In 1980, PBS broadcast a series that defined for a generation what Science Communication could and must be. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, co-written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter, set the standard for how to marry images, sounds, and words in a tale that stretched from the beginning of time to the distant future embracing history, anthropology, astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and philosophy.
Among the over half-billion people who have watched Cosmos there are untold thousands of scientists and teachers who owe their careers’ inspiration to images glimpsed in youth of Sagan, in his Spaceship of the Imagination, soaring the universe and pondering our species’ future therein. The original Cosmos is the foundational document of a generation of educators and scientific dreamers, a place to return whenever we need to remind ourselves who we are and why we do what we do. For teachers like me, it demonstrates how to unite history, art, and grand prose for the communication of science in a way that inspires as it instructs, and how to make students’ first approaches to scientific knowledge rewarding exercises in honest inquiry instead of intimidating exercises in standardized problem solving.
Cosmos: A Personal Voyage represented a foundational moment in the history of science education. There had been scientific popularizers before, from the poetic 17th century visionary Lady Cavendish to the massively influential 19th century science writers Mary Somerville and Mary Agnes Clerke to the early 20th century astronomy writer Helen Sawyer Hogg, but with the exception of Cavendish’s fanciful and engaging flights of scientific fiction, their approach was relatively straightforward: Here is some science, which you’ll enjoy if you basically already like science.
It took the unique fusion of the minds of Sagan, Druyan, and Soter to push for a higher synthesis that created #SciComm as we know it today. That magical trio broke down the barriers between disciplines and media forms to present science as a grand project, informing and informed by human nature, civilizational progress, and the universe’s evolving quest to know itself. Throughout the Eighties, Nineties, and early Aughts, the Cosmos model was simply the model for public science education – massive in sweep and earnestly hopeful in the possibility that humanities and science could unite in telling the story of the galaxy’s past and humanity’s future.
With the arrival of the YouTube generation, however, a new paradigm seemed to be forming – bursts of information from individual specialists spread across thousands of podcasts and web series brought more voices into #SciComm than ever before. But in that process something was lost, a drive towards that higher synthesis and cross-discipline communication that Cosmos so tantalizingly exemplified four decades ago. We needed, once again, to be led up out of the rabbit holes of our own making and shown the lay of the scientific land in all of its diverse complexity, and who better to do that than the person whose synthetic insight started us down this road all those long years ago, Ann Druyan?
Her upcoming book, Cosmos: Possible Worlds (National Geographic, 2020), is the companion volume to the new season of “Cosmos” set to begin airing on March 9 on National Geographic (Druyan is Executive Producer, Writer, Director and Creator of the show). In the breadth of its scope and the magnitude of its imagination, it is teaching us again how to look beyond our tribal specializations towards a future powered by a bold syncretism. Possible Worlds is a triumphant return to scale, and a direct challenge to a humanity that seems to have lost its will to confront and overcome the problems that face it. It encompasses astronomy, neuroscience, quantum physics, the origins of life, the future of space flight, nuclear weaponry, alternate intelligence models, cosmology, archaeology, anthropology, and biochemistry in the breathtaking course of its 370 richly illustrated pages, all driven by Druyan’s approachable but grand prose that urges us to find in ourselves the intellectual courage to truly know who we are, where we came from, and what possible futures stretch out before us.
Cosmos: Possible Worlds is a triumphant return to scale, and a direct challenge to a humanity that seems to have lost its will to confront and overcome the problems that face it.
Along the way, she introduces us to a pantheon of undersung scientific heroes, people who contributed fundamentally to our knowledge of the universe and ourselves but who we have chosen to forget over the passage of time: Nikolai Vavilov, who scoured the earth in the early Twentieth century on a heroic quest to trace the evolution of human food crops by finding and preserving the world’s diverse variety of food seeds. John Stewart Bell, who designed the test to prove the reality of quantum entanglement. Karl von Frisch, who revealed the outstanding complexity of communication among bees. Yuri Kondratyuk, who first theorized the principle of using gravitational assists to power spaceflight. Certainly, the big names are there too – Einstein and Newton, Huygens and, yes, Sagan, but by telling these stories of people who often came from nothing and made unheralded but significant contributions that pushed us all forward into a more knowledgeable future, Druyan brings home the crucial point that there is more to discover, and that the discoverer could be anybody.
The strength of Possible Worlds is that its episodes and spotlights are connected not by a standard chronology, but by Druyan’s ability to see connections between events separated by large stretches of time and widely different fields of study. An explanation of the future evolution of our sun becomes a discussion about harnessing lasers in combination with solar sails for interstellar flight becomes a history of Pacific Islander navigation in second millennium BCE with that effortlessness that made the original Cosmos such a profound experience. Druyan asks that we surrender our need for blandly linear storytelling in order to experience the far richer possibility of seeing the human project as an interconnected web of concerns and strategies, with her as a guide aided by some old familiar friends from the original series dreamt up by her and Sagan at the dawn of educational television.
In particular, we see the return of one of my favorite devices ever in the teaching of history and science, the Cosmic Calendar. As she did forty years ago, Druyan again asks us to imagine the entire span of the universe as if reduced down to one calendar year, with the Big Bang occurring on January 1, and the present day located at midnight on December 31st. By this model, our planet comes into existence sometime on August 31, life appears a few days later on September 2, but the first animals do not appear until December 14, and the first mammals not until December 26. From a cosmic perspective, our entire class has only been around for the last five days or so, and as for us, the mighty and majestic humans who often believe ourselves the center of all creation, we don’t show up until about 9:00 pm on December 31st, and don’t learn to write until the last half-minute or so of universal existence. By itself, the Cosmic Calendar is a brilliant tool for getting humans to step outside the world as they experience it, and start grasping the universe as it actually is, but as a skeleton for a book encompassing nothing less than the sum total of all things, it is the solid core which Druyan painstakingly decorates with stories and knowledge until, by book’s end, even the most non-scientifically inclined of readers can come away with a visceral sense of who they are, and what they might be.
There are undoubtedly those who will say that Druyan’s approach is too individualistic, too reliant upon her sense of connection and imagination which rebels against the standard linear historical model. For those who want scientific education to be a story of tiles stacked chronologically one upon the other, Druyan’s leaps forwards and backwards in history will probably be frustrating, but then, there are many books available to service their particular needs. But for those who know the true messiness of history, of humanity’s numerous wrong turns and missed opportunities, its capacity to adapt old solutions to new situations, and to find its moments of greatest triumph in the exchange of ideas between individuals or societies that “oughtn’t” talk to one another but still do, Druyan’s account rings with a truth that her place in public education over the last forty years has put her in a unique position to unfold.
It’s enough to make the greatest idealist a bit pessimistic, and yet the most marked characteristic of Possible Worlds is not one of despair, but of hope.
One can only imagine the frustration of Ann Druyan, staring out over the expanse of time separating A Personal Voyage from Possible Worlds. Four decades ago, she and Sagan warned of the dangers of climate change, the need for nuclear disarmament and military de-escalation, and the centrality of an evidence-driven approach to public policy, and here we are, still arguing that the science isn’t in agreement yet about global warming, that maybe we should start building nuclear weapons again to prove our mettle as a super-power, and handing over key scientific positions in government to ideologues and incompetents, all while the world continues its inexorable slouch towards ruin. It’s enough to make the greatest idealist a bit pessimistic, and yet the most marked characteristic of Possible Worlds is not one of despair, but of hope. Druyan somehow still has faith in we humans who have repeatedly pulled ourselves back from the brink of our worst excesses, and who, with enough knowledge and guidance, might do so again, allowing us at last to achieve the promise of a species at peace, and a home among the stars.
Cosmos: Possible Worlds is slated for release on February 25, 2020.
What You Should Know About Ann Druyan
Ann Druyan is a Peabody and Emmy-award winning writer, producer and director specializing in the communication of science. Druyan served for ten years as the elected Secretary of the Federation of American Scientists and began her writing career with the publication of her first novel, A Famous Broken Heart. She was the Creative Director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message and Program Director of the first solar sail deep space mission, launched on a Russian ICBM in 2005.
She is perhaps most well-known for co-writing, with her late husband, Carl Sagan, the original 1980s, Emmy Award and Peabody Award-winning TV series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” which currently holds the title of the most watched PBS series in television history. The duo also co-wrote six New York Times best-sellers, including Comet, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, The Demon Haunted World, Billions & Billions and The Varieties of Scientific Experience. Additionally, Druyan was co-creator and co-producer of the Warner Bros. feature film “Contact,” starring Jodie Foster and directed by Bob Zemeckis.
As Founder and CEO of Cosmos Studios, since 2000, Druyan has produced some of the most acclaimed science-based entertainment including the Emmy nominated “Cosmic Journey: The Voyager Interstellar Mission and Message.” Druyan built on the success of the 1980’s “Cosmos,” by creating “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey,” for the Fox and National Geographic Television Networks. Druyan was the lead executive producer, one of the directors and co-writer for which she won the Peabody, Producer’s Guild and Emmy Awards in 2014. The show, which received 13 Emmy nominations, was seen in 181 countries and by more than 135 million people worldwide.