Soundbites from a wonderful and inspiring conversation between Professor Brian Cox and prolific science communicator Ann Druyan on the cosmos and the role of science in the continuity of life
What is any philosophy that is not rooted in nature? What meaning can it have if it is not rooted in the whole fabric of existence?
On 23rd February, the British Library hosted a conversation between physicist Professor Brian Cox and Ann Druyan, a prolific science communicator who was co-writer with Carl Sagan of the 1980 book Cosmos and original screenplay for the 1987 film Contact, creative director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Messenger project, and author of Cosmos: Possible Worlds (links at the end). It was one of the most beautiful and inspiring conversations about science I have had the luck to experience. Some soundbites are reproduced here, with edits for brevity given it was a live unscripted conversation, so not verbatim. And alas it does not convey the passion, enthusiasm and joy expressed throughout. It really was a joy to watch.
Brian: When writing Cosmos, how important was the polemical element, that warning against the possibility that we might destroy ourselves (for example through nuclear war)?
Ann: Very important to me. Because what is any philosophy that is not rooted in nature? What meaning can it have if it is not rooted in the whole fabric of existence? …We wanted it to be comprehensive, [to be about] the continuity of life.
B: You and Carl write about the need for, in a democracy, people to at least have a basic grounding in science and the way that science forces you to think. Do you think that we’ve made progress since the 1970s forwards, or indeed backwards?
It seems to me that there is something of a correlation between that rejection of scientific thinking and a kind of reactionary political behaviour…
A: I think in some ways we have and in some ways we have declined. The fact that we are communicating with each other, and with so many people around the world at this moment, at the speed of light, is a power that we can use to awaken as many people as possible to our responsibilities. What we have to do, how we have to change… I think more people recognise that today than ever before… [but] …In the United States, we are coming out of a period of several years of real warfare against science, contempt for science, and a kind of flight from reality generally. It seems to me that there is something of a correlation, I don’t know scientifically but it just feels that way, between that rejection of scientific thinking and a kind of reactionary political behaviour… We need to start thinking in the timescales of science, rather than the timescales of any of the economic ideologies on Earth…
B: …you worked on the famous Golden Record (phonographs containing sounds and images about Earth that were attached to the Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977)… in some sense it is a gesture of hope, sending these spacecraft into space, that we are still in contact with… that the tape recorders are still working is a remarkable piece of technology …
A: … and they are travelling in opposite directions! Mid-70s technology, that was expected to work for maybe a dozen years max. Working flawlessly 43 years later. It’s magnificent!
B: A great question from Emily, who is 9 years old. She asks, if we were to create new golden disks, and attach them to new interstellar probes, in what direction should we send them to give us the best chance of a response? (what a fabulous question from a 9-year-old!)
A: What a great question and it is a question that I have never been asked before in all of the 43 years I have been asked questions about this project! …I would send them in every single, conceivable, direction because in the cosmos there is no up or down, no right or left, and so I would send them in all directions… we have explored such a tiny teeny part of the cosmos.
B: that idea that we would like to search the universe for others, they are great acts of optimism. I suppose, for me, they are crystallised in Contact (the film)… that idea that there are people out there we want to know. Can you talk a little about the film and its philosophy?
We felt that so much of the depiction of extraterrestrials is a projection of our own fears, [that] extraterrestrials will treat us the way we treat those who we have power over.
A: We begin writing Contact in 1979 after we finished writing Cosmos. At that time, it was very fashionable to say ‘well if women are as smart as men, where are the Leonardos?’ And I took this very personally, actually. We decided we wanted to create an adventure, a story, where a woman is the intellectual hero of the piece. She goes on this great journey and the men stay home. That was the original impulse. It was very unusual to depict a scientist as being female at the time. …Also, we were disappointed in the depiction of extraterrestrials. To us, they were beautiful until proven ugly. And we also felt that so much of the depiction of extraterrestrials is transparently a projection of our own fears and our own self-hatred. And our own guilt for the way we treat each other and the way we treat other living things. We are afraid the extraterrestrials with the greater capacities will treat us the way we treat those who we have power over. And so we wanted to give some inkling of the possibility of making contact. But of it being only the tip of the iceberg, that first baby step. Not necessarily to understand all of the secrets of the universe. Maybe those extraterrestrials with whom we make contact would be in some intermediate position where there would be questions that they had that they had yet to answer. Which seems to me a much more realistic proposition. And so that was the inspiration for it. …the dream was to engage people in the romance of discovery, the romance of science.
B: A question from Alexander that is sort of related… ‘Do you have a response ready in case anyone replies to the record?’
I would ask [an E.T.] ‘How did you survive your technological adolescence?’ Because we need that information urgently.
A: First of all, very happy to meet you! And second, how did you survive your technological adolescence? Because we need that information urgently. I think we are in our technological adolescence… I know when I was an adolescent I was a total mess. And I don’t think anyone looking at me at the time would have expected that my life would unfold as it has. And I think that is true of a lot of us. Adolescence is a stormy, sometimes destructive, very often careless and thoughtless time. But for those of us lucky enough to make it to some level of maturity, things change. And I think that’s where we are. We have this kind of post-agricultural stress syndrome of the past 10 or 12 thousand years where we are learning to live in a completely different way than we lived for most of human and pre-human history. And we haven’t really quite ironed out all of the problems about that. So if I met an extraterrestrial I would be like, ‘tell us, what is the key to surviving this tempestuous phase’.
B: Going back to Contact, I found it a fascinating and beautiful film. It is a beautiful depiction of a scientist falling in love with the universe. But it is left ambiguous about whether or not the contact with aliens was all in her mind.
Humility and methodology are the great strengths of science. … How can you tell what is real and what is probably not real? These are the tools we need at the earliest age for critical thinking in any society that aspires to be a democracy.
A: My favourite science fiction film is 2001 (A Space Odyssey). I still marvel at how brilliant and how much more modern it seems than virtually all the movies made since. And part of its power is the ambiguity. It gives the mind something to chew on, something to think about. …there is enough information on both sides of the argument… that’s the humility of science. That we might be wrong. We don’t know. That idea that, ‘let’s give the best prize to the person who proves us wrong’. And let’s not ever hurt or kill anybody because we disagree with them over the nature of anything. These are the great strengths of science. It’s humility and the methodology of science. Let everyone do this experiment, and keep doing it. And when somebody gets other results, let’s hear about them. Because we want to know. We don’t want to be jollied along in our delusions. We want to know what’s really there.
B: It reminds me of Richard Feynman’s essay ‘The Value of Science’ in I think 1955, in which he says that the most valuable thing about science is that it is a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance. I love that phrase! …It’s interesting to me that Feynman, and actually Oppenheimer as well. They wrote similar things at the same time. Had both come from the Manhattan project. And had both seen the power that science hands to politicians. And both felt in part that science should be popularised. How science can help us think.
A: Yes. And that is my dream of public education, from nursery. The beginning of a kind of exposure to that way of thinking. That way of figuring out how do you know you are being lied to. How you can tell what is real and what is probably not real. These are the tools that we need at the earliest age for critical thinking. To be good citizens in any society that aspires to be a democracy… And I wish that it was emphasised from day one.
B: A question from Elsie, who is also 9 years old. Who has asked, ‘do you think there are any other living things out there?’ And perhaps you can follow that through, are they in the solar system, are they microbes, civilisations.
A: Well the answer to that is, as of now, we don’t know! We think there is a very vast huge big large universe beyond imagining. And the possibilities seem just as vast. There could be life in our solar system. Because we haven’t even begun that careful study of the planets and moons of our solar system, let alone the worlds of the say 200 billion other stars of the milky way, let alone the study of the billion other galaxies or more… we don’t know! Elsie, you could be the one who finds that life, if it exists, on one of those other worlds! That’s the great joy. That we have so many questions. And we have so few answers. We are just beginning to find our way.
Think about all of the generations of people with implacable curiosity… that took us from a complete lack of understanding of what a virus is to, within a couple of hundred years, designing a foe for it, to being able to protect ourselves.
… I have to interject. I got my first dose of Covid vaccine on February 1st. And afterwards I found myself sitting down, thinking about how many generations of people with implacable curiosity, willing not for money, not for anything but the joy of understanding the cause, and the reality, and it was because of all of them up to today that we could conceivably vanquish an invisible killer that has brought our civilisation to its knees. That is the power of science. To go from a complete lack of understanding of a virus is, and not have any knowledge of it, its existence, in a couple of hundred of years, to the point where we can design a foe for this virus, to be able to actually protect ourselves. That’s science. Go to Mars, that’s science. You can’t lie your way to Mars. …the precision it takes to send the Voyagers out beyond the reach of the Solar Wind, to communicate with them flawlessly for 43 years! You can’t fudge the data to do that. That is a kind of precision of truthfulness and accuracy that makes me feel that we can get out of the nightmare that we have created for ourselves, that we are smart enough. Are we healthy and strong enough to have the resolve to do it?
B: A question from Lynn… ‘what is the reality of us living on another planet and what benefits do you think we might get from exploring other worlds and living on them?’ Because it can be controversial to spend money on such endeavours… But specifically Mars, which is in the news right now (Mars rover Perseverance landed on Mars on February 18, 2021).
I don’t think we should be allowed to go to other worlds, as settlers, until we get our act together here. To explore them, absolutely. …[but] I think we have to clean up our nest in the next few decades.
A: Think of Michael Faraday, working at the Royal Institution, and doing his experiments with the most basic things. Not knowing the path even. Only understanding it in verbal language really as opposed to the mathematics. And the fact that what we are doing right now, in our ability to communicate with one another instantaneously at this moment, is an outgrowth of both Faraday and Maxwell’s equations. They didn’t know what they were creating. Just as we don’t know what the end product of exploring Mars is. I have a slightly controversial view about actually sending humans to Mars. That is that I don’t think we should be allowed to go to other worlds, as settlers, until we get our act together here. I think we can send our robots to explore, I think we should do as much exploration as possible. But as settlers, as colonists, I think no. I think we have to grow up quite a bit before we should be allowed to settle on other worlds. But to explore them, absolutely.
B: If you watch Elon Musk for example (who is planning to get people on Mars). He’s in a rush, and he’s been quite explicit about it. That at the moment we have all our eggs in one basket. He posed the question recently. ‘How many civilisations were out there, do you think, that never left their home world?’ He feels the imperative, that we need to spread out in order to survive. And ultimately that we need to do it in the next few decades.
A: Well no, I think we have to clean up our nest in the next few decades. Because there’s no real practical plan for us to migrate in great enough numbers to other worlds in the next few decades. And that coincides with what many scientists believe is as much time as we have before some of the greater consequences of climate change will become not so easy to reverse. And so, I don’t see it that way. I also think that its like saying… I mean, perhaps there are civilisations that never left their home worlds and perished. And, the dinosaurs for instance. Maybe, for some, it was better they stayed at home! You know. I’m not sure that it’s always in the best interest of the universe, or anyone, to go wandering. I’m not in a big hurry about that. I am in a big hurry to see us take care of this planet.
B: An interesting question from Olyiana, 16 years old… consciousness. She asks ‘do you think by studying theoretical physics, we can change our relationship with consciousness.?’
We are becoming increasingly respectful of other forms of consciousness in life other than human consciousness…
A: Well Brian, you would be better equipped to answer the theoretical physics of the question. But to me, consciousness is not a mystery. I believe that even single-cell organisms, the most basic units of life, have consciousness in that they know, ‘you I eat, me I don’t’. I think that’s a level of consciousness and I think there is no unbridgeable gap between that and us. What builds on that is just variations of degree. If you look at very early life in the oceans, you begin to see the kinds of transmitters that we have in our own brains. To me, it’s all on that same continuum. It is part of life. In my experience, what has been happening during my own 71 years of life, is that we are becoming increasingly respectful of other forms of consciousness in life, other than human consciousness. We begin to understand something of the great intricacy and nuance of the chemical forms of expression in trees and other plants. We begin to see the complexity of the lives of bees and their symbolic communication in the waggle dance. There is so much more going on all around us than we realised for our most recent history. It’s only in the last 150 years that we began to study with any degree of consciousness what’s going on beneath our feet in the mycelium network that is a collaboration of four different kingdoms of life. And so, that’s the great adventure of science. The slow dawning but consistent awakening to other forms of consciousness. But Brian, you answer about theoretical physics and consciousness!
B: It reminds me of a conversation I had with physicist Frank Wilczek. …I asked him, what is the most surprising thing that you have discovered or come across in physics. And he said, ‘that I have emerged from the particles and the forces. That to me is the most surprising thing. That even though I know about the particles and forces, and I know about me, I can’t honestly say that I know what the relationship is between how I perceive the world and all those little things that are interacting together.’
A: I would love to continue that conversation with both of you! Because that’s it. As Carl said in the first Cosmos, that he was arrangement of these many atoms called Carl Sagan. You are also an arrangement of atoms called something else. And I think knowing that doesn’t make life, or any of us, any less wondrous or exciting or romantic. Just the idea that colour itself is a kind of vibration that we are seeing. To me, that makes it even cooler!
B: Absolutely, that idea that knowledge can somehow take the mystery away. I always remember something beautiful that Carl wrote about seeing the points of light in the sky and somebody saying to him, ‘they are suns’.
A: Yes, that’s Carl Sagan! 7 years old in Brooklyn, never met a scientist. Asking everyone he knew. His parents told me this story too! It was kind of a family lore. He would go around saying ‘what are those lights in the sky?’. And finally, his mother took him by the hand to the Brooklyn public library. And he got a book. And discovered that they were stars. They were suns but very far away. And I think of that trip to the public library, and the trajectory of Carl’s life. And then the trajectories of all the people whose lives he touched… all the interests in science that he ignited. And I think how wondrous it is, a mother taking her small son by the hand and launching him on that great voyage.
B: Yes it’s the small tiny things that can change the world. We’re almost out of time, but Catherine has asked a great question, ‘what do you think can be the role of scientists in returning trust in science to politicians and also to the wider population.’ Just to add some context, I know that Carl wrote about that it was frowned upon how he communicated science.
There is a hope for us, for our future, because science is about reason, not what you want to believe, not what you are afraid to see, and not in absolute truth ever. Maybe sometimes it’s just a little tiny piece of truth. But it’s the most precious thing as Einstein said. And it belongs to every single one of us.
A: He was blackballed by the National Academy of Sciences! I think about this all the time. What can scientists do? They can cheer on the Brian Coxes of the world. And love them that much more for being a bridge to the wider public. Go to kindergartens and the early grades and teach in these classrooms. Turn these children into little whirling solar systems, give them a visceral exciting thrilling personal sense of what we are part of. I really feel that the values of science are so exemplary. …I’m not saying that all scientists ever live up to these values. But to the extent that people are true to these values. There is a hope for us, for our future, because it’s about reason, and not what you want to believe, and not what you are afraid to see, and not in absolute truth ever. Maybe sometimes it’s just a little tiny piece of truth. But it’s the most precious thing, as Einstein said. And it belongs to every single one of us. It’s a birthright. And in the 21st century, we have to make sure that all of our children not only have enough to eat, and shelter, and potable water. But an exposure to this birthright which will only empower them to recognise the exquisite preciousness of the continuity of life on this little tiny world.
B: We have run out of time and I cannot imagine finishing on a more inspirational note than that.
Closing note: It really was a wonderful talk and I have only captured only a fraction of it here, to remind myself of the context behind some of the quotes I tweeted live during the event. The ticket cost for this event was just £5, to support the British Library. Anyone can sign up for and attend these events which, even in non-Covid times, are often both streamed online as well as attended in person. You can find out more at the British Library web site – https://www.bl.uk/events.
References and further reading
- Ann Druyan entry on Wikipedia
- Brian Cox entry on Wikipedia
- NASA Voyager Interstellar Messenger project (Voyager Golden Record)
- Cosmos: Possible Worlds
- Contact (1997 film)
- Mars rover Perseverance mission site (NASA)
- Mycelium on Wikipedia
- Frank Wilczek entry on Wikipedia
- Carl Sagan entry on Wikipedia
- British Library Events
Header image: webinar advert.