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Ann Druyan Talks About NASA's Sagan Fellowships
Ann Druyan Ann Druyan, Sagan's widow and collaborator.
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NASA has announced new Carl Sagan Fellowships for the study of extraterrestrial worlds and the life they might sustain -- a scientific pursuit pioneered by Sagan decades ago. Sagan was an astronomer, a highly successful author of science books and a co-author and presenter of the acclaimed PBS Cosmos television series. He played a key role in the NASA missions Mariner, Viking, Galileo and Voyager, and later advocated for NASA's Kepler mission, scheduled to launch in April 2009. Kepler will scan nearby stars looking for Earth-like worlds -- the same worlds that Sagan imagined might harbor life.

Ann Druyan, Sagan's widow and collaborator, says she is thrilled to grant her late husband's name to NASA's new fellowships, formally called the Carl Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowships in Exoplanet Exploration. Here, she answers questions about Sagan and her own excitement over the astonishing pace at which exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system, are being discovered.

What would Carl say if he knew about NASA's new Sagan Fellowships?

In the nearly 12 years since Carl's death, there have been numerous honors to his memory, dedicated in many countries around the planet. I am certain that none of them would have meant more to him than these fellowships. That this distinction comes from the men and women of NASA, and that the questions that interested him most will be pursued in his name -- he would have been overwhelmed.

Let's remember that his lifelong campaign for science communication and protecting life on this world led some to question whether he was a "real" scientist. I still encounter this attitude from time to time. Carl would've been the first to say that it was a minor price to pay, but it did hurt. Nothing does more to put that misconception to rest than this fellowship program. During our 20 years together, there were many high points to savor. I've been imagining Carl's reaction to this one and it has kept me aglow.

What would Carl say if he knew there were now more than 300 known exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system?

Carl did live to see the discovery of the first exoplanets in 1995. He fully expected that once we started searching consistently, their numbers would grow steadily. NASA's Kepler mission is another fulfillment of his many great dreams.

How would Carl feel about the other advances in astrobiology and solar system exploration that have occurred over the past decade?

Whenever the latest revelation comes in from Mars or Titan or anywhere in the solar system, I can't help but think how excited Carl would have been. It's striking to me how much of the news either concerns a special interest of his or affirms one of his ideas. When Carl contemplated his own mortality, he expressed a wistful pang of regret that he would never know about the scientific advances that would come after his death. He fully recognized that this is a hallmark of the scientific enterprise - no one generation can hope to see the whole picture. But successive generations, building on the work of those who came before, can hope to see farther. It reminds me of the passage in episode five of the Cosmos television series, which we wrote with astronomer Steve Soter. This particular passage followed an elegy for microbiologist and exobiology pioneer, Wolf Vishniac, who perished in the Antarctic while conducting an experiment. What we wrote about Wolf, I feel for Carl as well - when we see farther than he saw, we see for him, too.

Can you tell us more about Carl's lifelong interest in the search for extraterrestrial worlds and possible life on those worlds?

It's there in his teenage journals - this hunger to know what other worlds would be like. He thought like an extraterrestrial, striving to see everything as if for the first time and never to think that the way things are, here and now, is the only way. That was a foundational premise of both his science and his political philosophy as well. It gave him an unusual degree of originality. Also, he was the child of immigrants. As soon as he realized that there was a larger cosmos, he wanted to become a citizen.

What inspires you the most about the study of exoplanets?

I like to think of myself as someone who has taken the revelations of science to heart. The more we dare to learn about nature, the prouder I am of our species. The study of the worlds of other suns is a leap in consciousness roughly equivalent with leaving the sea for the land. It's a central part of the maturation of our own planetary civilization. It's my hope that it will be a factor in bringing us to our senses, awakening us from our stupor, to do what we must to protect our own biosphere.

If we do find extraterrestrial life, what do you think it will be like? What will we learn from it?

If the history of science has taught us anything, it should be that nature confounds our expectations. We are simply not smart enough to anticipate what billions of years of evolution may have led to on other worlds. If you had never seen a snail before, would you be capable of imagining it? And snails evolved on our world. Our fantasies of extra-terrestrial life are merely projections of our hopes and fears, constructed from the palette of life here.

What we learn from it will depend largely on the nature of the first encounter experience, and on whether or not we, as a civilization, have managed to internalize the scientific perspective. If we remain a fear-based, superstitious society, one in which the vast majority of us are effectively excluded from science, it's not likely we, apart from a relatively small group of scientists and interested parties, will learn very much.

What are you working on now?

Running Cosmos Studios, founded in 2000 to create science-based entertainment in all media; continuing my efforts with The Planetary Society to fly the first solar sail spacecraft (our initial spacecraft suffered a sub-orbital launch failure in 2005); collaborating with Steven Soter to create a wholly new Cosmos series and co-producing a feature film, which I co-wrote. I also continue to give public talks whenever possible. As chair of the Carl Sagan Foundation, I am trying to raise money to support enhanced science education in under-served communities.
Media contact: Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.