In a “Cosmic Conversation” for the virtual 2021 Cornell Reunion, Emmy Award winning writer, director and producer Ann Druyan discussed the relationship between storytelling and science with the directors of Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute.
The event took place on Thursday, kicking off the Reunion weekend which ran from June 10 to June 13. It headed up various workshops, virtual tours, happy hours, greek life reunions and department specific reunions across 18 graduating classes. Thousands of alumni tuned in to watch the conversation and ask questions of their own.
Druyan explained that she is “not a scientist but a hunter-gatherer of stories.” Druyan has devoted her career to making science accessible to all along with her late husband and famed Cornell professor Carl Sagan, . She is best known for co-writing the 1980 documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey with Sagan and Steven Soter Ph.D ’71.
The director of the CSI, Prof. Lisa Kaltenegger, astronomy, asked Druyan for effective ways to communicate scientific principles.
“When you talk to people about the things that mean the most to you, you can be most persuasive,” Druyan said. “That’s my philosophy of science communication: speak from the heart with conviction, and be open to find out that you’re wrong.”
Druyan later shared anecdotes about Sagan, including his love for basketball and the time she and Sagan were arrested at a Nevada nuclear test site while protesting for nuclear disarmament during the Reagan era.
Druyan also recounted Sagan’s time as a Cornell professor, expressing particular enjoyment for Sagan’s critical thinking courses, which he would teach in his living room with a small group of students. She appreciated that those courses asked students to question everything they were taught.
“That’s where the greatest skepticism is absolutely critical,” Druyan said. “It has to be in those ideas that you love the most. You have to be willing to look at them unflinchingly, and maybe be willing to give them up if they are proved not to be true.”
The conversation turned to Sagan’s ability to see the connection between understanding other planets in the solar system and understanding Earth.
“He could be looking at Venus, he could be looking at our solar system or other galaxies,” Druyan said, “but he was always thinking about us, and about the implications for this planet.”
Following the conversation with Kaltenegger, the CSI’s deputy director, Prof. Nikole Lewis, astronomy, asked Druyan questions from the viewers. One participant asked what drew Sagan to live and work in Cornell and Ithaca for so many years.
Druyan shared that when Sagan accepted an invitation from Prof. Thomas Gold, astronomy invitation to visit Ithaca, he experienced an epiphany at upper Enfield.
“Carl always said that it was something he felt in that moment at upper Enfield, and he turned to Tommy and he said, ‘Okay, I’m coming.’ And he never regretted it,” Druyan said. “He loved Cornell; he loved Ithaca.”
While talking about her passion for science communication, Druyan cited a quote from Albert Einstein: “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 people.”
Druyan explained that her work is driven by that mission. “[Science has] made me feel a part of an ancient four billion year continuity of life,” she said. “It has made me feel my responsibility to be mindful and to act assertively to protect this beautiful planet.”