Another journey through the cosmos with Ann Druyan
In the 1980s Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan took the world on a journey through the Universe and its origins in the television series Cosmos. More than three decades later Ann remade the series for a new generation. Yi-Di Ng talks to her about the new production and asks what Sagan would have thought.
Ann Druyan grew up in Queens, New York, in what she says was a very ordinary middle-class family. In her youth she was more interested in literature than science. Her initial fascination with science was limited to its ancient Greek origins. The materialism of Democritus’s atoms and Aristotle’s cosmology were, to Ann, the very first whisperings of scientific thought. And then she met Carl Sagan.
It was 1974. Ann’s close friend, filmmaker Nora Ephron, insisted she attend a dinner party she was hosting if only to meet a young physicist who would be there. She agreed. When Ann first met Carl that evening in Nora’s living room it wasn’t Carl she first fell in love with, but science.
“Carl gave me my passion for science,” she says. “He showed me its power to reveal the wonders of the Universe.” Together, they embarked on a highly successful professional and personal partnership that would last until his death in 1996.
“We were friends and colleagues for three years before there was any hint that we would fall in love,” Ann recalls. That would happen in 1977 when they were putting together the Voyager Golden Record, a selection of sounds, images and music that would accompany the Voyager space probes in their trek across the Universe. Because of this project recordings of Carl’s laugh and Ann’s brainwaves – just days after she fell in love – still float through space today.
Having broadcast human culture to the wide expanse of interstellar space the pair decided it was time to do the opposite and teach humans about the Universe. So they turned the cameras away from us and out to the stars. Along with astrophysicist Steve Soter, Carl and Ann wrote and produced an ambitious 13-part documentary that covered a range of scientific subjects – everything from human evolution to black holes to global warming. They called it Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. With the poetry of their writing, their passion, and Carl’s uniquely lyrical narration Cosmos quickly established itself at the zenith of science popularisation.
When Cosmos was released in 1980 the United States was buoyed by the early triumphs of the Apollo space program and Voyager missions. The attitude towards science was one of wide-eyed awe and optimism. But three decades later things had become drastically different. “Science was suddenly facing intense antagonism from society,” says Ann. “We used to be a more proudly scientific country. Now people talk about what science we can and can’t teach in our schools.”
The time had come, says Ann, to make the case for science. The world needed a new Cosmos.
Even in the midst of all the uncertainties Ann was sure of one thing: she wanted the new face and voice of Cosmos to be astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Ann first began thinking about remaking Cosmos around seven years ago and pitched her idea to the major television networks in the US. All of them – aware of what a success the original series was – were eager to take on the project, but none was willing to give her the creative control and budget she needed. With a project this close to her heart Ann wasn’t going to settle for anything less.
Even in the midst of all the uncertainties Ann was sure of one thing. She knew who she wanted to be the new face and voice of Cosmos – the charismatic astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who she had met through Carl more than 20 years ago. It was Neil who introduced her to Seth McFarlane of Family Guy fame. A fan of Cosmos since childhood, McFarlane threw his support behind the project. He suggested they pitch it to Fox, a network criticised for its right-wing leanings
To her surprise Fox gave Ann everything she wanted – 13 episodes just like the original, the creative freedom and budget to do exactly what she wanted, and most importantly, the broadest possible audience she could have asked for. “I didn't want to preach to the choir,” she says, acknowledging that Fox's traditional demographic isn’t the type one would associate with Cosmos. “I wanted to attract people who hadn’t always thought much about science, and not just those who had already been converted.”
And the ratings suggest that she has. The new series, entitled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered simultaneously in March across 10 major Fox channels in 125 countries to overwhelmingly positive reviews and award nominations.
The world, it would appear, has welcomed Cosmos once again. But what would Carl think?
“I think he would love it,” Ann laughs. The pride is clear in her voice. “I would not do anything that Carl wouldn’t love. The people who knew and loved him have said to me how proud he would have been of it. And that’s my happiest thought.”
So now, after seven long years of hard work, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has wrapped. What's next for Ann Druyan? She hints that there are plans in the pipeline and that there may be more science-as-entertainment projects on the way. But for now she is eager to leave behind the hotel rooms of Los Angeles to return to her home and family in New York for a well-deserved break. And then she will carry on awakening a whole new generation to the wonders of science and the secrets of the Universe.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.