How many dimensions does the cosmos have?
If we’re talking about string theory, it could be 10, or 11, or 26 dimensions. But if we’re talking about “Cosmos,” the TV series made famous by the late astronomer Carl Sagan 40 years ago, there are now three dimensions.
It all started with the original “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” which brought cosmic topics such as stellar evolution and extraterrestrial life to prime-time TV in 1980. Eighteen years after Sagan’s death in Seattle, the show entered its second prime-time dimension in 2014 — thanks in large part to the efforts of Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and longtime collaborator.
Druyan served as an executive producer, director and co-writer for “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” which aired on Fox and the National Geographic Channel with astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson as host.
The series, which extended and updated Sagan’s original narrative with new discoveries and new graphics, was so well-received that it led to the third dimension. “Cosmos: Possible Worlds,” premiering Monday on National Geographic, preserves the metaphorical framework built all those years ago by Sagan and Druyan.
Tyson takes Sagan’s place on the Ship of the Imagination, the show’s vehicle for launching into speculation about cosmic frontiers. The Halls of Extinction, which display long-gone and more recently passed species, have been spruced up with 21st-century computer graphics. There’s also the Cosmic Calendar, which shrinks the universe’s 13.8 billion-year-timeline to the length of a year.
But like “A Spacetime Odyssey,” the new 13-episode season covers new territory. Since the second season aired, the search for exoplanets has come a long way, and Druyan herself has become involved in projects like Breakthrough Starshot, which aims to send thousands of mini-probes through the Alpha Centauri system sometime in the coming decades. The idea behind Starshot is touched upon in the season’s first episode.
Television accounts for only part of the “Cosmos” universe: Druyan is also the author of a companion book, “Cosmos: Possible Worlds.” Although the book and the TV show share a title, they go in pleasantly divergent directions — with more of Druyan’s personality shining through the written pages. Reading the book could well count as a journey into the fourth dimension of “Cosmos.”
I’ve been covering “Cosmos” in its various dimensions for more than 20 years, and when Druyan and I spoke last week, there was a strong feeling of deja vu on my end of the conversation. Here’s an edited transcript of our Q&A:
GeekWire: Tell me how you got from “A Spacetime Odyssey” to “Possible Worlds”? How is this season different?
Ann Druyan: “Well, I hope we’re always learning. It’s a big mistake not to be open to learning in everything you do. I thought about it for a year following the broadcast of the second season of ‘Cosmos.’ All of us feel the shadow hanging over our future.
“I was inspired by a quote from Albert Einstein that I discovered while surfing YouTube one night. Einstein was given 700 words to explain cosmic rays to the 200,000 people who were gathered in the rain for the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. And in addition to explaining cosmic rays, he used up some of those 700 words to tell the audience that cosmic rays had been discovered by an immigrant whom the United States had welcomed to its shores. He said that was absolutely critical to the success of the United States.
“Then he said, ‘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.’
“I thought that was a brilliant observation. I was blown away, because it had been the dream of ‘Cosmos’ to fulfill the mission of science to penetrate as widely as possible to the greatest possible audience. And then the other thought I had in conceiving the series was that our vision of the future is so dystopian. It’s a reflection of reality. It’s a reflection of the grave challenges that we face.
“Another inspiration for me was the drawing of the evolution of interstellar flight that Carl Sagan did when he was 11 or 12. That was a kid living in a very modest apartment in Brooklyn in 1945, who never met a scientist. But he saw this great future for us in exploring the cosmos. He lived to be a leading participant in an interstellar mission, at a time when nothing he’d ever touched had left the planet.
“What an ambitious dream that was! That gives me inspiration, as do the stories that we tell about people who at critical moments have stood up for science, for what they thought was true — every one of them feeling that reality mattered.
“You can’t lie your way to Mars. At every step of the mission, people have to tell the truth, to be accurate and true to reality in order to accomplish the greatest things to be done. At this moment of very low human self-esteem, I wanted to envision a future that we can still have if we get our act together, if we wake up from our sleepwalking and refuse to be led by people who deny reality. This is why we’re telling these stories. We hope these stories will inspire other people to act accordingly.”
Q: The show introduces grand projects that are in the very beginnings of being realized — for example, Breakthrough Starshot and the 50 billion-mile telescope. It’s almost as if you are presenting these concepts as inspirations, as things that have not yet been done but could be done by a future generation.
A: “Yes, because we understand the science and technology required. We know how to do these things now, and we’re in the process of actively pursuing them. What I love about Starshot is that it’s a flotilla of small and unobtrusive nano-craft. They’re going out not to claim territory but to see, to sense, to experiment, and to send back information. I think that’s what a spacefaring civilization does. They’re not looking for lunch. They’re looking to know more about the cosmos.”
Q: It’s been almost two decades since we spoke about the challenges we were facing in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. The question I asked then was, “What would Carl say?” What’s the lesson we could learn if Carl were around? So I have to ask again: What would Carl say, and what would you say? How do we get out of this situation we find ourselves in, which is arguably as dire as what we saw after 9/11?
A: “Well, in some ways it’s more dire, and in some ways it’s less. Life doesn’t usually go where you expect it to go, and that’s what’s really terrible and what’s really great about it.
“I can’t speak for Carl. But sometimes I wonder, because of his impressive and thrilling growth as a human being, that maybe he could have helped us avert the situation we find ourselves in.
“Even though I know I’m never going to talk to him again, I am also frequently, mentally interested in the notion that I am going to catch him up on all the crazy things that have happened since December 20, 1996, when he died. It’s going to be hard to tell him about 9/11, because we had our wedding reception on the roof of the World Trade Center, at Windows on the World. The idea that that is in some sense a void, where we celebrated that joyous day with our family … it’s really painful, the loss of life. If I were ever to talk to Carl, I don’t think I would have the heart to tell him where we are.
“I know history is not a linear progression. It’s two steps forward, one step back. That’s the way it goes. It’s not just a line on a chart, but progress is on the upward trajectory. It’s meandering, and it always has been. I hope Carl would be saying what all of us who worked on ‘Cosmos’ would say: ‘Awaken! Awaken to the romance of life in the cosmos, and act to protect it.’ That’s what I think he would say.”