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Q&A with Sasha Sagan and Ann Druyan

Ann Druyan answers a question while her daughter Sasha Sagan listens during the Q&A session following their respective speeches on Nov. 21, 2021 in Boston. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert (center) poses with Ann Druyan and Sasha Sagan. (Photo by Chris Line)
Ann Druyan gestures as Sasha Sagan listens during the Q&A session following their speeches. (Photo by Chris Line)
FFRF members give a standing ovation to Ann Druyan and Sasha Sagan following their Q&A session. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Sasha Sagan and Ann Druyan answered FFRF members’ questions following their respective speeches on Nov. 21, 2021, at FFRF’s national convention in Boston. Here is an edited version of that Q&A session. To watch the video, go to: ffrf.us/speeches-2021.

Richard Halasz (Texas): My question is for Ann, who I’m guessing had a very hands-on editing relationship with one of my top 10 books, The Demon-Haunted World. I remember seeing Carl Sagan on “The Tonight Show” many years ago. Then, a few years ago, I read that after Carl would appear on the show, he would go to Johnny Carson’s house for dinner afterward. And since Johnny was an amateur astronomer, my speculation runs that after dinner they would fire up a joint and look through the telescope at the billions and billions of stars.

Did that happen?

Ann Druyan: Actually, the dinner happened, and it was wonderful, but not the firing up of the joints. We never smoked with Johnny, but I would love to tell a very quick Johnny Carson story. 

There was a high school teacher in Iowa who had a dream that every kid who graduated from public high school in Iowa would get a chance to look through a telescope. After Carl died, this teacher called me and he told me that Johnny had given 300 Celestron telescopes to the Iowa public school system. He didn’t want anyone to know it was from him, and each one had a little brass plaque on it that said, “From a friend of Carl’s.” 

Isn’t that wonderful? He was very passionate about astronomy and very curious. My recollection of our conversations, the ones I was lucky enough to be present at, was he would pepper Carl with wonderful questions about the universe. They were very stimulating conversations and hilarious, even though we never really got to light one up with him.

. . . 

Jessica Ramsaran (Virginia): Our physics class was watching “Cosmos” and the quote “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe,” blew our minds. That night, I made four apple pies from scratch. Your father passed away, so the next morning turned into a memorial instead of a worship for your father. 

I want to know what scientist quote brought you to love science. Is there a quote out there for either of you that just kind of blew your mind in the scientific world, in books or in writings or in just scientific research?

Sasha Sagan: Wow. That’s amazing story about the apple pie. Thank you for sharing that. The quote that jumps to my mind immediately is, I’m paraphrasing, but it’s something like “I’m a very religious nonbeliever. It’s a somewhat new kind of religion.” Albert Einstein. The concept of the paradox of a very religious nonbeliever, although I don’t think it’s necessarily so new. I actually think it’s arguably the most traditional, most ancient way of seeing things. But that is something that comes to mind immediately.

Ann Druyan: I’m a tremendous fan of Charles Darwin. I’m kind of in love with him. I also love Michael Faraday, who was a fundamentalist Christian. He was so much of a fundamentalist Christian, that, in fact, at the end of his life, when he was asked if he wanted to be buried with Isaac Newton in Canterbury Cathedral, he said no. He wanted to be buried in a Sandemanian sect cemetery next to his beloved wife, Sarah. His laboratory partner at the Royal Institution was one of the great atheists of the time, another scientist named John Tyndall, and they worked side by side in very close quarters for decades, with a kind of tremendous mutual admiration.

Tyndall was publishing what was, for the time, almost inflammatory indictments of religion and of a belief in the gods of the Old and New Testaments. And yet they have this deep affection for each other. And, of course, without Faraday, who couldn’t do the math — just like me — it wasn’t until James Clerk Maxwell came along and translated Faraday’s brilliant insights about light and magnetism and the fields that surround us that were invisible, and no one had realized existed until Faraday revealed them.

It’s just without Faraday, there would be no electronic media. And yet, here was this man from another world, really with a belief system completely different and almost antithetical to science and yet so beloved and so humble. Without him, the dynamo, the motor, the basis of the Industrial Revolution, never would have happened. And yet this was a man who didn’t want a single patent on anything because understanding a single cause of how nature worked was the greatest reward of all.

. . .
   Woody Kaplan (Massachusetts): Sasha, I want to know what you’re going to do in the future. What are you doing now and what are you going to do?

Sasha Sagan: Well, I would say this is the main immediate project is right here [points to pregnant belly], but there are a few things I have cooking that I would like to get a little further down the road before I talk about them. But I will say this one thing — I really do dream of someday  writing a children’s book about how to teach children to question and how children can learn to try to understand what’s true when someone tells you something. How do you parse out whether it’s supported by evidence or not? So, maybe someday I will get around to writing a really subversive children’s book that no parent will want.

. . .

Eva Quinones (Puerto Rico): Everybody knows that the movie “Contact” was filmed at least partially in Puerto Rico, at the radio telescope at Arecibo. Did any of you ever go to the radio telescope during the filming or afterwards?

Ann Druyan: Sadly, no. Carl and I wrote treatment for “Contact” in 1981, and we were motivated by the fact that, at that time, there was a kind of snarky comment in the culture which was widely heard, which was, “Oh, if women are so smart, where are the female Da Vincis and the female Einsteins?” Carl and I were inspired originally by the story of Hypatia and her murder at the hands of a mob of fanatical Christians. We were inspired to tell the story of a female scientist who got to go on the great odyssey while everyone else stayed home.

And it took 16 years to actually make it into a motion picture, with three directors and three different movie studios. Tragically, by the time it actually was becoming a motion picture, Carl was already ill. While we spent time with director Bob Zemeckis and the principal actors, it really was in the last months of Carl’s life, and we were much more taken up with Carl’s illness than we were with the actual production. So, we didn’t get to go to Arecibo. And I’m sorry to say I haven’t been there since.

Puerto Rico, generally, is a place that really deserves our attention and support. And in the last year, of course, as you all know, the majestic Arecibo Observatory sustained a fatal blow and is, tragically, no longer functioning. I would love to see our country step up for a part of itself, which is Puerto Rico, and support that community, as well as bringing the magnificent Arecibo Telescope, one of the most beautiful sculptural creations on Earth, back to life.

. . .

Richard Hogaboom (Massachusetts): Perhaps you could provide high quality frameable photos of that Voyager photo of the “Pale Blue Dot” along with Carl’s lengthy quote and then do signatures on that. I would value that even more than an autograph book. (See sidebar on next page.)

Ann Druyan: Thank you. Yes. What’s amazing to me about “Pale Blue Dot” is that it has touched the hearts of people all over. All of us recognize the truth of it. 

If it wasn’t for Carl, Voyager 1 would never have taken that picture. He lobbied NASA, starting in 1981 and then finally culminating with the actual taking of the picture in the early 1990s on Valentine’s Day. He kept going to NASA headquarters, and they would say, “What’s the scientific value of this picture? If we turn the camera back to Earth, the lens will possibly be fried by the sun.” They just couldn’t understand the value of this picture. And, of course, it was the last of the tens of thousands of pictures that Voyager was taking, having given us with its partner, Voyager 2, our first close-up look at the world of the outer solar system. 

That was a mere 20 years after Sputnik, so, in 20 years, we went from launching a bowling ball into Earth’s orbit to building two interstellar craft, launched in 1977, moving at 40,000 miles an hour every single hour since, and yet still functioning, 45 years later, meant to work only for 12 years and showing us not only the outer solar system for the first time, but the shape of the solar system as it moves through the galaxy. We still talk to these two Voyagers, which were built with less computing power than what you all have in your phones.

Just think of it with early 1970s technology, and yet it’s still only 21 light hours and 30 light minutes from here — not even a light day from Earth. That’s how big the universe is. Think of it. All of that hard traveling and still not at all far from home. 

So, when I think of the Voyagers, I think of what an occasion for human self-esteem. We can do these very hard things. And if we can do those hard things, those mythic things of stepping on the moon and going to the stars, we can make this planet worthy of Sasha’s future child.

. . .

Sohan D’Souza (Massachusetts): There has been talk recently and discoveries made about potential life on Venus, which Carl speculated about. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about it and what he might have thought about our discoveries of late, and maybe what you would have thought about those and possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system.

Ann Druyan: Thank you so much for this very stimulating question. Well, I think he would have been just like hopping up and down with excitement about the James Webb Space Telescope, which will see so much farther than we have ever seen before. It’s an order of magnitude better, if it succeeds. Of course, it’s such a delicate and immense challenge. So many things could go wrong. But if it works, once it deploys, it will open up our eyes and enable us to see so much farther in space, but also so much farther back in time than we’ve ever seen before. It is a mythic achievement. Carl would have just been so thrilled. 

Think of the firehose of scientific discovery that we are the recipients of every single day. He would have loved it. I think he would have been very pleased about the possibility, which is only a very small possibility, of life in the clouds of Venus. When he proposed this initially in 1961 and then with another scientist a few years later, it was the beginning of the ridicule that he received chronically for being so speculative.

If you look back to the media of that time, when he was working on these questions, they viewed him as a kind of thorn in their side. Now, Carl is an iconic, beloved figure. Even NASA really loves Carl now. But if you read the editorials and the things written about him at the time, they were so critical of his speculations. Yet, the accuracy of his speculations has been extraordinary. He was very disciplined. He had that amazing combination of wonder and skepticism and never one at the expense of the other. 

What made him so powerful, really, was his truthfulness, his curiosity. When Carl would debate people who had beliefs that were different from his own, his ability to quote scripture and the sacred texts of all the world’s religious traditions was so astonishing because his curiosity was absolutely bottomless. He was fascinated by absolutely every aspect of human culture. One of his great gifts to all of us was his belief that science was culture, too, and it was a birthright for every single one of us.

And if you want to aspire to have a democracy, then it can’t be that the knowledge of a civilization built on science and technology is the property of a tiny priesthood. We all have to be informed decision-makers. We all have to be able to weigh the evidence. And as happy as I think he would have been at the prodigious amount of scientific discovery, I think he would have been equally concerned because as many of you probably have seen online, his prophecy about this abandonment of logic and reason in the future and us, entertaining ourselves to death, and an abandonment of the standards of evidence.

That was his deepest fear. And we’ve all seen manifestations of that on a national level, the likes of which I had never seen before in my lifetime.

I won’t speculate about the question of life elsewhere because I’m not qualified, and also because we simply don’t know. And in the absence of evidence, we have to reserve judgment.

. . .

Nicole Shea Niebler (Colorado): My four paramount values in life are love, learning, science and life. So, when you think about each other either as a mother or as a daughter, what are you most proud of for the person that you love?

Sasha Sagan: Wow. I’ll tell you a brief story that sort of goes along with this. When I was little, I was kind of peculiar and really curious about death, as I remain. I had a lot of questions about it. 

Besides my secular parents, one other adult lived in our household, Maruja Farge, who took care of me with my nanny. And she had been a cloistered nun in the Andes mountains before she became a nanny in Peru. And she left not at all because of crisis of faith, but she waited two years to get permission from the Vatican, writing back and forth to the Vatican from the Andes mountains to get the OK that she could leave without being excommunicated. 

And she was really a true believer, went to church every Sunday. She didn’t drive, so my mom or sometimes my dad would drive her and bring her back. And she was very open about her beliefs. There was no censorship about that, and they really believed that my understanding of the world, my education, would not be complete if I didn’t understand what people believed in the religions of the world.

And one day I went to my parents and I said, “When you die, Maruja says that you’re with God in heaven, and you guys say that it’s like you’re asleep forever without dreaming. Pray tell who is right?” And my parents, in unison, joyfully without missing a beat, said, “Nobody knows!” That kind of like joyful exuberance about our understanding of how things are and the willingness to always welcome curiosity and to have long, sometimes difficult, conversations about ideas and from early childhood, when children are in the stage of asking “why, why, why” all day long, never discouraging that kind of curiosity.

If I could ask a question to which they didn’t know the answer, they were overjoyed. Looking it up together was such a sacrament, like a special, beautiful, holy thing to try to understand more. And I think that is one of the things I feel most gratitude for and most appreciation for, perhaps because now the shoe is on the other foot. I have a 4-year-old at home and this one coming and I’m aware of how much effort that takes and how difficult it is sometimes to have really complicated ideas, understandable and welcoming and safe enough for children to feel that they can ask them and honor their questions with real answers and without sugar-coating things, but without making them terrified.

Ann Druyan: Let me count the ways, really. It really chokes me up to talk about Sasha and her brother Sam, and Carl’s son Nick. There’s no one I’ve ever met on Earth I would rather spend an evening with. The family that Sasha and her astonishingly wonderful husband, Jon, have built is, I guess, the greatest form of gratification. I mean, read her book and you’ll know the answer to the question because I can’t imagine as a parent having a greater sense of pride and feeling as loved as you make me feel.

Sasha Sagan: Thank you so much.

Ann Druyan: What a great evening.