Global warming science most important in last two decades: Druyan

Ann Druyan, American author and Emmy-winning producer of the popular science TV series Cosmos conceived by her husband Carl Sagan, tells ardent Sagan fan Shubhobroto Ghosh that science must go beyond merely being a "compartmentalised collection of amazing facts".

Shubhobroto Ghosh

doi:10.1038/nindia.2014.119 Published online 29 August 2014

Ann Druyan

© Ron Luxemburg

Q. As the producer of Cosmos, what's your message to Indian viewers who have grown up on a healthy dose of science from the series?

A. To viewers in India and in the other industrial powerhouses of the planet: It's up to us to protect the environment that sustains us and our way of life. Science has given us the power to apprehend the distant past and to foresee some of the future consequences of our present actions. Please, let us not treat science as a compartmentalized collection of amazing facts. Let's use our knowledge to become more kind and to protect and cherish the "pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

Q. How can India contribute more to pure science and technology and how important is it for this country to have a show like COSMOS to bring science out of the laboratory for appreciation by a wider audience?

A. I am woefully ignorant about what is happening in India in terms of science-based education and popular culture. I can only give you vague generalities about the need for same in every country. Carl and I made two trips to India together but the most recent one was more than twenty years ago. I am more than ready to return and fully prepared to be astonished by the vast changes that have taken place since then.

Q. The old Cosmos featured India prominently in an episode, ‘The Cosmic Dance of Nataraja.’ The new Cosmos does not feature India prominently. Why is this?

A. That was a failure on our part for which I humbly apologize. I hope to have another chance someday to set that right.

Q. Cosmos is an effort to popularise scientific endeavour and critical thinking. What would you say is the single most important scientific development and discovery since the broadcast of the first Cosmos in 1980?

A. I would have to say the mounting evidence for our role in global warming and the array of consequences for us and other species. That's not to say that mapping the human genome, the discovery of earth-like extra-solar planets, the shape of the solar system as it moves through the galaxy and the Higgs boson and a huge number of other breakthroughs are not significant. But our inadvertent modification of climate may trump the others. Our understanding that large-scale loading of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases pre-dates 1980. In fact, we actually discussed it in the original Cosmos series. But since that time an overwhelming scientific consensus has emerged based on the constantly mounting evidence.

Q. Cosmos highlights the danger to our existence from climate change. Is this a political statement the series tried to make and how successful has it been?

A. In my view, we have never been very good at distinguishing the political from the non-political. I believe that any scientific insight that has operational social and economic implications will inevitably be called "political" as if the evidence for it is any less real than other ideas that pass science's methodological testing. Who makes it "political"? The scientists who dispassionately test the evidence to see if it's real or the economic interests who decide what threats to our way of life we should take seriously. The scientists will, to the extent that they are true to their discipline,  be forthright about the evidence, where ever it may lead. Has this been strikingly true of those engaged in politics or business?

Q. We understand that the new Cosmos was conceived as a response to modern hostility against science and scientists in USA. Could you please explain this for us and how you thought the new series would help to mitigate this antagonism?

A. Commercial television in the United States had been a virtually science-free zone for decades. Settled science, such as the occurrence of evolution by natural selection and a human role in global warming, were/are routinely presented as matters of controversy. It seemed to me that it was time to make the case for science in the broadest possible public arena. We face many challenges that can only be understood and resolved by a scientifically literate public. From that standpoint, writing and producing Cosmos became an act of citizenship. I felt that science had a more compelling story about where we came from and who we are than any previous creation myth ever devised by our ancestors. That inspiring information belongs to all of us. The more widely distributed it is the less likely appeals to fanaticism will succeed.

Q. Science has moved on considerably since 1980, especially in the fields of astronomy and space sciences. What efforts did you take to keep this in mind for the new series?

A. My co-writer, astronomer Steve Soter, keeps up with all the scientific journals. He and I vetted each and every script with distinguished scientists in the relevant fields. And, of course, when we missed something, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was also reading our scripts before his performances of them. 

Q. Does the new Cosmos highlight the need for more funding for basic and pure science research in all countries to enhance the human endeavour to understand the universe better?

A. I sure hope so.

Q. Do you think the cartoon representations were apt for a science series?

A. As far as I'm concerned, virtually any art form can be used as a means to communicate as long as the standards for the science are consistently rigorous. Animating the lives of the heroes of knowledge rather than doing live action dramatic recreations was Seth MacFarlane's excellent idea. I think Kara Vallow, who produced them for us made each one a jewel, a graphic novel with its own style. Very happy with the way they turned out. I think the fact that they were animated may have brought us the exact audience we were really after.

Q. Carl Sagan and you emphasised our kinship and relationship with other animals and all forms of life in all your writings. What would you say about this today in the light of the new Cosmos?

A. Yes, that was one of our richest personal discoveries. When we began researching and writing our book "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" in the late '80's our eyes were opened to a far greater degree of connectedness with the other forms of life on this planet. We also learned how consistently we humans have underestimated the consciousness of other living things. Today I feel that kinship more strongly than ever before. 

Q. One episode showed a boy touching a girl with the narrative saying, “Relax, father, he is not really touching her because atoms and molecules do not exactly touch each other.” Is this an accurate representation in reality because when we touch each other we can clearly feel the sensation of touch. Please explain this section.

A. I meant it as an ironic human commentary on the emptiness of atoms - on Earth the nuclei of atoms hardly ever touch. When I was a teenager, I looked up from my first, extremely chaste kiss to see my own Father glowering at me. That experience was what inspired the sequence. Happy to say that I am extremely fortunate to have my wonderfully lively 97 year-old-father as my neighbor across the road. We have laughed at that moment many a time over the decades.