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:
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.
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.
In addition to giving us the famous Drake Equation pertaining to the potential existence of extraterrestrial intelligence in our galaxy, he spent his life looking for signs that we are not alone and served as the president of the SETI Institute as well as director of the SETI Institute’s Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. Among many other things, he also worked with Carl Sagan on the “Golden Record” placed in the Voyager spacecraft.
One thing that comes across from interviews is that he was a very hopeful man who did not tire easily. In an earlier interview with Space.com, he shared this unique view of our space neighbors:
That reminds me of something else. We have learned, in fact, that gravitational lensing works. If they [aliens] use their star as a gravitational lens, they get this free, gigantic, super-Arecibo free of charge. They are not only picking up our radio signals, but they have been seeing the bonfires of the ancient Egyptians. They can probably tell us more about ourselves than we know … they’ve been watching all these years.
You can watch Mr. Drake discuss gravitational lens and more in this earlier lecture on YouTube. You can also learn much more about Mr. Drake’s career and activities at FamousScientists.org.