May 26, 2020

24.04.11: The McDonald Observatory “Dodges the Bullet.”

Holy Cats… the landscape around the McDonald Observatory in west Texas has been looking very other-worldly over the past week, as wild fires have raged dangerously close to the complex. Home of the 9.2 meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the observatory survived the fires after a dramatic back burn was conducted to consume any ground material that could fuel further fires.

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Carl Sagan: A Biography by Ray Spangenburg & Kit Moser.

(Editor’s Note; This post is part of our ongoing tribute to Carl Sagan, the man and scientist.)

Think you know Carl Sagan? The recently published Carl Sagan: A Biography by Ray Spangenburg & Kit Moser out earlier this year courtesy of Prometheus Books will show you otherwise. Don’t forget, long before there was Carl Sagan the media icon/spokesperson for humanity via PBS’s Cosmos series, there was Carl the PhD student, family man, and planetary scientist. Perhaps no modern scientific visage (with the exception of Hawking) is immediately as recognizable as Sagan’s, turtle neck, elbow-patched jacket and all. This biography traces his roots from his Brooklyn childhood in the 30′s up through his college and PhD years to his work as a scientist at JPL, to fame via Johnny Carson and publication. The book ends with Sagan’s untimely death, which came way too soon.

Many fascinating aspects of Sagan’s life are brought to light. Sagan found himself in the right place at the right time on many occasions. Attending the 1939 World’s Fair first sparked his interest in science. Like many of us, his childhood subsisted of a steady diet of Sci-Fi, only it was Pulp magazines and Edgar Rice Burroughs back then instead of Star Trek and Battlestar. Later in college he rubbed elbows with such 20th century greats as Urey & Miller, who performed the first seminal experiments on the origin of early life, and Gerard Kuiper, the great planetary scientist. How I would have loved to have been a fly on the observatory dome wall during Sagan’s and Kuiper pre-dawn discussions at the McDonald Observatory!

But Carl’s personal life was as complex as the ponderings of the man himself. Married three times, he frequently fell prey to the same marital dilemmas that plagued Einstein and Gandhi; its just plain hard to be a “great” public persona while being a great father and husband! He was also vexed with achalasia, an esophageal condition that made swallowing difficult. Some of the behind the scenes portraits of Sagan’s work on the Cosmos series paint him as difficult to work with and uncompromising; but perhaps its this quality that has made the series itself so timeless and enduring.

For the record, Sagan got his PhD in 1960 in Astronomy from the University of Chicago for his thesis entitled: “Physical Studies of Planets”. It was a heady time for science, as the Russians had recently thrown down the technological gauntlet in the form of Sputnik. Science may not have been at the forefront of politicians’ minds as they eagerly funded the race to space, but men like Sagan assured that some science did indeed get done. Ironically, it was during the first flyby of another world, Mariner 2 past Venus, that his first marriage dissolved. Sagan was also crucial in bridging the gulf between Soviet and American scientists, no mean feat in beleaguered Cold War climes. He was also key to perhaps one of the greatest planetary exploration legacies of the 20th century; the Grand Tour of the outer planets, first with Pioneer, and then the Voyager space probes past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, utilizing the post-Apollo technologies to their best advantage. When Vikings I and II touched down on Mars, Sagan was there in JPL eagerly awaiting the images of his childhood world of Barsoom.

But it was for is later era of his life as a elder scientist & skeptic that he was best known. It seems as if a true sign of “making it” as a science writer is when the “cranks” start filling your inbox. It’s truly astounding the number of concocted-in-the-basement, alternative theories of cosmology and what not that have filled loose leaf notebooks over the years. After his first book, The Cosmic Connection, Sagan was introduced to this alternate world. Rather than dismissing it, Sagan carefully brought these folks in and introduced them to real science. His era as a celebrity properly began with his appearances on the Johnny Carson Show, who was himself an avid amateur astronomer. How many scientists make late night TV today?

It was via Cosmos that Sagan entered most of our households, explaining science and the state of man. I was enthralled by the show as a teenager; it was like a real life Star Wars! I especially remember how effectively Carl would convey how long and torturous a path our road to knowledge was, and still is. Scientific knowledge is not easy to come by; many obstacles had to be overcome throughout the ages.

Alas, Carl’s time with us proved to be much too short after his success as a science popularizer. Throughout the 1980′s he could be seen warning against nuclear winter, a term he himself brought into popular focus. He wrote several outstanding books, and continued to advocate the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in a new era of meager science funding. He also founded the Planetary Society, still one of the largest grassroots citizen science organizations.

Carl’s diagnosis and passing from pneumonia due to his battle myelodysplasia came as a blow to all. Carl had just turned 62 when he passed away on December 20th, 1996; next month, he would have been 75. He missed the opening of the movie Contact based on his only science fiction novel by mere months. One sees the whirlwind of scientific progress and the dilemmas we face and wonder what insight Carl would have, were he still with us.

Read Carl Sagan: A Biography to get a true feel for the man that shaped much of our thinking in the late 20th century. Few scientists have cast such a long shadow in not only the scientific, but political and cultural arenas. We still miss you Carl!