Ann Druyan: Telling the Story of the Cosmos

April 07, 2014

This week, Point of Inquiry is delighted to welcome Ann Druyan, co-writer and co-creator of both the original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, starring her late husband Carl Sagan, as well as the new series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, starring Neil deGrasse Tyson.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Druyan talks to Josh Zepps about how the first Cosmos series came to be, her efforts to translate the majesty of science into relatable and accessible storytelling, and how we’ve progressed toward making a more reasonable and humane society. We also get a little bit of insight into what it was like to get to know Carl Sagan for the first time.

Ann Druyan co-wrote with Sagan the books CometShadows of Forgotten Ancestors, and sections of The Demon-Haunted World. Their twenty-year professional collaboration also included NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message (the famous “Golden Record” aboard the Voyager spacecraft) along with many articles, speeches, and other written works. She is co-founder and CEO of Cosmos Studios, as well as Program Director of Cosmos 1, the first solar sailing spacecraft mission.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premiered March 9, 2014 simultaneously in the US across ten FOX networks in 125 countries, and on National Geographic networks in 180 countries, making it the largest global launch of a TV series in history.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, April 7th, 2014. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Hafize Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, when eight and a half million Americans tuned in to the television premiere of Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey four weeks ago. The words they heard were indelibly associated with its host. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. But he is not the writer of those words. That honor goes to the show’s creator, producer and writer Andrew Ryan, who also co-wrote the original Cosmos series that Emmy winning Peabody winning broadcast in 60 countries juggernaut that remains the most widely watched PBS series ever. The show was, of course, Anne’s collaboration with her husband, the late, great Carl Sagan. And thank you so much for being on point of inquiry. 

Josh, I’m delighted to be back. 

We think of you and Carl as having been this unstoppable scientific duo. But I was surprised to find out that you weren’t a scientist. You never studied science. Where did your science passion come from? Was it always there or or did it evolve? 

No, no. Well, it was originally and I had that misfortune, which so many of us have to have it kind of beaten out of me in any physical sense. But, you know, it wasn’t I I didn’t really have great science teachers who were willing to work with me. And I think if you ask them, even when I was in college, you know, about my potential as a scientist, they would have said that I was probably inevitable, not about the history of science, which I was passionate about. Fascinated by the history of ideas. But did you do even the kind of entry level calculations, office experience, didn’t you know? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. And I think it began with a terrible mass mass trauma, which is immortalized in Charles novel contest. 

And with my first understanding of junior high school, it’s so interesting because this is such a common theme and it’s one of the things that that Carl Sagan and people like Richard Dawkins really awakened me to in my in my teens, which was the fact that I was not a good science student and found science class boring didn’t mean that science wasn’t incredible and fascinating and eye opening. And I sort of wish that there’d been a meta science class or a philosophy of science class before you get to the college level to inspire people with science in a way that doesn’t require petri dishes and memorizing the periodic table. 

But precisely, I couldn’t agree more. And that’s why I feel that is the irony, that this has been my career is to be a kind of bridge to to all the people like myself who had a passion to understand the way the universe is put together. But I really needed some kind of aperture into the subject. And so, you know, after the trauma of my junior high school math class, I went down another road. I was much more attracted to English literature and to film and music and really didn’t pursue it until in my early 20s, I became fascinated by materialism. And from a political perspective, I was really excited to understand who were the first people to demystify human experience and not to resort to God as an explanation. And that brought me to the priest, the Kraddick philosophers, and I fell in love with them. And in fact, I think in view, Carl, with a much greater feeling of appreciation for them. And that was that was you know, this was before in that car. And once we once we were together, we were able to explore not only, you know, I mean, just imagine having any question of the day or night being able to turn to the person next to you. And it’s Carl Sagan. And there’s no you know, there’s no such thing as a stupid question. 

I mean, I’d be interested just going back to those those ideas, those materialist ideas, the pre Socratic ideas, what specifically about them? And what which of those ideas were the ones that sparked that that flame? 

Well, the one that really grabbed me was the hypocrisies explanation of epilepsy in his masterwork called Sacred Disease, which was about the question of of, you know, what were the root causes of epilepsy. 

And so here you have this that, you know, it’s kind of one of the fathers of a medical tradition saying, writing that people believe epilepsy is a sacred disease. Because I don’t understand its cause, but I believe some day not only will future positions come to understand this course, but the moment that they do understand what really causes it, they will cease to think of it as sacred. And that is, you know, when I read that, it was like Thunderbolt. Because it was, you know, just the most unvarnished understanding of how. 

Not only how the process of mystification that makes keeps us from moving forward and understanding what’s really going on. Which, of course, applies not just to science, but to religion, politics, everything, every human undertaking. 

Yeah, it’s inspiring to think that things are actually explicable. Right. It’s it’s inspiring to think that things are actually explicable. 

It’s not only inspiring, it’s empowering. You know, it’s it’s once you start actually looking for the root cause of things. I mean, as I write in in the series, you know the answer. 

The answer. Well, the planets move the way they do because God wants it that way because God did it. If the closing of a door, there’s no follow up questions and then, you know, and that’s that’s the opposite of science. 

So you met you met Carl when you were the creative director of the Voyager project, right. When you were putting together. I know Kyle before that. Okay. 

I know Carl prior to that about we fell in love when I was when I was the creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Record. 

Got it. And just explain to people what what that was. Was putting together this golden record that would go on the Voyager spacecraft in case it wherever someday found by an alien civilization. Right. How did how did you come to work on that projects? And how do you where do you even begin? 

Good question. It began because Carl and I had worked with some other colleagues on a project that never came to fruition. 

But during that time, you know, Carl, I think, came to appreciate what a hard worker I am. And, you know, I think he liked my approach. And so when the Voyager record project became a possibility to Voyager spacecraft, expelled from the solar system by a kind of gravitational push from the massive planet Jupiter and therefore doomed or that’s the right word, I baited or destined or something destined if the words to travel through the galaxy, to actually leave the solar system as nothing we have ever touched have done before to to leave the solar system and to wander through the galaxy for a thousand billion years, a million years and a billion years. 

A thousand million years. So this is, you know, was an unprecedented opportunity to send something of ourselves, our culture, something of how we look and who we are and even something of our music. Our emotions are on this longest odyssey of in all the history of the human species. So, you know, you think here’s a chance to create a kind of Noah’s ark of human culture, to take the great musical traditions of the world and represent them, to show one hundred and eighteen pictures of what we look like, what our world looks like. And also during the project, I asked Carl if it would be possible for me to meditate for an hour and to have my body hooked up to various computers that would record every single neurological impulse, every every signal that my mind and body were sending out and then to. Compress that into data and to put that on the Voyager record as sound. And to imagine that the extraterrestrials of a thousand million years from now could possibly reinterpret what I was thinking. 

And I remember vividly looking at me and saying, a billion years is a long time. 

Any, you know, anything is possible. Go do it. And so that’s part of the Voyager record. That’s our meditation. 

That’s amazing. I mean, what you know, that kind of a that kind of inspiring project makes it just so puts the lie to the criticism that is often made by religious people, of secular people, that only religion provides poetry and provides majesty and a sense of the transcendent, that secular lives, atheistic or agnostic lives, are somehow robbed of the spark of the divine. Did you feel like you were engaged in something? I only use the word spiritual, but spiritual. 

I thought that every day of my adult life, every single thing I’ve ever worked on. 

Of course, you know that the romance of life in the universe is, you know, it’s a constant backbeat to everything that I’ve ever worked on. Is that feeling of celebrating that the joy that you can feel when you not only allow yourself to be as tiny and as non central to the workings of the universe and just allow yourself to appreciate the little we know about who where we are and when we are. And there’s nothing more exciting than that for me, especially because it has that extra layer of satisfaction, which is that this is the fruit of the most rigorous testing that we are yet capable of. This is what we’ve distilled from existence. You know, the idea that we’re part of a thirteen point eight billion year story. 

I mean, you know, it’s just it’s it’s a bigger it’s bigger than anyone dreams. 

And it’s it’s all I mean, one of the things that I was reminded of and, you know, as I’ve said before, Cosmos changed my life and all of Karl’s books and the ones that you co-wrote with him as well. Demon Haunted World and others. One of the things that struck me when I watched the first episode of this new Cosmos was the cosmic calendar idea, which has become sort of iconic. Can you just inform me, Bombi, on a behind the scenes level, how that came about? Do you know how Kyle first thought of it? Or if he did first think of it and just explain to people who don’t know what I’m talking about, what it is? 

I believe he was actually I believe it was his idea, although I can’t be absolutely sure. And I should say that, you know, Karl and I created the original series with Stephen Sowder, who was also my collaborator on the first several, several years of the new Cosmos series. And he was a very important contributor to both. And I remember working with Steve and Karl and imagining what this great football field of time would be like. And I think, you know, one of Karl’s many, many strengths was that he recognized that we are story driven, that if you could create a narrative that everyone, young and old, could could I just could grasp and experience, that’s the information suddenly becomes so much more natural thing. And so, Carl, who I think you may have been inspired by, by powers of 10 earlier and other attempts at kind of figuring out a way to limit the vastness of space wanted in his own mind to to do the same thing for time. And it became the most natural thing to take this giant football field and parcel out, you know, the months each month in our calendar, because the universe has become much younger in the intervening 35 years and lost a couple of billion each month, a little more than a billion years. And, of course, each day around 40 million years. 

And then, of course, the payoff of the of the analogy is that all of every all of human history is in a fraction of a second on one second to midnight on December thirty first. 

Exactly. And just the idea of how young we are, you know, and I mean, it’s one thing to realize that the Earth is not the center of the universe. But the next level is to understand that we are so newly arrived. We are so young. And of course, we don’t know very much. And there’s the humility of science, which is saying that our ignorance exceeds our understanding on every level. But here we are finding our way testing be the things we we think are right and be willing to find out that they’re wrong. That’s mental health. 

You know, really, it’s works is a good definition about it. 

So when you were putting together the first show and I’d also be interested in how that even came about and how it came to be and how PBS picked it up, but just it also creatively when the three of you were coming together and I’m glad you mentioned Steven Solo because we don’t leave him out. How do you even begin to get your heads around? All right. We want to express the majesty of all this stuff, you know, in a way that tells stories and that relates to people. But where do you start? What do you leave out? What how do you decide what to include and how? 

Well, you know, it’s there’s a winnowing process of years of discussion, not just with the three among the three of us, although I try. I cherish the memories of those fantastic. 

Into the wee wee hours. Just, ah, you know, obviously as far ranging as Cosmos itself has been. But also later on, you know, when we joined together with Adrian Malone, who was our original executive producer and the extraordinary team of people that he assembled to actually implement our ideas for how we wanted to tell the story. It took flight and it was a multi-year process. And sometimes, you know, you know, it’s a case of we had more stories to tell. Then we had the time to tell them that. And sometimes certain components, certain sequences banded because of the visual possibilities. And because of the information. And so they was just as you imagine, you know, I had certain stories. I always wanted to tell the Fenby the Library of Alexandria was something that I was. I wrote about in my first novel. I was really enchanted by this idea of government that was so interested novelist and. And, you know, Carl, of course, had a lifetime of thinking about the know subject of life on other worlds. He was a pioneer in that field. And he had, you know, things that he wanted to do, which we together turned into into sequences. And Steve was, you know, interesting in a great many things. But he had a special interest in protecting the planet. And so he played a very major role in not only having been in power, which was the fourth episode where we actually even talk about climate modification, global warming and the dangers of our complete you know, in fact, we talked about the runaway greenhouse effect in 1979 was producing this. But he was also as as where the three of us very interested in the danger at that time of nuclear war, which was very real, very deep into the Cold War, some 60000 nuclear weapons in the hands of the superpowers on what we then thought were hair triggers. And so he had, you know, a big role in Episode 13. But every week there wasn’t a single episode that we didn’t. All three of us have our hands on. And there were, you know, each script had so many iterations, so many drafts. And we were constantly, you know, just cutting and eliminating and adding and. But it was a yeah, it’s just a feast of ideas. I mean, that to be with the two of them and to be able to just spend hours thinking, bringing up fascinating stories about the ancient world, about the future, as Carl and his colleagues having as his colleague Deadfall Peter, having written this amazing paper on the hunters and floaters and sinkers, which then became, I imagined life form on Jupiter with its own evolutionary pathway. 

I mean, there is so many there just many, many components that were so thrilling. And I look back on the whole thing of just being just so wonderful. 

Did you have confidence that that the audience would get it? I mean, obviously a small audience would get it. But did you have any sense that it would become the iconic show that it has become? 

I think everyone knew that we were engaged in something extraordinary. From the very beginning. I remember, you know, Carlos and I were just coming off the making of the Voyager record, which is great. So we’re going from one mythic project to what we just expected would be another mythic project. And we were. Yes. In fact, I remember Carl called every single person together on the first day when we were all in our offices at KCET. It just manually moved in. Hadn’t had our first production meeting. Hadn’t discussed a single sequence yet. And he went around this, you know, we had all the tables arranged in a square so that all of the 30 or 40 people, you know, from there on every single level, including the people who were going to bring the coffee, everybody. And he wanted to know from each person what they expected and hoped from the series. And I remember the voices around the table. And it was you know, everybody was saying the same thing, just as everyone has been saying this to me on the new series. You know, most of the time we’re forced to work on stuff that we think is crap. We don’t get to ever, you know, do something that’s really shooting for the stars and trying to make history. And the joy of actually doing that is it’s the greatest feeling. And I you know, I hear this all the time. People are so inspired by Carl Sagan’s life and work. And by the legacy of the original series Contact and a bunch of things written together that really it’s just, you know, I’m overwhelmed. 

What did you make of him? I’d be fascinated what you made of him within the first few occasions that you met him. 

Oh, I remember vividly. It was a Nora Ephron apartment. She was giving a very small dinner party. And I walked in and I saw our pile lying on her living room rug and she was wearing a blue work shirt with his sleeves rolled up. It was a kind of sultry. Evening. Want to a summer or fall? And big smile and I said, what a beautiful guy. No idea. And terror. And we got into a conversation about baseball. And because I knew a little bit about the history of baseball, he was quite interested in that. And the history of the Russian Revolution, we talked about Trotsky. And at one point, he just laughed so loud. This wonderful, completely uninhibited laugh. 

And it was you know, it was something you rarely hear in an in a grown man. 

Because it was so free and so unconcerned with appearances. And I thought that is the greatest laugh I have ever heard. So that is a great laugh. 

And we had a sparkling discussion. And and, you know, knew each other for years as friends and colleagues, very, totally platonic, you know, three years before during the making of the Voyager record. That a great love for each other. Was finally expressed in a two minute phone. 

Ha ha ha. That’s so sweet. 

And that’s that’s how it happened. 

And there’s so one thing I’d love to get your thoughts on is the state of American culture and scientific literacy and the religious right. I mean, when you think about the audience that was receiving the original cosmos in the audience today, do you think America has become more or less reasonable? 

Well, I think it’s a kind of you know, it’s a pendulum and it has a tendency to isolate, to swing back and forth. And back when we during Cosmo’s B polar missions and the glory of that still had a tail that was, you know, it was declining, but you feel it. 

And, you know, there was kind of there was an excitement about the future and space that I think we’ve largely lost. I think we’ve gotten a little bit depressed. And, you know, this topic hung up on a kind of apocalyptic view of the future. And but Cosmos comes at a good moment because, you know, the pendulum swings both ways. I felt like it was swinging back away about a year or two ago. I really began to feel it burn number of reasons. And I’ve been really excited that we have made several very uncompromising statements on this show, on Fox, on here and around the world, largest rollout of a television series globally in history. And we’ll talk very forthrightly about creationism, about intelligent design, about the much smaller universe that you get from a fundamentalist perspective and how much darker and smaller that is. And I’ve been really excited to see that the reaction has been negligible. You know, it really pushed back thus far. You know, no complaints from me because it’s almost as if. 

And the acceptance, the embrace of the show has been overwhelming. So, you know, I just feel like we’re happy. It’s not we’re just happened to be on a good part of the wave. Good. 

I and your optimism delights me. 

Yeah, I mean, don’t you feel the same way? 

Not really. I have to say, to be honest, I still perhaps I spend too much time debating creationists and and engaging in that world. And perhaps American culture is sufficiently different from the culture that I grew up in that it still strikes me as as as Stark. I hope you’re right. I think that I think you’re right that the pendulum has to swing and that it said that sometime soon it has to swing back. This can’t be an endless dissent. But if you if I’d been alive a half century ago, then I think I would have thought that in 2014 we’d be over this by now. 

Yeah, well, l I just I guess from my perspective, at my age, I grew up in a very racist, homophobic, sexist world. And even though, you know, largely thought of as a time of great enlightenment and opening up, you know, the things that people casually did or took for granted, which we would now find egregious, I completely agree on social, on social and cultural issues. 

Yes. We’ve come a huge, huge, huge way. 

And I think that they are not related. There’s a constellation of years in prison and reason to be you know, they have some kind of correlation. Yeah. 

And I feel like, you know, you make some progress on one one front and it affects how how things go on the other front. 

That’s that’s quite possibly true. Yeah. Before we go, one of the things that Carl was so inspiring about I you that you were so inspiring about was extraterrestrial intelligence and the possibility thereof. We all know contact. Do you what do you have any thoughts about why we haven’t found anything yet? 

And that’s one of the things I’m most proud of in the new series. So no idea that I would love to a car, which is that it occurred to me. You know, we have only been broadcasting and radio and television for a very brief amount of time. If someone had been, let’s say, you know, an extraterrestrial intelligence, another world was madly saturating your with broadcast messages that you need a radio set to pick up anytime before the last hundred or so years. We wouldn’t be aware of it. We wouldn’t have any awareness of it. And yet the only way that we’ve been able to look for, you know, intelligent signs of intelligently has been receiving these, you know, looking for four radio signals. And yet, you know, if you think of Jules Verne and he’s brilliant, ground breaking trip to the moon, you imagine that we’d be riding on the back of a of an explosive show, which isn’t really that far from the truth, but it’s not really the way it is. You know, he had, as I like to say, he had gaslights in a submarine. You know, that’s yet our inability to foresee. So while we have no information or no evidence of the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe thus far, you know, it may be that we that the technology with which we use to search for them, if it’s perhaps not the optimal way. 

And that is in the not too distant future, we’ll figure that the on the I interview Joel Osteen, one of the most popular pastors in the world, on her first love. Not long ago. And I read to him Pale Blue dot the paragraph, and I showed him that iconic photo from Voyager of Earth suspended there and in a sunbeam and and asked him whether or not he thought that it made sense to think that all of this was just created as a backdrop for God to figure out whether or not we were gonna be good or evil or to try to pray to him for learn. 

Yeah. What did he say? 

He dodged the question. Has he dodged most of them? But he said that, you know, he said something about, you know, isn’t it? Well, you know, ours is not to question what, you know, the purpose of his majesty. You know all of this. It’s an extraordinary universe. And we can only humble ourselves before him and and wonder what the point of it all is. You know, that’s sort of that’s sort of fluff. But I wonder what you think of why religious people, how religious people who see Cosmos or who who who are made aware of this can then reconcile themselves to the idea that if they pray to God, they might get a cheaper rate on their home loan or they they might lose fifteen pounds. 

Well, I hope you know, the help that we have some kind of influence so that the next time they have that thought, they may question it. You know how logical it is. But, you know, I feel like I don’t know, I have no metric for how many minds we’ve changed. I have no idea how people feel, but I just feel that the reason that science. Hasn’t really hadn’t caught on with people because they’re naturally curious and every child you see, it is just nuts to know about healthy, you know, with stars. What is this? What is that? So now we get it beat out of us. But I’d like to think that, you know, this will have some effect and that the availability of cosmos on so many platforms and the idea that we are really trying to articulate the case for the scientific perspective and its power, that it will have some influence. 

I hope so. 

You know, I oh, it is just me. You need and you need an prevaricates. It’s having a big influence. Last question. Why do you know that? 

It’s so it’s such an exciting, sparkling thing in the light guys at the moment. Cosmos, it’s such a I think it’s something that people are talking about. It’s something that people are are aware of and excited by it. I don’t I can’t recall another nonfiction television event that has has captivated at least the conversation quite so much in my life. 

Made my day. Josh, thank you so much for being on point of inquiry and. Oh, my pleasure, Judge. And best regards to everyone at the Center for Inquiry. Thank you so much. Great to talk to you. Really great title duties. Thank. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.