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Ann Druyan: Telling the Story of the Cosmos

Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

May 5, 2014

This recent Point of Inquiry interview with Ann Druyan has now been transcribed and is available to read. If you'd rather listen to the interview, you can do so here. Transcription provided by Rev.com.

This is Point of Inquiry for Monday, April 7, 2014.

Josh: I'm Josh Zepps, host of Huffpost Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry.

When eight and half million Americans tuned in the television premiere of Cosmos: A Space Time 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, Ann Druyan, who also co-wrote the original Cosmos series, that Emmy-winning, Peabody-winning, broadcast-in-60-countries juggernaut that remains the widely watched PBS series ever.

The show was, of course, Ann's collaboration with her husband, the late, great Carl Sagan. Ann, thank you so much for being on Point of Inquiry.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Ann: Josh, I'm delighted to be back.

Josh: 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 did it evolve?

Ann: No. No, it wasn't originally, and I had that misfortune which so many of us have ... to have it kind of ... not beaten out of me in any physical sense. But, you know, I wasn't ... I didn't really have great science teachers who were willing to work with me, and I think if you asked them, even when I was in college, you know, about my potential as a scientist, they would have said that I was probably ineducable.

Not about the history of science, which I was passionate about, fascinated by the history of ideas, but to do even the kind of entry level calculations of physics, for instance. You know, I just couldn't wrap my head around it, and I think it began with a terrible math trauma, which is immortalized in Carl's novel, Contact, and it was my first understanding of junior high school.

Josh: It's so interesting, because this is such a common theme, and it's one of the things that Carl Sagan and people like Richard Dawkins really awakened me to 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.

I sort of wished that there'd been a metascience 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.

Ann Druyan

Ann: Precisely, I couldn't agree more, and that's why I feel that this ... you know, it's the irony that that should have been my career is to be a kind of bridge to all the people like myself who had a passion to understand the way the universe is put together, but really needed some kind of aperture into the subject. So 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 twenties I became fascinated by materialism, and from a political perspective 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 pre-Socratic philosophers, and I fell in love with them.

In fact, I think, imbued Carl with a much greater feeling of appreciation for them, and that was ... this was before I met Carl and once we were together we were able to explore not only ... I mean just imagine having any question of the day or night and being able to turn to the person next to you, and it's Carl Sagan. (Josh laughs)

And there's ... you know, there's no such thing as a stupid question ...

Josh: I mean, I'd be interested ... just going back to those ideas, those materialist ideas, the pre-Socratic ideas, what specifically about them and which of those ideas were the ones that sparked that flame.

Ann: Well, the one that really grabbed me was Hippocrates' explanation of epilepsy in his masterwork called Sacred Disease, which was about the question of what were the root causes of epilepsy? So here you have this ... one of the fathers of medical tradition seeing, writing that people believe epilepsy is a sacred disease because they don't understand its cause, but I believe some day not only will future physicians come to understand this cause, but the moment that they do understand what really causes it, they will cease to think of it as sacred.

Josh: Hm.

Ann: When I read that, it was a like a thunderbolt, because it was the just most unvarnished understanding of how literally, 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.

Josh: Yeah, it's inspiring to think that things are actually explicable, right?

Ann: I beg your pardon.

Josh: It's inspiring to think that things are actually explicable.

Ann: It's not only inspiring, it's empowering, you know. Once you start actually looking for the root cause of things ... I mean, as I write in the series, you know, the answer, well, the planets move the way they do because God wants it that way, because God did it, is the closing of a door. There's no follow-up question to that, and that's the opposite of science.

Josh: So, you met Carl when you were the creative director of the Voyager Project, right? When you were putting together-

Ann: No, I knew Carl before that.

Josh: Oh, okay.

Ann: I met Carl prior to that. We fell in love when I was creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Record.

Josh: Got it, and just explain to people what that was. That was putting together this Golden Record that would go on the Voyager spacecraft in case it were ever some day found by an alien civilization, right? How did you come to work on that project, and where do you even begin?

Ann: Ah, 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 Carl, I think, came to appreciate what a hard worker I am, and 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 ... what's the right word?

Josh: Fated or destined or something?

Ann: Destined is the word. To travel through the galaxy, to actually leave the solar system as nothing we have ever touched has done before, to leave the solar system and to wander through the galaxy for a thousand billion years, million years, a billion years, a thousand million years.

So this 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, on this longest odyssey in all the history of the human species ... 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 118 pictures of what we look, what our world looks like.

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 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 found, and to imagine that the extra-terrestrials of a thousand million years from now could possibly reinterpret what I was thinking, and I remember vividly, Carl looking at me, and saying, "Hey, a billion years is a long time, Annie, you know. Anything is possible. Go do it."

So that's part of the Voyager Record ... an hour of meditation.

Josh: That's so cool. That's amazing. I mean, 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 the sense of the transcendent, that secular lives, atheistic or agnostic lives are somehow robbed of the spark of divine.

Did you feel like you were engaged something ... I don't want to use the word "spiritual" ... but, spiritual?

Ann: I've felt that every day of my adult life, and every single thing I've ever worked on. Of course, you know, the romance of life in the universe is a constant back-beat to everything that I've ever worked on. It's that feeling of celebrating, that 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 where we and when we are.

There's nothing more exciting than that, for me. Especially as it has that extra layer of satisfaction within, that this is the fruit of the most rigorous testing that we are yet capable of. This is what we've distilled from existence, the idea that we're part of a 13.8 billion year story. I mean, you know, it's just ... it's a bigger ...

Josh: It's a bigger ...

Ann: Story than anyone dreamed.

Josh: And it's all ... one of the things that I was reminded of ... as I've said to you before, Cosmos changed my life, and all of Carl's books and the ones co-wrote with him as well, The 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, on a behind-the-scenes level, how that came about? Do you know how Carl 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.

Ann: I believe he was ... actually, I believe it was his idea, although I can't be absolutely sure. I should say that Carl and I created the original series with Steven Soter, who was also my collaborator on the the first several years of the new Cosmos series, and he was a very important contributor to both. I remember working with Steve and Carl and imagining what this great football field of time would be like.

I think one of Carl'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 grasp and experience, that the information suddenly becomes a much more natural thing, and so Carl, who I think may have been inspired by powers of ten earlier and other attempts at kind of figuring out a way to limn the vastness of space, wanted in his own mind to do the same thing for time.

It became the most natural thing to take this giant football field and parcel out 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 years. Each month a little more than a billion years, and, of course, each day around 40 million years.

Josh: Then, of course, the payoff of the analogy that all of human history is in a fraction of a second at one second to midnight on December 31.

Ann: Exactly, and just the idea of how young we are, you know. 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 a humility of science, which is saying that our ignorance exceeds our understanding on every level. But here we are finding our way, testing the things we think are right, and being willing to find out that they're wrong.

That's mental health, you know. Really, it works as a good definition of either.

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

Ann: Well, there's a winnowing process of years of discussion, not just among the three of us ... although I cherish the memories of those fantastic, into the wee, wee hours, ah ... obviously, as far-ranging as Cosmos itself has been. Also, later on, 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.

It was multi-year process, and sometimes ... you know, it's more a case of you have more stories to tell than we had the time to tell them in. Sometimes certain components, certain sequences, expanded because of the visual possibilities and because of the information, and so it was just as you imagine.

I had certain stories I always wanted to tell; for me the Library of Alexandria was something that I was ... I wrote about in my first novel. I was really enchanted by this idea of a government that was so interested in knowledge. Carl, of course, had a lifetime of thinking about the subject of life on other worlds. He was a pioneer in that field, and he had things that he wanted to do, which we together turned into sequences, and Steve was interested in a great many things, but he had a special interest in protecting the planet.

So he played a very major role in not only Heaven and Hell, which was the fourth episode where we actually even talk about climate modification and global warming and the dangers of our complete ... in fact, we talk about the runaway greenhouse effect. This is 1979 when we were producing this.

He was also, as were 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 60,000 nuclear weapons, and the chance of the super powers on what we then thought were hair-triggers.

So he had a big role in episode 13, but there wasn't a single episode that we didn't all three of us have our hands on, and they weren't ... each script had so many iterations, so many drafts, and we were constantly just cutting and eliminating and adding. It was just a feast of ideas, 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.

Carl and his colleagues having ... his colleague Ed Salpeter having written this amazing paper on the Hunters, Floaters, and Sinkers, which became our imagined life form on Jupiter, with its own evolutionary pathway.

There were so many ... there's just many, many components that were so thrilling, and I look back on the whole thing as just being just so wonderful.

Josh: Did you have confidence 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?

Ann: I think everyone knew that we were engaged in something extraordinary from the very beginning. I remember Carl and I were just coming off the making of the Voyager Record; 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, just newly moved in, hadn't had our first production meeting, hadn't discussed a single sequence yet.

He went around this ... you know, we had all the tables arranged in a square, so that all of the 30 or 40 people, on every single level, including the people who were going to bring the coffee, everybody. He wanted to know from each person what they expected and hoped from the series. I remember the voices around the table, and it was ... everybody was saying the same thing, just as everyone has been saying this to me on the new series.

Most of the time we're forced to work on stuff that we think is crap, we don't get to ever do something that's really shooting for the stars and try to make history, and the joy of actually doing that is the greatest feeling. 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 that we've done together. Really, I'm overwhelmed.

Josh: What did you make of him? I'd be fascinated what you made of him on the first few occasions that you met him.

Ann: Oh, I remember vividly. It was at Nora Ephron's apartment; she was giving a very small dinner party, and I walked in and I saw Carl lying on her living room rug. He was wearing a blue work shirt with his sleeves rolled up; it was a kind of sultry evening ... I want to say summer or fall ... and a big smile. I thought, "What a beautiful guy!"

I had no idea, and we got into a conversation about baseball ... I knew 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 something you rarely hear in a grown man, because it was so free and so unconcerned with appearances, and I thought, "That is the greatest laugh I've ever heard." So, "That is a great laugh."

We had a sparkling discussion, and knew each other for years as friends and then colleagues, totally Platonic ... three years before. During the making of the Voyager Record that our great love for each other was finally expressed in a ten-minute phone call.

Josh: That's so sweet.

Ann: That's how it happened.

Josh: 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 and the audience today, do you think America has become more or less reasonable?

Ann: Well, I think it's a kind of ... it's a pendulum, and it has a tendency to oscillate, swing back and forth, and back when we were doing Cosmos, the Apollo missions and the glory of that, still had a tail; it was declining, but you could feel it. 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 dystopic, hung up on a kind of apocalyptic view of the future, but Cosmos just comes at a good moment, because the pendulum swings both ways.

I felt like it was swinging back our way; about a year or two ago I really began to feel it, for a number of reasons and I've been really excited that we have made several very uncompromising statements on the show on Fox and around the world, largest roll-out of its television series globally in history, and we talked very forthrightly about creationism, about intelligent design, about the much smaller universe that you get from the fundamentalist perspective, and how much darker and smaller that is. I've been really excited to see that the reaction has been negligible, you know?

Josh: Hm.

Ann: The push-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 I just feel like ... we just happen to be on a good part of the wave.

Josh: Good. Your optimism delights me.

Ann: Yeah. Don't you feel the same way?

Josh: Not really, I have to say, to be honest. Perhaps I spend too much time debating creationists and engaging in that world, and perhaps American culture is sufficiently different from the culture I grew up in that it still strikes me as stark. I hope you're right. I think you're right that the pendulum has to swing and that sometime soon it has to swing back. This can't be an endless descent, but 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.

Ann: Yeah. Well, from my perspective, at my age, I grew up in a very racist, homophobic, sexist world. Even though it's 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 ...

Josh: I completely agree on the social and cultural issues.

Ann: Yeah.

Josh: Yes, we've come a huge, huge way.

Ann: I think they're not unrelated; there's a constellation of view that seems for some reason to have some kind of correlation.

Josh: Yeah.

Ann: I feel like you've made some progress on one front and it affects how things go on the other front.

Josh: That's quite possibly true. Yeah. Before we go, one of the things that Carl was so inspiring about and that you are so inspiring about was extra-terrestrial intelligence and the possibility thereof ... we all know Contact. Do you ... do you have any thoughts about why we haven't found anything yet and ... ?

Ann: That's one of the things I'm most proud of in the new series, and an idea that I would love to tell Carl, which is ... it occurred to me that we have only been broadcasting and radio and television for a very brief amount of time. If someone had been listening ... you know, an extra-terrestrial intelligence on another world ... was madly saturating the Earth with broadcast messages that you need radio facts to pick up any time before the last hundred or so years, we wouldn't be aware of it.

We wouldn't have any awareness of it. Yet, the only way that we've been able to look for signs of intelligent life has been receiving these ... looking for radio signals. Yet, if you think of Jules Verne and his brilliant ground-breaking Trip to the Moon; he imagined that we would be riding on the back of an explosive shell, which isn't really that far from the truth, but it's not really the way ... you know, he had, as I like to say, he had gaslights in his submarine, you know. That's ...

Josh: Yeah.

Ann: Our inability to foresee.

So while we have no information or no evidence on the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe thus far, it may be that the technology with which we use to search for them is perhaps not the optimal way, and that in the not-too-distant future we'll figure it out.

Josh: I interviewed Joel Osteen, one of the most popular pastors in the world, on her First Live not long ago, and I read to him Pale Blue Dot, the paragraph, I showed him that iconic photograph from Voyager of Earth suspended there in a sunbeam, and asked him whether or not he thought that it made sense that all of this was just created as a backdrop for God to figure out whether or not we were going to be good or evil or to try to pray to him for- [crosstalk 29:20]

Ann: What did he say?

Josh: He dodged the question, as he dodged most of them, but he said something about, ours is not to question the purpose of his majesty. All of this. It's an extraordinary universe and we can only humble ourselves before him and wonder what the point of it all is.

That sort of fluff, but I wonder what you think of why religious people ... how religious people who see Cosmos or 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 might lose 15 pounds.

Ann: Well, I hope .. the hope that we have some kind of influence so that the next time they have that thought, they may question it ... how logical it is. 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 ... hasn't caught on with people, because they're naturally curious, and every child you see is just nuts to know about ... the stars, and what is this? And what is that?

And somehow we get it beaten out of us, but I like to think that this will have some effect, and that the availability of Cosmos on so many platforms and the ideas, 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.

Josh: It is. Trust me. You needed prevaricate; it's having a big influence. Last question.

Ann: How do you know that?

Josh: It's such an exciting, sparkling thing in the zeitgeist, at the moment, Cosmos. It's something that people are talking about; it's something that people are aware of and excited by. I can't recall another non-fiction television event that has captivated at least the conversation quite so much in my lifetime.

Ann: You've made my day, Josh.

Josh: Thank you so much for being on Point of Inquiry, Ann.

Ann: Oh, it was my pleasure, Josh, and best regards to everyone at the Center for Inquiry.

Josh: Thank you so much. Great to talk to you.

Ann: Really great talking to you too.

Josh: Bye.