The famed astrophysicist once appeared on a talk show to shed some light on how children lose their curiosity as they grow older but it's actually not their fault.
Carl Sagan has left a massive impact on the world of astrophysics. According to Britannica, Sagan's early work focused on the physical conditions of the planets, especially the atmospheres of Venus and Jupiter. During that time he became interested in the possibility of life beyond Earth and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), a controversial research field he did much to advance. The University of Chicago graduate, received numerous awards and honors, including the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1978 for his book "The Dragons of Eden." Along with his scientific accomplishments, this late astrophysicist also had a lot to say about children who often got chided for their boundless curiosity.
During an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" back in 1977, Sagan opened up about how he has noticed that as kids grow up, they lose their sense of scientific wonder. In his words, this happens due to indifferent adults who don't pay enough attention to satiate a child's curiosity by educating them. "For example, a kid asks 'Mommy, why is the grass green?' and very often you get an answer like 'Oh, don't ask dumb questions' or 'who knows?" Sagan said on the chat show.
"In fact, it is an extremely profound question," he continues as host Carson gives another example of a child's curiosity when they ask about 'why the sky is blue.' "In both those cases, it goes to the fundamentals and one case of biology and another one of a kind of physics," Sagan says. "How much better would it be to say to a child that it is a good question they are asking? I don't know the answer but maybe we can look it up. Or 'nobody knows maybe.' When you grow up you'll be the person to find out."
Sagan remarked that the kids who are discouraged from asking those questions, end up learning the lesson that there is something bad about using their minds. "We lose those intellectual resources because when we are in perilous times, we think the complex and subtle problems we face can only have complex and subtle solutions. I believe a great many children have the ability to think those thoughts if only they are encouraged," Sagan concluded.
In "The Demon-Haunted World", a book written by Sagan, he further shared how he was regularly impressed he was with kindergartners and first-graders. “Many of these children are natural-born scientists — although heavy on the wonder side and light on the skepticism. They’re curious and intellectually vigorous. Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them,” he wrote shared in the timeless PBS documentary "Cosmos." Sagan also noted a certain transformation in kids by the time they grow up to become seniors in high school.
“They memorize ‘facts.’ By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They’ve lost much of the wonder and gained very little skepticism. They’re worried about asking ‘dumb’ questions; they’re willing to accept inadequate answers,” Sagan wrote in his book. “Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation or ridicule or quickly move on to something else. Children soon recognize that somehow this kind of question annoys the grown-ups. A few more experiences like it and another child has been lost to science.”
According to The Washington Post, the celebrated astronomer and physicist once went to public schools in Washington D.C. during National Science Week and started his series of lectures for students at Cardozo High School. Sagan who was the son of a Brooklyn garment industry laborer and a housewife, revealed that his journey toward becoming a famous astronomer and author was aided by two essential things - he was interested in science at a young age and "his parents never discouraged him." According to Smithsonian Magazine, in 1977 he also gave a series of six lectures for kids about exploring our solar system and each were about 60 minutes long.