Dying to Get to Mars

In the novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter escapes from Apaches in the Arizona desert by going into a mysterious cave where he succumbs to mysterious gasses. Soon afterward, his spirit is transported to Mars where he becomes substantial again and makes a new life as a warlord of Mars. It seems a very odd way of getting to Mars and one that’s probably doomed to failure if you or I were to try it. However, John Carter was not the first literary hero to get to Mars via this unusual method of transportation.

A Princess of Mars was first published in 1917. In 1889, the French astronomer Camille Flammarion published the novel Uranie (or Urania as it’s known in English). In mythology, Urania is the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. She’s also the great granddaughter of Uranus, for whom the planet is named. Urania is the muse of astronomy. Camille Flammarion was, for all intents and purposes, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Victorian age. His popular works on astronomy inspired a generation around the world. In many ways, he was a true life astronomical muse.

The novel is told in three parts. In the first part, Urania takes Camille Flammarion on a journey to the stars. She shows him worlds orbiting other stars and the life inhabiting those worlds. He learns that life can come in many different forms. So far, this makes Uranie the oldest novel I know that imagines life on planets outside our solar system. In the second part of the novel, we meet one of Flammarion’s colleagues, George Spero, who is courting a woman from Norway named Icléa. George and Icléa have a long, intense courtship that includes discussions of the nature of thermodynamics, orbital mechanics, and the nature of death. Eventually they travel to Norway to get married. Before the ceremony, George decides to take a balloon to make measurements of the Aurora Borealis. At the last minute Icléa jumps in the balloon with him and off they go.

Alas, part way into the journey, the gas valve breaks and the balloon begins a rapid descent. In order to save George, Icléa jumps from the balloon to the frigid waters of the lake below. The balloon begins to rise and George is saved, but he’s unable to go on without Icléa and jumps out. He misses the lake and hits the ground and the two join each other in death. Sad for the loss of his friend, Flammarion goes to a séance. There he learns that George and Icléa have taken on new forms on the planet Mars. What’s more George is now a woman and Icléa is now a man! This brings us to the end of part two.

Part Three is a combination of essays about telepathy and other unexplained phenomena, how they could be, and a ghostly visit to Flammarion from George where we learn more about the couple’s new life on Mars. I won’t say much more, I’ve given spoilers enough. Still, I found it interesting that death on Earth and rebirth on Mars was not unique to Burroughs in early science fiction. I have no idea whether or not Burroughs was directly influenced by Flammarion, but Burroughs would have been a teenager when Uranie was released in the United States and Flammarion’s work was widely read. It was, after all, Camille Flammarion who inspired Percival Lowell to build an observatory in Arizona to study the planet Mars.

If you’d like to read this interesting, science fiction novel, it’s in the public domain in the United States and available to download from Project Gutenberg at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41941.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

The autumn of 1980 was perhaps one of the most difficult times of my life. My father died suddenly of a heart attack just about six weeks before my fourteenth birthday. One thing that helped pull me through that difficult time was Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos. It fostered my love of astronomy and set me on a course that would eventually earn me a degree in physics. Thirty-five years later, I’m now sharing Neil deGrasse Tyson’s updated Cosmos with my daughters. My youngest is the same age I was when I discovered Sagan’s original.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey_titlecard

Overall, I’ve been impressed with the series. I can nitpick some places where they’ve sacrificed precision in how a particular astronomical object or phenomena is depicted in the name of dramatic effect, but for the most part Tyson gets the important things right. The show has allowed me to better explain the importance of spectra in my work at Kitt Peak. I was delighted to see an episode featuring Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. I was able to discuss how they influenced both my work and how people they worked with directly inspired teachers of mine such as Emilia Belserene at Maria Mitchell Observatory. I also appreciated the discussion about how neutrinos can precede supernova explosions, though I noticed they managed to leave out mention of Stirling Colgate’s important contributions to that work.

Perhaps the most important thing about the series is that I see the same wonder on the faces of my daughters that I had when I watched Carl Sagan’s original series. My oldest daughter has already set her sights on a degree in mathematics and computer science. My youngest still has options wide open. I hold no strict expectation she’ll pursue a career in science, but I do expect she’ll come to respect the process of science and hold an appreciation of it no matter what she does.

Unlike Neil deGrasse Tyson, I hold no Ph.D. My career in astronomy diverged from a strictly academic path into more of an engineering and support path. Despite that, I feel it’s important to convey my love of science in classrooms as well as science fiction and steampunk conventions. In fact, I think there’s value in showing that you don’t need a Ph.D. to appreciate, use, and act on scientific discovery. Because of my interest in communicating about science, I’ve been paying close attention to Tyson’s presentations. He is a good, clear communicator and I’ve especially enjoyed seeing how he introduces subjects such as stellar spectroscopy, supernovae, and black holes.

In the most recent episode I watched, Tyson presented the sobering evidence for climate change. There’s been a lot of debate about it, but as he notes there’s well over a century of solid evidence that carbon dioxide is increasing and global temperatures are warming. He notes that weather is hard to predict and there are lots of minute variations. He demonstrated this by walking a dog. The dog goes all over the place, attracted by different things. However, climate is like the man holding the leash. There may be random variations, but there’s also an overall path. Although climate change is a sobering reality, I appreciated that Tyson showed that there is hope. We have to work hard and make solar and wind energy a reality and we need to do it much faster than we have been.

Now some will say addressing climate change is just too big a problem to address. I watched this episode after visiting New Orleans ten years after Hurricane Katrina. Ten years ago, some people said rebuilding New Orleans was just too big a challenge, we should let the city go. Although Katrina still echoes in New Orleans, it’s returned to being a bright and vibrant city. Researchers at Tulane University are working on finding ways to restore the gulf coast and perhaps even find ways to make New Orleans much safer should another hurricane strike. We humans are amazing and we can solve the big problems when we set our minds to it.

I appreciate the effort Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, and Seth MacFarlane have put into bringing a new version of the show back. I hope it inspires a new generation to look at the world with wonder and to take the scientific process seriously.