‘Cosmos’ co-creator Ann Druyan looks back in wonder on her odyssey
When Ann Druyan met her future husband, the late astronomer Carl Sagan, at a dinner party at Nora Ephron’s New York City home circa 1974, she knew little of his growing reputation as a scientist and author, only that, as Ephron had told her, he was a fascinating man.
“All I can remember,” the striking Druyan, who turns 65 this month, recalled recently at a SoHo hotel, “is Carl lying on Nora’s living room rug with his sleeves rolled up and his hands clasped under his head, and hearing this completely uninhibited laugh that was so free and so magnificent that I was instantly thinking, ‘OK, this guy is really interesting.’”
Over conversation about baseball and Leon Trotsky, the two formed a platonic friendship that would eventually blossom into a romantic and intellectual partnership. Their two decades together yielded a pair of children, several books and the groundbreaking 1980 PBS television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” A rebooted version of that program, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson with Druyan as co-writer, executive producer and co-director, ends its 13-episode run Sunday on Fox.
For Druyan, a career as a popular science communicator was hardly a foregone conclusion. Like her late husband, she’s a native of outer borough New York City, having grown up in Hollis, Queens. (When it’s noted that Run-DMC also hails from the neighborhood, Druyan thrusts a clenched fist in the air and proudly exclaims, “Represent!”) An early zeal for math and science was squelched by a middle school teacher who scolded the young Druyan for asking whether the value of pi was the same for every circle in the universe. (A version of Druyan’s own “rosebud” moment was immortalized in Sagan’s novel, “Contact.”)
Never a particularly disciplined student, Druyan dropped out of New York University amid the distractions of the late ‘60s, but her politics led to an interest in the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece — as she put it, “The first people who were true materialists, who didn’t explain the phenomenon of nature by saying, ‘God did it’” — and the history of scientific thought.
After their first meeting, Druyan and Sagan collaborated for several years on an educational television series, sort of a “Cosmos” for kids, that never came to fruition. When that fizzled, Sagan asked her to be creative director of the Voyager Golden Record, a collection of images, music and sounds included on the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes and intended as a message from the inhabitants of planet Earth.
Launched in 1977, the spacecrafts are now about 11.8 and 9.7 billion miles from Earth, respectively — as are, presumably, the Golden Records, which contain greetings in 55 languages and music ranging from Peruvian pan pipes to Chuck Berry. (Alas, the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” was too expensive to license, and if Druyan could add any song, it would be Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.”)
The project was a “mythic experience” for Druyan. “We were so honored to have this privilege to be sending this message to a thousand million years from now, a quarter of the way around the galaxy. We all looked upon it as something very sacred, creating this Noah’s ark of human culture on the most distant objects ever touched by human hands.”
During this period, she and Sagan, who was then married to his second wife, also realized they were “madly in love.” Reluctant to jeopardize the mission, the pair waited until Voyager 1 had successfully launched before breaking the news to their significant others.
The couple continued to collaborate professionally for the next two decades, first on the Emmy-winning “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” a hit that weaved together science, history and philosophy to dazzling effect. Druyan and Sagan also partnered on numerous bestselling books, including “The Demon-Haunted World,” “Comet” and “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” and conceived the story that would eventually become the novel and film “Contact.”
Working together, according to Druyan, “was one of our infinite number of different ways of making love,” and it was through her marriage to a man she calls “the greatest teacher of the 20th century” that Druyan rediscovered her passion for science.
“It had what I’d been craving all my life,” she said, " which was a mechanism for finding out what’s real.”
But their love story came to an end in December 1996, when Sagan, just 62, died after a long battle with the bone marrow disease myelodysplasia (during which time he underwent three bone marrow transplants and still managed to write two books). The grief, Druyan said, “was unbearable for a long time.”
The mission to revive “Cosmos” for a new generation began in earnest about seven years ago, a time when, according to Druyan, “public hostility towards science was really naked.”
Like the original series, which included dire warnings about nuclear holocaust and environmental pollution, the new “Cosmos” has repeatedly sounded the alarm about climate change and presented evolution as simple fact. And in the Kardashian era, the series also lionizes figures such as Michael Faraday, the British scientist who overcame the brutal 19th century class system to make essential discoveries about electricity.
“People wonder why their kids don’t want to be scientists and engineers,” Druyan said, her gentle voice growing insistent. “Where are those heroes? It’s not something that’s in our consciousness. It’s all about people who are consumers, who are famous for shopping.”
Druyan, who still lives in the Ithaca, N.Y., home she shared with Sagan, spent most of the past two years in a Los Angeles hotel as she oversaw the series through the final stages of post-production. She insisted on creative control.
“I used to sit out on the balcony at night,” she recalled. “You could see maybe four stars and I would sit there in wonderment and think, ‘I am really doing this.’”
Her “Cosmos” partners are somewhat less surprised. “She is one of the most enlightened people I have ever known,” said Tyson. “Every time I have a conversation with her, there’s a new place that I’m standing compared to where I was before I started.”
Despite ecstatic reviews, “Cosmos” has generated a relatively modest audience of about 4 million viewers in a tough Sunday time slot opposite “Game of Thrones.” (“I mean, I am torn about that,” Druyan joked.) It has, however, performed well with the notoriously difficult-to-reach young male cohort. Whatever the numbers, she is “delirious” with the response to “Cosmos” — and believes her late husband would be too.
“I think he would be thrilled. My children and my friends who knew and loved him have said to me countless times, ‘Daddy would be so proud.’”
‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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