The slim, elegant, attractive brunette presented an image that could not be further removed from the stereotypical nerdy profile of scientists most of us have been served up in books and movies. But Ann Druyan mentioned soon enough that she was no scientist, just a 'student of the history of science'. That misperception is one she has probably become used to, having been so much a part of the life and work of the late renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, his long-time collaborator and for two decades his wife. Ms Druyan co-wrote the Emmy- and Peabody-award winning television series Cosmos which Sagan himself hosted in the 1980s. The couple also worked together on the NASA Voyager Interstellar Record Project for which they designed a message of music, images and ideas to be conveyed by Voyager to any alien civilisations the spacecraft might encounter. Recognised as an authority on such matters, Ms Druyan has also written Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and Comet. She recently transformed the latter into a script for a 3-D feature to be screened in Imax domes. The noted lecturer has been visiting the SAR to promote the sci-fi film Contact which she co-wrote and co-produced with her late husband, the author of books such as Pale Blue Dot, Cosmos and, most recently, Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. Sagan was one of the pioneers of the American space exploration work and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), the project aimed at tuning into radio signals emanating from intelligent extraterrestrial civilisations. Contact follows the longest, and possibly the most trying, collaboration between her and Dr Sagan. It took 17 years to germinate from the seed of an idea. The film stars award-winning actress Jodie Foster as Dr Ellie Arroway, a headstrong young scientist who devotes her life to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Her vigilance and determination finally pay off when she receives a strong radio signal from the planet Vega, 26 light-years away. One sees the parallels between Arroway and Sagan. Like the film's protagonist, the scientist devoted the last years of his life to searching for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth. But, unlike Arroway, Carl Sagan has found no compelling evidence to prove there is, indeed, intelligent life out there, although neither he nor Ms Druyan would ever exclude the possibility. For scientists, Ms Druyan said, 'belief' did not come into it: only evidence mattered. 'I don't 'believe' because I like the method of science, and the method of science on this score says that, in the absence of direct evidence, we must withhold judgment. 'I think the likelihood based merely on the number of suns in the Milky Way alone . . . [is] that there is other life, perhaps intelligent life, elsewhere in this galaxy and the other galaxies in the universe. But knowing is something very different.' Although Contact visualises humanity's first contact with extraterrestrial life, this tussle between faith - or religion - and science is the movie's subtext. Arroway, an agnostic, is thrown into confusion about what she feels and can prove when she meets and falls in love with a charismatic theologian (Matthew McConaughey). Recent polls have shown that more Americans than ever are obsessed with the idea of UFOs and the existence of aliens, which has prompted a rash of sci-fi blockbusters such as Independence Day and Men in Black. Contact is different: it is the only one that does not have bug-eyed monsters with scaly skin and bulbous heads. The extraterrestrial provides a sort of psychological projection into our world. 'We can project our fears and our own unresolved anxieties of reptiles. We are obsessed with extraterrestrials because we know we are living in this time that is a watershed,' said Ms Druyan. But, she added, scientific interest in ETs should not be confused with fundamentalism, religious cults or mystification. 'I believe that the origins of science are exactly in the same place as religion: a sense of awe in the face of the great universe. 'Science has no argument with the impulse to do justice or to love mercy but it is absolutely un-empathetic to those people who would be willing to kill another over what God looks like or what he wants you to wear.' Ms Druyan shook her head at the spate of claims of alien abduction and even at the alleged 'Roswell incident' 50 years ago when a spaceship purportedly landed on a sheep ranch in New Mexico. The US Government was accused of covering up the 'incident' and of transporting a captured alien to the mysterious Area 51 stronghold in the Nevada desert for experiments. 'Carl Sagan was a pioneer in this field, one of a handful of scientists who made it a legitimate subject of scientific investigation. He looked at all cases presented to him over the decades with an open mind and there is nothing there, other than a transparent terrestrial thought. 'Now do governments lie? Absolutely: all governments lie because they are made up of people and all people lie. So how can it be otherwise? 'On the other hand, if these people are smart enough to be sceptical about the government, why aren't they critical enough to be sceptical about people who say they have been abducted by aliens or have an extraterrestrial in their refrigerator? In all the years [he looked], Carl never found one shred of evidence, not an iota, not a molecule of evidence of anything of an extraterrestrial nature.' The story of Contact, which has grossed close to US$100 million (HK$773.8 million) in the US so far, started in 1980 when executive producer Lynda Obst approached Dr Sagan and suggested the two of them, together with Ms Druyan, work out a film treatment based on his work with SETI. The project then became entangled in studio red tape as screenwriters, producers and studio executives tried to change the original story to what they felt were the requirements of a Hollywood movie. Out of frustration, Dr Sagan eventually turned his story into a book. He published the best-seller of the same name in 1985. Two film companies and many producers later, Warner Bros gave the project the go-ahead, putting Obst back in the frame, in 1993. Cameras finally rolled last September. The triumph of seeing her husband's pet project finally translated on screen is a bittersweet feeling for 48-year-old Ms Druyan. Three months after filming began, Sagan succumbed after a two-year battle with the rare blood disease myelodysplasia. He never saw the film. 'Contact was one of the many fitting memorials to Carl's work and life. The Pathfinder station on Mars, which NASA renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, is another of the manifestations of Carl's brilliant visionary work. We were especially proud of Contact and its potential to excite people. 'The special effects . . . to see that brilliant, brilliant trip to the centre of the galaxy and know that Carl could not be on board, that was very painful but I think it's a great testament to him.' Ms Druyan acknowledged there was 'a lot of Carl [Sagan] in the role of Ellie Arroway': in fact, making the protagonist of his story a woman had been his intention from the outset. 'For one thing, he was a great believer in women and he felt that it was a tragedy not only for women but also for science as well that the community of science was foreclosed to women. He thought that was wrong and I certainly agree with him,' Ms Druyan said softly. 'We wanted to show a woman who was brave in a proactive way, not just brave the way women are in movies - just someone who was deeply curious and used science as a way to search for the truth - but who was also very courageous. Very much like Carl, really, willing to undergo the disapprobation of colleagues.' Much of Sagan's life was also devoted to making science understandable to the public, for which he often incurred the scorn of his peers. 'Some of his colleagues have been unfair to him and punished him for his efforts to communicate with the public,' Ms Druyan agreed. 'They asked him why a scientist of his credentials was engaged in such a deliberate ongoing effort of public education and he would say, 'When you're in love, you want to tell the world'. He really believed that science should belong to everyone. 'First of all it was because it was the taxpayers who paid for science, for the most part. 'And you can't be a democracy if society is based so completely on science and technology if the decision makers and the voters don't understand anything about the science. 'Thirdly, he came from poverty, and it was only because of the public school system and public library system and the support of his parents that he could become a scientist. He felt it was very important that he should give back what he was given.' Sagan was working on a set of astronomy books and CD-ROMs for children with Ms Druyan when he died at age 62. She is hoping Contact will spawn more interest in the work of SETI and bring in more money to further its goal. What Ellie Arroway was doing [in the film] trekking around trying to convince people . . . it was very much as Carl would say: 'Who would give Columbus his three ships?' It is the most obvious thing in the world. 'The search for extraterrestrials through radio astronomy is one of the cheapest and most efficient things you can do. And what a thought, changing the world forever, and changing the world more profoundly than anything I can think of. A comprehensive search for radio signals is affordable by individuals.' Ms Druyan is following her husband's star: 'To know him up close was to be even more astonished by the goodness that was as full as his brilliance. And my whole life I dedicate to doing whatever I can to further what he did.'