Science and inspiration

A talk with Ann Dryan Sagan, widow of the late American astronomer, Carl Sagan.

By Seth Rubinroit / Special to The Malibu Times

Last weekend, the Planetary Society, which promotes space exploration, held its 25th anniversary celebration and honored Malibu resident James Cameron and science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. Chairing the dinner was Ann Druyan Sagan, widow of the legendary Carl Sagan, one of the society’s founders. Reporter Seth Rubinroit conducted a question and answer session with Sagan, who collaborated with her late husband and is a noted scientist and author in her own right.

TMT: How did you first get started in science?

Sagan: “Well, I was actually interested in the history of science. I was fascinated by the idea of who were the first people who realized that things could be explained. …Think about it… human beings have been around for maybe 50,000 or 75,000 years, but it was only about 2,500 years ago that people began to realize that all of the phenomena-the weather, the air, life- everything could be studied and explained. That’s how I became interested in science.

TMT: What are your views on the controversy between Darwinism and Intelligent Design?

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Sagan: “It saddens me. I think it’s a great leap backwards. Really, a terrible leap backwards. We are fighting arguments that were fought and won in the 1920s, and the 1860s and the 1890s. The fact is, public science education is not what it should be. It’s bad enough already. The idea of taking material, which is simply not science, and imposing that on the little time we have to teach science, it’s really a step backwards.

“I have an open mind. I’m interested in any scientific argument that plays by the rules of science, but I don’t think that’s what Intelligent Design is. I think it’s wishful thinking. It’s a reaction that is part of the post-Copernican stress syndrome that our civilization is undergoing. It’s not over yet. Four hundred years later, we’re still suffering from the desire to be the center of the universe, and the purpose of the universe. The facts don’t seem to support that view.”

TMT: How can teachers promote a passion for science to their students?

Sagan: “That’s such a great question. I think on the first day of school, in preschool, the teachers should gather the children together and tell them, ‘I have an amazing secret to tell you.’ And begin to convey science not just as a collection of facts, which is kind of daunting, but instead convey science as a way at looking at absolutely everything.

“If we inducted children into the mysteries of looking at the universe and looking at everything in it a certain way, I think it would be much better and we would have many more scientists.”

TMT: Do you think it’s ethical to investigate outer space when we haven’t finished here?

Sagan: “I don’t think we’ll ever finish here, because I think the scale of nature means that we’re just beginning to know this planet. So much of this planet is still unknown to us in a certain way. Not in terms of just covering the globe, but really understanding the nature of life, and the nature and history of this world. But I think we’re learning. We’ve come so far. Look, we’ve only been at this in a systematic way for about 400 years, from Copernicus to now. It’s really a minute of time, and look how far we’ve come. We’ve sent our robot emissaries beyond the outer core of the solar system, to the sea of interstellar space. That’s so amazing. I have a lot of hope for our species.”

TMT: Do you think there’s life elsewhere in the universe?

Sagan: “Well, I think the number of worlds that we know exist, and the number of galaxies, makes it very hard for me to believe that this one little tiny planet, Earth, … is the only planet with life … But I very much believe that, without direct evidence, we have to withhold judgment and we can’t make that judgment until we have some real proof. Those are the very strict and wonderful rules of science that make it so powerful.”

TMT: How were you inspired by your late husband, Carl Sagan?

Sagan: “In every conceivable way a human being can be inspired. He was the coolest, greatest, most fascinating, most courageous, most honest, most authentic person I ever met in my whole life.

“Before I met Carl, I already was interested in the history of science and the pathway by which we got to this point intellectually. But Carl really opened up the gates of the universe to me. Try to imagine how thrilling it was to spend 20 years with the best teacher on earth. At any time of the night or day, to have a question, and Carl didn’t have the answer to all the questions, but he was willing to search for the answer with you. That search was one of the billions and billions of pleasures that we had together. Carl taught me that it matters what’s true, and that’s the heart of science.”

TMT: You were co-producers of the film “Contact.” How important is it for people to be able to visualize science?

Sagan: “It’s very important. One of the things about ‘Contact’ that I am most proud of is the first three minutes- at the opening of the film. When you see the message traveling across the universe, you begin to get some sense of the actual scale of the universe. Most of us don’t realize how vast the universe is.

“‘Contact’ made me realize that we have great computer graphics, all these special effects, and what do we use them for? Most movies and television programs that are using special effects are using them to blow something up. How many of them use that capability to convey the grandeur and the vastness and the mysterious beauty of the universe? Very few. So I’m really proud of the fact that ‘Contact’ did that.

“I’m really proud of the fact that so many people over the years have told me that it was ‘Contact’ that attracted them to science, or the Cosmos television series that we [Carl Sagan and I] also collaborated on that attracted them to science. It’s one of the most gratifying and wonderful things that a person can hear.”

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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