Recently, I had the opportunity to watch this old video of a hearing where late astronomer Carl Sagan spoke about the importance of funding basic scientific research. I have been a huge fan of Sagan all my life since the first time I saw his popular TV series Cosmos in the early 1980s. I was a curious teenager by then–though I’m still quite curious as an adult–with a profound interest in science as well as literature. I still remember the effect of listening to this great communicator, participating in his personal travel throughout our solar system and galaxy as well as throughout the history of scientific discovery. Also, I remember discussions with my inner circle of friends, proud nerds like me, about God, the universe, extra-terrestrial life, evolution and so many crazy things. Great times indeed!
Back to the video, there Sagan shows some of his extraordinary qualities as communicator. When questioned about why he was against NASA’s megaprojects of the early 1990s, Sagan responds that he doesn’t believe in government doing science by decree. To Sagan, the idea that a megaproject may take humanity to a scientific or technological breakthrough such as the development of the TV set without supporting basic research is ludicrous. We need basic low-budget science projects like the one done by Scottish James Clerk Maxwell -who in the mid 1800s developed the theory of electromagnetism and his now famous equations-in order to get technologies such as TV sets and satellite communication.
In my opinion, Sagan is absolutely right: in the race for scientific discoveries, there are no shortcuts, no big fancy megaprojects. The same applies to all fields of knowledge. Or perhaps one may ask if is it possible for governments to create art by decree? Could Felipe II of Spain have ordered Miguel de Cervantes to write a master piece such as El Quijote? Could Elizabeth I have done the same with Shakespeare‘s Hamlet? I doubt it!