The closest thing to eternal that we have ever touched: Ann Druyan on interstellar ethics, subversive art, and rising to the questions of the cosmos [Video]

From her work in the 1970s as the Creative Director for NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Messaging Project to her current role as writer and producer of the beloved television series Cosmos, Ann Druyan has devoted her life to expanding the horizons of human empathy and communication. In insisting that the thresholds of cosmic exploration must be approached with sincerity, humility, and generosity, she has had a deep influence on artist Dario Robleto’s work throughout his career. The artist has framed the exhibition The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto (January 26 – July 9, 2023) as a gift to Druyan.

In conjunction with The Heart’s Knowledge, The Block hosted a special online conversation with Druyan, Robleto and Jennifer Roberts, Professor of the Humanities at Harvard.  Roberts and Robleto are co-authoring a book about the interstellar journey of the pulse wave recordings that Druyan included on the Voyager Golden Record. The conversation ranged from the history of Druyan’s work on the Golden Record with her husband and collaborator Carl Sagan, to ideas of gift-giving, to questions of love, ethics, and truth that are raised when considering a message with a billion-year-timeline.

Watch the Conversation

Excerpts from the Conversation

On The Golden Record as a Gift

“After all, this was a gift. We always knew that the message had two kinds of recipients: our fellow earthlings of the present back then and of the future, and these extraterrestrials that we dream of. Two very different audiences. We knew that if we tried to pretend to be other than what we were, it wouldn’t be very effective anyway. And it would be hollow, it would be false. We felt that if we just gave it everything we had, like love, you must give everything that you have in order to to experience the fullness therein, it was the same thing with the record. We wanted to give it everything we had. We wanted to be as truthful as we could possibly be. And we wanted to do justice to the great beauty of being alive, because we felt that gift.”

Ann Druyan

On Leading with Truth

“There’s no denying it. There’s no way of pretending that the fact that some of us are lucky enough to find love and to live out that love… that that the entire story of life on Earth. We are the complete and total story of our tragedy and our crimes and our failures, all of that. Somebody once told me that forgeries have a very finite shelf life. …And that’s what I thought about the record that it didn’t matter if we put our best foot forward. Lies have a very brief shelf life. Art may be long, but lies are short because nature, all of nature is a product of 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution at this point. There is so many causality skeins, too many to untie and retie to tell a lie that will be as effective and long-lasting as nature itself.”

Ann Druyan

On the Joy of Possibility

“If you don’t send the record, then we know what the outcome is. But if you send the record, the chance of anyone ever encountering it is more than zero. It’s more than zero, which is a lot, which is a lot. We go from people who were imprisoned on this world for 4 billion years, never leaving it, to being beings who can send these little dandelion seeds into the cosmos. And that gives us a more than zero chance of being remembered, of being alive in some sense, long after we’re gone.

Everything in the cosmos dies. Everything. That’s the lesson, that’s the lesson of life, of art, of science, of everything, is that all we have is now. But this now, which is jacketed by before, that 13.8 billion years before, and all that is to come, we’re here together, all of us right now, communicating with each other at the speed of light.

Why? Because our ancestors decided to create a chain of minds that could reach forward into the future, and husband that knowledge, maintain that knowledge so that we could learn how to connect with each other around this little planet and even into the cosmos. And that’s the wonder of it. That’s so much more than we began with. We made that happen together. And none of us could have done it alone. We only could do it with each other and with generations of searchers who came before us. So that’s the joy of it. I’ve imagined countless times, every day of my life since I worked on this project, I’ve imagined the interception and what it would be like. And I’m no closer to having a real sense of that than when I started 46 years ago. But what a joy it is to think of it and to know that it’s possible. That’s all we can ask for.

Ann Druyan

Download Interview Transcript


Ann Druyan is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and director specializing in the communication of science. Druyan served for 10 years as the elected Secretary of the Federation of American Scientists and began her writing career with the publication of her first novel, “A Famous Broken Heart.” She was the Creative Director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message Project and Program Director of the first solar sail deep space mission, launched on a Russian ICBM in 2005.
She wrote with her late husband, Carl Sagan, the original 1980s Emmy Award- and Peabody Award-winning TV series “COSMOS: A Personal Voyage.” It is currently the most watched PBS series in global television history. As Founder and CEO of Cosmos Studios, since 2000, Druyan has built on the success of the original “COSMOS” television series and produced some of the most acclaimed science-based entertainment, including “COSMOS: A SpaceTime Odyssey” and “COSMOS: Possible Worlds,” which premiered March 2020.

Ms. Druyan served as Creative Director of the NASA Voyager Interstellar Record Project to design a complex message, including music and images, for possible alien civilizations. These golden phonograph records affixed to the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, the fastest moving vehicles ever created by the human species, are now the most distant objects ever touched by human hands. They have crossed the heliopause, that place far beyond the outermost planets of the solar system where the solar wind gives way to the interstellar medium. They have a projected shelf life of one to five billion years and are expected to make several circumnavigations of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Dario Robleto was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1972 and received his BFA from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1997. He lives and works in Houston, TX. The artist has had numerous solo exhibitions since 1997, most recently at the Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS (2021); the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University (2019); the McNay Museum, San Antonio, TX (2018); Menil Collection, Houston, TX (2014); the Baltimore Museum of Art (2014); the New Orleans Museum of Art (2012); and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver (2011). His work has been profiled in numerous publications and media including Radiolab, Krista Tippet’s On Being, and The New York Times. (Full Bio)

Jennifer L. Roberts is Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, where she teaches art history and material culture with an emphasis on the interface between the arts and the natural sciences. She is the author of numerous books and essays on American art and science from the eighteenth century to the present, and has also curated exhibitions in modern and contemporary art at the Harvard Art Museums and the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. In spring of 2021, she delivered the 70th Annual A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts for the National Gallery of Art, with a series titled Contact: Art and the Pull of Print. She is currently focusing on initiatives to create alliances between the humanities and the STEM fields at Harvard and beyond, and is co-authoring a book with Robleto titled Life Signs: The Tender Science of the Pulsewave. 

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