Interview with Ann Druyan and Steven Soter

Novel Life Forms, Novel Environments

Ann Druyan and Steven Soter’s  Space Show, The Search for Life: Are We Alone?, screened at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. Credit: D. Finnin/AMNH

Kathleen Connell: Tell me about your creative process, separately and as collaborators, to show something that we cannot visibly represent yet. How did you think through that for the show at the American Museum of Natural History at the Rose Center’s Hayden Planetarium? What were your entry points into that process in terms of writing the script and thereby really developing the content for the show-which I understand is very successful.

Ann Druyan: We knew we weren’t going to show any extraterrestrials, because of course we didn’t have the scientific license to do that. Even to speculate would probably be disappointing. This posed a bit of a problem, because we were essentially writing a show about a subject (alien life) in which our ignorance is so much more formidable than anything we know about it. So it was a challenge. We wanted to give a sense of the diversity of life on this planet to suggest the challenge of imagining an extraterrestrial, simply because if you’ve never seen an elephant or a lobster it would be impossible to imagine it. That was another thing that was in our minds. So what we were trying to do was to create a kind of platform for the imagination that would tell as much as we could tell, in the brief time allotted to us, about what we do know about the processes that make worlds throughout the galaxy and the universe. We wanted to allow the audience to have this very immersive experience that’s possible in the Hayden Planetarium dome with its amazing apparatus-which has a kind of awesome natural reality to it. We hoped that they would take away from it, if nothing else, a sense of the humility implicit in even contemplating these things.

I really loved the first show. I like this show even better than the first in many ways, because I think it succeeds in making those invisible worlds in the universe real and compelling. The process itself was hours and weeks and months of sitting together and throwing these ideas around, and talking, and finally arriving at the script for the present show.

The sulfuric brew issuing from these hydrothermal vents sustains a bizarre undersea ecosystem. Credit: University of Victoria

Steven Soter: One of the ideas that we wanted to convey, one of the major discoveries of recent times, was the expansion of the realm of the environments for life that we know. For a long time it was assumed-when I was in high school it was in all the biology textbooks-that all life needs sunlight, either directly or indirectly. And the discovery of life on the deep seafloor around the hydrothermal vents in 1977 overturned that. Whole ecosystems, very rich ones, were discovered that are in some ways independent of sunlight, and derive a lot of their energy from the heat and chemical energy of the Earth coming up in volcanic fluids on the seafloor. So it was a discovery of whole thriving communities of many species that were unknown to science previously. That has profound implications for life elsewhere in the universe. You don’t need sunlight. You don’t need stars. You could have life below the surfaces of planets in interior oceans or in cracks of aquifers below the surfaces of worlds, even perhaps on planets without stars. It vastly increases the potential number of places in the universe where you could have life.

A ghostly crab picks its way through a field of tube worms-their tips reddened with their blood vessels-near a hydrothermal vent. Credit: punaridge.org

Since we couldn’t show alien life we thought we could come as close to it as we know on Earth, and visit this very alien-looking environment on the Earth. One of the first scenes in the space show is a visit to a black smoker, a sulfide hydrothermal vent field on the Pacific Ocean floor, one that was actually mapped in great detail by this museum and the University of Washington. We used the actual data acquired by stereophotography and sonar to reconstruct that very bizarre environment of belching volcanic vents and chimneys surrounded by tube worms and strange crabs-completely surrounded by this alien environment. The script says that this place is alien, like another world, but it’s right here on Earth at the bottom of the sea. We only recently discovered it.

The implication is, how much else don’t we know? We have to be careful in our assumptions. Just as we once assumed that life requires sunlight, we now know that’s not so. What are our other assumptions? Well, we assume that all life in the universe needs liquid water, because all life on Earth seems to. We have to also look skeptically at that assumption. It may also be wrong.

So we did reconstruct this very alien environment on Earth, and even had a manta ray come swimming over it, because that fish actually was in a video that was done at the real black smoker field by the research team. And that’s as alien-looking an Earth creature as I can imagine, and it gives a real feeling of being on another world, and we’re right here on Earth! That was one way we dealt with the problem of suggesting alien life forms, without being able to show them.