Interview with Ann Druyan

August 12, 2005


CI:      Astrobiology is moving very fast these days. Do you ever imagine what Carl’s reaction would have been to recent progress?

AD:    Yes—Carl would have been in a perpetual state of excitement about this stuff. He would have enjoyed the unbelievable plethora of research that has been coming at us for the past few years. It’s been so dramatic.

CI:      He would have loved the biannual astrobiology meetings because the community is still small enough that everybody goes to every talk. It doesn’t follow that nasty science trend where everyone gets so specialized that they can’t operate outside of their own box.

AD:    Carl was such a pioneer in that he believed in being so completely, fearlessly, interdisciplinary. He viewed things holistically, integrating not just science, but literature, math, and everything else. That's a great way to begin to explore the dimensions of these overarching questions in astrobiology.

CI:      You’ve hit on something at the core of being a scientist—what it means to venture outside of your expertise into unfamiliar territories. There will always be unanswerable questions in science and you have to be okay with that. That kind of vagueness is something the general public seems to have difficulty accepting.

AD:    Yes. I think the intolerance of uncertainty is one of the reasons we’ve had this horrifying retreat to religion and mysticism. There’s a craving for certainty and an intolerance for ambiguity that runs very deep. One of the massive failures of education has been the failure to inculcate in the young the respect and appreciation for what we don’t know.

CI:      And that’s part of the fun of being a scientist—having this delicious sense of all these things we don’t know—but either have, or are creating, the tools to find out.

AD:    Exactly. The scientific methodology is so powerful. And instead of a society that teaches and shows respect for this, we have a society that seems to be driven by such an extreme hunger for answers that even when those answers have proven to be demonstrably false, they’re still acceptable in some way. That’s what we’re up against.

CI:      Since you produced “Cosmos,” I’m sure you realize how strongly it motivated many people in my generation to become scientists.

AD:    It was incredibly inspiring, particularly because it demonstrated the crossroads where science and ethics and history and culture all meet. Instead of the predominating, compartmentalized view of science, it was a completely integrated view of the impact of what we know on what we do. It also looked at what we think we know when we actually don’t, and how dangerous that is. If we don’t have that error-correcting mechanism, which the scientific method is so effective at employing, we make misinformed decisions with disastrous consequences.

CI:      Since you have such a passion for science, it’s in some ways difficult to believe that you didn’t pursue a career in science yourself. I’ve heard there’s a story behind that?

AD:    [Laughs] One day in my junior high school math class when we were learning the concept of pi, I had a kind of religious experience at the moment my teacher explained the relationship of the radius to the circle. I impulsively raised my hand and blurted out, “Do you mean this is true of every circle in the universe?” I said it because pi instantly seemed to me a universal signature, or a moment of decryption. She looked at me for a moment and her face grew angry. Then in a harsh voice she said, “Don’t ask stupid questions.”

CI:      Ouch.

AD:    I plummeted from a state of ecstatic revelation to complete humiliation. In those days, when I was twelve or thirteen, I was known as someone who cried easily, and I fled the classroom in tears. I was completely humiliated, and from that moment on I developed this terror of math class, which was my effective derailment from a life in science. I was immensely fortunate to meet Tim Ferris and Carl Sagan; they made me develop that part of myself.

           I had, however, already developed an interest in the history of science—because it didn’t require math. I was fascinated by the pre-Socratic philosophers and the genius of what Benjamin Farrington explains as casting out Murdoch—the idea that you couldn’t use God as an explanation. I thought it was like leaving the ocean for the land. So I became interested in the pre-Socratic philosophers even before I got to know Carl and Tim, which was really the basis of my interest in science.

CI:      I know that you’re developing a big project for science curricula. Having suffered as a young person from precisely the humiliation you should never experience in a science class must have driven that in some way. To me, everyone’s born curious and inquisitive.

AD:    We’re all natural scientists in a way. Carl has written about how essential the gift of pattern recognition is. That’s really what science is about, with the scientific method formalizing the rules—a way to not lie to ourselves as much as we’ve been known to do. If that’s the essence of it, why is it that school science is so horribly boring? I have a fourteen-year-old son, so I have some experience perusing his textbooks, and not only are they tedious, they’re impenetrable. I’ve struggled with my son through homework assignments and I can’t even tell what they’re going after! I’ve come to the conclusion that the central problem is that we compartmentalize science.

Now this is a leap—and I’m willing to find out I’m wrong—but I think the reason we don’t teach our children science from day one, so they see it as a way of thinking and looking at everything, is because we don’t want to look at everything scientifically ourselves. Spiritually, we teach our children a pre-Copernican view. To accept completely what science is telling us about the number of worlds in the Milky Way and the number of galaxies in the universe is to reject those illusions of centrality that are absolutely key to our spiritual beliefs. We have a society where people admit that science is going on, and they admit that their DNA is being examined—but it all remains a complete abstraction, because fundamentally our world view is not only geocentric, but insanely anthropocentric.

CI:      In terms of methodology, perhaps the ideal in education is the Socratic Method, but that kind of intense questioning and skepticism is uncomfortable and challenging to the educator. Thinking out of the box is subversive.

AD:    Yes—that’s another dimension of what I’m saying. Education is partially about social control, but it’s also about maintaining the agreed-upon fiction that the universe was created for us.

CI:      How can we do better?

AD:    If I was creating the curricula for a science class, on the first day of school the teacher would say something equivalent to, “Shh…we’re about to tell you a deep secret about the magical place you find yourself in.” That would be at the core of the curriculum; an induction into mystery from the beginning. Not forty-five minutes of science during which someone who is every bit as uncomfortable with science as the rest of us is expected to dole out some teaspoon of reality that’s completely separate from the rest of the whole.

           Religious people understand the context of community and human social organization and use it to their advantage. We need to harness the power of the charismatic teacher who inducts us into the mysteries.

CI:      And the power of ritual.

AD:    Exactly. The problem is that we’re reeling from post-Copernican stress syndrome and we haven’t developed any of those things. Everyone thinks that in order to have an uplifting, revelatory experience, you have to lie to yourself; you have to make something up. As if the physical construct we’re able to create could in any way rival thirteen and a half billion years of cosmic evolution! It’s a completely ridiculous notion; yet we prefer to keep our rickety machinery because it’s predictable. You can see the gears turning and how it comes from the previous iteration of this fantasy. The question is, why do we want the lie more than we want reality?                                                                                                      

CI:      Science is usually presented in textbooks in a stern and unengaging fashion. The story of atoms is just as amazing as any Harry Potter story—and it’s true!

AD:    Yes! After we did “Cosmos,” Steve Stroder and Carl and I worked on a project called “Nucleus.” One of the stories in “Nucleus” was “A Tale of Two Atoms.” It traced two atoms from the origin of the universe to now. They end up becoming a nuclear weapon somewhere. But the basic idea was to tell a story of the great adventure of two atoms; to travel with them across the great sea of time. That’s not being done either, because we’re always trying to return to our old touchstones of safety, and reassure with sentimentality that we’re important. That’s the mythology of everything in the entertainment business and in politics.

CI:      “Cosmos” changed the way science was presented in the media. Does it still influence people?

AD:    I get emails every single day, from Brazil and every place you can imagine.

CI:      It was a labor of love.

AD:    Yes. One of the reasons it was such a big success was that Carl was completely high on the joy of nature. And as they’ve always said—when you’re in love you want to tell the world. That passion is infectious. Even though he took an enormous amount of abuse from the scientific community, he wasn’t afraid to show that what we’ve been able to discover about nature has a tremendously spiritual component to it. In other words, though you do have to be absolutely rigorous and unflinching in terms of applying scientific methodology, once you get the fruits of the methodology, you can go nuts with joy about what it means.

           “Cosmos” is about to have its 25th anniversary broadcast on the science Discovery channel. They haven’t changed a word of our scripts or voice, but they’ve digitally remastered and digitally enhanced many of the visuals nicely. They’ve put so much effort and money into this because it’s still successful. It’s still a big seller, from Wal-Mart to the world’s science museums and everywhere in between. That’s the great democratic vision of “Cosmos.”

 CI:     You mentioned that he took some professional abuse. That’s surprising.

AD:    It was interesting, because it was never, ever to his face. We always say “Those cutthroat academics—they can be so vicious.” But in my experience, whenever anyone met Carl they were always affable and complimentary. It was stuff like the National Academy.

CI:      Right, he was nominated but turned down. For me, even if you completely set aside his popularization, his books, and movies, and based the case on his academic credentials and his research, it shouldn’t have been an issue.

AD:    I certainly agree. And knowing him personally, he was such a totally sweet, good person; he was so for real, so completely honest. The most Carl ever made as a professor was something like $70,000 a year, and when told him, “Gee, they published the highest salaries at Cornell and you’re not even in the first five hundred,” he would say, “Oh, but if I asked for more money, it would come out of the department.” He was such a team player for science. He would have been the first to say he had a better life than anyone here. He had the most realized life of any person I’ve ever heard about, so no real complaints.

CI:      It would be a shame if popularizing science was seen as being somehow less intellectually robust. Do you think that perception persists?

AD:    I don’t know. But my impression is that now the penalties for doing the kind of stuff that Carl did have diminished. It’s become much more acceptable in the scientific community.

CI:      Because of him, in part.

AD:    Yes. It’s interesting that Carl’s particular niche remains untenanted. That is, there’s no single person who is a household name around the world; who stands not only for science, but also for the ethical and political ramifications of science and high technology, and as a voice against the powerful. I would remind you of Carl’s campaign against the nonsense of “Star Wars,” and Carl’s campaign against the nuclear arms race. He didn’t have a publicist, but he was constantly striving to awaken people to these issues.

           Jane Goodall was a great teacher, someone admired the world over and a strong voice for conservation. I think of Richard Dawkins as a voice against superstition and religion, but it’s not quite the same. At one point we were in the state of Tamil Nadu in India, in a village so rural that it didn’t have a hotel or anything—and people still recognized Carl. We couldn’t go anyplace on Earth without people not only recognizing Carl, but having the same thing to say, which was: “Thank you for opening up the universe to me. I didn’t think I could understand these things until you explained them. Because of you I became a science teacher, or a researcher, or went back to school.”

CI:      We need scientist citizens, Benjamin Franklin types, people who can speak the common language and know the technical issues.     Let me move more toward astrobiology. I want to talk about “Contact,” because that was yet another project that resonated with a wide audience, both the book and the film. Out of all the types of media you’ve been involved in, what draws you to film as a way of expressing science?

AD:    Film is where we as a species go to worship and have transcendental experiences. Film is striking to me in that we have the capacity to create completely immersive and convincing similitude for the universe. It’s astonishing how rarely we use that capability to convey to big audiences the wonder of cosmic evolution and how much more often it’s used to show car crashes and explosions, and tragic, impoverished fantasies of extraterrestrials—all in the absence of any real knowledge. They seem like transparent projections of our terrors of reptiles and nature in general. Those first few minutes of “Contact” are my favorite part of the whole movie, because they give a glimpse, an inkling, of the vastness of the universe and its magnificence.

CI:      Making that movie must have been a very creative undertaking.

AD:    Yes, that particular part of the movie comes from Carl standing with his tiny dictation machine pacing up and down our house. It was probably 1985, when he and I co-wrote the treatment for the film. He was imagining the pathway of the message and what you would see on the way, and dictating those ideas into that little machine.

           We had a great experience with Bob Zemekis and Jodie Foster. Everyone involved in the film couldn’t have been more respectful, and certainly when it coincided with Carl’s illness, they were tremendously kind. That vision of the message traveling is another great teaching tool; it seems to have inspired a lot of people.

CI:      It’s the ultimate hook because it draws you in so immediately. Are you working on any more film projects?

AD:    I’m working on two movies, one with Martin Scorsese and one with Richard Gere. One has a wonderful scientific/science-fiction plot to it, but the other is completely unrelated to anything scientific; the values that inform it have more to do with what we call humanism, for lack of a better name. It’s exciting to work on movies because of the capabilities and possibilities, which are so much grander than virtually any other area you can work in.

CI:      Do you think it’s possible, even in a popular entertainment medium, not only to use images in a scientifically inspired movie to engage and immerse, but also to reflect?

AD:    Yes, I do. Here we are in this time after Apollo, and Voyager with the pale blue dot image—just at the point you would think our concept of the world would have changed in some revolutionary way, and we’d have the planetary perspective Carl spoke about. And yet, with the way our country is conducting itself, we could be living in some 19th-century colonial nation that had no concept of the size of the universe and the rarity and preciousness of life.

CI:      I see your point.

AD:    This is a grandiose theme, but it’s one I’m constantly thinking about—how do we take these insights of science to heart before it’s too late?

CI:      That’s really important. I’ve got to ask one more question about “Contact.” The conventional wisdom among the scientific community is that Ellie Arroway’s character is Jill Tartar. Is that right?

AD:    It’s true, in a way. Carl and I wrote the outline for the treatment of “Contact” in 1981, a long time ago. The reason we did it was because in the course of doing “Cosmos,” I had come across a historical figure named Hypatia.

CI:      She’s the one torn apart by the mob—the mathematician?

AD:    Yes. I was really struck by her; it was at a time when people were asking—in a really smartass way—where the female Leonardo da Vinci’s of the world were: “because if women are as smart as men, what the hell is going on?”

CI:      Right.

AD:    Carl was sympathetic to the difficulties of being a woman with intellectual curiosity—wanting to be a scientist and not being able to. He was also extremely inspired by Hypatia. Before we knew anything else, we decided very consciously to write a movie about a female scientist who would have an equivalent intellectual and physical journey of a hero—she would be the heroine. That’s all we knew. Since we were both lifelong admirers of Eleanor Roosevelt, we named her in part after Eleanor Roosevelt and in part after Voltaire, whose actual name was also Arouet. She became Eleanor Arroway.         

CI:      That’s a great concoction.

AD:    At that time, I didn’t know Jill Tartar. I’ve since come to know and love her, but she had no relationship to the formation of Eleanor Arroway until decades after the treatment was written. She only came into the picture when Jodie Foster asked us who she should get to know or study for her part. At that point, late in the process—late 1990’s—we said Jill Tartar and Carolyn Porco. Jill is certainly a worthy model for anybody, but she had nothing to do with the creation of Eleanor Arroway as she exists in the early manuscripts of the novel and the movie.     

CI:      It’s a nice story anyway, though.

AD:    Yes, it’s a great story. It’s convergence in a weird way, because she is legitimately such a terrific person.

CI:      Astrobiology is in an interesting phase right now, because many people believe we’re within a decade of discovering biomarkers on another planet. I want to ask how you think that information or knowledge would change us culturally, if we found pretty strong evidence of microbial life somewhere else.

AD:    There’s no telling, for a number of reasons. If you ask most people in the United States, they would say contact has already been made. So, the question is—what are the lines of communication between science and the larger culture? They’re not that good, because there’s so much pseudoscience that blurs the line between reality and entertainment. That’s not just in science; it’s in politics and everywhere else, too. So the question is, how much a sense of reality do we have as a culture? It’s uneven at best.

CI:      You’re saying in part that most people don’t have the context in which to know whether they should or shouldn’t be surprised by the discovery.

AD:    I think so. It’s a tragedy—we have the ability to communicate information as we’ve never had before, but it’s sadly underutilized. We don’t teach critical thinking, so a lot of people don’t have the ability to discern between what’s really happened and what’s just imagined.

           We’re undergoing a real change in consciousness, and the way it happens is hard to chart. It’s like the big earthquake in San Francisco in 1992, which science is now suggesting was an aftershock of the 1903 quake. There are seismic patterns that are so long-term in our culture that we can’t see what’s going on. It’s not like you see the Apollo image of the Earth and suddenly realize that we have to love one another and take care of each other because we’re on a tiny little planet.

CI:      That’s a great insight.

AD:    It takes a long time for this to permeate our consciousness. I think it’s happening—I’m ridiculously optimistic and frequently wrong—but I really believe that the old, authoritarian, absolutist, religious doctrines are on the ropes.

CI:      That’s not how it feels right now.

AD:    But think of all of the science fiction you’ve read, that you see in movies, in television, think of all of it. How many depictions of the distant future include the gods of our time or the religious figures of the present? Maybe one or two—not many. How many times in our fantasies of going to other worlds, or of beings from other worlds coming here, do they tell us that Allah or Jesus is their God? Never. It never happens.

           Right now we have this Renaissance of intense traditional Christianity and Islam, but even though there’s probably some Christian science fiction, it’s in the minority of the genre. That’s because a billion independent imaginations of all conceivable ideologies have come to the same conclusion. We’re not taking this stuff with us into the future. I think that’s a profoundly hopeful sign, because the spasm of fundamentalism that’s plaguing us now is a sign of insecurity on the part of the believers. They have to impose their belief system on us because it won’t stand on its own strength; they doubt its truth. If they really believed it was true, they wouldn’t need to impose it upon anyone. God would take care of it. So there’s some darkness before the dawn. I have a lot of hope.

CI:      It’s interesting—the embedding of the science fiction and religion in the popular culture is so deep that it acts like wallpaper. When I remind students that “E.T.” was a direct metaphor for the Christ story, they’re surprised. They didn’t notice. There are a lot of movies and works of science fiction that embed religious elements and make the alien the repository of all our fears and longings. This is our childhood; we just have to grow out of it.

AD:    We don’t know how to dream in any other language. We’ve been given a language of myth, which has its confines in certain forms with which we have to work. I took “E.T.” as a turn for the better, because at least it didn’t have that insane and intense xenophobia, and it was a nice projection, a sentimental, friendly thing. It didn’t posit a hostile cosmos.

CI:      True.

AD:    My own feeling about this—because everyone’s free to project and imagine—is that if you go to the trouble to traverse the vast distances between the stars, then you probably have the advanced skill set that kind of technology requires. You’ve probably solved the issue of protein substitutes. It’s not like you’re coming here to eat us. I find that such a failure of the imagination.

CI:      You write about spirituality in an interesting way. It’s obviously not embodied in any religion, nor is it the New Age concept that lends itself to caricature and often couples to a lot of non-scientific thinking. What do you mean when you talk about spirituality, either in your work or your thinking about life in the universe?

AD:    I think it’s a concomitant of primate existence, maybe even of mammalian existence; that sense of wanting to feel a connectedness. The origin of science is Heraclitus saying, “Not I, but the universe says it: all is one.” Those early stirrings are what attracted me to science in the first place. This vision of connectedness—and when I say connectedness, I don’t mean it sentimentally. I mean in the way of the origin of life and the relatedness of all living things, and what we think we know about it at this point on this planet.

           To me, religion could never make us be good because it was predicated on things that probably aren’t true, and anything that depends upon believing in something false sooner or later is going to get you in trouble. We’re not smart enough to make up a lie good enough to sustain us or nourish us spiritually. To me, the scientific method is a form of highly disciplined worship. It’s like saying, “Okay, I know I’m imperfect and that I have a tendency to project and to lie to myself and to everyone else. So if I can create a machine that will keep me from that, I’ll be forced (despite my preference for certain ideas or beliefs), to confront the universe as it is, not as I dream it will be.” If I can find a machine that, over time, will winnow out that self-deception, that is a form of humility much greater than any other form of worship I’ve ever encountered. It’s saying, “I can’t get the absolute truth, but maybe I will get this approximation of reality through science, and that’s the universe.”

           When a man says he loves another person, but he loves her for what he wants her to be, is that real love? As real as the love you feel for who someone is? I think that analogy is translatable to the most general vision. That’s why to me, science is constantly misused. The only remedy for that is a much larger number of informed decision-makers who can factor an ethical framework into what we do.

           Instead we’ve created the opposite situation, where few of us understand how science works and most of us are likely to be intimidated by the powerful. There are few who can speak independently and have what Carl called a bologna-detection machine to know when we’re being lied to. If school was training in how to know when someone’s lying to you, it would be great. Of course, then you couldn’t tell your children we never die, and you couldn’t tell them a lot of other things that a lot of people, for some reason, want to keep telling their children. That’s one of the social forces that hinder that kind of change in how we educate our children.

CI:      Maybe this psychological force you’ve alluded to—the post-Copernican stress syndrome—will get worse if we find that we’re not unique as biological entities. That will be another blow to our self-esteem. Maybe astronomy is difficult to embrace because it’s not consoling to think that we’re made of star barf or that the universe emerged from a quantum fluctuation thirteen billion years ago. It’s quite a discipline to continue that honesty and that quest toward truth when it doesn’t alleviate your existential condition.

AD:    When you’re little, there’s an appropriate psychological stage when you think you’re the center of the universe. By every definition of maturity, learning that you’re not the center of the universe is adulthood. I think that we’re living transparently at childhood’s end, and I don’t know enough scientifically about the process to know how long it takes. We’re living in a moment where we still cling to the delusion that we are the center of the universe, as we may have done when we were two years old.

CI:      And scientists maybe own a little piece of that, which is the delusion that we are the first people to have figured this all out. There’s been enough carbon in the universe for Earth-like planets to have existed five billion years before the Earth formed. Imagine a civilization that had a five-billion-year head start on us.

AD:    Exactly. That’s why I don’t think they’re likely to want to eat us. Have you seen this horrible little DVD called Privileged Planet?

CI:      No.

AD:    I watched it because it’s a complete rip-off of “Pale Blue Dot.” The explicit purpose of it is to take on “Pale Blue Dot” and show Carl what’s wrong. The relative size of the Moon and the Sun and the distances from the Earth that make it possible to have eclipses are clearly the sign that God did all this, because otherwise why would it be so perfectly aligned? It’s completely ridiculous.

CI:      Is this an Intelligent Design effort?

AD:    Yes, it’s Intelligent Design. They’ve decided that creationism is pretty much a dead dog—except for the most uninformed—so they use the language of science to bamboozle people. It’s easy to do because people are so alienated from the language of science. They accept it because they think, “Those people know science, and they’re saying what I want to hear.”

CI:      Most scientists are troubled by what’s happening, because Intelligent Design is a subtle and insidious argument. It admits an old universe, but exploits the fact that that the first half-billion years of the planet left few traces and we may never have the historical evidence to show how the first cell evolved. They’re putting all of their emphasis into the places where scientists have the least information

AD:    Right, but it does mean we have moved the ball considerably down the field, because now they’re admitting that Genesis is probably wrong. The obvious question everybody should be asking is, “Well, but who made God?” How does one believe that the universe we see around us is inconceivable without the watchmaker, but doesn’t think anyone had to make the watchmaker? Logically, that makes no sense, scientifically speaking.                            

CI:      Let me ask a broader cultural question: it feels in this country and in this civilization, where science and technology raised a billion people out of poverty in the past century, that we take it all for granted. We’re not embracing science as a culture in general. Why do you think that is?

AD:    It’s because we want to pretend that the universe was made for us and that we never die. That is an important part of this denial that keeps us from taking science to heart. Many people tell their children that they will go to Heaven and we’ll all be together and we’ll never die or be separated.

           One of the greatest statements ever made was by Karl Marx, who hasn’t been given a lot of credit because of the bad things that came out of his influence. He said, “’One law for science, another for life’ is, a priori, a lie.” That’s the big stumbling block to me. We want to have a separate law for life. We still cling to the notion of a separate creation. Yet even the people who understand that Genesis was probably state-of-the-art Babylonian science of thousands of years ago, and nothing more than that, don’t want to believe that we weren’t created separately from the rest of nature, and that we’re not the crown of creation. We don’t want to believe that we’re just like the other living things on the planet and should be studied in the same way, because we’re afraid to discover that we’re not special. This notion of specialness is deep. As long as we keep clinging to it, we’ll never be able to have a society that can use its science with wisdom.   

CI:      If we’re optimistic and say that we’ll detect at least microbial life within this next generation, for some people that might be mundane. They’ve seen too many aliens in the movies and television for that to be interesting. Is there a sense in which the kinship of biology in the universe will be meaningful for us and pull us down that road of growing up?

AD:    There’s no telling. I hope it will. It’s my dream for my children and their children, that we’ll be able to make the transition.