Sagan as Teacher, as Collaborator

Interview with Ann Druyan and Steven Soter

Sagan with mock-up of the Viking Mars lander, from the popular television series Cosmos.

Kathleen Connell: You mention Carl Sagan, who passed away five years ago. Both you and Steven were collaborators with him in putting forward this new idea, this change of our entire frame of reference as a species. But at the time you three first stepped out and did this, it was not part of the science culture to "popularize" these important concepts. I believe that there were consequences for Carl Sagan at the time.

Ann Druyan: Yes, there were consequences for Carl, and possibly for Steve, because of course he’s also a scientist, and I’m not. There were huge consequences for Carl. But I think he was completely aware of them and totally happy to accept them. He understood so brilliantly, and really prophetically, that in a society that’s dependent on science and high technology, if science was a kind of preserve of the privileged few, then even the little democracy that we have would be jeopardized. He saw it as an act of citizenship. I think he also recognized something which has very wide implications for our civilization, and that is that this splitting apart between science (what we know) and spirituality (what we take to our heart) has been a disaster for us. I think he wanted to see that disconnect healed.

Sagan and Druyan.

Working with him and Steve was a dream. I know you have the bio sheet for me, but it doesn’t adequately describe how superficial and limited my understanding of science was before I really came to know Carl, and then, later, Steve, and how I benefited from this 25-year tutorial. Here were two of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, and two of the greatest teachers on the planet. Not only could you pose any question to them, but you could count on an answer which would not only be scientifically impeccable, but would resonate with the wonder that the question and the answer implied. It was a feast for me. It was the greatest experience of my whole life.

I remember being with Steve and Carl through many an all-nighter, working on Cosmos, and a couple of projects before then, and many projects since, and having a sense of just pure, unalloyed joy. There were moments of extreme frustration. With Carl there were no arguments from authority. You always had to build a case. The three of us would agonize over every single adjective, and every sequence, and everything that was there. And there were usually 25 iterations of virtually every script and every manuscript that we did together.

Sagan and astrobiologist Gerald Soffen poolside, communicating Mars science to a segment of the general public. Credit: Hans-Peter Biemann

But what a feast of ideas, of joy, of ecstatic communion with two people! Steve and Carl both are so exceptional in this regard. It was not just that their brains were so high-functioning, but they both have such extraordinary character, decency, kindness, patience. It was an inspiration to see in real time what human beings could be like if they were allowed to develop these qualities.

Kathleen Connell: Many others have done incredible work in space science but have not been predisposed or have not chosen to take on the role of communicating this to the general public, not to mention the roles of human transformation and social transformation. What brought you to that point?

Steven Soter: Well, I always had a vague idea that if people understood the impact of discoveries in modern astronomy, it would have to affect their behavior in a positive way. But it was only after meeting Carl, and then Ann, that I learned how to do that. They were the two greatest teachers that I’ve known. What Ann brought to it, I think, was illustrated by her answer to the question that you asked her, "Why should we care?" She really put the heart in it, and I learned an enormous amount from her and from Carl about how to make more concrete this message of modern science.

The National Academy of Sciences awarded Sagan the 1994 Public Welfare Medal for "communicating the wonder and importance of science."

Kathleen Connell: Both of you describe unifying the language of the heart with the language of the mind.

Ann Druyan: What Carl did was he reunified skepticism with wonder-and never one at the expense of the other, but always in equal parts. I think that what we all long for is something that could raise goose bumps, could make you feel something in your heart without requiring that you lie to yourself.

That was a great leap, because science was contemptuous of any of the wonder. Even the study of astrobiology was completely taboo in respectable scientific circles until people like Carl and Frank Drake and David Morrison and some others had the nerve and the bona fides to say that this is what interests us, and this is where we want to go with science. But even the fact that there is a NASA Astrobiology portal, and a department, is a very recent development that wouldn’t have happened 10, 15, 20 years ago.

Kathleen Connell: Yes, it is. (Laughs.)