April 2014: An Interview with Steven Soter

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In March of 2014, the eagerly anticipated revival of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos starring Neil DeGrasse Tyson aired on American television. The series reunited the original writing team of Steven Soter and Ann Druyan, and has been met with widespread critical praise and impressive viewership figures (8.5 million people tuned in to the first episode, which launched on 10 networks). President Barack Obama introduced the first episode, and highlighted the spirit of exploration and discovery that embodies both Sagan’s Personal Voyage and DeGrasse Tyson’s Spacetime Odyssey.

Steven Soter is an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History and studied under Carl Sagan as a doctoral candidate at Cornell University. He was also involved in some of the earliest discussions of the Deep Carbon Observatory, and generously agreed to share his thoughts on the future of science, both within and beyond the scope of DCO.

1. How did you become involved with the DCO?

From 1977 to 1988, I helped the late Prof. Thomas Gold at Cornell University in his research on abiogenic oil and gas. We wrote a few papers together. I was always an agnostic on the relative importance of abiogenic oil and gas, and I still am, but I knew the question was scientifically important. Gold, who never had any doubt about abiogenic hydrocarbons, said that my critical questions helped him to refine some his own ideas. Jesse Ausubel knew and admired Gold, and their discussions inspired his own interest in the subject. After Jesse organized the DCO, he invited me to become involved. I suppose I’m a kind of link to the past.

2. Over the decade of exploration and discovery that is DCO, scientists have set out to answer a number of questions, including “what are the origins of life on Earth?” In your opinion, what is the most interesting question, or suite of questions, that might be answered or clarified by DCO? How do you see this information as being relevant to general audiences?

I doubt that the origin of life will be understood for a very long time. The lack of progress for the last 60 years suggests we may be barking up the wrong tree. An important question that might be answered in our own time concerns the relative contributions of biogenic and abiogenic processes to the origin of organic molecules on Earth. Two questions of practical importance might interest a general audience: Can we harness biology and geochemistry in a cost-effective way to remove anthropogenic carbon dioxide from the atmosphere? And can we economically separate and use the carbon from hydrocarbon fuels before burning the hydrogen?

3. As a scientist and science communicator, do you have any thoughts on how we can address the poor state of science literacy both in the US and around the world?

To me, science literacy consists more in understanding the method and spirit of science than any particular body of knowledge. Science is based on the critical scrutiny of evidence rather than respect for authority or pre-conceived ideas. This distinction provides science with a powerful error-correcting mechanism, a way to avoid fooling ourselves. That is what I would like to see communicated, with examples showing how it works.

4. You co-wrote both the original Cosmos series (with Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan) and the new incarnation of the show starring Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Did you feel a pressure to continue a legacy, or did this rebirth of Cosmos give you the freedom to update and explore modern scientific ideas?

To continue the legacy of the original Cosmos came naturally. We didn’t aim to update the old series by exploring current scientific ideas. Much of what lives at the cutting edge of science will turn out to be wrong. Rather we wanted to harvest more of the rich legacy of well-grounded science, which we described as “one story with many heroes.”

5. Of these many heroes, is there any one scientist, or group of scientists, whose work struck you as particularly inspiring?

The story of the 19th century English scientist Michael Faraday stands out. He rose from real poverty, educated himself, and became the greatest experimental physicist of his time, maybe of all time. He invented the electric motor, the generator, the transformer, and the revolutionary concept of fields of force. He laid the foundations for much of our modern world. He understood the practical value of his discoveries but let others develop them. He promoted science education for the public and was a charismatic lecturer, but was otherwise modest and self-effacing. He turned down the presidency of the Royal Society and a knighthood, choosing to remain, as he said, “plain Michael Faraday to the last.”