A Conversation with Ann Druyan about “Cosmos: Possible Worlds”

Ann Duyan, writer and executive producer of Season 3, “Cosmos: Possible Worlds”
Credit: National Geographic

Astrobiology Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Helen Matsos, sits down in conversation with Ann Druyan, writer and executive producer of Season 3 of “Cosmos: Possible Worlds”, and of the companion book, entitled the same.

Helen Matsos (HM): Congratulations on this new and wonderful, season three, of “Cosmos”, and the companion book that is now published. You’re at it again! 

You are indefatigable, it seems, in your ability to spin amazing tales of the Universe. And, so for the new series, which you’re calling “Possible Worlds”, how did you come up with the title and the arc of the new narrative for this third season?

Ann Druyan: Well, first of all, thank you, for those very kind thoughts. I really appreciate it. The idea for this third season of “Cosmos: Possible Worlds” came to me when I was thinking about how dystopian all of popular culture is, and I’m not blaming popular culture because after all art is just reflection of reality.

But it seemed to me that there was reason for hope and optimism. I derived that hope not only from the fact that every one of us alive today is only alive because we’re descended from countless generations of people who endured horrendous hardship, but met the challenges of their time. And if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here. And so, I feel that we come from people who’ve risen to the occasion. And this, this is our chance to rise to a challenge, to be good, strong links in the chain of generations. 

Possible Worlds is not only the vision of life in the future on the various exoplanets, the worlds that circle other suns in the galaxy. But it’s also a vision of a possible world that Earth can become if we start taking science to heart instead of compartmentalizing into kind of erudite arcane collection of amazing facts. And so, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to create a vision of the near future. We take the audience and the reader to the 2039 New York World’s Fair, but also the distant future. We also give the lost worlds of this planet a chance to live again in the imaginations of the people who are seeing and reading Cosmos. 

Credit: National Geographic

(HM): So it sounds like, this season, maybe, you’ve positioned it to resonate more with viewers than the other two seasons. It seems like a plea to humanity and humankind more so than the other seasons. 

Ann Druyan: You know, you could say that, I think, although the first Cosmos that Carl Sagan and I and Steven Soter wrote was a response in some sense to the nuclear arms race that was raging at the time. There were some 60,000 nuclear weapons all on hair triggers, infesting the Earth. And in fact, one of the things that gives me confidence that we can solve some of the daunting and seemingly implacable problems that we face today, is that, you know, we got to a point where we drastically reduced the number of nuclear weapons, not completely out of the woods, as they like to say, but a major step in the right direction. 

But, yes, I think the first Cosmos and this Cosmos are in a sense, a response to a looming emergency. But at the same time, it’s also a celebration of the generations of searchers telling stories that are really unfamiliar to the public. Some of them never before told, that are other reasons for human self-esteem. 

(HM): You highlight many, as you say, unsung heroes, scientific heroes from the past and bring them forward. And the way that you are able to spin science stories in such an epic yet personal way is extremely challenging, I can imagine. And you do it so beautifully. Did any of the specific journeys that you went on to, to showcase some of these great thinkers from the past, like Darwin’s house in episode four, for instance, that particularly spoke to you or were spiritual for you in any way?

Ann Druyan: Well, the one that spoke to me in the most profound sense was the story of Nikolai Vavilov, the 20th century botanist, who was a member of the pioneering generation of geneticists, the founders of genetics, and who dreamed of a possible world, where no one ever went to bed hungry. And so, he used his knowledge of botany and his intrepid explorations on five continents to gather the mother seeds of the world’s crops and plants and flowers. It was his dream to create a kind of Noah’s Ark for every seed, which he indeed did do in what is now St. Petersburg. 

And, he had the misfortune to live during the terrifying time of Joseph Stalin, and he was faced with a choice. He could go along with the pseudo scientist Trofim Lysenko – who had a kind of hatred of Darwin and Mende and the scientists who made modern biology possible – and believe that you can soak wheat crop seeds in ice water and make them eligible for a winter wheat crop in famine stricken Russia. Stalin favored Lysenko, and Lysenko wanted to destroy Vavilov. But Vavilov saw this pseudoscience taking hold and it terrified him because he knew that it would lead to a greater famine than they’d ever had before. 

And so even though people had been arrested, executed, friends had disappeared – there was a full fledge terror that had taken hold in the Soviet Union – he stood up in public knowing he was sentencing himself to death. And at a public conference, he said to Lysenko, “you can take me to the stake, you can set me on fire, but you can’t make me lie about science”. Now, he, he was tortured and starved to death, but his, his colleagues, about a dozen other botanists, divided his collection of seeds. 

And because they believed that someday the world would come to its senses and need these seeds, they guarded the treasury of several hundred seeds with their lives through three years of the worst siege in history. And they actually ended up dying of starvation at their desks, protecting the tubers and seeds, which they could have eaten. And why didn’t they eat them? It was because they believed that, that time would come when the world would need them. They believed in the future. 

And I felt when I read this story, when I first began to gather the evidence for this story, it seemed to me that if only we felt so strongly about our own future, the way that these botanists felt about ours. You know, they would never live to see the future they were protecting, but they were willing to give everything in its service. And to me, that’s, that’s the most inspiring story of them all, but one of many untold stories that I had the privilege to tell in the book and the season.

(HM): Yes, that’s a very, very important point – to understand the danger of science denialism in our current culture, and to be able to show through a historical reference, scientific reference, how we might think of using those as examples to overcome some of our biggest challenges here today. Science communication in general, it’s a very difficult thing to do, to explain science in a way that’s not actually talking down to people or making them feel belittled in some way, but giving them enough insight so that they can join you on a journey of discovery for whatever it is you’re trying to communicate.

And of course, you’ve had the great luck and privilege of working with some of the greatest science communicators of our times. Of course, with your late husband, Carl Sagan, and now with Neil deGrasse Tyson. What was that like working with Neil to help expose science to a broader audience and bring the world to a better place scientifically?

Ann Druyan: Well, I’ve known Neil, I think for 30, maybe more years, and so, when I was first thinking of doing a second season of Cosmos back in 2008, he was the only person that I considered for the role of host. Because like Carl, you know, I feel that the key to science communication is Neil’s gift for connecting. And I think his performance in this season of Cosmos is even greater than the one in the second season. It’s that ability to connect. 

I’m not a scientist. I have vast, huge, whole continents of ignorance, and I’ve just been lucky to have this extraordinary tutorial from Carl at all hours of the day and night, which I loved every second of. And so, I know that if I don’t understand something, no one else will either because we’re all pretty much alike. And so, I tried to develop an understanding of a subject with my collaborator on the series, Brannon Braga, to find a way into the story, where there’s a story of a life or a moment in history that makes it possible to get into the concept.

It’s kind of a door into understanding the concept without being bored or without losing your way. And so, you know, Carl never spoke, in all the time I knew him, to impress anybody by all of the things, by his vast knowledge. It was always, only to communicate, to say in the plainest, but often the most poetic way. So, I think that Neil has that same quality. And of course, when Brannon and I are writing the scripts, we tried to give him a voice that would make the imparting of this knowledge as natural and effortless as possible.

(HM): Yes, I think that came over very well in the episodes that I’ve had the pleasure to view. Just one final question, it seems that Possible Worlds speaks to the field of astrobiology – a science that NASA made up, which combines all of the interdisciplinary, cross-cutting sciences towards this effort of looking for life in the universe. Do you think NASA can do a better job at spinning a better story to get people more excited about the epic missions and journeys and epic research efforts going on? Do you have any advice?

Ann Druyan: Well, you know, possibly given my bias, I think that Carl really was a pathfinder in this area as well as in the science itself, in that, he really believed that the discovery, the revelations of science belong to everyone – not just because we as tax payers funded this stuff, but because it’s a kind of birthright and that these are the stories that we should tell our children and they should tell their children. And so, you know, that’s part of it. 

I think NASA, even though they were very resistant to what Carl was doing at the time, has really come so far, they are telling a much better story. They’re reaching out on every conceivable platform to connect with the public. And to foster the understanding of, and the reason why these epic missions are so life enhancing for our civilization. And so, I think they’re doing a great job. I’m really delighted in, you know, all of the stuff that they’ve been putting out. They’ve tried to more open, because they understand that they need the public support in order to continue funding for these very expensive missions. 

(HM): Well, thank you so much Ann. I know our time is up and I congratulate you again for this beautiful series, “Cosmos: Possible Worlds”, along with the companion book now published.