Carl Sagan's Scientific 'Search for God' Ten years ago this week, the popular scientist Carl Sagan died, but his work and legacy live on. Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, has gathered some of his lectures on science and religion into a new book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.

Carl Sagan's Scientific 'Search for God'

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Ten years ago this week, the popular scientist, author, TV star Carl Sagan died. Sagan was a first-class scientist but he wasn't content to do just science; he wanted to share the thrill he got from science with the rest of us. His enthusiasm for science came through in his lectures, and his television and his radio appearances, and in his books.

Here he is, for example, talking to us on SCIENCE FRIDAY, in May of 1996, talking about his book "A Pale Blue Dot," where the name came from.

Mr. CARL SAGAN (Astronomer): I was an experimenter around the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. And after they swept by the Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune systems, it was possible to do something I had wanted to do from the beginning, and that is to turn the cameras on one of these spacecraft back to photograph the planet from which it had come. And clearly, there would not be much scientific data from this because we were so far away that the earth was just a point - a pale blue dot.

But when we took the picture, there was something about it that seemed to me so - poignant; vulnerable, tiny. And if we had photographed it from a much further distance, it would have been gone, lost against the backdrop of distant stars. And to me, it - I thought there - that's us. That's our world. That's all of us - everybody you know, everybody you love. Everybody you ever heard of lived out their lives there, on a mote of dust in a sunbeam.

And it spoke to me about the need for us to care for one another, and also, to preserve the pale blue dot, which is the only home we've ever known. And it underscored the tininess, the comparative insignificance of our world and ourselves.

FLATOW: One forgets what a terrific speaker Carl was - able to speak in thoughtful paragraphs, a great talent of his, and one he applied very well in communication with the public.

And here to talk about the life and legacy of Carl Sagan is one person who perhaps knew him best. Ann Druyan is a writer and lecturer, as well as a television and movie producer and director. She is the widow of Carl Sagan, and in their 20 years together, they worked on a book and movie, "Contact", the television series "Cosmos", among many other projects. And now, she has edited a series of lectures that Carl gave, and has turned them into a new book called "The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God".

She joins us from the Cornell University studio. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. ANN DRUYAN (Carl Sagan's Widow): Ira, it's always so good to be with you.

FLATOW: Thank you. You know, I was just listening to that tape, I've heard it a few times today as we're getting ready, and I'm just struck by the lack of a spokesperson that Carl Sagan was today, of his caliber.

Ms. DRUYAN: I had thought about that. I think about it everyday, and people write to me everyday and say the same thing. It's that combination of both the scientific skepticism, the rigor, along with so much feeling and passion.

FLATOW: Now that he's been gone for 10 years, are you surprised about how popular a figure he still remains?

Ms. DRUYAN: No, because in my biased opinion, he was a world historical figure. He was someone who was beseeching us to take the revelations of the modern scientific revolution to heart, not just to compartmentalize them and have one set of ideas in our brains and another set of ideas in our hearts, but to take those values, and then to act accordingly.

And, you know, his career - the first 40 years of the Space Age - and in that time, he managed to begin framing the questions that fascinate not just science today, but also, our culture.

FLATOW: He was very much politically, sociologically involved in what was going on in the world. What do you think if he were alive today, would be speaking out about?

Ms. DRUYAN: Well, he'd be appalled at the current state of our federal government and the administration, and I think he would have been, you know, a desperately needed voice throughout these last six years, speaking fearlessly about the importance of reason of the rules of evidence and logic, and of course, of science.

FLATOW: Would he have been vocal about the debate in evolution and creation that has continued for the last -

Ms. DRUYAN: Yes, he writes - yeah, well, you know, it was going on, of course, throughout Carl's career, and in the new book, "The Varieties of Scientific Experience", he talks about the fact that the notion of intelligent design is a kind of hydra that reappears every five or 10 years, and then the community of science has to be distracted in shooting it down. He would have been vigorously involved in defending science, and the values of science.

FLATOW: He was a - he talks about it-

Ms. DRUYAN: Globally.

FLATOW: Yeah. He talks about intelligent design; he was a little bit ahead of his time in that, also.

Ms. DRUYAN: He was - yeah. The whole book is just remarkably prophetic, in my view. And he really - he just saw what was coming. He talks about the danger of the presidency being occupied by someone who believes in fundamentalist Christian view of reality and what that might mean. Yeah, he was prophetic.

FLATOW: Was he ever a religious person himself?

Ms. DRUYAN: Well, I think, in some ways, he was the most devoutly religious person I've ever known, because God was so important to him that it had to be true. And he couldn't imagine a God who would endow us with these capabilities - of intelligence, of pattern recognition, of reason without wanting us to use it.

And so these Gifford lectures, which are the subject of the book, are Carl's effort at examining, piece by piece, the natural so-called evidence for the existence of God, and then taking the argument and really looking at it as deeply and with as open a heart and a mind as he possibly could.

FLATOW: There have been a lot of books this year as you probably know that are looking at the over-lapper, or perhaps, the clash between religious - religion and science. You have Francis Collins, you have Richard Dawkins; both written -

Ms. DRUYAN: Right -

FLATOW: Such books. Are you interested in the influence science has on religion and vice versa?

Ms. DRUYAN: I am very interested, and I'd like to add something to my previous answer about Carl and whether or not he was religious. He was religious, but in his view, the traditional religious view of God was too small, with a God of - who made the world; not, perhaps, 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone, with a retinue, each star with a retinue of perhaps a hundred worlds and so many galaxies.

He found that that God was inadequate, and that, I think, one of the reasons he's so important 10 years later and that buildings all over the world are dedicated in his memory, is because he was a kind of - he was imagining a God that would be worthy of the revelations of science - one that would reflect what we know, not one that would be mired in a moment in time thousands of years ago, before we had the ability to interrogate nature.

FLATOW: Could you read a passage from the book for us?

Ms. DRUYAN: I'd love to, actually, and in fact, on that very subject. This is Carl writing in a beautiful essay called "Nature and Wonder."

A general problem with much of Western theology, in my view, is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a God of a tiny world, and not a God of a galaxy, much less of the universe.

Now we can say, well, that's just because the right words weren't available back when the first Jewish or Christian or Islamic holy books were written. But clearly, that's not the problem. It is certainly possible in the beautiful metaphors in these books to describe something like the galaxy and the universe. It is there. It is a God of one small world, a problem I believe that theologians have not adequately addressed.

FLATOW: Is true - as true today as he was when he wrote it.

Ms. DRUYAN: Yep.

FLATOW: It's amazing. Talking with Ann Druyan, author of "The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God." She's the editor and, of course, she's reading Carl Sagan's remarks.

Our number 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a few phone calls in before the break. Let's go to Jim in Canton, Ohio. Hi, Jim.

JIM (Caller): Hi. It's a pleasure to speak with you Ms. Druyan and I also remember your photo on the back of a couple of books that you and Carl had worked on together. I started teaching science in 1976 and had the opportunity to meet Dr. Sagan at a national science teacher's conference in Washington D.C. in the '80s.

And not long after that, I met a young man, at that time I was teaching middle school science seventh grade level. And this young fellow came to class every day. He would carry a Carl Sagan book in to class to show me. And he kept them all wrapped in plastic bags.

And I thought his dedication to read. He was a very mediocre science student, but he loved to read Carl Sagan's books and protected them all with these wrappers. So I sent - it turned out he was also a boy without a father. He was living with just his mother at the time.

I sent a letter to Dr. Sagan at Cornell, and told him about this young man and about how he loved his books and everything and asked him if he'd like to send him something. And he sent him a very nice packet of information to the middle school I was teaching at that time, with a signed photograph and everything.

And I just thought it might be, you know, we all know that he was a great scientist. We all know he was a great popularizer, and paid perhaps a little bit of a professional price for coming down on the temple steps to talk to the rest of us.

And I just thought I would like to relate that anecdote of his reaching out to a middle school student those years ago.

FLATOW: Thank you, Jim.

Ms. DRUYAN: Jim, thank you so much for telling that story. This is very much the Carl that I knew. I constantly am approached by people who say, you know, I ran into him. I was - I had a small job at the (unintelligible) laboratory. And my mother came up to Carl in an elevator, and said you, you know, my son works with you at the (unintelligible) laboratory. And this woman said that Carl got off the elevator with her to talk to him about what an important job her son was doing, and why was it important.

These stories I've literally heard, thousands of them, and it really attests to the kind of, I mean, that's why Carl's example is so hopeful because, unfortunately, in our culture, we think of a scientist as being someone who can't - who has no capacity to love and yet he was extraordinary that way.

FLATOW: All right. Hang on there. We have yet to take a break. We'll come back and talk lots more with Ann Druyan and take your calls. So stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. And this is TALK OF THE NATION, SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking in remembrance of Carl Sagan, who died 10 years ago this week. We're with Ann Druyan, author or, actually, editor of a book called "The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God." It's basically some collective works of Carl Sagan. Our number 1-800-989-8255.

Ann, when we're talking about before the break about how he took time out to talk to just ordinary people. I remember that mode. I remember that a lot about him is that he never talked out anybody. We have scientists who, you know, people who are very high in their field, who just were always very upset about talking to some of our listeners or whatever. And he was never, ever that way.

Ms. DRUYAN: No. He was a very modest person and a very healthy person in that regard and he had no snobbery, no pretension of any kind.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones, to Keith. Is it Glade Hill, Virginia?

Mr. KEITH FERRELL (Caller): It is Glade Hill.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Mr. FERRELL: Hi. Ann. It's Keith Ferrell. I was editor in chief of Omni.

Ms. DRUYAN: Oh, hi, Keith.

Mr. FERRELL: In fact, over my desk I have the one cover that says Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan in big letters. And I was calling in to remind people out there, because I know there are readers, that "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is one of the great, great science books.

Ms. DRUYAN: Thank you.

Mr. FERRELL: Of the last 20 years and actually -

Ms. DRUYAN: Thank you.

Mr. FERRELL: For the last 40 years. It is a terrific, terrific book.

FLATOW: Keith, what's so good about it, for our listeners who don't know that book is about?

Mr. FERRELL: One of the things I like about it is that it is a true narrative. I love "Cosmos." I love "Pale Blue Dot," but they were, obviously those were designed books. This is a book designed to be read and thought about. And if I may say so, there is a lot of Annie in this book. She and I talk a lot when we were doing the excerpt.

FLATOW: Is it still in print?

Ms. DRUYAN: Yes, it is in print. I think all of our books and Carl's books are in print. And it was Carl's favorite of all the books that he wrote or we wrote together. And I'm so happy you said that Keith because it's also my favorite. I'm very proud of it. And I really appreciate you remembering it.

Mr. FERRELL: It's -

FLATOW: What's the name of the book again for our holiday season book list?

Mr. FERRELL: "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors." It is a terrific book. I can tell you right now that both Carl and Annie were - I was the editor of Omni for a decade and brilliant, charming and absolutely professional. No prima donna at all. They're just terrific people to work with, and just wonders of natural resources.

FLATOW: Thank you.

Mr. FERRELL: National resources.

FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to talk with us Keith.

Mr. FERRELL: My pleasure.

Ms. DRUYAN: Thank you, Keith.

FLATOW: Ann, what book - beside the book, do you have any movie projects? I know you're always interested in the video side.

Ms. DRUYAN: Yes. Actually -

FLATOW: Any movie projects coming up?

Ms. DRUYAN: I'm working on two movie projects, which I'm very excited about. One, with the great Martin Scorsese, which is the story of a (unintelligible) who was a real person and it's based on his memoir, of being blind leader of the resistance in the second World War, remarkable book called "And There Was Light." One of the most moving testaments to human goodness I've ever encountered. And another project, which I'm not ready to announce, as well as the solar sail, where we think we'll have some very good news about the solar sail in 2007.

FLATOW: I was going to get to that?

Ms. DRUYAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Tell us where that stands or what that was.

Ms. DRUYAN: Well, we're working with the Planetary Society. We had, unfortunately, a launch failure back a year and a half ago when we tried first to launch (unintelligible), which for those of you who don't know what solar sail is a space craft that once it gets into earth's orbit, you deploy, which means you open up this magnificent Mylar, reflective sail that's about 110 feet across. Kind of like a sailing ship that uses photons from the sun instead of wind to propel its sails.

But it's a way of moving through the universe 10 times faster than the fastest space craft we've ever launched which are the Mighty Voyagers, which move they themselves only at 38,000 miles an hour. And solar sailing is potentially a way to go 10 times faster than that, using only photons from the sun or from a laser. So we expect to have an announcement coming up in 2007, about the renewed program to launch this first spacecraft.

FLATOW: I first met him back in the '70s, during the Viking Missions to Mars and the other - what we used to call the golden age of robotic astronomy.

Ms. DRUYAN: Yes.

FLATOW: Where would Carl come down today on going back to the moon and Mars, sending people versus robots?

Ms. DRUYAN: Well, you know, he liked robots because he worries about the harm to human beings, and because, scientifically, he believed that robots were the way to go. But he also understood the importance of humans being involved for the drama, for the ability of people who are not interested in exploration specifically to become involved and engaged in the excitement of it. So I think he would have been - I think he'd like to see the space program resume.

He would have been thrilled about Cassini and the Mars landings because of course, these were led by his former students. But he would have - I think he would have wanted to see a more vigorous program of exploration and certainly more support of science, both science education, so we can have future scientists, but also good solid scientific research.

FLATOW: And he used his TV series. His TV series was one of the most, if I remember correctly, in his time, the most widely universally on this planet watched TV shows of its kind, was it not?

Ms. DRUYAN: Yes. Yes. It's been seen now by a billion people and, in fact, it's been running on the Science Channel these last several weeks. It's playing somewhere in the world always and have been always since it premiered in 1980. And I'm happy to say that the "Cosmos" DVDs just really considered to be extremely popular.

FLATOW: Well, you know, I'm sort of amused because I remember the circle has been completed. Because I remember back in the '70s, Carl would talk about just about now, on people, and Alpha Centauri or watching "I Love Lucy." You know.

Ms. DRUYAN: Right.

FLATOW: And then now watching "Cosmos." In the same time period.

Ms. DRUYAN: That's right.


Ms. DRUYAN: That's a very good point, Ira.

FLATOW: It has come full circle. Where do you go from here? Are you working on these movie projects? Is that what's taking lots of your time?

Ms. DRUYAN: I'm mostly on the movie projects, and the solar sail, and also the Carl Sagan Academy.


Ms. DRUYAN: The Carl Sagan Foundation is trying to raise money for the Carl Sagan Academy, which is the first humanist, public, charter school in American history. It's in Hillsborough County, Florida near Tampa. And the greatest part about this is that it is a cooperative venture - the American Humanist Association with the Baptist Ministers of Hillsborough County.

And, in fact, the Carl Sagan Academy, which has - just slightly flew in 100 students in its second year - is held in a Baptist church, which is my dream of our world where people who completely disagree ideologically about who God is or if God exists can agree to put this disagreement aside and work together for the kids to make this world a kind of place that it should be.

FLATOW: Good holiday thoughts on that one, Ann. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us. And have a great holiday season to you, and good luck on your book.

Ms. DRUYAN: I wish you the same Ira. Great talking with you. Happy New Year.

FLATOW: Thank you. You too.

Ann Druyan is the widow of Carl Sagan. She's edited a new book of his lectures called "The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God." If you're still looking for a book as a gift, it's a terrific, terrific read as all of Carl Sagan's books were.

Thanks for taking time to be with us today, Ann.

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