Discover Dialogue: Ann Druyan

If only an elite minority of Americans understands science and technology, there is no hope of democracy

By Kathy A. Svitil|Saturday, November 08, 2003

This is an extended version, exclusive to the Discover Web site, of the article that appears in Discover Magazine

Photograph by Constance Giamo

This fall a converted Russian intercontinental ballistic missile is scheduled to launch Cosmos 1, the world’s first solar sail spacecraft, into Earth orbit. Powered only by the pressure of the sun’s photons striking its eight massive Mylar-like panels, Cosmos 1 will be unique. It is the first space mission sponsored by a public organization, the 100,000-member Planetary Society, cofounded by the late Carl Sagan, and the first financed by a media outlet, Cosmos Studios, a science-based entertainment company run by Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and collaborator.

Why is Cosmos Studios financing the solar sail?

D: It’s highly cost-effective—a possible first in the history of space exploration for the price of a New York apartment. A less practical and more philosophical answer is that Cosmos Studios was conceived to awaken the widest possible public to the liberating power of science.

How much risk is involved in an untested technology?

D: There is a huge risk. It’s been a struggle for Cosmos Studios to support this. People who are a lot smarter than I am have told me there will be no way to monetize the solar sail. But I know it will pay off. Maybe instead of making money, we’ll make history. If it succeeds, it will be a naked-eye sky object day and night. You can’t hope for greater visibility than that.

Is this a slap at NASA?

D: No, because NASA’s mandate is not to provide leadership. It carries out the wishes of the administration and Congress. I love NASA. You could stack up what the men and women of NASA have achieved in just 50 years against the achievements of any other organization of humans in history and NASA would come out near the top.

Will Cosmos 1 stimulate private spacefaring?

D: I hope it will inspire NASA. I’m not comfortable with the privatization of space, which to me is just a repetition of our worst mistakes on Earth. I don’t think we should be high-tech conquistadores, staking out our territories. Instead, we are continuing an ancient human tradition, of seeking to know the immensity of the universe.

Is there any danger in a media company creating news? Isn’t that a form of privatization?

D: No, because we’re not saying that we want to control the news coverage of the project. We welcome as much coverage as possible. It’s a stimulus to the public and particularly to younger people to become involved in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology.

As a peace activist you have demonstrated against underground nuclear testing, yet Cosmos 1 will be launched from a converted Russian ICBM, and suborbital tests were launched from a Russian nuclear sub. Do you see any irony there?

D: No. This is converting swords into plowshares. You decommission a weapon of mass destruction, which carried as its payload the means of destroying everything we cherish, and you convert that into a bus that launches a spacecraft into Earth’s orbit, which is a means for exploring the universe. In the 1980s when that ICBM was commissioned, more than half the world’s scientists were working on weapons of mass destruction. Science has a lot to answer for in terms of the role it has played in our civilization. We’re trying to redirect that genius, that cleverness, that ingenuity, to exploration. This is exactly what Cosmos Studios is about.

Where do you hope our space program will be 20 years from now?

D: I hope it will be hugely international in terms of the cooperation on both the actual missions themselves and the conception of these missions because the scientific community is international. I hope that we will have gotten free of the dead end of the shuttle. I hate to call it that, but there were scientists like Carl Sagan and others who predicted in the late 1970s that this would be the case, and they were absolutely right. I hope we will begin to show some of the greater boldness that we showed in the 1960s and 1970s, with missions more like Voyager, Pioneer, and Apollo, using robotic spacecraft where appropriate, where the risk to life can be prevented, and confining our human missions to areas where we can make a special contribution.

What's the next step after Cosmos 1?

D: Once the mission is completed, we’ll sit down with our colleagues at the Planetary Society and we’ll evaluate where to go from here. There are a lot of things I would like to see Cosmos Studios involved in. One is a roving mission on the surface of Mars. It could send back real-time nightly imagery so that you could, for example, sit with your kids at the television and be a witness to the first human exploration and reconnaissance of Valles Marinaris, then take those roving eyes and send them across the surface to the poles. I think that would be a really worthy enterprise. We would like to tell the stories of this kind of scientific exploration and democratize them so that they are not the property of an elite few but instead belong to everybody.

The television series Cosmos still seems to resonate with people 20 years after it first aired. Why did it have such an impact?

D: It was a pioneering presentation in popular culture of what it means to take the lessons of science to heart. Carl was a peerless teacher because he never spoke to impress the audience with his erudite knowledge but to communicate the joy he took in coming to understand the great insights that science reveals. Cosmos was a kind of love poem to the scientific method as a way of seeing and thinking, not science as a collection of digested amazing facts. There’s a yearning for a spiritual vision of the universe that is not supernatural but which acknowledges that while we may be tiny and not central to the universe, we are part of a great story—much greater than our religious heritage ever conceived.

Do you view religion and science as incompatible?

D: I think that superstition and science are incompatible. I think that the doctrine of unquestioning faith and science are antithetical. To me, there was no greater spiritual awakening than the Enlightenment itself. And I’m convinced that our failure to accept it as a primarily spiritual awakening is a major source of our dysfunction.

Is there anything inherently wrong with someone believing in the intangible?

D: There’s nothing wrong with having a sense of wonder about the things you don’t understand, but I think it’s wrong to commit to a belief in the absence of evidence, especially when what you believe is transparently a palliative for your fear. The search itself should be never ending. That’s why the conclusive religions do not satisfy me spiritually, the way science does.

How is that different from believing there is life on other worlds when we don’t yet have evidence?

D: I think you should withhold that belief. You should not believe anything for which there is no evidence. You can have hope—I have a lot of hope, which I like to think is based on good evidence—but that is very different than faith. For me, the method of science is a profoundly spiritual discipline, because it’s saying that I will give up telling myself things that will make me feel better in exchange for knowing a little bit about the universe. Not absolute truth, because science can’t offer that, but little pieces of truth, successive approximations of truth. Much of what we believe now will prove to be wrong, but how could it be otherwise?

Why are people afraid of science?

D: The complexity and jargon are daunting, and the knowledge has been horribly misapplied. We have weapons of mass destruction because of our fledgling knowledge of science. Furthermore, the Western religious tradition is based on a fear of knowledge. It goes right back to Prometheus and to the Garden of Eden, to God’s threat that if we partake of the tree of knowledge, we will know only misery and death. So we keep one thing in our heads that says, yes, our cell phones work, our TVs work because of science, but we keep an infantile, geocentric view of the universe locked within our hearts.

How do you combat that?

D: Number one: Do not lie to your children. Do not tell them things that are probably untrue, because in a way you doom them to a perpetual infancy. Number two: Invest in education so that science becomes a way of seeing and thinking that is natural to all of us and not something reserved for the lucky few. At Cosmos Studios we are working on a radical new approach to teaching science from kindergarten through high school. We see it as an act of citizenship. If only an elite minority understands science and technology, there is no hope of democracy, because then we, the people, cannot make informed decisions. We will always be manipulated.

Do you think scientists still act as if they were part of an exclusive club?

D: I think that is changing. The community of science has gone from being a kind of priesthood, consisting almost entirely of white men, to being far more open and inclusive. Carl did a prodigious amount of first-rate science. Yet he took a huge amount of abuse for not being a "real" scientist because he was trying to tear down those walls and invite everyone in. Now the scientists who are trying to do the same work he did face a totally different environment.

What else would improve the public’s appreciation of science and scientists?

D: We desperately need leaders who evince some respect for science, rather than one who seems proud of his ignorance. Many other things, like money for science education and research, would flow directly from a change in that kind of leadership.

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.

How so?

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.

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