Exploring Possible Worlds with Ann Druyan

Rob Palmer

This is another moment when humanity has to step up. And the good news is that all of us are descended from generations, countless generations, of humans who had their backs to the wall and who managed to endure and to survive, and even to flourish. And that’s what we have to do. It’s our turn.”

Ann Druyan

As a huge fan of both the original 1980 Cosmos with Carl Sagan and the 2014 version with Neil deGrasse Tyson, when I discovered that National Geographic would be soon airing a new season of the show, I was thrilled.

It’s mid-March now, and the first several episodes are available. So, I’ve just begun to watch them from my shelter-in-place bunker (or what feels like a bunker) as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the globe. People (including yours truly) cannot go to work, basic necessities are in limited supply (why does everyone need so much toilet paper?), businesses are shuttering, and I find myself wondering what will become of civilization in the coming weeks, months, and possibly years. Will there be a global recession rivaling (or even surpassing) the Great Depression and vastly setting back human progress?

Cosmos offers a hopeful vision of the future based on humanity using science to cure its ills, but at the moment this is in stark contrast to our reality. Nevertheless, it’s a special treat to be able to watch this celebration of science and its prognostication of the wonders that may be in store for us if science wins out over superstition and ignorance. After finishing the two available episodes, I decided to reach out to the creative force behind Cosmos to see what insights I could obtain from her regarding the series—and the state of the world.

 


Ann Druyan
Photographer: Stewart Volland/National Geographic

 

Rob Palmer: Hello Ann. For those not very familiar with you, can you tell us about some of the highlights of your career?

Ann Druyan: Hey Rob! Sure. It was my honor to be the creative director of NASA’s Voyager interstellar message, to collaborate with Carl Sagan on Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and to co-create [the movie] Contact with him. I was also executive producer, writer, and director of Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey and Cosmos: Possible Worlds. I’m also the author of the companion book Cosmos: Possible Worlds.

Palmer: What would you say are the main differences between this third season of Cosmos and the earlier season that ran in 2014?

Druyan: I think during season three—during the conceiving of it, the writing of it with Brannon Braga, and then my writing of the companion book—I was moved by a greater sense of urgency. I don’t have to spell out to you or your readers why that was, because we’re all painfully aware of it.

Also, it seemed to me that most popular culture is concerned with dystopian visions of the future. As a child of the 1950s and 1960s who was constantly terrified that there would be a massive nuclear war at any moment, I remember that even during the horrors of the nuclear arms race that I felt a sense of hope about the future.

I went to the 1964 World’s Fair—this was just before the Apollo missions—and there were these dreams of beautiful cities where no one was poor, and they had telephones where you could see the person you were talking to. And they were just such great dreams that actually took decades to realize but were inspiring. It was at the beginning of the Space Age. And there was a kind of self-confidence that human beings had, despite the fact that the world was wracked with conflict, and more than half the world’s scientists were engaged in the nuclear arms race.

But still there was so much hope about the future, and I wanted to create something that had a vision of a hopeful one, but not an unrealistic impossible future, but the future that we could still have if we got our act together … if we started changing our priorities and use science and high technology with a long-term vision of protecting the planet, and also, many of the other life forms with whom we share it.

And it’s a dream that I wanted to convey because we have that power to do these things. We live in a moment where the input of scientific discovery is like a fire hydrant. And of course at the same time we’re not nearly as wise as we are clever. We seem to have taken a great leap backward. And I just wanted to inspire other people to work for the future that I think is worthy of our kids. That was the difference.

But, in all three seasons you will learn the stories of people you’ve likely never heard of, but who were not only impactful in helping us to arrive at a better understanding of nature and reality, but also who were courageous in a way that I think we need to be courageous … willing to really give it all to protect the future, but not willing to hurt anyone else.

Palmer: Neil deGrasse Tyson was on The Late Show with Steven Colbert recently and talking about the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day [April 22]. And he connected the fact that there was an Earth Day (and also that the EPA and NOAA were created at about the same time) to the Apollo moon landings, and the fact that humans saw Earth for the first time from a distance. And I thought that was rather profound. What are your thoughts on that?

Druyan: That’s an idea that Carl wrote about in an essay called “The Gift of Apollo,” and it was exactly that sense of self awareness, that Earthlings were able to glean from that beautiful frame-filling Earth. And then I think we made another even greater leap with the Pale Blue Dot image that Voyager 1 took, because it was far more realistic. It wasn’t a frame-filling planet, but it was just a tiny pale blue dot. To me, that’s really the most profound image.

And I’m hoping that just as Carl wrote decades ago about the way that Apollo influenced our sense of the Earth as a single organism, I’m really hoping that the Pale Blue Dot image will permeate consciousness and move us to protect this tiny planet that is so astonishingly beautiful, diverse in its landscapes and seascapes, and filled with life.

There’s something else that the Space Age did for our civilization: it unified the sciences in a way that was actually necessary. Because it wasn’t until Sputnik and the space missions that followed that the wall between the scientific disciplines came down. It’s a story that hasn’t really been told before, and I’m very proud to tell it in the book and on the show.

Ann Druyan on the set of Cosmos with Elizardo Torrez as young Sagan. Photographer: Lewis Jacobs/FOX

 

Palmer: In which episode is that story going to be covered?

Druyan: It’s in episode six. Man of a Trillion Worlds tells the story of when Carl was a young student, there was no scientific periodical on Earth in which a geologist could talk to a biologist or a chemist could talk to a biologist. There was such a separation of the sciences. But of course, when you begin to explore other worlds, you have to take everyone along on that trip, because the chemist, the geologists, the biologist, and everyone else has a part in that exploration. But that wasn’t true as long as we were Earthbound.

It’s a recent and yet a forgotten time. Carl was actually editor of Icarus, which was the first interdisciplinary scientific journal, and that represented a real seed change in science. So now, scientists from many different disciplines got together and cross fertilized each other with their knowledge and their ideas.

Palmer: Speaking of Man of a Trillion Worlds, I read that your daughter plays Carl’s mom—her own grandmother—in that episode. 

Druyan: Yes, it’s true! I thought of Sasha because when she was three years old, well, she was born almost a year after her grandmother died, and Carl and I adored his mother. She was very important to the wonderful person that Carl became. And so, it was very strange that when Sasha was three years old, she let out this really uproarious laugh, and Carl and I looked at each other a little bit freaked out. We hadn’t heard that laugh since his mother had died. In fact, we never heard anyone else laugh like that. That was an amazing insight into how much more nature we are than nurture.

Sasha is now an accomplished writer with a book out this past fall called For Small Creatures Such as We. And so, when I was thinking of who could play Rachel, I thought of the person that I knew who resembled her and also had taken some of her greatest qualities forward, probably through DNA or who knows what. So that’s why I chose Sasha, and she did a great job. She was a perfect Rachel. And actually, she has a recurring role in the season.

Palmer: I also read that there are some well-known names who voice the characters in the animations.

Druyan: Yes, Patrick Stewart is William Herschel. And the great Viggo Mortensen played Nikolai Vavilov. A lot of great talent has been attracted to Cosmos because of its significance and the place that it holds in people’s hearts. So, we’ve been able to attract the VFX supervisor, legendary in the motion picture industry, Jeff Okun, and so many stellar talents who really gave everything they had to Cosmos.

Executive producers Brannon Braga and Ann Druyan, and coproducer Sam Sagan on the set of Cosmos. Photographer: Dan Smith/FOX

Palmer: In the first episode, which I just watched, Tyson walks into the Halls of Extinction and reveals the name of the latest extinction hallway for the first time: “Anthropocene,” but then we quickly go on to another topic. Was that a tease for another episode?

Druyan: Yes. I like to put Easter eggs for the rest of the season in the first episode. The seeds of the whole season are scattered through it.

Palmer: In that episode, there was also an awe-inspiring scene with something called project Starshot (if I am remembering correctly) with 1000 ships all leaving Earth to explore the Cosmos at the same time. Where did that idea come from? Is that something actually being contemplated?

Druyan: Yes, this is a real project that I have a very tiny, tiny association with. I’m on the advisory board. The organization is Breakthrough Starshot, the same people who do the Breakthrough Prize. The project began about five years ago, and at that time Stephen Hawking was part of it, along with several other luminaries. And it’s being worked on as we speak. It’s a real thing!

Palmer: Episode one also teased a very large ship going on an interstellar voyage. And it had what I assume was a propulsion device at the rear, which looked a bit like the interstellar transport machine in Contact. Was that pareidolia on my part, or was it intentional?

Druyan: A lot of people have said that to me. It’s funny, it was not conscious. Maybe Jeff Okun, the VFX supervisor, was thinking of Contact unconsciously. I just wanted a propulsion system that looked really cool, but you didn’t know how it worked. And I also loved the body of that ship, which looked like a whale fall, a whale skeleton at the bottom of the sea. It was so beautiful and inspiring. All credit to the VFX people.

Palmer: I loved it when, during the first episode I think, Tyson said “Our ship of the imagination is propelled by twin engines of skepticism and wonder.”

Druyan: I’m very proud of that line, because that’s the point. You don’t have to have one at the expense of the other … an equal measure of both always. For me, science and skepticism were the means to have the greatest spiritual experiences of my life. And every one of them was about having a somewhat deeper sense of the romance of being alive in the Cosmos, and the beauty of nature.

The universe that science reveals is so much more amazing than our ancestors could ever have anticipated, because they had never seen the curtain of darkness peeled away … and actually seen the vastness and began to know something of just how big it all is. And that’s an impoverishment, I think.

Palmer: Episode number seven, The Search for Intelligent Life on Earth has yet to air, but according to a teaser I read it contains a “true first contact story.” Well, how can that be? Did I somehow sleep through contact with extraterrestrials? I recently interviewed Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer for the SETI Institute, for The Skeptic Zone podcast, and somehow this failed to get a mention!

Druyan: Well, it’s a true first contact story—but it’s about a terrestrial species. It’s one that uses abstract language and symbols to communicate, and they actually have a knowledge of astronomy, physics, and mathematics. And there’s no question about it. Not only that, but their social interactions and their striving for consensus puts our aspirations to be a democratic society to shame.

Palmer: So, you’re not going to tell me what species this is, huh?

Druyan: No. You’re gonna have to either read chapter seven in the book or watch episode seven to find out who they are. But they are amazing.

Palmer: So, let’s talk about the companion book. What are the differences between the Cosmos: Possible Worlds book and the TV show?

Druyan: There’s a couple of differences but the central one is that when you’re producing and directing a show that’s under an hour, you have to be cognizant of the very strict limit on the amount of time you have. Whereas in a book, I could tell much more about what I knew about these stories and go into much greater detail. That’s the major difference. The book has allowed me to explore more deeply into the lives of some of the people that you’ve never heard of, but you should have.

Palmer: And that book is available now?

Druyan: Yes.

Palmer: Are you going to write a companion book retroactively for the 2014 TV show?

Druyan: Yes, I very well might do that. I’ve been thinking about it. There are so many stories in that season that I think are really worth telling in greater detail. So, I do think about it.

Palmer: So, we have to talk about what’s going on in the world right now. The new series has a very hopeful vision of the future, and this pandemic makes it a little difficult to see our future as rosy. Could this global disaster have been prevented?

Druyan: Well, how did we get here? We got here because the people who lead us had nothing but contempt for science. Purge the government departments of scientists who reported their findings without fear of offending the president. Fire the virus rapid response team that scours the globe looking for the next outbreak. Fire them. What do you need them for? What do we need [an emergency supply of] respirators for? Why do we need to be prepared for a massive outbreak that’s been predicted for decades? We don’t need those!

This contempt for long-term thinking, for people’s lives … think about the wealth in this country and think about what we spend money on. And here we are. And we cannot keep up with other countries with economies nowhere near as powerful as ours, because we are so invested in things that are not in the public interest. And so here we are—high and dry with mounting numbers every day—and without the ability to even test people for the coronavirus.

So, why are we in this situation? It’s because nobody in the government was paying attention, and we’re all paying for this now in our quarantines, in our fear, in our lost work. And in all of the things that this has cost us. It’s clear that trillions of dollars of wealth have been lost. For what? Because somebody didn’t think that it was important … that public health was important … that public health should be a major focus of our attention and our resources. And it’s a shameful situation. And it’s all part of a massive contempt for science … fear-based thinking … a complete abandonment of reality. For what?

I feel that it would be great if some of the searchers—the scientists that we bring to life in Cosmos and that I write about more extensively in the book—these people who were so courageous and brilliant and selfless … that if we knew their names, maybe if we admired them instead of being completely obsessed with people who just shop all day long, it would be really amazing. And we could begin to actually set our country, and the world even, back on course for a better future.

Palmer: I recently watched a video on YouTube of Isaac Asimov being interviewed that looked like it might have been from the 1970s or 1980s. He was asked about his prognosis for the future … about whether civilization was going to survive. He spoke about the year 2000 being a watershed and predicted that if we made necessary changes by that time, the future would be a thriving, flourishing civilization, but if we didn’t make those changes by that time, then humanity would have a bleak, dystopian future.

So that’s very disturbing because we’ve now gone two decades further, and it doesn’t seem like we’ve made any significant improvement in the concerns Asimov was clearly worried about.

Druyan: Well, we haven’t changed, but 2000 was an arbitrary choice, I think. I knew Isaac, and he was a wonderful, amazing person. But 2000 was obviously picked because it was a very round year.

Palmer: And it seemed like it was so far into the future.

Druyan: Right! You know, prophecy is a lost art. The only prophets that I’m really impressed by are the climate scientists of the past seventy years. They have been prophetic. And at times Carl was prophetic too. A lot of the things that he speculated about haven’t turned out to be true, but all those people are human. They were just using their knowledge and their intelligence to make good guesses.

Palmer: Speaking of climate change … there was a scene in a 2014 episode that showed the White Cliffs of Dover and discussed the huge amount of carbon dioxide removed from the Earth’s atmosphere and stored there over eons as calcium carbonate. That was very influential for me personally. It was one of the things that, at the time, helped me to believe in anthropogenic global warming.

Druyan: Really! I’m very proud of that one.

Palmer: Is there an episode of the new Cosmos that also deals with climate change?

Druyan: Yes, there is. My cowriter Brannon Braga and I did something that we knew was very risky. It’s titled Coming of Age in the Anthropocene, and the concept is that we follow a baby born on the night that the show is first broadcast. And we travel into her future. And … I’ll leave you in suspense.

The 2039 World’s Fair

 

Palmer: So, assuming civilization survives this new crisis—the pandemic I mean—what technological and other developments are you most optimistic about for the future?

Druyan: One of the things that I love, and I’m fascinated by, is some of the solutions to the problems that we view at this moment as being intractable. In our vision of the future, when we take you to the 2039 World’s Fair, you will see how we used our science to heal the planet in a variety of different ways. All these ways are feasible; none of them are theoretical. They are real solutions that we could pursue if we felt as strongly about our planet, its environments, the other life forms … if we felt as strongly about each other as we do about things that are just mere abstractions, like money.

This is the challenge that humans face: How are we going to get to the point where we value the things we need to exist as an organism: water, air, a favorable climate … those things that we need to live? How are we going to prioritize them above the other things that we’re so fascinated with? That’s the big question.

And if we’re willing to do that, if we’re willing to change and adapt, which is the entry level requirement of any organism … the ability to adapt … in eons gone by that was our greatest talent … our ability to adapt and shape the environment to our needs. Well this is another moment when humanity has to step up. And the good news is that all of us are descended from generations, countless generations, of humans who had their backs to the wall and who managed to endure and to survive, and even to flourish. And that’s what we have to do. It’s our turn.

Something has always struck me: Once you know, or think or believe, that the universe is 13.7 or 13.8 billion years old—once you get to that point when you realize that humans have only existed for a few minutes on the Cosmic Calendar and not even a million years in real time—it’s humbling. It’s humbling and makes you realize that the universe will go on for possibly trillions of years after we’re gone.

But we’re alive right now. And as far as I know this is our one and only life, our one and only time to make a difference, and to do what we must to make it possible for the next links in the chain of generations to be strong. We have to do that. And everything else I think is not as important.

So, the dream of Cosmos is that science is a birthright that belongs to every single person. And the more people who have this knowledge, and the famous baloney detection kit that it brings you, so that you cannot be so easily manipulated … that’s really our hope for the future. And that’s why I was really so inspired to write the book and to make the TV show.

Palmer: Was the phrase “baloney detection kit” Carl’s creation? I always hear it being attributed to him and I think I first saw it used in The Demon-Haunted World.

Druyan: No! It didn’t really come from Carl. It actually came from a friend of mine named Arthur Felberbaum who died about forty years ago. He and Carl and I once sat down for dinner together. His politics were very left wing, so Carl and Arthur and I were trying to find common ground so that we could have a really good dinner together. And at one point, Arthur said, “Carl, it’s just that I dream that every one of us would have a baloney detection kit in our head.” And that’s where that idea came from.

Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan. Photographer: Tony Korody, Courtesy of Druyan-Sagan Associates

 

Palmer: Here’s an out of left field question: Would you like to tell me about 4970 Druyan and 2709 Sagan?

Druyan: Oh, I would love to! Just think how romantic it is that my late husband and I have asteroids named after each of us that are in perpetual wedding ring orbit around the sun. Imagine one orbit. And then imagine that the orbit of the other asteroid goes in and out of the other’s orbit. So, if you had two wedding rings that were linked together, that’s a wedding ring orbit. And my asteroid was discovered by a wonderful astronomer named Eleanor Helin. I am so honored by this; I think of this a lot. I’m looking now at the plaque that was presented to me on Carl’s sixtieth birthday, where Eleanor wrote “Asteroid 2709 Sagan in eternal companion orbit with asteroid 4970 Druyan, symbolic of their love and admiration for each other.”

Palmer: Speaking of your relationship with Carl, I read somewhere that a film project was in the works five years ago to document your lives together. Did that ever happen?

Druyan: I actually have a call about it tomorrow! So, yes, we are certainly pursuing it. But I don’t think I’m at liberty to talk about it now.

Palmer: Okay. I’m currently watching Cosmos on NatGeo, but I’m assuming it’s also going to be available on another network at some point?

Druyan: Yes, it will be on Fox after the NatGeo run. It’ll be on Fox this summer. The idea being that NatGeo and Fox have been my partners with Cosmos Studios, my company, for both seasons. And this time NatGeo had the privilege of going first.

Palmer: Is it also going to be seen in other countries?

Druyan: Yes! 172 countries. That is humbling to think that you get to talk to people in 172 countries. That’s thrilling.

Palmer: And are you planning another season of Cosmos?

Druyan: Yes! I very much have season four in mind, and I know what it’s going to be. And I even know some of the stories that I want to tell in it. But I’m going to take a little bit of a break, thanks to the coronavirus, so is everyone else for a little while. But I do intend to do a fourth season.

 


 

Photo credits: Unless otherwise noted, photos in the article are from Cosmos: Possible Worlds and are used courtesy of Cosmos Studios.

For further exploration:

 

Rob Palmer

Rob Palmer has had a diverse career in engineering, having worked as a spacecraft designer, an aerospace project engineer, a computer programmer, and a software systems engineer. Rob became a skeptical activist when he joined the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia team in 2016, and began writing for Skeptical Inquirer in 2018. Rob can be contacted at TheWellKnownSkeptic@gmail.com Like Rob's Facebook page to get notified when his articles are published.