Q&A: Ann Druyan on Preserving Carl Sagan’s Memory and Inspiring a New Generation of Science Lovers

Careful with partnerships, she entrusted Apple with 'Pale Blue Dot'

Ann Druyan

Forty years ago, Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan tackled one of the most ambitious creative projects in human history: summarizing our species in a message that will likely outlast our entire civilization.

The Voyager spacecraft’s “Golden Record,” literally made from gold and packed with images and sounds of Earth, was launched into space in 1977 and is making its way beyond our solar system in hopes of reaching intelligent alien life.

The two passionate science advocates and authors would go on to create several collaborations, including the PBS hit miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Journey, which debuted a year before the two were married in 1981.

Since Sagan’s death in 1996, Druyan has served as a “keeper of the flame” for his writings—which remain in high demand, with usage requests coming in weekly—while also continuing to build on her own influential body of work, such as the 2014 revival of Cosmos on Fox.

Adweek recently spoke with Druyan about her decision to allow Apple to use Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” monologue, Cosmos’ first audiobook (narrated by LaVar Burton), the power of Hollywood to inspire careers and the rise of young, social media savvy STEM advocates.

Check out our interview below:

Adweek: How did the Apple ‘Pale Blue Dot’ ad come about? When did they first reach out to you about that?
Author and producer Ann Druyan: We’ve been talking about it for a couple years, and it was actually only shortly before it aired that we decided to move forward together. So it was just a relatively brief amount of time [between approval and execution], but actually the gestation was a year and half or something like that. Their agency reached out to me, and we talked, and we continued the conversation. We’d drop it for months at a time.

"I don’t want to ever license anything associated with Carl or our work together without really weighing the impact, the meaning and significance of using it."
-Ann Druyan

I get requests for licensing parts of “Pale Blue Dot” every week. This has been going on for maybe a decade. I am, I hope, extremely discriminating in that regard. I consider myself a keeper of the flame. I’m always asking myself, “What would Carl do?” I also have my own values, which are part of this, but I don’t want to ever license anything associated with Carl or our work together without really weighing the impact, the meaning and significance of using it.

So it just really all came together really in the last couple weeks as a conviction that it was a good idea to do it.

It feels like science has become much more politicized since your days of working with NASA in the 1970s. Do you feel that way, or was it just that the political pressures on science weren’t as visible to the public?
It’s always been political. You can certainly tell that from the kinds of people who’ve been historically excluded from science. There’s no way to separate the human components from a human enterprise, which is what science is.

Of course it’s been stained by politics, but there have also been moments where science and politics came together in a way that was inspiring. So I don’t think you can ever say it wasn’t political, and remember that when the scientific revolution really got started, the stranglehold on human thought was much greater. So it had a much greater institutional opposition to contend with than it does now.

What’s happened most recently is the sense that we’ve known about climate change for about 100 years, really. We’ve understood that lofting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is going to have an effect on climate for a very long time.

Ann Druyan and husband Carl Sagan in 1984
Getty Images

What’s happened more recently is the sense that the predictions of the climate scientists are coming true, and what was an abstraction is now the 11 hottest years in history being the last 11 years. That suggests that the climate scientists have been right all along, and I think that’s finally penetrating and permeating popular culture.

It feels like science has been so embattled recently, that just being a scientist, just advocating for science has become a political stance in a way that it wouldn’t have been, say, six years ago.
That’s a really good point, but it’s also true there are perturbations. The pendulum swings back and forth. There are moments when science is considered heroic.

"There are these moments in history when our politics and our science diverged very dramatically, and those are moments when I think scientists have to stand up."
-Ann Druyan

A good example from my point of view is that I was completely opposed to the war against Vietnam and to the institutional and social racism of the 1960s and generally America’s conduct throughout the world, and yet when we landed on the moon, I was proud to be an American. Even though I knew how complicated the road to the moon had been in terms of international politics and competition in the nuclear arms race, I thought this mythic accomplishment was something that really spoke well of us. It was a rare moment for human self-esteem and American self-esteem at that time.

Think back to the 1920s and Charles Darwin on trial, and you can say it was really a political statement to believe in modern biology and be a biologist at that time. So there are these moments in history when our politics and our science diverged very dramatically, and those are moments when I think scientists have to stand up.

To that point, it seems like one positive side effect in recent years is the rise of young, passionate STEM advocates.
Yes. I couldn’t agree more. It’s so much better. The more widely distributed, the more scientists who feel the responsibilities of citizenship to include science communication, the better.

When I was working on getting the second Cosmos produced and writing it, that was very much in my mind. We all had this dream that together we could create something which would be a great net for future Carl Sagans. My dream, Carl’s dream, was always not to write for the converted, but for those people who had no idea that they had any interest in science. That’s who I was writing for in [2014’s Fox miniseries] Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

It feels like it wasn’t until Neil deGrasse Tyson came along that we had that person who had the cultural cachet that Carl did. Do you think that’s a fair parallel?

Ann Druyan and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson
Fox / Getty Images

Absolutely that’s a fair parallel. As you know, Carl met Neil when he was a teenager and was really encouraging him all the way back then, and I met him when he was still a very young man. When I started looking for a platform for the show and working with [astrophysicist andCosmos cowriter] Steve Soter to outline which of the stories we’d tell, it was Neil I had in mind for Day 1. I knew he was going to be the one speaking our lines, because he has that capacity to connect and he also is a scientist. I knew he would understand and say with conviction the lines we wrote for him.

Have you seen other emerging talents who could also fill that role of high-profile science advocate?
I think they’re everywhere. So many people were, I’m very proud to say, influenced by the original series and by the motion picture Contact, which I’m also very proud of because so many scientists who are women tell me it made them realize they could do this. And now with this second Cosmos, I’ve had so many people tell me it has put them in a wholly new trajectory to study, teach and do science—to think scientifically.

Speaking of Contact, you’ve been a pioneer in is this idea of science education and science fiction being paired together, that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It seems we’ve seen in recent years the return of science fiction films that aren’t about action and shooting things.
Any of us who do this, like my dear friend Lynda Obst, who did Interstellar and with whom we did Contact, is following in the footsteps of Jules Verne and H.G. Welles, who were taking new scientific ideas, newly discovered insights from science, and then applying them to “What could happen if…”

"When I go to a movie which violates the laws of physics, I feel it’s kind of empty. It doesn’t really stick with me, it doesn’t really move me."
-Ann Druyan

As someone who does occasionally do fiction, I feel research and a little bit of the real stuff make any story that much more powerful. Certainly that’s true of science fiction. When I go to a movie which violates the laws of physics, I feel it’s kind of empty. It doesn’t really stick with me, it doesn’t really move me.

What is the status of the next season of Cosmos?
I don’t have anything to say yet, but I hope I get another chance to talk to you.

Fair enough. How did the Cosmos audiobook come about, and how did LeVar Burton get involved?
It was just a wonderful initiative from Brilliance, who are the producers for Audible [Brilliance and Audible are both owned by Amazon]. They came to me, and I just immediately recognized that their approach to doing our entire library was completely different than any of the other audiobook publishers I had spoken with. They had a kind of recognition of Carl as a prophetic figure in our culture, a force in our civilization for good. They also understood our collaboration with each other, mine and his. They treated me with such respect in terms of giving me complete carte blanche in terms of every aspect of the production of these audiobooks.

LeVar Burton came into it because he and I have been talking about working together on some projects. Brilliance was completely open to my candidates for who would voice what, and I thought of LeVar because he has a wonderful voice and a deep comprehension of the beauty of life and nature. I just thought he would be another person who would truly connect.

I’m so proud of the fact Cosmos was chosen by the Library of Congress as one of the “88 Books That Shaped America.” This is something I wish I could tell Carl, that in the view of the librarians of Congress, Cosmos was on the same level as the Federalist Papers, as Moby-Dick, as the works of Mark Twain, Faulkner, Benjamin Franklin—only 88 books of the millions published since we became a nation. Imagine that honor for a book which was essentially a companion book for a television series. Just an amazing feat.

So I really wanted Cosmos to have a sparkling voice, so rich in understanding and the desire to connect.

I think one of the greatest qualities Carl had was that I never once heard him speak to impress anyone with how much he knew, but only to communicate, to connect. I felt LeVar would really convey that.

Ann Druyan is a prolific author, lecturer and producer. She is the CEO of Cosmos Studios and a board member of The Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University.