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Josh Zepps with Ann Druyan: Cosmos, Carl Sagan, and Culture

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Josh Zepps

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 38.5, September/October 2014

We present a condensed version of an earlier interview about Ann Druyan’s experience with the first and the new Cosmos series by Josh Zepps for our Center for Inquiry’s Point of Inquiry podcast. (That full interview is online at http://www.pointofinquiry.org/ann_druyan_telling_the_story_of_the_cosmos/.)

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 DruyanKEVORK DJANSEZIAN/REUTERS/Newscom

No, it wasn’t originally. I had that misfortune which so many of us have. 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, 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 entry-level calculations of physics, for instance. 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. After the trauma of my junior high school math class, I went down another road.

I wish 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.

Precisely, I couldn’t agree more. It’s an irony that my career has been 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. I was much more attracted to English literature and to film and 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. That brought me to the pre-Socratic philosophers, and I fell in love with them.

In fact, I think I imbued Carl with a much greater feeling of appreciation for them, and that was before I met Carl. Once we were together we were able to explore. . . . 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.

It’s inspiring to think that things are actually explicable, right?

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

When you worked with Carl, did you feel like you were engaged in something. . . . I don’t want to use the word spiritual . . . but, spiritual?

Carl Sagan

I’ve felt that every day of my adult life, and with 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 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 story than anyone dreamed.

Can you just inform me, on a behind-the-scenes level, how the cosmic calendar used in both Cosmos series came about?

I should say that Carl and I created the original series with Steven Soter, who was also my collaborator on 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.

cosmic calendarImages © 2013 FOX BROADCASTING.

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 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 thirty-five years and lost a couple of billion years. Each month represents a little more than a billion years, and, of course, each day around 40 million years.

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.

Exactly, and just the idea of how young we are. 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.

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 you even begin to get your heads around it all? 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 you decide what to include and how?

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 . . . 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 he assembled to actually implement our ideas for how we wanted to tell the story, it took flight. It was a 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, get 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 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.

There wasn’t a single episode that we didn’t all three of us have our hands on . . . 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.

Did you have confidence that the audience would get it? 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. Most of the time we don’t ever get to do something that’s shooting for the stars and trying to make history. 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.

I’d love to get your thoughts on 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?

Well, I think it’s a pendulum, and it has a tendency to oscillate, swing back and forth. Back when we were doing the first 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?

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.

Good. Your optimism delights me.

Don’t you feel the same way?

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.

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. . . .

I interviewed Joel Osteen, one of the most popular pastors in the world, not long ago, and I read to him a paragraph from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, 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—

What did he say?

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.

Well, I 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 have no metric for how many minds we’ve changed. 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.

Trust me. It’s having a big influence.

How do you know that?

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 nonfiction television event that has captivated at least the conversation quite so much in my lifetime.

You’ve made my day, Josh.

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

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