October 1, 2007

Sagan, Dalai Lama Bridged Deep Intellectual Divide

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This past Friday, Ann Druyan, wife of the late Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan and an accomplished writer, producer and science publicist in her own right, spoke to a small audience in Annabel Taylor Auditorium. Her talk touched on several topics, ranging from the interplay between science and religion to the fate of the 1977 Voyager spacecrafts, but focused around a central theme: Sagan’s visits with the Dalai Lama in 1991.
Druyan’s talk was part of a series of events commemorating the Dalai Lama’s current visit to Cornell, which will culminate in a series of talks by the Buddhist leader on Oct. 6 and 8.
The highlight of the talk was the first public release of footage of a conversation between Carl Sagan and the Dalai Lama on the latter’s last visit to Ithaca in early 1991. While the movie’s audio, projected by a microphone held next to a laptop, was sometimes difficult to make out, and the picture quality was dulled by ambient light in the auditorium, the ideas exchanged between Sagan and the Dalai Lama were full of depth and clarity.
After a series of conversations in 1991, Sagan and the Dalai Lama were astonished and excited by how much they agreed, Druyan said. When Sagan asked what would happen if a new scientific discovery directly contradicted a religious doctrine, the Dalai Lama responded, “Even the Buddha said we should question his teachings. A scientifically minded Buddhist does not consider Buddhism a religion. It is a science of mind, an inner science.”
He said that an important aspect of Buddhism is an inner and outer examination of the world, and “only if through investigation things become clear, then it is time to accept and believe.” To which Sagan exclaimed, “That’s a lot like science!”
Druyan said that the Dalai Lama was so impressed with Sagan that he invited his entire family, including his two young children, to visit him in what was then New Delhi later that year.
“It was fantastic for me to see the connectedness, the connection between these two souls, these great minds,” she said.
At the time, Druyan said, they had talked excitedly about making a documentary by taking Sagan and the Dalai Lama to beautiful locations around the world and just letting them talk. But there was no interest in that kind of thing in 1992.
“It’s a shame — we had two of the best representatives, the biggest hearts of both groups, science and religion,” she said. “Science has the cold facts, but lacks religion’s social organization and ability to inspire that moves people to act.”
Druyan also spoke with concern about the current state of public interest and education in the United States, especially as it compares to 30 or 40 years ago. Sagan began his lifelong campaign of popularizing science in the 1970s, appearing on shows like the Johnny Carson Show and The Tonight Show and, in collaboration with Druyan, co-writing, producing and hosting the now-famous PBS TV series Cosmos.
“He believed that science was a kind of birthright for everyone,” Druyan said. “You couldn’t have a democratic society if you had a small elite population who understood science and a majority who were uncomfortable with it.”
This was another point on which Sagan and the Dalai Lama agreed: They both thought that “the greatest possible antidote to the inevitable misuse of science is an informed public. That’s our only hope,” Druayn said.
However, Sagan’s popularization of science came at great professional risk, Druyan pointed out.
“Other scientists were horrified that a reputable scientist would bother [with bringing science to the public],” she said.
This insular attitude among scientists has not improved with time, she continued, and meanwhile, “we’ve taken a leap backwards, spiritually.” Since the lunar landing in 1969, the American public’s attitude towards science has shifted from one of excitement and interest to one of wariness and mistrust. She compared this trend with a toddler who, having taken a few steps away from his mother to explore the outside world, comes rushing back to cling to her knees in safety.
Druyan stressed the need for new leaders to popularize science. “We don’t have a Carl Sagan right now!” she said. “We don’t have that kind of passionate leadership, so informed that he can’t get thrown off track, but also so ethical and concerned about the state of the planet; versed in the arts and sciences, but also willing to get into any kind of trouble for the sake of the human future.”