial. The saga—with its tremendous scope, its completeness—is undeniably awe-inspiring and has a nearly-spiritual element. But there is a second, more ethically involved leg of the message too: All of this progress, all of this unearthed reality, will be repealed, should we succumb to petty infighting, to the siren call of pseudoscience, to our careless dance on a climatic knife-edge. For big-picture projects like Cosmos, awe is not an end—it is a means to public galvanization, an instrument which can sweep away the thick grime of apathy and indifference surrounding today’s pressing global issues, the crises du jour. Wonder turns quickly to urgency once the stakes of a conflict are made clear.

So if awe is an antagonist of listlessness—a way of provoking activism—then its cultivation should be especially valued in academia, where much of the world’s paradigm-shifting machinery is stocked. Nose-to-the-grindstone academics should pay diligent attention to the sort of storytelling employed by the likes of Cosmos. These works twist our heads around, away from the farcical self-import of everyday minutiae (this problem set, that private feud, the publication, the pay stub) and then outwards, toward global quandaries which, in comparison, make every personal foible, any disagreement between members of a single institution, seem very small and very stupid.

We here in higher education are guilty of passivity in the face of today’s big-picture debates—which, for lack of a well-read, well-reasoned voice, descend into the loud, into the absurd—and we need dramatic inspiration to prod us toward a larger role in popular discourse. Nicholas Kristof, in a New York Times op-ed, identifies the troubling absence of scholars from public punditry as an inbuilt consequence of the collegiate environment. 

Indeed, most well-seated, tenured academics make a concerted effort to avoid the minefield of rhetoric which surrounds issues like climate change or the teaching of “intelligent design” in American schools. Kristof notes that in certain fields, public engagement is outright discouraged: Any degree of extracurricular mouthing-off is admonished as a harmful distraction from more worthwhile activities, like conducting research, scrambling for grant money, having an impenetrable paper or two printed in a journal that no one outside of the vocation will ever read or consider reading—so on and so forth. It can be difficult, sometimes, to care about what is going on outside the wall, when there is so very much going on inside of it. But highly accessible, ethically engaging, and legitimately awe-inspiring media (the pop-science odyssey) can stir the pot.  

Sagan, for instance, used the dramatic weight of his program to mobilize audiences against nuclear armament. It sounds simple to a fault, but by demonstrating, somewhat melodramatically, exactly how fragile and small primate civilization is when placed in cosmic context, he injected new urgency into a familiar problem. 

Likewise, the 2006 documentary Planet Earth birthed a popular conservationism, after showing viewers what incredible natural wonders were imperiled by our disruption of a delicate biosphere. The new Cosmos addresses climate change too, and throws in a stab or three against the corrosively stupid “intelligent design”/creationism movement, whose fictions demean the astonishing story of how we really came to be. 

These works aren’t just a call to arms—they may very well offer a tactical model which academics should emulate if they wish to heavily influence public opinion.

Kevin Bi is a Columbia College junior majoring in biochemistry. He serves as an executive board member of the Columbia University Wind Ensemble. Primate’s Per-spec-tive runs alternate Tuesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

So how would you explain 1. That a Columbia football player assaulted another student; 2. That other Columbia football players put out racist tweets, following; 3. That Columbia University bailed out the assaulter; 4. That a Kazakh cheater made Columbia College admissions officers look like idiots; 5. That a Columbia professor strip down to underwear as part of his physics lecture; 6. That a Columbia professor sexually assaulted a graduate student; 7. That Columbia University aids and abets Columbia frats in hazing; and 8. Bolly still keeps his job ?????????????

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Anonymous posted on

p.s. How would you explain that Columbia University made a big deal of a Stanford football transfer before the football season, only to get our butts kicked 0-10 by the end of the season? ???????????

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