Earth is the prettiest little prison ever built. It’s lush, it’s lovely and yet it’s limited. We’re a terrestrial species, fit to live only on a single world in all of space, and yet the entire universe is teasingly visible to us through our picture-window atmosphere. Other Earthly species are just as marooned, but other Earthly species don’t have the insight to know it. We do.
The solar eclipse that will cross the United States on August 21 will be one more opportunity for us to look up and take in the just-out-of-reach spectacle of space. Few people will be more equipped to understand its implications than writer and producer Ann Druyan, the widow of Carl Sagan and the co-creator of his TV series Cosmos.
Druyan recently sat down with TIME to talk all matters cosmic, but it was the eclipse that elicited some of her most evocative insights. Like many people, she thinks that the coming sky show will be more than just beautiful; it will also be an opportunity for reflection and reevaluation.
“Think of it,” she says. “We’re born in this kind of cosmic quarantine with no knowledge of what’s going on in the solar system, let alone the universe. And every now and then there’s an eclipse or every once in a while a comet appears in our skies. This is a kind of inducement to figure out what’s going on.”
In the species’ intellectual infancy, we reacted to those cosmic manifestations the way we do in our personal intimacy — assuming that whatever is happening must somehow be about us.
“For many countless generations, we applied the kind of false pattern recognition we’re so good at,” Druyan says. “There’s darkness at noon. That means the king is not in favor or gods are angry or we have committed a terrible sin by sleeping with the wrong person or eating the wrong food on the wrong day.”
We’re past that — mostly. We understand the geometry and juxtapositioning that make eclipses possible and can even predict them centuries in advance. But all that is the product of our forebrains — where cool, dispassionate reason lives. It’s in the deeper regions that our emotions lie — and those are the parts that eclipses touch.
“I’m glad we have [eclipses] because it reminds us of that sudden chill,” Druyan says. “The motion of the birds, the way that the rest of life reacts to the blocking out of the sun. It has that kind of mythic, biblical power to it. And it should.”
Druyan, like so many scientists and other empiricists, does not have trouble finding room for such warm feelings of faith in the reductionist world of physics. Sagan, who died in 1996, was similarly at peace in both camps, once asking, “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant.’”
There’s humility to be found in that — a balm for humans, whose arrogance causes so much trouble. “What I love so much about science is for me it is informed worship,” says Druyan. “It’s a high degree of humility to say we know nothing, we’re very young, we’ve very new at this. We’ll make mistakes, we’ll be wrong, we’ll always be wrong.”
Permission to be wrong, wedded with a responsibility to be right, creates a powerful, civilizing tension. We are a species ingenious enough to project our intellect out across the universe, and ingenuous enough to feel awe at the spectacles the sky still offers at home.