The Planetary SocietyMar 18, 2020

The Possible Worlds of Ann Druyan

The executive producer, writer, and director of Cosmos and author of the companion book discusses the show’s third season, and why she believes science is the key to a better future

Ann Druyan
Ann Druyan Ann Druyan is the executive producer, writer, and director of Cosmos, and the author of the companion book.Image: Emily Lakdawalla for The Planetary Society

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Mat Kaplan:  Ann Druyan, it is a pleasure and an honor to welcome you back to Planetary Radio. Thanks for joining us.

Ann Druyan:  Mat, it's always a pleasure to talk with you. I love our conversations.

Mat Kaplan: That is a very high compliment and it is especially gratifying to be able to talk to you about your latest work, Cosmos: Possible Worlds. And though I'm talking first about the TV series, I am very happy to say that I have the book in front of me. Since I couldn't make it to your Los Angeles screening of the third season, your people were kind enough to let me enjoy the first two episodes online.

Ann Druyan:  Wonderful.

Mat Kaplan:  It really was. I connected my iPad to our flat screen because I thought it really deserved to be seen on a big screen. I never pulled myself away from the TV. I stood 3 feet away from it during the entire show. And then that night, I watched it again with my equally enchanted wife. The second episode was just as awe-inspiring. You have accomplished something wonderful here.

Ann Druyan:  Well my heart is soaring to hear you say that because I've known you for so long. And I'm really excited that you and your wife enjoyed it. That thrills me.

Mat Kaplan:  I was looking at the comments about the trailer for the third season on YouTube; they are overwhelmingly positive. There's a guy who said, "I need this science to be in liquid form so I can inject it straight into my veins."

Ann Druyan:  [laughs] I haven't seen that. You know, this series is the work of 987 people. We literally counted. The show premiered in 172 countries around the world, making it a truly global experience. And I can't tell you how profoundly that moves me, because the dream of Cosmos is to empower absolutely everyone. 

Mat Kaplan:  Was your focus in both the book and the new season of the TV series more to provide information or to provide inspiration?

Ann Druyan:  It’s the two equally. I think the information itself is empowering and goosebump-raising. I'm not a scientist. I'm just a hunter-gather of stories.

Mat Kaplan:  [laughs]

Ann Druyan:  I have the opportunity to not only pick the brains of people who know far more than I—a panel of very distinguished scientists—but to also have them vet the book and set me straight when I go awry. I always say that the ship of the imagination has twin engines: one of rigor and skepticism, and the other of imagination and hope. 

Everyone in your audience, every single person who can hear my voice and yours is descended from people who had their backs to the wall countless times. This is why we're all here, because they endured hardships we can't even imagine. And I still believe that as we face climate change, environmental depredation, and a loss of biodiversity, that if we start taking science to heart, we can still have the glorious future that's portrayed in the series and the book.

Earth with a ring system (Cosmos: Possible Worlds)
Earth with a ring system (Cosmos: Possible Worlds) Why do some worlds have rings, and others don't? Here, we imagine what our own planet would look like with a ring system.Image: Cosmos Studios

Mat Kaplan:  There are things in the television series, as well as the book, which are going to be disturbing to certain segments of society. I don't think that's anything that's new to you, but it does seem to show a certain level of courage on the part of National Geographic and Fox to have stood behind this program over 3 seasons now.

Ann Druyan:  That's really true. In fact, in the last 2 seasons, both networks have been my partner. I have produced 26 hours of Cosmos and I'm happy to say that there's never been a moment where they asked me to change a word or an idea throughout those 26 scripts. They have been the best of partners. 

Every time a new issue of National Geographic arrived when I was a little girl, my mother and I would look through every page. She would read aloud to me and then we read together when I was able. It has an emotional resonance to me that they have been such great partners and that they are distributing the series in so many countries around the world.

Mat Kaplan:  You know, returning to things like the cosmic calendar—your compression of the universe's history into a single year—it's like returning to an old friend. It takes us back not just to the previous seasons in this incarnation of Cosmos, but back to the beginning and your partnership with Carl.

Ann Druyan:  The cosmic calendar was Carl's vision. It was part of his lifelong campaign to make the revelations of science as accessible as possible to all of us. Carl came up with that at-a-glance calendar so we could wrap our brains around 13.8 billion years, because we know what a year feels like.

The cosmic calendar has been subject to revision since the first Cosmos. Back then, the scientific consensus was that the universe was 18 billion years old. So the universe has become younger. That's the great strength of science: in the face of new evidence science is willing to change its view of anything, as long as the new evidence is stronger than the evidence we had before.

Mat Kaplan:  Speaking of Carl, it's still thrilling to hear his voice joining Neil deGrasse Tyson's at critical junctures in the show. I mean for those of us who grew up learning from him and trusting him it's wonderful to be able to hear him again.

Ann Druyan:  I thought it was a good idea to weave Carl's voice throughout the series because that magnificent voice is so tender, truthful, and wise. It adds another dimension to the series. Carl was very prophetic. He was just a human being, but he saw clearly. He used his science to see clearly and to call attention to not only opportunities and wonders, but also looming dangers. I always get a catch in my throat—many times a tear—when I hear Carl's voice, because it reminds me of his enormous goodness and the beauty of his life. So it just seemed right to have him with Neil in the series.

Mat Kaplan:  There's so much of that duality of vision in both the book and the TV series. I'm now thinking of your vision of a spectacular 2039 World's Fair that you have in both the book and TV series. You obviously picked 2039 for a very good reason. Could you talk about that?

Ann Druyan:  Carl grew up with working-class parents, living in a small apartment in Brooklyn back when Brooklyn wasn't the place you wanted to live. When he was 5 years old, they took him to the 1939 New York World's Fair. It was actually Einstein's first words at the opening of the fair that inspired me to write the series and the book.

Carl said later that when he went to the fair he was very upset because his parents brought a brown bag lunch. They couldn't afford a dessert or the tchotchkes that were everywhere at the fair, which he desperately wanted. But it was there that he discovered that there was such a thing as the future and that the only way to get to it was science. 

Neil had a similar experience around the same age. I think he was 6 when he was taken to the 1964 World's Fair on the very same site in Queens. It was right near where I grew up. I was a little bit older than Neil, but I was at that fair almost weekly for the technicolor joy of all the great things we were going to do. Cities of the future were depicted without any slums, or any poverty. Everyone would have what they needed. That was very inspiring to me. And so, in imagining a dream of the near-future, I wanted to create a New York World's Fair of 2039 to show how we could use our science with wisdom to solve the challenges we face and how art and science could combine to create a new Colossus in New York Harbor.

I was very lucky to work with Brannon Braga and Karl Walter Lindenlaub and a bunch of brilliant cinematographers and visual effects geniuses. With a cast of a hundred, we created that 2039 World's Fair in which some of the daunting problems that we face now have been dealt with and we're ready to move further out into the cosmos.

Mat Kaplan:  It really is a wonderful vision. There's another scene that I knew I was going to see, because as you know, I had a delightful conversation with your daughter Sasha Sagan about her really touching and perceptive book, For Small Creatures Such as We. So I wasn't surprised when she showed up in an episode. Would you describe that scene? It must have had special meaning for you.

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Ann Druyan: Yes, very special meaning. There's a drawing that Carl made at 11 or 12 called The Evolution of Interstellar Flight. And he did it in that little apartment in Brooklyn on what I imagine is a kind of ragged living room rug. It was the unfolding of our exploration of the cosmos as depicted on the newspaper mastheads and headlines of the future and how that would unfold as we moved further and further out into the cosmos.

Carl had an extraordinary mother, Rachel, who really was a part of why he became who he became. And even though Sasha was born after Rachel's death and they never met, Carl and I were fascinated by the fact that when she started laughing, she had Rachel's unique laugh. And how could that have happened, you know? It was one of those astonishing things where you realize that maybe it's a little more nature than nurture than you'd like to think.

I was imagining that moment when he made that drawing as a child. I imagined Rachel there lovingly looking on. And of course, Sasha was the perfect person to play Rachel and bring her back to life.

Ann Druyan on the set of Cosmos: Possible Worlds
Ann Druyan on the set of Cosmos: Possible Worlds Cosmos executive producer, writer and director Ann Druyan walks through a scene with Elizardo Torrez, who plays a young Carl Sagan, on set in his family's apartment.Image: Lewis Jacobs / FOX

Mat Kaplan: There’s a scene in the TV series with 2 black holes, where you can actually see that they're dragging space and light along with them as they spiral around each other. And I think it's an example that is just repeated so many times throughout what I've seen of the TV series, and in the book as well, of how closely related science and art are.

Ann Druyan:  Yes. And that brings me back to Einstein's opening of the New York World's Fair. He said, "If science will ever fulfill its mission as fully as art, its inner meaning will have to penetrate into the consciousness of the people." That is the dream of Cosmos in every one of its 3 seasons. And that is the dream that I hold in my heart for our civilization. That science and art, not at odds with each other, not one looking down on the other, but working together—these 2 great powers of humanity—will join together to create a future that is not only livable but thrilling.

That's my inspiration for the idea that every one of us will be empowered by having some of this knowledge within. And it will make us better decision-makers, better citizens, and more able to know when we're being lied to, because we humans are terrible liars. We lie to each other. We lie to ourselves. Our leaders lie to us chronically. We have to be clear-eyed in this moment of history because we are the link in the chain of generations that comes before us and that leads to the future. It's up to us to awaken to what scientists have been telling us for 70 or 100 years about our climate, about our environment, and about biodiversity. We have to take those things to heart instead of compartmentalizing them into 40 minutes of boredom or terror a few times a week.

Mat Kaplan:  The truth will set you free.

Ann Druyan:  That's it.

Mat Kaplan:  Here's another scene that listeners to this program are going to love: There's a happy little girl skipping along a field of grass, but it just happens that she's under a vast transparent dome on Mars. And she’s skipping in Martian gravity, which is one-third that of Earth’s. And she looks up and waves and there is a great ship that appears to be setting out for the stars.

Ann Druyan:  Yes, I love that ship. It’s a multi-generational interstellar liner, which is one way we envisioned humanity making its way through the cosmos. And what I love about that liner, first of all, is that I've never seen a spacecraft of the future that looked quite like that one. But also it conveys the great scale of the undertaking. In this moment of very low human self-esteem, it's a reminder of what we can do if we work together, refuse to be manipulated, and be in any way driven off the path for a better world. 

As a child I sailed on ocean liners which to me then were cutting-edge and filled with excitement and the promise of adventure. That’s what we hope the audience will feel when they see that mighty ship making its way to the stars.

Mat Kaplan:  It appeared that the multi-generational ship had a strange, whirling drive unit at its rear end, and that looked to me like an homage to the giant wormhole generator in the film version of Contact.

Ann Druyan:  Yes, there were echoes of Contact in that idea. I have to give credit to our brilliant visual effects supervisor, Jeff Okun, who worked with a visual effects house in Australia—one of the many international houses we worked with. I wanted a means of propulsion that made sense but was unlike any other that we'd seen before, and that's what we got, and I loved it. 

I also loved the idea that the ship itself reminds me of the bones of a whale at the bottom of the sea. And so I just loved everything that Jeff came up with. One of the things that I found breathtaking was a moment in episode 2, showing our bloated Sun in the distant future, stripping away the magnificent clouds of Jupiter. 

Mat Kaplan:  We're almost out of time, but let me just say that the book is equally wonderful. It is full of heroes and a few scoundrels, too. Could you say a few words about Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov? What a hero.

Ann Druyan:  What a hero—one of the founders of the fields of genetics, who rushed back to Russia to play a part in the revolutionary change in Russia once the revolution took place. He dreamed that peasant children and the children of the poor would become scientists and he founded 400 scientific institutions—one of them was his own institute where he, after expeditions around the world to 5 continents, gathered the mother seeds of our plants. He was one of the first people to understand the importance of biodiversity. 

Everything was fine until Stalin took power and fell under the spell of a scoundrel named Trofim Lysenko, who was a pseudo-scientist who sold Stalin a bill of goods about how Russia, which had starved on so many occasions in history, could have a winter wheat crop which would end these terrible famines that had wracked Russia. He wanted to soak wheat seeds in ice water, and somehow Stalin believed him. And as Lysenko took over Soviet science with this pseudo-science, Vavilov knew that if he publicly took on Lysenko, he would be doomed. Colleagues and friends had already been arrested and executed.

And yet at a public scientific congress, he stood up and he said, "You can take me to the stake, you can set me on fire, but you can't make me lie about science." He knew he was giving himself a death sentence. And this man who dreamed about ending world hunger, which was the guiding impulse that made him do his science, was starved to death and tortured. 

At Vavilov’s institute, there were hundreds of thousands of seeds and tubers collected from all over the world. His botanist colleagues withstood a 3-year siege of what is now St. Petersburg, in what was one of the worst sieges in history, by German forces. The botanists didn't consume any of the treasure of seeds that had been collected. They all died of starvation at their desks. And the question was, why did they do that? They did it because they believed there would be a future when the world would return to its senses and these seeds would be vital to the world's food supply. As I write in the book, if only we cared about our own future as much as they did.

Mat Kaplan:  Your last chapter is titled A Possible World. It's very personal—even intimate. You describe the love that you shared with Carl and the world that the 2 of you created, but it also has an optimistic vision of a possible world as seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl. It seems to be a fitting close for this book that is, at least to me, so inspiring.

Ann Druyan:  What I just ask everyone to remember is that Carl Sagan as a child, living a subsistence life, dreamed of interstellar flight. And as a grown man, he was one of the leaders of our first mission to the stars. Think of how unlikely that is. And so I believe that the great future that we can still have may seem unlikely at this moment, but if we work for it as hard as he did, it can happen.

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