Looking into the night sky, one is filled with wonder. The stars, moon and planets intrigue us as they have across all time. Two authors take up this fascination in their new books. One looks forward and the other looks backward in time to advance our understanding of the history of space science.
Andrew Kessler in Martian Summer is looking to the future of NASA while Cathryn Prince in A Professor, A President and a Meteor focuses on the birth of American science in 19807 when a meteorite crashed in Weston, Connecticut.
Kessler and Prince will be in Ithaca for the Columbus Day holiday weekend. On Sunday, October 9th at 3 p.m. in Buffalo Street Bookstore Prince and Kessler will participate in an author panel discussion. On Monday, October 10th at noon in the Museum of the Earth, both authors will offer a family friendly program on Mars and Meteorites. We invite everyone to meet the authors of these two books reviewed in brief here.
Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Space Cowboys, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission by Andrew Kessler (Pegasus, 2011).
Mars is far. Kessler’s ability to make astrophysics comprehensible to an eighth grade girl and get her to giggle is the geek appeal. Spending a summer inside mission control in Tucson brings home the fact that Mars is truly distant. A sol is a Martian day. It’s a couple hours and some minutes longer than a day on Earth. Hence the plot of sleep deprivation and science stirred together and shaken. Kessler’s own experiences with time-shifting and its physiological, emotional and professional impact are documented in a way Hunter Thompson might admire. Digging for Regolith, the word for Martian dirt, is part of the mission. The objective is to determine whether Mars has water. The execution of these tasks by teams of NASA scientists is about as action packed as watching paint dry on the wall. Kessler keeps the reader turning the page nonetheless with his wacky way of connecting the reader to the science in pursuit of a discovery. Arcade games, household cleaning products, even anti-freeze are ways in which Kessler demystifies the discovery of water on Mars. In the process of sharing his fly-on-the-wall observations, the scientists become humans and a few heroes; all of them characters you grow to know and care about. It’s the best evidence NASA presents for continued funding of the US Space Program.
A Professor, A President and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science by Cathryn Prince (Prometheus, 2010).
For anyone who has ever turned their eyes to the sky and pondered, this story of the 1807 Weston Fall offers a full and fasincating account of how early Americans reacted to a magnificent meteorite. The responses and reactions of those who witnessed this event are chronicled by Cathryn Prince in this meticulously researched book. Across time and culture, Prince reports on humans’ responses and rationalizations to meteorites — thunder stones — and offers the kind of contextualization needed to make sense of the national controversy which ensued in 1807. The Professor is Benjamin Silliman, with a calling to become Yale’s missionary for American Science. The President is Thomas Jefferson who mocks the Yankee who would consider the meteor anything less than an act of God. You can see through the array of factual evidence, the seeds for the split between south and north that brought the nation into civil war 40 years later. The “you are there” feel to the story makes it a joy to read as history comes back to life; the specificity and details of everyday life in 1807 give depth to the characters and actions. Science, in its origins, began with space exploration and this historical connection is compelling.