In Praise of the Johnny Appleseeds of Science


A Handful of People Have Made Science Understandable, Yet Wonderous, to Us All

Spreading the Good News

Everyone reading this is likely familiar with the legend of Johnny Appleseed. Johnny was a real person, John Chapman, who lived in America’s early days. Chapman was an American pioneer nurseryman. He introduced apples into Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and present-day West Virginia.

He became famous due to his generous ways and his leadership in conservation. He planted apple seeds everywhere, making the trees and their valued fruit ubiquitous. You can actually still see one of his trees. Nova, Ohio, is home to a 176-year-old tree, the last known to have been planted by Johnny Appleseed himself.

Chapman took on something remote and esoteric – nursery science and conservation. Then he made it into something everyone could relate to themselves. The country was better for his efforts.

A New Generation Spreading the Good News

We have been fortunate in our lifetime to have a small group of people I refer to as Johnny Appleseeds of Science. Their role is even more important now. Many of our fellow citizens think the Earth is only 6,000 years old, that it is flat, and that evolution is “just a theory.” The people we note today have been at the front lines of refuting such willful ignorance.

For me, the first of these was TV’s Mr. Wizard. This was a popular television series that ran in the 1950’s and 1960’s and recreated in the 1980s. Mr. Wizard always had  kids on his show who joined him in curiosity and experimentation. I don’t think I ever missed an episode in my early childhood. It started me off on a lifetime of curiosity and respect for intellectual discipline. If you never saw the show, or would like a revisit, try this sample episode.

For a later version, remember Sheldon on the TV show Big Bang. Sheldon had a childhood attachment to a similar character, Professor Proton. Bob Newhart brilliantly played the professor. Take a peek.

“Billions and Billions…”

Who among us does not remember Carl Sagan? I still miss him. No one did more than Sagan to make science real and relevant for millions of people. He paid a professional price for this. Colleagues and institutions looked askance at him for not being a “pure scientist.” They were wrong, of course. Sagan is best known for the splendid science series Cosmos. He also decided what would be on those gold records that are still travelling beyond our solar system on the two Voyager spacecraft. If some intelligent entity finds those records, they will know us from what Carl sent out into the universe.

Sagan was also great at doing guest TV appearances and a range of programs. Enjoy a trip down memory lane with the perfect presentation – Pale Blue Dot. It still moves me every time I listen to it, which is often. Take a moment to watch, listen, reflect.

Other Powerful Voices

For many, Sagan’s successor is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He is a frequent presence on TV, podcasts, and on stage. Tyson does not hesitate to call out sloppy thinking and willful ignorance. Tyson also hosted the new version of Cosmos, following in Sagan’s footsteps. He did a fine job.

And Tyson is back in Cosmos: Possible Worlds, a 13-episode third season of the Cosmos franchise. It is premiering next Monday on National Geographic. This series looks at how our ancient ancestors used nature to step out of their realms, to explore and settle Earth’s frontiers.

Here is an example of Tyson, talking about the Corona Virus from a popular venue and in a way people can understand.

A somewhat lesser known, but effective science communicator is Michio Kaku. He has been a public voice on science and even some more “out there” topics (alien visitors?) for many years. I became a big fan some years ago when he was on a program explaining string theory. The whole program was pretty dense, but his part was very enlightening. We only had to watch it four times to get the main points!

Try a short version of his string theory discussion. . Got that?

Now, someone who has helped people appreciate science but is seldom seen in front of the camera. Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow, was truly Sagan’s partner. They partnered in many projects and wrote books together. They developed Cosmos together and collaborated on what would be on those Voyager records. She has been the primary producer and a visionary in the new Cosmos editions.

She is available on a few videos. Here is a short one, celebrating the Voyager missions 35th anniversary. .

And let’s not forget Bill Nye, The Science Guy. Nye first gained fame hosting a science series for Disney. His series won an Emmy, and his books sell well. Since the series, he has been around in all media forms. He can often be seen happily (and effectively) taking on people who forsake science.

Nye is about the nerdiest guy on this list, but he has mastered public media to perfection. The guy is everywhere, entertaining, and informative. Check out a sample on Morning Joe, talking about evolution. .

Watch, Listen, Read, and Learn! Think!!

Feeling a bit more curious now? A bit more hopeful about our species? Good! Support these folks and have fun with their work. It is endlessly fascinating and well done.

How about that! No politics today! Oh, did I mention that there are primaries this week in Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Washington, and the Northern Mariana Islands?

Just in case you had forgotten.

       Bill Clontz

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2 replies to In Praise of the Johnny Appleseeds of Science

  1. Bill, thanks for this recap of the contributions from our “public” science teachers over the years. In my house watching Cosmos was a weekly must watch event. Sagan’s voice was mesmerizing by itself and we had the book to reference between shows. I plan to open each of your attachments with great appreciation for your thoroughness in presenting ideas.

    Let’s not forget a recent series on history of the earth narrated by Kirk Johnson, Smithsonian geologist, on PBS. We need these voices of reason desperately.

    • Right you are, Jerry. We could do a whole series of the amazing Smithsonian and it’s contribution. I am a BIG Fan.

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