....how science can build a better future?

An Ever Wonder? podcast from the California Science Center


We're living in a truly unprecedented time, and it can be tough to stay hopeful about the future. But here at the Science Center, we believe that science is an indispensable tool for understanding our world to help everyone make decisions that can improve our future.

Do you ever wonder how science can help us build a better future?

Since 1980, the TV show COSMOS has captured the imaginations of audiences around the world. The latest season of COSMOS: POSSIBLE WORLDS invites viewers to imagine a hopeful vision of the future, and how we might use science with wisdom to make it a reality. To celebrate its premiere, we're releasing this bonus episode with very special guest Ann Druyan, the creator/executive producer/director/writer of COSMOS: POSSIBLE WORLDS

COSMOS: POSSIBLE WORLDS airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on FOX.

Two men and one woman lined up in individual online conference windows, all with space-themed backgrounds

Aerospace curator Ken Phillips, assistant curator Perry Roth-Johnson, and Cosmos: Possible Worlds creator Ann Druyan in a screenshot from their podcast interview

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Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts. To see a full list of episodes, visit our show’s webpage.


Perry Roth-Johnson: 00:06 

Hello, this is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm Perry Roth-Johnson. Today, I'm excited to drop our first bonus episode, with a very special guest—more on that in a minute. Now, if you're new to the show, welcome! If you like what you hear, please check out our other episodes. And if you're a returning listener, you'll notice that we're going to take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to talk about science and its ability to shape the future. We're living in a truly unprecedented time right now and it can be tough sometimes to stay hopeful about the future, but here at the Science Center, we believe that science is an indispensable tool for understanding our world to help everyone make decisions that can improve our future. You ever wonder how science can help us build that better future? Since 1980, the TV show COSMOS has captured the imaginations of audiences around the world. The latest season of Cosmos Possible Worlds invites viewers to imagine a hopeful vision of the future and how we might use science with wisdom to make it a reality. To celebrate its premiere today, we've dropped this bonus episode with a very special guest Ann Druyan. Ann is the creator, executive producer, director and writer of Cosmos Possible Worlds. And joining me as a co-host for this conversation with Ann is our very own Ken Phillips, Curator of Aerospace Science. Let's get into it. All right. So Ann Druyan, you are the creator, executive producer, director and writer of COSMOS: POSSIBLE WORLDS. Welcome to the show.

Ann Druyan: 01:48 

Thank you. I'm so excited to be with you.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 01:51 

Yeah. And, uh, Ken Phillips Curator of Aerospace Sciences at the California Science Center is also here today to help me co-host this special episode. Hi Ken.

Ken Phillips: 01:59 

Hey, Perry. Hi Ann. Glad to be here.

Ann Druyan: 02:00

Hi Ken.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 02:03 

So Ann, we're so excited to have you here, ah, as an accomplished science communicator and as someone who can speak to how we hope science TV shows can help society and your latest show COSMOS: POSSIBLE WORLDS premieres September 22nd at 8/7 central on Fox. Ken and I both have so many things to ask you about your show about your career, but I want to start with something you wrote recently about your work in science communication. Something deeply important to us here at the Science Center. And it was in the prologue of your companion book to the series, COSMOS: POSSIBLE WORLDS. You tell this story of Albert Einstein, giving a speech at the 1939 World's Fair, where he began by saying quote, "If science, like art, is to perform its mission, truly and fully its achievements must enter not only superficially, but with their inner meaning into the consciousness of the people." And then you go on to say that you found in Einstein's words, quote "The credo for 40 years of my life's work." Can you tell us what you meant by that?

Ann Druyan: 03:00 

Yes, and I think in this particular moment in our history, that feeling is even more valid than it was when I was writing the book and the series. And that is that we live in a civilization utterly dependent on science and high technology. And yet the knowledge that forms the basis of both is the preserve of a lucky fear. And if we want to preserve that as much democracy as we have and aspire it to enhance it and enlarge it, then having this tiny elite understanding the workings of science is a recipe for disaster. And this has been a, you know, when I say my credo for 40 years, it's something that Carl Sagan and I articulated together, this fear of a world in which science and technology were a complete mystery to most of us. And yet we were expected to become informed decision makers and we can't really be informed decision makers unless we understand the methods, the goals, the values of science. And so that's been, my entire career has been dedicated to this, uh, this idea. And here we find ourselves still in the grip of a merciless pandemic. We've lost near hundreds of thousands of people, more than a hundred thousand, 200,000 people to this catastrophe. And if you look at it dispassionately, you see that there was a deadly embrace of a lack of public awareness, a lack of public leadership that was informed by science and a failure to face our reality frontally directly and deal with it in the proper way. And so, you know, as our hearts break over this disaster, the United States leading the world in depth, in casualties of this disease, it makes me feel even more strongly that if science and the understanding of how science works, if it doesn't belong to the broadest possible public and we will not be able to protect ourselves from even greater disaster promised by climate change. So when I read that, when I saw that YouTube video of Albert Einstein opening the 1939 New York World's Fair, it was such a, uh, I had such a soaring feeling of joy that one of the greatest minds who ever lived saw the importance of this imperative to communicate science.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 06:21

Right. Yeah. He didn't want to just keep it to himself. He wanted to share it with everyone, even if you weren't in the scientific community.

Ann Druyan: 06:27 


Ken Phillips: 06:29 

One of the things that's cool about COSMOSis that you've had these amazing ways of bringing together different scientific disciplines. It's not isolated just to physics or just to astronomy. Um, how do you approach writing COSMOS to blend stories from all the different branches of science? How do you do that?

Ann Druyan: 06:48 

Well, of course, my first, uh, COSMOS was 40 Septembers ago and that project was led by Carl Sagan, and he was one of the things that he reasons that he was always set, that he was so harshly criticized by his contemporaries in the scientific community was that he was so wild interdisciplinary, he was which of course was what exactly what you had to be, if you're going to enter the space age. Before Carl Sagan, there was no scientific journal on earth where a geologist and a biologist and a planetary scientist could collaborate to speculate about the life or the possibilities of life on other worlds and Icarus, the scientific journal that he edited for decades, was the first publication to change that. And one of the chapters in the book Possible Worlds and, uh, one of the episodes in the show this new season was really fun for me to tell a story that I don't think has been told elsewhere, which is the imperative for the sciences and the scientific fields, which had been so thoroughly siloed. So siloed to the point where, um, the great chemist Harold Urey and, um, the first planetary astronomer, uh, to Gerard Kuiper got into, um, a battle which proved to be a lifelong vendetta about the origin of the solar system. But this all began to unfold exactly at the birth of a space age in the late '50s, in the time around the launch of Sputnik in 1957. And these two giants of science had only one grad student in common, and he was a kid named Carl Sagan.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 09:12 


Ann Druyan: 09:12 

So he was the one who would go back and forth through the enemy camps. Loving and revering both men, but knowing how much they loathed each other and how competitive they were with each other. But it was that marriage of the scientific fields that had to happen because it would be unthinkable. Now, if you were planning a major mission to Mars, would you go without someone you knew biology, would you go without someone who knew geology, would you go without someone who knew chemistry? All of these fields really are part of the picture of any world. And so it's that unification of the sciences that I find so fascinating and was so completely, um, fertile with, with new ideas. And I'm so proud of the role that Carl played in all of it.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 10:16 

So is that the thing that you're most excited for viewers to see this season, without giving a spoilers? Or is there another part of the series?

Ann Druyan: 10:24

No, it is only one of them.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 10:24 


Ann Druyan: 10:26 

The things that excite me the most are the stories, that never before told stories that, uh, I, and my collaborator Brannon Braga, and the 985 other people who worked on this season, uh, we're able to tell. I'm excited about taking a global audience to the 2039 New York World's Fair to see what, to see that future that we can still have to see what would happen if we got our acts together and we used the redemptive powers of science and bioremediation and other techniques to restore our planet to its beauty of merely a hundred or 200 years ago, but also to move out into the cosmos and begin to attain a degree of cosmic citizenship, you know, taking, building that world's fair and taking the audience to it and seeing a future that is not the dystopian, hideous, stifling burned out future in which we're living in dumpsters. Not that future, not that future of human life is indignity has been so debased, but a future where human potential can be allowed to express itself and even be fostered. So, I mean, I could, there's plenty other things I would like to tell you.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 12:16 

I'm excited, I'm fired up to watch this. And so I like that you ended on the 2039 World's Fair, you know, looking far ahead to what our future could look like. Um, I think Ken has a question about far back in our past, and it has to do with, uh, one of your earlier works.

Ken Phillips: 12:32 

Oh yeah. I teach physics to, um, some students at USC. I always open my course, by screening Cosmic Africa, which I know you had a great deal to do.

Ann Druyan: 12:41 

Ahh, I was so happy, you know, about Cosmic...

Ken Phillips: 12:42 

I love that film and...

Ann Druyan: 12:42 

I love it too.

Ken Phillips: 12:46 

That's a story about how hard it is to go home. In other words, um, the, the, the star of that film left his African village, went, got an education, is an astrophysicist. And then basically asked the question, "Is there a place for science in Africa?" And "Is there a place for Africa in my science?" It's a question of, can we ever go home once we were enlightened about things that our religion didn't teach us. And I guess the deeper question is how do we reconcile that on our own lives? We each have our cultural narratives. Do we obliterate them? Is there any room for them as we move ahead and become more scientifically literate? How can those things coexist?

Ann Druyan: 13:25 

Well, I happen to believe that our home is the cosmos and, you know, it's not unusual in the history of our species for one of us to venture forth from our hometown to a big city or another place entirely. You know, we have been wanderers for the all of human history. And so where wanderers is still, can you go home again? You can take your home with you as I have in your heart and cherish, what was beautiful and reject what was not good. So you can go home, you can not go home. The important thing is what you carry within you, wherever you go. And it doesn't matter if you're at home or far away from home. If you have that as a constant North Star, there's no difference.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 14:28 

Uh, I want to turn to one of your other, uh, big past projects. You were the creative director for the so called golden record project that flew aboard the twin Voyager spacecraft. So, first of all, how did you come to be in charge of that project? Uh, and then how did you even begin to choose things to represent all of humanity on this record? It seems like such an overwhelming project.

Ann Druyan: 14:49 

The real reason is I am just about the luckiest person you're ever going to meet because, boy, was I at the right place at the right time if the right person. And so I, you know, it came about because I worked on a project for, uh, the Children's Television Workshop with Carl Sagan, uh, which was going to be at COSMOS for kids before there ever was COSMOS. And that was our first, uh, experience of working together. And Carl found it, um, you know, such a good experience that when he and Frank Drake and John Cassini of, uh, JPL of NASA, uh, were talking about the Voyager record Voyager message, interstellar message at the time. Uh, I was one of the people who Carl thought of as being a, kind of the kind of mind, I think that he thought would be a good fit for this project. So I was incredibly fortunate.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 15:58 

I just want to take something you said that you were in the right place at the right time. You felt very lucky. And can we rewind the clock a little bit more into maybe your childhood? Like, how did you first get interested in science, uh, in, in the first place, how did you end up as a super lucky person in the right place at the right time?

Ann Druyan: 16:18 

It was just, it was pure luck because, um, I had, I had weighed myself on Jupiter at the Hayden Planetarium, which even at six, whatever, was a kind of mind-blowing experience, because I suddenly realized even in that young mind that, that your weight was not a constant throughout the universe, that it was, it was determined by something beyond you. And that was the first, um, moment where I had this kind of joy of understanding something. And then now I got to look through a telescope at the rings of Saturn in Queens, uh, on 196th Street at a neighbor's telescope. And that was mind blowing, but I had a terrible trauma in junior high school, which completely derailed my mathematical and scientific career, but which was memorialized in the, in the novel Contact. And that is, I had a scientific experience over pi and, uh, raise my hand and said to Mrs. Ramirez, uh, my math teacher, are you telling me that the ratio of, uh, um, uh, uh,

Ken Phillips: 17:42 


Ann Druyan: 17:42 

The circumference of a circle to the radius is the same in every circle in the universe. And, um, and she looked at me and said, "Don't ask stupid questions."

Perry Roth-Johnson: 17:58 


Ann Druyan: 17:58 

Yeah. And I burst into tears as was my want in those days, if I was embarrassed, I was completely humiliated. The word stupid was a very, uh, it was a word we didn't use in my home. And I was utterly humiliated. Didn't want to go back to school. And from that moment on was the, uh, you know, did the minimum necessary to pass my science and mathematics courses—even had a kind of aversion to it. But in another great stroke of luck, I went to a little dinner party at Nora Ephron's apartment, 1974, and there was Carl Sagan. That was the beginning of a tutorial that lasted for 20 years from probably one of history's greatest teachers. And so, um, that's how I got here. Really. I'm not a scientist. I am a student of the history of science. I do my best to understand everything that we put into COSMOS and to make it understandable to people like me, but, um, no, just sheer, outrageous good fortune.

Ken Phillips: 19:19 

So, Ann, to pick up on Perry's question, what advice do you have for people who are interested in science and looking for ways to develop that interest, especially the ones who might find it intimidating or might not have had a great experience with it in school? What's your advice?

Ann Druyan: 19:35 

My advice is to watch COSMOS.

Ken Phillips: 19:40 

Good answer, great answer.

Ann Druyan: 19:43 

Yes, uh because I, you know, all seasons of COSMOS, um, you know, I've heard a lot of, I still get daily input about season one, which is 40 years old, and people are still watching it. And, uh, I get a lot of input about, uh, the other seasons those of which, and seasons three, which has been seen, uh, in many other places around the world. And nobody ever says, "I didn't understand. Could you please explain?" Never not once what they say is, you know, I hated science in school. God, if science had ever been taught the way COSMOS is presented in school, I would've become a scientist and that's because, you know, for an outsider like me, the understanding that we are a story driven species and that we love stories because they're the gateway into understanding and it's true in any human endeavor, science included. And so I like to say, you know, after I feel like I have a vast oceans of ignorance in mice, you know, in my scientific understanding. So, um, but it's still possible to be sufficiently scientifically literate so that you can have goosebumps when you think about the universe and nature, and that's possible for all of us and it informs everything else you do. And so, uh, you know, I would say for those of you who feel alienated from science, the way that I did, there are, there are now so many really thrilling books about science besides my own and including Carl's and the ones we wrote together. And I would point that person who feels that sense of alienation, but has curiosity to start with one of those. There'll be plenty. There are plenty of more to, uh, to hold her interest and to make you feel more at home in the cosmos.

Ken Phillips: 22:09 

So here's the question. Have you... You've done a lot of work with, with people and your outreach has just, it's just been stellar. Um, no pun intended. And I wonder if you have, um, if you found a method of really helping people reconcile after having first recognized the absolute grandeur of the physical universe at the same time, the insignificance of our tiny Earth and at the same time emphasizing the importance of our place in the cosmos and our duty to care for it.

Ann Druyan: 22:41 

What a deep question. Yes. I think of it this way. You know, the, the process of coming of age for each of us, every one of us is a dawning awareness that we are part of something much greater than ourselves, and that we are not the center of the universe as we believe we are in infancy and childhood. The process of maturity is beginning to accept that you are part of a greater fabric of space and time of life, of the four billion year history of life locally on Earth. And so, yes, science takes it the way it has robbed us of that infantile sense of centrality of our importance in the universe. When, when through the method of science we awakened to the larger universe, we had to accept the fact that we were not the sole focus of, of all the events that have unfolded over what we think is now 13.8 billion years. So science has robbed us of that delusion: we are God's only children, that we are the sum total and being the crown of creation. It's very unlikely when you look at the pale blue dot from out by Neptune, say, or you look at the star-choked images that the great space-based telescopes have enabled us to see, it's really hard to sustain that notion that we are it. And so, yes, science take it away. But what science has given us is immeasurably greater, because if you are to attain adulthood and to see clearly your true circumstances in life and in the universe, you realize as Carl famously said that our origins are not merely a few thousand years ago. We come from the hearts of distant stars, that we are star stuff, that we are made the atoms, everything, every part of us ultimately has its origin in the fiery explosions of distant stars. And that we're not just here a couple of thousand years, we—life—has been here so long that we are part, not the end product, but part of an ancient continuity that stretches back those four billion years, that the, the, the very solemn responsibility of protecting the life on this planet and the civilization that our ancestors suffered and worked so hard to build is at this moment, in our hands, it's up to us. We have to be the next link in that chain of generations. And if we want to look our children and our grandchildren in the eye, we can't leave them a world that is not nearly as habitable and beautiful as the one that we ourselves inherited from our, from our parents and grandparents. So, so I, for me, science affords me the greatest spiritual high of all, because instead of being just a collection of amazing facts, it's a way of looking back into the distant future, looking back across billions of years. And it's a way to look forward, to be a prophet, to prophesize what will happen in the distant future. Moreover, it's a way to take us to the stars, and you can't, you can't lie your way to Mars and beyond truthful, you can't get there. If any, one of the, you know, 10,000 people who touch a spacecraft mission, if one of them is really fudging things, there's a possibility that things can go horribly awry as it has actually happened in the history of exploration. And so what science and what our experience, our history and our understanding of what the future may hold is telling us is that even though science has known sin and scientists have misused science, of course they have—human beings misuse virtually everything—but it has redemptive powers. It has a way to help us create a future that is sustainable. We can still have it.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 28:05 

Our mission at the Science Center is to stimulate curiosity and inspire science learning in everyone, and, Ann listening to you. I really do feel inspired. You know, already as someone who is in science, but even more. And the other thing I detect is this vast hope in your voice and in your stories. And I think you've touched on it before, but just to kind of tie a bow on this since we're living in a truly unprecedented time in human history. Now, how do you remain hopeful, uh, particularly about the ability of science to keep our society moving forward?

Ann Druyan: 28:38 

Uh, well, my hope has taken quite a beating the last four years. I still feel it. I still feel it. And I believe in it because I come from people who, uh, were suffered greatly and who yet, uh, did not allow their suffering and the bad times to poison their beautiful personalities. And who were, you know, who had a kind of my grandmother, I think of all the time I had, she's just a tremendous optimism in the face of all the things she went through. And, uh, and my father also who, uh, just, it was luminous and he could go into a parking garage and look around and go, wow, because he was so excited about life and about everything. I mean, I was just, and so I guess it's just, it might be, it might be nature versus nurture, but it was, or both because I think my, my parents gave me a great excitement about the romance of life and about the romance of what we can accomplish. And they, he traveled a long path and, um, you know, really inspired me. So I am hopeful about the future. I'm hopeful because as I said, I feel like more women, more people of color, more people who had all those people who've been effectively excluded from these great, these great adventures of scientific discovery. Those walls have been torn down, not completely yet. There's a lot of tearing to do, but they're coming down. And so I do feel hopeful because look, when Carl Sagan was 11 years old, he was sitting in a little Brooklyn tenement that I visited much later and saw what it was like. He was lying on the rug and he was creating a recruiting poster for, uh, for the unfolding of interstellar flight. And he imagined all the headlines, the mastheads of the newspapers of that day 1944, something like that with the headlines coming out, we do this in COSMOS. We recreate dramatically recreate this. With the headlines of future exploration and how we would step forth into the galaxy, Russian and American cooperation. Dreams of headlines, Russians, and Americans land on Mars, things like that. Well, nothing had ever left the planet earth at that time, but that boy whose parents were paycheck to paycheck, impoverished, that boy, he became a leading participant in the first of humanity's interstellar missions. And so when you see a person who traveled from there to the stars and did it by dent of his hard work and his commitment to the future, it's inspiring. It makes me feel that we can do what we have to.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 32:20

Absolutely. Well, it's been such a pleasure talking with you Ann. Thank you for joining us on the show today.

Ann Druyan: 32:26 

It was my pleasure Perry. Ken, thank you so much. I wish the California Science Center every success, and I hope we'll meet again.

Ken Phillips: 32:36 

Thank you so much.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 32:38 

Thank you. That means a lot.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 32:40 

That's our show. And thanks for listening. Until next time, keep wondering.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 32:48 

Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Jennifer Castillo, Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nikolas and Pond5. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review or tell a friend about it. Now our doors may be closed, but our mission to inspire science learning in everyone continues. We're working hard to provide free educational resources online while maintaining essential operations like onsite animal care and preparing for our reopening to the public. Join our mission by making a gift at californiasciencecenter.org/support.