Friday, November 9, 2012

Carl Sagan as a Candle in the Darkness.

I woke up this morning, checked the interwebs, and saw #carlsagan was trending. Curious, I clicked through and saw that today, November 9 2012, would have been Carl's 78th birthday.  This is personally relavent to me, and a flood of memories instantly filled my head. I knew Carl personally, and that turn of events happened like this...

When I was a teenage boy growing up in the frozen depths of Northern Minnesota in the 70's, I took a strong interest in science. There were four reasons for this:

  1. There were stars in the sky at night. There was practically nothing around my home in Minnesota, so the sky was unencumbered with man-made light. The sky was brilliantly lit. I saw things that I am sure most don't see anymore: meteor showers, lunar eclipses, aurora borealis, and the big, beautiful milky way. It is a vivid memory even now, looking back 40 years, that I have never seen captured properly in photos or video. (Well, ok, maybe here.)
  2. Dale Gibbs. Dale was my astronomy teacher in high school - yes, we had an astronomy class. Several, actually. Dale taught me about a life in science both within and outside the frozen northland of Minnesota. His passion for what he did was infectious - a wonderful man with a quick sense of humor - another trait he shared with me. Dale, if you're out there, it's a debt I can never repay. Thank you.
  3. Star Trek. Don't laugh, you snarky people. I think most people my age would put that out there - and there's a reason why NASA christened the first Space Shuttle with the name Enterprise. It was a show that taught those of us trapped in a pre-internet world (back when "nerd" was not synonymous with "cool") that there were others out there that thought as we thought, believed as we believed. Not just about science, but about cultural integrity and putting aside racism and outdated beliefs. IDIC lives.
  4. Carl Sagan. When I was a teen, Carl started coming into his own, not just as an astronomer, but as a spokesperson for the power of science to change humanity. It was a grandiose thought, and one I had never heard expressed in the way he expressed it. To him, science was not a religion - it was a replacement for religion. The steadfast notion that humanity's belief in a higher power was really an attempt on the part of an adolescent human race to try to understand that which was unknowable. Paraphrasing from scripture, Carl felt it was time to put away childish things. To push aside a veil  kept in place by dogma and really see what was going on. When he titled the now famous "Cosmos" a "Personal Journey," I found out later that he was serious. It was personal for him.

In 1984, I left graduate school with degrees in computer science, math and astrophysics - these things were important to me, they mattered. My first position in the working world was as a research science assistant at JPL - I was stationed at Brown University in Rhode Island, as part of an image processing and remote sensing team lead by Jim Head, a Distinguished Professor of Geologic Science at Brown.

I was thrilled. I was in it - working on spacecraft data, designing and building image processing systems, and meeting with people who I idolized in my youth: Hal Mazursky, Larry Soderbloom, and Carl Sagan. (While others were following sports personalities in school, I was following these guys.) I was placed on two projects out of the gate: The Galileo Spacecraft (which was to be launched in 1989), and the Russian Venus (Venera) landers, which were major milestones in the 80's. I was going to the Lunar and Planetary Science meetings, IKI in the former Soviet Union, JPL planning meetings, NASA planning seminars, and, of course, Cornell University.

It was in 1987 when I first met Carl - I was at Cornell for a Galileo planning meeting. Carl wasn't on that project, but he was a professor at Cornell, so of course knew everyone on the Galileo project, and so stopped by. Actually, when I first met him he was fiddling with a VCR connected to a TV set, trying to ready his presentation. I didn't know who he was, his back was to me and he was hunched over the old-timey video recorder making frustrating noises... I bent down to help him out, and let him know that it needed to be on channel 3 (remember that?). He laughed, and I immediately recognized him.

His participation in the meeting was interesting, especially looking back using a 2012 lens. In today's world, we understand the importance of marketing, social media and other tools to promote a cause. While some of it is frivolous, awareness of a cause is important in supporting that cause. In 1987, this was a concept that people relegated to a that's-how-you-sell-coca-cola mindset, not a that's how you raise awareness. But, this was 1987 - the Challenger had just exploded the previous year, and the public was questioning our involvement in space exploration in specific, and in a larger way science in general. People needed to see what we in the field saw - they needed to feel why were were doing this.

Carl, more than anyone else on the Galileo science team, knew that instinctually in 1987. He came to us and proposed something preposterous. The Galileo spacecraft was forced to take a long duration flight, due to restrictions that were placed on the craft at the time. Galileo had a small, radioactive payload to power it in the icy cold of the deep solar system - it was not understood at the time, how tiny this payload was - the public heard "radioactive," and refused to allow Galileo the fuel required for a direct flight to Jupiter, incase that fuel ignited and exploded in the atmosphere like Challenger. There was no need for this fear for a number of reasons, but there was no talking congress out of it: Galileo had to come up with a low-power way to get to Jupiter.

The Galileo engineering team came up with just that solution: the long way. Galileo would be launched towards the inner solar system (yes, the wrong way), use the gravity of the sun and two earth flybys to play "crack the whip." (I told you science was cool. )The resulting final velocity would get it to Jupiter - but after several years instead of several months.

Carl proposed using the earth flybys to create, what he called, "a postcard from space." Take a picture, or series of pictures, of the earth and the moon from an angle no one had seen before: an angle of someone from somewhere else approaching our home. Show the world why we doing this, how alone we are, how we are "on our own." How we need each other to cope, to comfort, and - more importantly - to understand where we are in the universe.

There was a lot of nerd-fighting about this. In the 80's spacecrafts had less processing power than even a modest cell phone: less memory, poorer camera, and - most importantly here - less power and bandwidth. What Carl was proposing seemed, to the distinguished men and women of the Galileo science team, a frivolous waste of precious power, memory and bandwidth. There was no science to be gained here, why do it?

Carl, of course, won out - Galileo's imaging system was turned on twice. Once in the first approach to earth, the earth and moon in full color in a single frame...lit by the sun, at once both beautiful and fragile. I've included it here - you be the judge, was it worth waking up Galileo from it's sleep, turning itself on and taking this photo?

The second photos taken by Galileo were during the second approach to earth - by that point, the Galileo earth/moon shot had sparked something in people throughout the world, and it wasn't a far reach from there for Galileo to do even more. Enough photos of the earth in space were taken to assemble a small video. I've included it at the end.

Over the years, Carl became a casual friend - whenever we were in the same city, we'd sit down somewhere and talk about the world, science, and the public's changing attitudes. These were some of the best talks I've had in my personal and professional career. How often does someone get to know, really know, a childhood hero - and have that hero know him back?

As time went on, I left JPL and Carl got sicker. We lost touch, and I didn't want to intrude on the family as things got bad for him... I never reached out, and that always haunts me. He passed just before Christmas in 1996.... it was pre-internet-everywhere, so I read about it in the paper.

I think about him often, and wonder (a lot) about what he would think of the modern world. He was spared the vision of the world descending into a darkness of the spirit and the intellect - total science graduates dropping; US schools appearing lower and lower in the "best in science" rankings;  the rise of creationism; reading books being replaced by listening to sound bites, which in turn are replaced by 140 characters; religious jihads destroying lives and property; countries being felled as collateral damage; and so on. Would he still be the carrier of the candle of science, providing that light in the darkness?

I believe so - I believe that, somehow, it would re-energize him. The need for knowledge is still there, its just being fed by very different sources - Carl was a voice of reason and logic and poetry, and he had a certain something that people gravitated towards. A frequent visitor to the Johnny Carson show, I suspect he would make use of these new forums: YouTube videos, G+ hangouts, some sense, getting his voice out would be easier, not harder.

So - on this his 78th birthday, it's left up to the rest of us. He was there when we needed him, he needs us now. We need us now. Protect that candle, keep it lit. Don't do it through name calling and posturing and illogic - keep it lit with eloquence, with intellectual discourse....with facts. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, the world is strange and wonderful enough as it is, without having to invent any more of it.

Happy 78th Carl. Thank you for this video and everything else you've done and taught us. We should have gotten you something...