Podcast: Discussing Science Fiction and Astronomy with Andy Weir & Rob Manning

Credit: Planetary Society

If you have not yet tapped into The Planetary Society’s podcast Planetary Radio, then now is the time to do so. Host Mat Kaplan and his guests had a great time on the recent podcast, One Last Blast: Author of ‘The Martian’ Andy Weir with JPL Chief Engineer Rob Manning.

Both Andy Weir (author of The Martian, Artemis, and Project Hail Mary) and Rob Manning (Chief Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) were shooting the you-know-what as they chatted about science fiction books they read as teenagers, the role of real science in fictional tales, astronomical conspiracy theories, and mankind’s need to expand into the unknown.

It was interesting to hear Andy Weir talk about curiosity being humanity’s survival mechanism. He pointed out that curiosity has allowed humanity to survive disasters here on Earth because we were all spread out rather than clustered on one flood plain. The same applies to expansion beyond the Earth.

Check it out for yourself. You may want to check out some of the earlier podcasts as well, such as:

Credit: Random House Publishing Group

Gift Ideas: Popular Astronomy Books

Credit: Ballantine Books

If you are looking for another gift idea for the holidays, maybe you should consider one of the many popular astronomy books. Here are the 10 most popular from Goodreads:

  1. Cosmos, by Carl Sagan
  2. A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking
  3. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, by Carl Sagan
  4. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan
  5. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene
  6. The Universe in a Nutshell, by Stephen Hawking
  7. A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
  8. The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking
  9. Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, by Carl Sagan
  10. Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, by Neil deGrasse Tyson 

It’s great to see that Carl Sagan is still educating the public so many years after his death. As with the Voyager spacecraft, his words and contributions are traveling far and wide.

A Day in Astronomy: The Birth of Carl Sagan

Image (Credit): Astrobiologist Carl Sagan. (Nautilus.us)

On this day in 1934, scientist and communicator Carl Edward Sagan was born in Brooklyn, NY. He was to become a great communicator of all things related to astronomy. He has played a key role over the years introducing millions to our place in the universe through his books, television series, speeches, and scientific work. His television series Cosmos was a milestone in educational television, bringing the stars and planets into everyone’s living room, while his books (Contact, Pale Blue Dot, The Dragons of Eden) continue to encourage the next generation of astronomers.

Dr. Sagan has a long resume, but I am most fascinated with his work to communicate with extraterrestrial life. He was a strong supporter of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and worked with NASA to ensure our spacecraft were equipped with a record of human activity to educate other planetary civilizations, including the gold records placed on the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes as well as the two Voyager space probes.

Years ago, the Smithsonian magazine had a good summary of Dr. Sagan’s life in the article “Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable.” I recommend the article as a good way to get to know the man, though delving into his books is even better.

Credit: Ballantine Books

Extra: Carl Sagan was also the founder and first president of the Planetary Society. Visit this Planetary Society site, Ann Druyan wishes you a happy Sagan Day, for more on Dr. Sagan’s work.

Arecibo Observatory Gone Forever

Image (Credit): Matthew McConaughey and Jodie Foster at the Arecibo Observatory in the movie Contact. (Warner Bros.)

If you were hoping that the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico would have a second life, it may be time to say goodbye. Efforts to rebuild the radio telescope since it collapsed in 2020 have ended. Nature reports that the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has given up on the idea of rebuilding the telescope and instead plans to establish an educational center at the site.

You may have memories from the 1997 film Contact where Matthew McConaughey and Jodie Foster enjoyed some private time at the Observatory. Her character Dr. Ellie Arroway was working at the Observatory as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence works (SETI) program. In fact, the SETI connection is true. You can see a SETI tribute to the telescope here.

Of course, scientists will remember almost 60 years of work with the radio telescope. While it was initially built for military purposes, it was soon transformed into a scientific site and served as the largest radio telescope on the planet for some time. As far as scientific accomplishments, here are a few of them from the NSF:

  • 1967: Arecibo discovered that the rotation rate of Mercury is 59 days, not the previously estimated 88 days.
  • 1981: Arecibo produced the first radar maps of the surface of Venus.
  • 1992: Arecibo discovered the first ever exoplanet: In subsequent observations, an entire planetary system was found around the pulsar PSR 1257+12.
  • 2008: Astronomers use Arecibo to detect for the first time, methanimine and hydrogen cyanide molecules — two organic molecules that are key ingredients in forming amino acids — in a galaxy 250 million light-years away.

So many new telescopes have come online in the past 60 years that some will say we will be fine with an educational center. This is true, but it is also worth remembering each of the telescopes along the way that helped us to understand this awesome universe of ours.

Image (Credit): The damaged Arecibo Observatory reflector dish after suffering damage from a broken cable. (University of Central Florida)

Book Review: Starry Messenger Starring Neil deGrasse Tyson

Credit: Henry Holt and Co.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has put out quite a few popular astronomy books over the years, including:

  • One Universe: At Home in the Cosmos (2000);
  • The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist (2004);
  • Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries (2007);
  • The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet (2009); and
  • Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017). 

And while he often runs into the thick of current politics in his interviews, his books tended to stick to science. His latest book, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization, is one of the exceptions and at least one reviewer is taking him to the woodshed.

Mr. Tyson says this in the book’s preface:

Starry Messenger is a wake-up call to civilization. People no longer know who or what to trust. We sow hatred of others fueled by what we think is true, or what we want to be true, without regard to what is true. Cultural and political factions battle for the souls of communities and of nations. We’ve lost all sight of what distinguishes facts from opinions. We’re quick with acts of aggression and slow with acts of kindness.

To The Washington Post’s Mark Whitaker, in his review titled “Neil deGrasse Tyson Tries Punditry, with Less-than-stellar Results,” Mr. Tyson may be going a little too boldly into the political realm. Mr. Whitaker writes:

When Tyson sticks to his orbit of expertise, he remains as engaging as ever, like the professor of a popular college survey course that students might take to satisfy their science requirement… Yet while Tyson extols the virtue of a skeptical mind-set in scientific inquiry, he often comes off as none-too-skeptical in his discussion of how that mind-set can be applied to human and political affairs.

Just as Mr. Tyson followed and updated Carl Sagan’s work, such as the remake of the television series Cosmos, he may be trying to update Dr. Sagan’s 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Dr. Sagan was concerned about the future of mankind and its silly prejudices, which he also illustrated in his fictional book Contact. In The Demon-Haunted World, Dr. Sagan wrote:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

He wrote that almost 27 years ago and we are now living in the time of his children and grandchildren. His predictions seem true enough in a time of Facebook and “fake news,” as well as various denials throughout the world, from elections to climate change.

Maybe Mr. Tyson’s book is far from perfect, but if he can really continue Dr. Sagan’s work of chipping away at opinions masquerading as facts, then he is pursuing the same noble path even if it he hits a few bumps along the way. We may not be able to save what we have if we continue with our games for another 27 years.