Why didn’t you become a scientist?
D: I know exactly the moment when it became obvious that I would not become a scientist. It was memorialized in the novel Contact: I was sitting in my junior high school class at George J. Ryan Junior High School in Queens, New York, and we were studying mathematics. We had come to the concept of pi. Mrs. Ramirez, my teacher, said, "Okay, so the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is 3.14, blah, blah, blah, blah." I was having a kind of religious experience at that moment, and I raised my hand and said, "You mean all circles? Everywhere in the whole universe? It’s the same ratio?" And Mrs. Ramirez looked at me and said, "Don’t ask stupid questions." I burst out into tears and fled my classroom. At that very moment, I lost all interest in mathematics. I went from being an exceptional student to not being a very good student at all, and I was effectively derailed until I discovered the pre-Socratic philosophers when I was in my early twenties and realized that the study of matter really interested me.
Would you want your children to be scientists?
D: I want my kids to have the fullest life they can, whatever that leads to, whatever that means. I have two children, one who is 12 and one who is 20. My daughter is directing her first play in New York as well as being a student at New York University, and my son just completed the sixth grade and is having a very distinguished career in middle school. Do they have a scientific vision of nature? Yes. Is that internalized within them because their father was such a great teacher and because he and I share these values so completely? Yes. But I don't think science is their particular passion.
What’s the most exciting trend in science today?
D: I am excited about the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence because I think it would be a branching-out point in human consciousness.
D: The violent and brutal struggle to dominate this planet is a function of our inability to come to grips with our true circumstances, the reality of the pale blue dot that Carl was trying to convey. Once you grasp that all life is related here and that this is our heaven, you have a completely different attitude, you become less greedy and less shortsighted. The notion of stealing the oil from that country, or of dominating one little corner of this little dot, becomes pathetic.
You helped select the music included on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 interstellar messages. What were you hoping to convey?
D: To possible spacefaring extraterrestrials, it was a way for us to convey something of how rich and beautiful life is here on this little planet. It was also a way for us to look at Earth as if for the first time, to look at human culture as if for the first time, and to see it as an extraterrestrial might. The idea is straight out of Voltaire.
Making something to explore the outer solar system and send back thousands and thousands of images of new worlds, which would then go on and have a life that would span a billion years into the future, was to me a sacred and beautiful mission. I'm withholding judgment about whether or not there is life elsewhere. But it seems to me there is a likelihood we'll discover there is, and if there is, I believe that moment of coming of age, of presenting ourselves to the beings of other worlds, is probably a cosmic rite of passage throughout the galaxy. The thrill, the privilege, the honor of contributing to that enterprise still gives me a great catch in my throat.
Was it perhaps misleading for the messages to convey only the wonderful things about Earth and human society?
D: We debated that vigorously, and in the end we concluded that any civilization clever enough to travel in space was likely to see through our pretensions. So we decided to put our best foot forward, knowing fully that we are flawed creatures, imprisoned in our own moment in time.
Is there any trend that concerns you?
D: I’m most worried about the erosion of the separation of church and state and the disconnect between public awareness and science.
But isn’t there more communication between scientists and the public?
D: It is catch-as-catch-can. Yes, if you are motivated and you have cable, you can find science on TV. Yes, you can read Discover. But out of hundreds of possible cable channels, look at how many are devoted to comprehending how nature is put together, and how many are devoted to its mystification. It’s a troubling ratio. All day long on CNN, I’ve been hearing that "eyewitnesses to the Roswell flying saucers" will be interviewed tonight on Larry King. Not "people who claim to be eyewitnesses" but eyewitnesses. That worries me.
You’ve described science as subversive. What do you mean?
D: It’s the most revolutionary mechanism ever devised, applicable to absolutely everything. Science reserves the highest reward for those of you who disprove our most cherished beliefs. At any moment someone from any walk of life could come forward and be responsible for a complete revision of our view of everything
What do you still hope to achieve?
D: I'm proud of Cosmos Studios. We're in the process of reawakening many people to the Cosmos television series. I would love to see Cosmos 1 succeed. That would be the fulfillment of a dream. Personally, I want to complete a book I’m working on right now about the nexus of science and spirituality. I want to feel that when I’m done with my work that I’ve made some contribution. But to tell you the truth, if something were to happen to me today, I feel both in terms of my personal life and my professional life that my wildest dreams have been exceeded, and there’s nothing more that I could possibly ask for.