An Interview with Ann Druyan

An new series of Cosmos, co-produced by Druyan, will be broadcast on 16 March


Ann Druyan was one of the leading forces in creating the revamped series.

Credit: Bob Lee

The new series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, to be broadcast on 16 March, will explore how we have learned about the laws of nature and our place in the universe. Based on the acclaimed 1980s series staring the late Carl Sagan, the 13-part series, presented by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, updates the show with cutting edge science and special effects.

The original series, titled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, was first broadcast on America’s public television network PBS back in 1980. It attempted nothing less than to tell the story of the Universe so far and our place within it, all set to a stirring music score by the instrumental composer Vangelis. In 2009, Will Gater interviewed Ann Druyan – Carl Sagan’s wife and co-writer of Cosmos ­– to reflect on its enduring legacy.

Where did the idea for Cosmos: A Personal Voyage come from?

If you had attended one of Carl’s classes at Cornell University in the late ’60s or early ’70s you would have been given a kind of intimate, taught version of Cosmos. Adrian Malone, Steven Soter (our co-writer), myself and others also contributed to the vision of Cosmos.

How was it written?

The idea was: how could we give an accurate survey of the great story of how the human species discovered our co-ordinates in space and time? We, as a species, are a little bit like the baby left in the basket on the doorstep. We had to reconstruct where we were in time, where we came from and how the world and the Universe came to be. For a long time the human race made up stories that satisfied our emotional and psychological yearnings. It wasn't until the invention of science that we devised an error-correcting mechanism to winnow out ideas and stories that we believed because we wanted to. Humans began to see the true sweep of cosmic time and the vastness of space. We wanted to tell the story of that great adventure and of the courage of people for whom it mattered what was true.

Steve Soter, Carl and I spent many an all-nighter talking about what should be in there. We wanted to portray the great personalities who, because of their commitment to finding out what was true, helped us to develop a picture of the Universe. We were striving to show how science is culture, not another kind of culture. In Carl Sagan we had that very rare human being in whom science, literature, poetry and art was combined in one person. So he was the ideal person to communicate the humanity of science.

What was it like on set?

There were moments of tension because there were a lot of smart people working very hard. But everyone I’ve talked to in the years since had the feeling that they were engaged in some kind of sacred enterprise. On the first day, Carl invited every single person who was working, at any level, on the project to sit around a rectangular arrangement of tables. We went around the tables and asked everyone what their aspiration was for what the series would accomplish. That was a great moment that has stayed with me very vividly. Filming the series took three solid years at 40 locations around the planet. We went to India, Egypt and many other fantastic places.

How were the special effects chosen and designed?

We wanted to create convincing time travel to reach people who didn’t have any previous interest in science. Recreating the vanished glory of ancient Alexandria, a city that had a cosmopolitan, modern view of things, was a big challenge. I believe we were one of the first productions to use blue-screen special effects. Carl would pretend to be walking among the stacks of the Alexandria library, but of course he’d just be in a room that was entirely blue. These were some of the elements that were worthy of what was, at the time, a remarkably large investment.

How did the motif of the dandelion seed and Carl’s spaceship come about?

I think that the idea came from a moment when Carl and I were in New York City. A dandelion came wafting by and we both looked at it and realised that it was the perfect metaphor for our vision of life on this tiny planet going forth to some unknown random destiny. There’s excitement in Carl’s voice when he talks of what we’ve yet to learn... One of the things that made Carl such a proponent of scientific thinking was his realisation of the vastness of our ignorance. And that’s where we still are. We have only recently discovered that most of the Universe is enshrouded in dark matter, for instance. He preferred science to religion because science was saying ‘we don’t know’ whereas many religions speak with a kind of confidence about things we know virtually nothing about.

How was Cosmos: A Personal Voyage received when it was first shown?

At the time Carl was constantly being criticised for being so speculative. It was considered a lack of discipline on the part of a scientist. Well, look at Cosmos now – its warnings of global warming and the prophetic statements about Mars, Titan and Saturn. Carl’s speculations were always founded on a strong bedrock of scientific thinking. I guess those critics didn’t like it, but everyone else sure seemed to.

Did you have an idea of the impact Cosmos: A Personal Voyage would have?

We were so in love with each other, and with our work, that I guess we did. Before Cosmos, we collaborated on making the interstellar message for the Voyager probe. This was designed to be received by beings a billion years from now. It consisted of music, greetings, sounds and the output of a human nervous system of a woman in love and a mother talking to her baby for the first time. Once you’ve been part of something like that you realise that everything we do, if we’re lucky, will have a life far beyond our own. Cosmos seemed like an extension of our work on the Voyager record. Thirty years on, the idea that people on YouTube and elsewhere on the internet are still really moved by Cosmos bears out how much commitment and thought went into it.

How close was the finished series to your vision?

We never felt dissatisfied with it; we always felt it was a good reflection of what we set out to do. There’s no other Cosmos as far as I can see. There are certainly great shows, but I’m talking about the combination of science, music, art and history that’s such an unusual blend.

Do you have a favourite episode?

I love episode two – the one about the story of life on Earth. For me that one works best in the way that all the parts come together.

What do you think the legacy of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is?

I hope it communicates not only the awesome power of science as a way of thinking, but its importance for our survival as a species and the romance of knowing the Universe as it really is. My hope is that Cosmos will make people want to become more environmentally responsible and to know more about the workings of nature. So many of our problems stem from our view that this world is in some way disposable. The more aware we are, the better shot we have at actually getting to explore the Universe and to endure.

The first episode of Cosmos:  A Spacetime Odyssey will be broadcast at 7pm on National Geographic Channel and Sky1 on 16 March, shown again at 9pm on Fox UK. The rest of the series will be broadcast on National Geographic Channel.

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