Ann Druyan Talks ‘Cosmos’ and Being an Informed, Inspired Citizen
Today, Cosmos: Possible Worlds, a new 13-episode series building on 2014’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and 1980’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, debuts on National Geographic. The creation of Ann Druyan, who served again as writer, executive producer, and director, and hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos: Possible Worlds covers new avenues of exploration and discovery both in the vastness of space and within ourselves. We spoke with Druyan about how she crafted the new series and how we once again find ourselves in a particularly perilous time for science and reason.
Before I even get started, just thank you so far for a lifetime of wonderful books and television.
Thank you. Oh, my God, that makes me feel so good.
How did you approach this new series? What was different this time for you?
Well, I was sitting in my house for about six months. I’m a collector of stories, and I had a big fat file of stories I wanted to tell. But I was also stressed by the fact that in popular culture, every depiction of our future is so horrifying. We’re living in shipping containers. The natural world around us has been effectively destroyed. And having explored climate change in season two, and I believe, having made a very compelling argument for our need to change and for the reality of climate change.
And then seeing how in the years since, we’ve, if anything, been sliding backward. It was my dream to tell the stories of our ancestors and their courage, and how they had their back to the world countless times, to tell the stories of the searchers, who courageously fought for a deeper and more accurate understanding of nature here at home and elsewhere in the cosmos.
Think of their struggles, their sacrifices. I wanted to create a season that would enhance human self-esteem, which is for good reason at a low ebb. And also, to depict a future that I believe we can still have if we get our act together and begin to set things right in our own house, that there’s a future, a great future, which is inspiring. And I don’t think enough [people] have seen what that could be.
And so, that was my primary motivation, and that’s how this season began, was to try to be totally science-based and historically based, and not promise things that cannot be, but to depict just how that future can be if we start taking what science is telling us to heart.
Watching these episodes, like the story with Vavilov, with the Russian rocket designer–I can’t pronounce his name, but–
These stories are heart-wrenching, and yet, you still come away with inspiration at the end.
I’m so thrilled to hear that.
And I find that remarkable.
Well, these stories inspire me and my co-writer, Brannon Braga. These stories inspired us, and we are a story-driven species. And so, the first thing that has to happen in order for it to be eligible for inclusion in Cosmos is it has to be a story that works on many different levels, the emotional and dramatic levels, as well as … Each story is a way into an idea that has been said to be too complicated for an audience. I don’t believe that, having worked with the great Carl Sagan and having been inspired by his humility. Never talking to anyone to prove how smart he was, how much he knew, but only talking to communicate, to spread his sense of joy, that keeping his understanding. That’s his secret, and it still inspires me more than I can tell you.
And there’s also your new book, Cosmos: Possible Worlds.
Yes, I’m bursting with enthusiasm to tell you about the book, because it was in the book that I was given the space to tell more of the details of these stories and to really … There was so much that we wanted to put in the episodes, but it’s sort of … In less than an hour, you have to pick and choose the things you can tell and those things that also you can tell and show in such a way.
So the book was for me an opportunity to really take a little more time with each of these stories. And it was written for the most part at 4:00 in the morning, because I was writing it while I was producing and directing. And so, I had to be on set 6:00 AM, 7:00 AM. And so, it’s remarkable to me that it’s coherent. But it was done at a very intense and during a period of such intense work on the show.
Alan Silvestri’s score throughout the show is beautiful, but there’s one particular moment where he develops a beautiful music theme right as the Cassini craft plunges to its death on Saturn’s surface, after 20 years.
Yes, I really felt something not only for the spacecraft but for the Cassini’s mission scientists, whom we had the privilege of filming just as the spacecraft … in that period when the spacecraft was being commanded to commit suicide. And these are people who are multi-talented and have worked on many projects. But for the most part, the people we showed were people who had devoted their adult lives, their scientific careers, to this spacecraft, and then, think of it, commanding it to dash itself to pieces. I wanted to catch that on camera, and that was …
I’m really glad that you … I love that moment when we have the conceit of a person’s whole life flashing before their eyes in the last moment before death. And to do that for a robot was really exciting and moving, so moving.
Alan Silvestri is not only a great composer. He did the music for Contact, so we go way back. But he’s also just one of the most beloved human beings. And so, everyone we worked with on this project, all 986 other people, were bringing a level of dedication and unselfishness to making this season. And I’m really in awe of how everybody stood up for Cosmos and did such great work.
What would you want viewers to come away with this time?
I would love for every viewer to come away feeling that much more powerful. Because I feel powerless, and I know how powerless most of us feel. But that much more powerful, inspired maybe to dig more deeply into some of the subjects and disciplines that we cover. But also, to be a more powerful decision-maker, a more informed decision-maker as a citizen.
This is a show that’s being seen in 172 countries next week. And for me, that’s a platform of potential power, so that we begin to use our dreams as maps, to take more seriously our role as links in the chain of generations, to act in defense of our civilization, to not be manipulated so easily, to reject those leaders who have contempt for science and contempt for reality. That’s what has to happen in order for us to endure and flourish and to get at that future, to get to the future depicted in the series, both the near one, or 2039 at the New York World’s Fair, and the more distant one of the time when humans may populate many worlds throughout the Milky Way galaxy.
We need to act now. You know? Scientists, they did their job, they predicted all of us 70 years ago. And as you’ll see towards the end of the season, the remarkable work that was done for instance in 1967, with what was then a supercomputer, but is now, something that doesn’t even have the power that we have in our phones. And I think of the great scientist, Manabe, and his colleague, Wetherald, who charted out the change of the global mean temperature around the world from 1967 and even beyond our own present, and how close to the actual unfolding of that temperature they were.
These are processes that no one has ever demonstrated before. They got it right.
They got it right.
But as long as we’re insulated from science, and science is something compartmentalized, I don’t think that we are going to act as diligently and as forcefully as every one of us must have to.
Yeah. I think of Sagan talking in the context of nuclear annihilation, which never really went away, but that was the context in 1980, and it just still feels relevant to some of the despair that we feel now about what’s happening.
I’m so grateful to you for bringing that up, because when we were writing the first season of Cosmos with Steven Soter, the astrophysicist, our concern was that there were 60,000 nuclear weapons on a hair-trigger around the planet. And during the years that followed, those arsenals were reduced tenfold.
Now, as you said, we’re not out of the woods yet, and the chance of even one nuclear detonation is something that keeps me awake at night. Still, it’s very different from 60,000 to get down to 6,000, or less, or fewer. And that is a sign that when there’s a worldwide outcry as there was about the nuclear arms race. For example, nuclear testing in the atmosphere. That was happening all through my childhood many times a month, and it was the mothers of the world who once the scientists pointed out that there was Strontium-90 in their nursing milk for their infant, we stood up and said, “No. No, this has to stop.” And it did stop.
We can do this. We are powerful if we’re allied in a common goal to protect our future.
Despite recent attempts to reverse the progress made in the nuclear arms race and start it up again, the hope is that cooler heads will soon prevail.
Well, I have no fonder hope myself, and the steps backward that we have taken in the United States in the last three years are very disheartening. I mean, it makes me … it really makes me heartsick. Most days I worry about this, but I really believe in democracy, and I believe in its power to right itself when it goes horribly awry. And if we can protect our means of registering our will as voters, then I really believe and hope that this nightmare will end.
Is there anything else you want to add about the new episodes that I didn’t get to?
Yes, the screen CAPS (computer animation production system). I want to say that the capabilities that we have at our disposal to virtual effects are growing by leaps and bounds. And so, we had the opportunity in this new season to simulate physical natural reality in a way that as you observed were not even available six years ago when we were doing season two.
The rate of change in this ability to create verisimilitude, to create, to simulate reality, is so exciting. And I would just hope that it would be used more to convey the revelations of modern science and the beauty, the magnificence of the universe and our part of it on Earth.
And it is [used instead] to blow things up! It seems to me that you get these blockbusters, with such enormous budgets. And yet, so much of it is just … it’s just destroying life. It’s destroying cities, destroying civilization. And it’s my hope that there will be a trend to using these powers to convey the magnificence of the universe revealed by science.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
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