Forget Carl Sagan, Give Me Marlin Perkins

Among the science writer fraternity, there was a minor fracas over Carl Sagan as Supreme Science Communicator. Erin Podolak argued that Carl Sagan isn’t really relevant anymore:

I’m not saying I don’t like Sagan – I’m saying Sagan has zero influence on me or what I do. To me, Sagan is a stereotypical old white guy scientist who made some show that a lot of people really liked more than 30 years ago. That show – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage -was on air nearly a decade before I was even born. The reason I bring up my own age is because I’m as old, if not older, than the prime audience for science communication. I think anyone can learn to appreciate science at any age in life, but we stand the best chance at convincing people that science is something they can understand (and even do themselves) early in life when their beliefs are not so entrenched.

So then why, WHY as science communicators do we keep going around and around among ourselves about how Sagan – who is so far outside my life experience, let alone that of people younger than me – was the greatest science communicator of all time?

Chad Orzel responded that ‘the Sagan thing’ is about the desire to have nationally recognized scientific figure who appears on magazine covers, who is a pop-culture icon.

So here’s my confession: I’m not nearly as young as Podolak (oy, look at those punim!), but I’ve never seen a single episode of Cosmos. EVAH! Sagan had no influence on me whatsoever. Want to know who did? Well, I’ll tell you!

Marlin Perkins. That’s right, the host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Forget ruminations on the origin of the universe, Perkins and his trusty assistant Jim made nature fun (Jim was the luckless bastid who, while Perkins was doing the voice over, got to poke the enraged rhino in the flank with a stick). Admittedly, I started watching this after visiting relatives while a wee (very wee) Mad Biologist in Omaha–there wasn’t that much in the way of celebrity in Omaha in the 1970s (there still might not be, but I can vouch for the 1970s).

Consider this vintage clip where Perkins and Jim lasso a grizzly bear (if you want the full flavor, watch the whole thing, but the action really gets going around the 17:15 mark).

WAIT A MINUTE! DID YOU JUST WRITE “LASSO A GRIZZLY BEAR“?!?

Why yes, I did:

The most awesome thing is that it really looks like they might have let the bear escape–and chase Jim.

Carl Sagan never did that. Hell, Steve Irwin never did that. Just saying.

This ends a very serious post.

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11 Responses to Forget Carl Sagan, Give Me Marlin Perkins

  1. mk says:

    For the record, that was Stan, not Jim. And oh boy was that the most contrived series of scenes or what? The bear was tame, the chase scene was set-up (as you suggested) the whole notion of lassoing a bear even back then was outdated and foolish. It was only done for the excitement of the show. Horrible. (I do get that this was an ironic post, but still)

  2. Man, Podolak spent more energy complaining about not watching Sagan on TV, than it would have taken him to actually search up the episodes on youtube, or, dog forbid, read one of his books. Sagan was not on HIS tv schedule, therefore Sagan doesn’t exist. We are doomed.

  3. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says:

    My favourite bit (via Wikipedia)

    The format of the show often featured Perkins narrating off-camera, describing Fowler’s on-camera work with the wild animals. This was commonly parodied as Perkins saying “I’ll wait here (someplace safe) while Jim (does something or other with the dangerous animal)”. However, according to a 1997 interview with Fowler, Perkins never said any such thing: according to Fowler, “Johnny Carson started the jokes about me and Marlin in his monologues”.

    I remember something very much like that, so the jokes were not completely without basis.

  4. Min says:

    Forget Podalak. One of the ways in which Carl Sagan’s influence remains with us today is that he debunked Velikovsky. I may be hard to believe, but even scientists in the 1950s gave Velikovsky the benefit of the doubt in areas that were not their specialty, even though they knew what he said in their area was bunk. Even now we have politicians who do not believe in evolution, and the History Channel sometimes broadcasts bunk, but things were much worse back then.

    As for communicating science to kids, it is hard to beat Don Herbert (Mr. Wizard). :)

  5. mk says:

    My favorite is Professor Proton!

  6. Lindsay says:

    Bill Nye was my formative science communicator.

  7. Ron Zoscak says:

    Nobody could hold a candle to Professor Julius Sumner Miller. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DDw9olY0c8

  8. hipparchia says:

    i grew up with jacques cousteau and *especially* mutual of omaha’s wild kingdom. and i loved loved loved steve irwin.

    best of all though was being a little kid living in houston at the time of apollo 11. who needs science communicators when you and everyone around you can live and breathe space exploration in real time?

    • hipparchia says:

      that said, this

      “You can never overestimate how empowering it is to see someone who looks like you—only older and more successful. That, much more than well-meaning advice and encouragement, tells you that you can make it.”

      is important. it was wild kingdom and jacques cousteau who got me interested in science, but it was sylvia earle who convinced me i could *do* science.

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