Planetary Radio • Apr 22, 2020
The Royal Astronomical Society at 200
On This Episode
Experimental Astrophysicist, UC San Diego Center for Astrophysics & Space Sciences (CASS) and Associate Director for Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination
Deputy Executive Director for Royal Astronomical Society
Librarian and Archivist for Royal Astronomical Society
Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom
Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society
“The object of THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY shall be the encouragement and promotion of Astronomy, Solar-System Sciences, Geophysics and closely related branches of science.” That’s what you’ll find on the website of the RAS. Its mission has changed little in the two centuries since it was founded by some of Britain’s leading scientific minds. Don’t miss the UK Poet Laureate’s poem in honor of the RAS at the end of this week’s episode. We also offer a tribute to the late Margaret Burbidge, one of the 20th century’s greatest astronomers.
- The Royal Astronomical Society
- An Elegy for a British Lioness: Margaret Burbidge (1919–2020) by Brian Keating
- UK Poet Laureate Simon Armitage
- Watch the first ever What’s Up LIVE on April 30th
- The Downlink
This week's prizes:
A Planetary Society rubber asteroid, and Bruce and Mat will record an outgoing message for your phone.
This week's question:
What is the name of the launch and landing spacesuit used in the Soyuz spacecraft? What does it have to do with Japanese sample return missions and SpaceX rockets?
To submit your answer:
Complete the contest entry form at https://www.planetary.org/radiocontest or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, April 29th at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.
Last week's question:
In what kind of aircraft did NASA Administrator James Bridenstine fly combat missions off the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln?
The winner will be revealed next week.
Question from the April 8 space trivia contest:
Which X-15 pilots later flew on NASA space missions?
The X-15 pilots who LATER flew on NASA space missions were Neil Armstrong and Joe Engle. (Joseph Walker was the only X-15 pilot to fly above the FAI space threshold of 100 km or 62 miles.)
Mat Kaplan: [00:00:00] The Royal Astronomical Society turns 200, this week on Planetary Radio.
Welcome. I'm Mat Kaplan of the Planetary Society with more of a humid adventure across our solar system and beyond. Hoping you and yours are well. We're off to London for a virtual visit with two leaders of the oldest continuously operated astronomy organization on our planet, and in moments we'll enjoy a special tribute to a long time member of the RAS, the late Margaret Burbage. There's a sweet little RAS related Easter egg at the tail end of this weeks show. Before we get to the downlink headlines, I've got a special invitation to share. I hope you'll join us on Thursday, April 30th at one PM Pacific, four PM Eastern and 2000 hours UTC for the very first, WhatsUp live. Bruce Bets and I [00:01:00] will tell you more during this week's regular WhatsUp segment or you can check out planetary.org/live.
If you heard my conversation last week with NASA administrator Jim Brydenstein, you were among the first to learn of a new earth sized planet in its stars habitable zone. More of this story is at planetary.org/downlink, as is our story about the Mars helicopter that has now been attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. We've covered developments of this little flying machine here on the show. NASA astronauts, Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meyer, as well as Russia's Olegs Krapachka have returned to Terra Firma from the international space station. The next two ISS visitors are likely to be the first astronauts to catch a ride on a SpaceX crew dragon. That historic launch has been tentatively set for May 27th, and you can bet Planetary Radio and the Planetary Society will provide [00:02:00] special coverage.
Eleanor Margaret Burbage passed away on April 5th at the age of 100, you're not alone if she is mostly unfamiliar to you, that's a shame because her name should be praised along with the other greatest astronomers of the 20th century. Brian Keating was lucky enough to work for and with her. Brian is chancellor's professor of physics at the university of California, San Diego, where he is part of CASS, the center for astronomy and space studies. Brian, thank you very much for joining me for this, this short tribute to, to someone who you worked very closely with and apparently had tremendous respect for, Margaret Burbage. Welcome to the show.
Brian Keating: Oh, thanks Mat. It's always a pleasure to get together with you either in person or through the ether.
Mat Kaplan: I, I totally agree and we will be talking again before too long about your book and the efforts that are currently underway, uh, regarding the topic of that book. But for now, what inspired me was a terrific little [00:03:00] tribute, an essay that you wrote for medium.com which we will link to from this week show page at planetary.org/radio. An elegy for a British lioness, Margaret Burbage, 1919 to 2020, 2020. You know, I'd heard of her, but I had no idea what a heroic figure she was until I read your essay, so thank you for that as well.
Brian Keating: Yeah, it's a, it's bittersweet for me because she meant so much to not not only me, but many, many astronomers over probably four or five generations of PhD theses and contributions to science. And she was really kind of an unsung hero, uh, for various reasons that I'm sure we can discuss. Um, but she was, uh, she was a hero to me and to many of us.
Mat Kaplan: In a video, which we'll also link to uh, it was for her hundredth birthday at UCSD, you called her perhaps the foremost astronomer of the 20th century. Do you stand by that and [00:04:00] why?
Brian Keating: She was certainly in the same league as the other titanic astronomers, whether it be Lyman Spitzer or Edmond Hubble and Vera Rubin. And she really had to face challenges that, that, uh, very few other astronomers, especially her male colleagues had to face, which is, you know, this invidious discrimination that took place against women basically throughout the history of astronomy, even some say up until this day, although thankfully things are getting better. But Margaret Burbage was a master at the telescope and she was, uh, she had a facility with not only the instrumental properties, you know, sitting, sitting on top of a telescope was not uncommon in astronomy of, of her, of her time. Uh, you would actually go to the telescope, not have, uh, CCD images teleported to you. So she actually would be riding on telescopes throughout the night, tracking these infinitesimally dim stars or quasi-stellar objects.
And she learned about the properties of, of the most important, some say the most important objects [00:05:00] in the universe itself. Of course, I'm biased. I study the origin of the universe, I think that's pretty important. But she studied the origin of these compact objects, stars, black holes, quasars and what powered them and what gave them the phenomenal energy output that they employ to really light up the universe at an early age, and understand how that took place as well as understanding through her data and hers alone, and that's what's so important to realize. She worked with other titans of astrophysics, but she was the only true observer in the quartet of famous astronomers and astrophysicists that she worked with that could actually provide the data that would confirm how the stars in our galaxy and other galaxies produce the stuff of life itself and the stuff of planets, the cores of rocky planets such as the earth. It would not have been possible without her.
Mat Kaplan: Star stuff, of course is as our founder, Carl Sagan called it. And you must be referring to this [00:06:00] theory, very, very famous across astronomy and astrophysics. You refer to it in the article, is it BBFH or B squared FH?
Brian Keating: Yeah, it's either, either way, but what's important to realize is that almost no papers are known exclusively by the initials, the last name initials of, of their authors. And this paper is almost unique in that it is almost universally referred to for the last 75 years or so as BBFH or B squared FH. And those are for the initials of the authors, Margaret was the first author, so it's Burbage, Burbage, uh, Fowler and Hoyle, and Willie Fowler, uh, was a Nobel Laureate in Caltech and that Nobel prize came sort of courtesy of the astronomical data that Margaret provided, in that she really provided the data that astronomers need, as I say in the medium piece, you can't really compete with my friends in the biology department, you know, for all I know, they take a fruit fly, know, they heat it up a [00:07:00] little bit, they expose it to some, some, some microwaves, I don't know what they do. Biology, I think the Dean should investigate actually.
But they, they do stuff with, with experiments, they actually can do a controlled experiment where you have a variable and a control and you keep one in quarantine and you investigate what happens. But Margaret realized you can't do that with the stars in our galaxy, you can't add more neutrons to one, take away a couple of neutrinos over there. But instead she realized that if she collected a large enough data set, she could use that as essentially a set of guinea pigs in a laboratory to really revolutionize how these stars produced the metals and the heavy elements that were not created in the Big Bang.
And that was what was so crucial about her intellect. She was willing to take intellectual voyages, to take advantage points even when it would contradict with the theories that she and her husband and in fact, Fred Hoyle, it's not known about Willie Fowler really, but they didn't accept the Big [00:08:00] Bang. And what was so interesting is that, this work sort of makes a bleak reference to the Big Bang. In fact, Fred Hoyle coined the term Big Bang derisively to refer to this, you know, fanciful theory of the origin of the universe from basically nothing, which he called the Big Bang. Allegedly, that's a pejorative in British English for something I won't say. But your listeners can look it up if they're over age 21.
Mat Kaplan: [laughs] I think they probably got it.
Brian Keating: So, uh, but, uh, Jeff went to his grave not believing in the Big Bang origin of the universe and that, this paper really took over from where the Big Bang theory leaves off, and it would not have been possible without Margaret. Margaret provided this data with [inaudible 00:08:43] on that enabled this paper to take hold in physics and arguably to some, you know, it was the, one of the key underpinnings for Willie Fowler's Nobel prize. And of course, uh, now the rules prohibit Margaret from winning a Nobel prize because they don't allow posthumous [00:09:00] prizes, much to the chagrin of many of us in the community.
But Margaret's work was truly foundational, for the understanding that the real matter that matters in our body, the oxygen, you know, oxygen mixed up by, you know, sort of, uh, the mass or number density, the, one of the dominant contributions to the elements in the human body, for example. And how those got produced and how heavier elements like iron got produced. Those were really understood for, for the first time by Margaret and her colleagues.
Mat Kaplan: And you mentioned iron, of course, the basis of the hemoglobin in the blood that courses through all of us. Uh, you'll forgive me, I hope for one more reference to uh, competing theories of, uh, uh, the origin of the universe. But in addition to Fred Hoyle's, being a fan of the steady state in that area, you could refer to, uh, the steady state of discrimination that she faced. I, I'm so intrigued by the fact that she was at Mount Wilson, uh, at the time that Hubble was an interesting character in [00:10:00] himself. Terrific astronomer of course, like her, but it's his chair that you can still see up there on the top of Mount Wilson at the uh, hundred inch telescope. Could you just mention some of the challenges that she faced there and then maybe we'll mention one or two others?
Brian Keating: Yeah. What was so interesting, imagine having the skills to really be in this Pantheon of astronomical royalty and then being denied access to the very tools which you are uniquely capable of using merely because you lack a Y chromosome. And it was just, uh, it's, it's really, you know, a shaming. And you wonder if, as I was writing my book and thinking about Margaret and Margaret plays a very important role in the book as does Vera Rubin and Maria Mayer and other people that have this wonderful connection to, to nuclear astrophysics and the, and the matter in the universe that you can see, but also the dark matter that you can't see. Yes, it's really quite, quite a shame. And you think about all the minds that astronomy might've lost were it not for first changes that we're hopefully making [00:11:00] nowadays, but I think back to perhaps other groups that have been shut out of, of accolades and awards and the attribution that all scientists deserve and sadly don't all get.
But back in the fifties when Margaret was first taking the data that would then go into this paper, the BBFH paper, she was denied access to use Mount Wilson, which was perhaps the most powerful telescope, uh, on the face of the earth at that time. This telescope could only be used by men because there were two pretexts given by the operators of Mount Wilson. One was that male technicians, those that drove the telescope around and pointed it to different coordinates on the sky as commanded by the astronomers, would not take commands from a woman, that was their, that was their claim, if you can believe that.
But an enduring, a more enduring, uh, and perhaps easier for them to justify in their cognitive dissonance later on was that, "Oh, there's no women's rooms on the summit of Mount [00:12:00] Wilson," so therefore you can't use a male bathroom, right? I mean, that's impossible. Uh, so they shut her out, uh, of using it, but in kind of a brilliant act of civil disobedience, she was nothing if not civil. I mean, I never saw her lose her temper in the 14 years that I knew her, 16 years that I knew her. She's the epitome of British charm wit and grace, which was quite opposite to her husband, which is, they made a wonderful and uh, contrast study in contrast.
But Margaret then decided that she would pose as her theoretician husband, graduate student, not wife, that was forbidden too, to have married couples up there for, you know, having for fend uh, something might become of it. But Margaret poses as a graduate student or assistant and he, a person who had never used a telescope was allowed to bark orders at these lowly technicians on the summit of Mount Wilson, while ideally by, you know, she was kind of the, the, the woman behind the curtain telling-
Mat Kaplan: [inaudible 00:12:56]
Brian Keating: Yeah, it was really just a [00:13:00] wonderful kind of story that would later have an echo with Vera Rubin, who is also forbidden to use the same observatory, and instead of opposing, her husband was not an astronomer, even a theorist so he could not be a part of the ruse. Instead she went and cut out a little silhouette of a woman and taped it on the men's room door Vera Rubin did and said, "There, now you've got a woman's room."
Mat Kaplan: I've been up there and I was in the area that they call the monastery to this day. But thank goodness the things have liberalized a little bit-
Brian Keating: That's true.
Mat Kaplan: And elsewhere. You've got to talk about one other example that you mentioned. She became director of the Royal Greenwich observatory, one of my favorite science shrines on this planet. But she was denied another title that usually goes with that.
Brian Keating: That's right. Yeah. So throughout history for centuries, astronomers who held the position of the director of the Royal Greenwich observatory, this is Greenwich, England. This is the very location the [00:14:00] Meridian through which establishes, you know, the Eastern and Western hemispheres and, and universal time, et cetera. And that person had for, throughout history and even to this day also concurrently held the title of astronomer royal.
And I joke that Martin Reese once told me that his job is most often mistaken as astronomer royal as reading the queen her horoscope, but he doesn't really do that, uh, instead it's sort of a non honorific, but Margaret was denied that, uh, because the, the, the, the holder of the title of astronomer royal was Martin Ryles, sir Martin Ryle, who had won the Nobel prize in 1974 and part for a discovery made by another woman, uh, this one, uh, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, uh, the discovery of pulsar. So he was involved with the, uh, the discovery of that and radio telescopes. It's so ironic that they denied her this position and then thankfully in some sense, you know, just speaking purely vinyly as I'm ought to do for myself, that, that was it, she couldn't take it. And she moved to America [00:15:00] with, with, uh, Jeff Burbage, her husband, and they eventually ended up here in San Diego in the, in the, uh, in the seventies, and later on went to become the, the first director of the center for astrophysics and space sciences where we are building things like the bicep observatory or we built the bicep observatory components and we are building parts of the Simons observatory.
So it's quite wonderful for me that she happened to move away from, from jolly old England. Uh, but, uh, but I'm sure it was hard for her. What's interesting about Margaret is that she wouldn't, she wouldn't see discrimination per se. She wouldn't allow it to be used either to benefit her or to harm her. So she just would power through things like this. Eventually going on to be the first female astronomer in the U.S National Academy of sciences, something her husband never achieved, even though he was a titanic contributor to astrophysics in the previous century.
At the same time, she wouldn't accept the awards that were only allowed to be given to women. She famously would turn them down saying it's, it's [00:16:00] time to end discrimination in favor of women as well. So she was, uh, she was an intellectually honest person, you know, to an extent that's really so refreshing to, to just know that such people exist, and she was a true, you know, Maverick intellect that would go wherever the data would, would compel her to go.
Mat Kaplan: You've got to say something about your relationship with her. You've already said a little bit, but say more and about how you came to know her because she was at UCSD.
Brian Keating: It was a different time, you know, we're talking now in 2020. It's very difficult to become a professor nowadays. Extremely difficult to become a professor. It wasn't easy when I first, you know, kind of was offered the job back in 2003, but it's gotten extremely difficult, and all the more so in this time of COVID, which has really canceled faculty searches and it's, it's devastated academia, man. It's, it's quite, it's quite horrific beyond of course all the tragic injuries and loss of life, which of course are paramount.
But, but anyway, back then it was a little easier than it is now. And I had multiple [00:17:00] opportunities for jobs back as I left being a postdoc at Caltech where Margaret had been and where Willie Fowler had been, and came to, uh, consider two different offers. And the fact that Margaret Burbage was the founder of the center for astrophysics and space sciences here, and the fact that, that she was really quite active, thriving. I mean this was in her late eighties and that she could still be counted on to show up to every seminar and have a good word and a positive outlook and really compliment her husband in a really unique way. He would, he would be a terror for, you know, one of the parts of my book that I ended up leaving out, because I love Jeff too, but he was very irascible. He hated this notion that people would have sloppy thinking no matter what it was.
But one time I remember a young person came and gave a seminar about cosmology and happened to utter those two words that were so detestable to Jeff and he would just [inaudible 00:17:55] you know in his jowly British way, "Big Bang really." But [00:18:00] then I remember her when she would see technology, and this is what's cool about her because she was involved with technology that eventually made its way into the Hubble and other telescopes as well. She wasn't just a pure glass telescope observer. She would say things like when we would show her our balometers our detections [inaudible 00:18:15], "That's so cool." And [inaudible 00:18:18], it made your day. Uh, and, and to this day, I am, I'm blessed to have, uh, Jeff's old office at the center, and I come across plates, uh, that Margaret had taken from these telescopes that she had rode a strode, you know, written upon decades earlier.
It's, it's like finding a little piece of Babylonian Q and A form or something. I, I, I can't tell you how much it means when you actually find this relic from a bygone era taken by one of your heroes. Uh, so it's just, it's just a treat, I miss her terribly. And, uh, and we, we're doing a lot here in San Diego, UC San Diego to promote her legacy. We have a visiting professorship, which is named after her called the Margaret Burbage visiting professorship. Currently it's held by a friend of mine, [00:19:00] Elena Apriel, who is an experimentalist who's looking to find actual signatures of dark matter here in earthbound detectors. It's so amazing that the woman who taught Vera Rubin how to use spectroscopy to measure the existence of dark matter confirmed the existence of dark matter. That woman has a professorship currently held by a woman who's actively trying to detect dark matter at this very time. It's just, it's just such a treat the way life works.
Mat Kaplan: One might say cosmic justice. Thank you Brian. I, I, you know, I am so sorry now that I never got to speak to her myself, but this may be the next best thing. Thank you for this tribute. Uh, again, uh, a lot of this is, uh, taken or least my inspiration to talk to Brian about this is from his piece in media, @medium.com. An elegy for a British lioness Margaret Burbage, uh, whom you worked with for many years at UC San Diego. And Brian, we will talk again, uh, hopefully before too long about that wonderful work that you have underway right now.
Brian Keating: [00:20:00] Thanks Mat. I can't wait until we're together and may it be under good circumstances and thank you so much for all your time, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: Yes. Hopefully face to face. Hopefully we'll be allowed to do that once again. Uh, Brian Keating is chancellor's professor of physics at the university of California, San Diego, author of Losing the Nobel Prize, great far ranging story that is about much more than losing the Nobel prize. He also hosts a little competition, a great podcast called Into The Impossible for the Arthur C. Clark center for imagination. Uh, which has been very helpful to me in um, helping to arrange conversation several that some of you may have heard here on Planetary Radio. In just a moment, right after a quick break, we will talk to a couple of leaders of the Royal Astronomical Society, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary. And Margaret Burbage was a long time member of the society.
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The Royal astronomical Society is celebrating it's bicentennial all of this year. Though some of its events have been curtailed by the pandemic, the society has not backed away from its long and vital role in U.K science. Really the study of astronomy, geophysics and planetary science throughout the world. I'd have much preferred to visit the RAS at its London headquarters, but my recent virtual visit was lovely. The society's deputy executive [00:23:00] director is astronomer, science educator and member of the international astronomical union. Dr. Robert Massey, his colleague, Dr. Sian Prosser is the RAS librarian and archivist. Robert Massey, Sian Prosser, thanks very much for joining us on Planetary Radio, and congratulations on this very auspicious 200th anniversary of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Robert Massey: Thank you. It's a pleasure.
Mat Kaplan: I also want to congratulate you. I saw on your website, which I recommend highly and we will put a link, uh, on this weeks show page, uh, to the RAS, uh, that the Royal mail, well just last month announced visions of the universe, a set of eight posted stamps marking this hundredth anniversary of, uh, of the society's foundation. Congratulations on that as well.
Robert Massey: Yeah, we're very happy with them. The nice thing about the stamps, which for me, I, you know, I was amazed, I thought this is such a 20th century thing and you know, there'll be some sort of [00:24:00] very uh, focused uh, stamp collectors who are fascinated by them. But to my surprise, they were apparently selling really, really well and given the number of letters we send these days, which has obviously much reduced, that surprised me, but yeah people were going out buying them, talking about, well I should send a letter just so I can use one of these stamps because I suppose there are so few sets that have, uh, astronomical images on them that if you're at all interested in space and astronomy and planets and so on, that is a really fascinating thing to have. And it's such a unique gift too.
Sian Prosser: Yeah, really beautiful. We had to stay quiet about them for so long. It's wonderful to actually see them in May now, it's entirely the Royal male subject. They, they decided to go with our anniversary and they commissioned the designers who did a fantastic job.
Mat Kaplan: Take us back to 1820 in the very beginnings, the origin of the Royal Astronomical Society. Robert, how did things get underway?
Robert Massey: Well, if, this is definitely one for Sian to comment on too, but as befits societies and [00:25:00] organizations at the time, this one was founded in a pub but if you've ever been to the U.K, then you'll know that pubs are a pretty much central part of our culture that's more than most places in the world. Uh, the Freemasons, uh, Tavern in, uh, in what's now Lincoln's Inn fields is that part of the world where you have all these Inns of court, the, uh, barristers that are registered and so on. And sadly the pub no longer exists, but the story is the 14 gentlemen because in those days it would have been just gentlemen, sitting down to dinner to agree the foundation of the astronomical society of London, which later on acquired a Royal charter and became the RAS.
And it stemmed from a desire I think to move out of the auspices of the Royal society, which until around that time was basically doing all the kinds of scientific meetings and so on in the UK, obviously in a much, much smaller area of society than we have today. Uh, but it is also the oldest astronomical society in the world that's been in continuous existence, uh, almost a fourth century older, I think, than double AS, so that's our, our claim to fame on that.
Mat Kaplan: Hmm, Sian?
Sian Prosser: [00:26:00] Yes. In doing the fact checking for this, we did find out that there was an astronomical society set up in Glasgow a few years before, but it did not continue as long. So yes, it is the longest running astronomical society in the world.
Mat Kaplan: Robert, you mentioned the Royal society, which had a 160 year head start on the RAS, although I noticed that you now are at least, in terms of the number of members who are about three times as big as the Royal society. Is there a relationship there or do you still collaborate?
Robert Massey: Oh yeah. I mean, I mean it's, you know, I mean, I think interestingly, Sian had discovered some sort of uh, occasional, uh, disputes back in the past, but these days they don't really happen that way. Uh, we do collaborate, you know, we go to meetings and we did, uh, for example, very importantly do that quite long time ago, but a century ago, back in 1919 when the RAS and the Royal society co-funded an expedition to, to verify Einstein's theory of general relativity.
So, uh, certainly by that time, you know, that there wasn't any obvious [00:27:00] enmity. Uh, and we did that in collaboration with [inaudible 00:27:02] and we sent an expedition, expeditions to [inaudible 00:27:05] off the coast of West Africa and to Sobral in Brazil, um, to support Einstein's theory. I mean, that's probably, uh, probably, uh, actually deserves more questions on it to be honest, because it's such a fascinating story. But, uh, yeah, we, we collaborate not just with the Royal society, but with all the other scientific societies as well.
Mat Kaplan: Cool. Wasn't that Edington's exhibition, uh, excuse me, expedition. And, and he would become our maybe already was a one in uh, of the long line of your distinguished presidents.
Robert Massey: Yeah. And he, you know, was awarded the gold medal and so on, rightly. Uh, absolutely. It's a, it's a really brilliant example of an early-ish international collaboration in science because these days in, in the, you know, in the 21st century and in the second half of the 20th century, you don't tend to have as many things being done by individual nations. Now I guess the U.S might be an exception to that because the U.S is simply so big in terms of its, its output. Uh, but generally, particularly [00:28:00] in Europe and Asia and so on, we tend to be in collaborative systems for doing science. And the nice thing about that expedition was, it was being devised during the first world war so long before, certainly long before the treaty of OSI was signed as well in, in November, 1919, it was just the idea that you could take a theory from Einstein, a German scientist, a then German scientists, uh, and work out a way to test it.
If there's one thing actually that the RAS has done in its history that's contributed to science, I really would cite this because apart from our existence and hosting things and fostering science and so on, this is really definitively something that, that transformed our understanding of the universe.
Mat Kaplan: And we'll come back to what the society does nowadays to support research and researchers. But I want to go back to the beginning again. Uh, Sian, I see that none other than William Herschel was the first president of the society, though it appeared that maybe he was a little bit reluctant?
Sian Prosser: He was, he was very advanced in years at the time, he was not the first choice of president, [00:29:00] the first president, first person who'd agreed to become president was, was strongly encouraged to step down by Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal society, who, who disapproved of a new scientific society being, a new network being set up outside of the auspices of the Royal society. So in order to sort of proceed with the meetings in, in a timely manner, William Herschel did agree to be the president, but in name only, he did not want to actually take the chairing meetings. It was his son, John Herschel, who is one of the founding members and who, who played a leading role in getting the society up and running. And who basically prevailed upon his father to, to take the titular head.
Mat Kaplan: Remarkable. I mean, I mean Herschel obviously also, you know, thinking of Planetary Radio, I mean, Herschel, uh, discovered Uranus back in the 1780s, so yeah, 14, 1781, so nearly 40 years before he became the founding president of the RAs. [00:30:00] But, uh, and his son John did remarkable work in the Southern hemisphere with charting stars and adding to that catalog of nebulae and so on. This seminal work that took place in the 19th century where the scale of telescopes continued to increase and you know, it was very much still the year, or at least the beginning of the society of people looking through telescopes and drawing them, you know, the, the stereotype of the astronomers standing out at night looking through the telescope really did apply back then and of course it isn't anything like the same way today, except those of us who do it as a hobby.
Sian Prosser: So in my role managing the archives and the library of the society, I'd really like to highlight that one of the key parts of the collection are the papers of William and John and Caroline Hershel. So we have those original notes showing the discovery of, of Uranus and which, which, which William Herschel at first thought was a comet. And we've got records of John Herschel's observations of nebulae and other deep [00:31:00] sky objects, and all of the other astronomical projects that he took on following in the footsteps, steps of his father. And of course, Caroline Hershel's observations. And we're very pleased to say that there's an exhibition in the Herschel museum in Bath in the U.K, to really put the spotlight on John Herschel, not, not just as a founder of the Royal Astronomical Society, but as one of the preeminent scientists of the 19th century.
Mat Kaplan: So many, uh, distinguished astronomers, uh, who have headed the society, uh, in addition to all of those who were members, of course, I, I saw the name of Fred Hoyle. You even have a Darwin, not Charles, but, but one of his sons.
Sian Prosser: Yes. George Darwin, known as the grandfather of geophysics. He was one of the people who really made this study of the earth and the figure of the earth, a key part of the [00:32:00] activities of the society. Although it wasn't until 1917 that we first started having meetings dedicated to the subject of geophysics, which is just a key interest of our membership.
Robert Massey: Quirkily it's, the weird thing about geophysics for us is that it, it encompasses planetary science as well. Now I suspect the distinction is somewhat lost in the mist of time but the idea was that the earth was another of those planets that should be discovered. So for us, sometimes when we talk about geophysics, we, we refer to things like, you know, planetary missions and solar physics and so on. It's just a, I suppose a distinction between almost the bit of the universe we can theoretically visit and the bits that we can't.
Mat Kaplan: As you know I'm with the Planetary Society, so you might have expected me to have planetary science on my mind, and I, I will note that one of the RAS' publications is astronomy and geophysics.
Sian Prosser: I believe it dates from 1997, it's a lively magazine for our membership. It's [00:33:00] really, um, a very accessible way of presenting like news and views and key aspects of research, and it's of interest not just to our members but I think to wider society as well.
Robert Massey: And also, and also it replaced a, to a certain extent, there was a kind of a non peer reviewed publication called quarterly journal of the RAS, which is essentially replaced and, and that was a kind of place for sort of less formal papers and so on. So I think the aim of ANG when it was founded and it, it long predates my association with the RAs, was to do what Sian describes to actually provide something that was a bit more discursive and, and conversational than a formal journal was.
Mat Kaplan: We've mentioned astronomy and geophysics it is only one of the publications of uh, of the RAS. Could you uh, talk about uh, some of these other, uh, publications that are available to the research community?
Robert Massey: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I mean the two key ones are uh, monthly notices, the Royal Astronomical Society, which is no longer even close to monthly and hasn't been for many years uh, and uh, Geophysical General International, and [inaudible [00:34:00] 00:34:00] or monthly [inaudible 00:34:01] is, is by far the older of the two and it dates back almost to, close to the foundation of the society. I think Sian would know more of the details to that.
But this is the research journal, one of the biggest in the world actually for astronomy, where people put in papers and then they're assessed by their peers in that classic science system. So, you know, it covers uh, an enormous number of topics in, in astrophysics. Sometimes we get quite, quite big science stories out of it, you know, occasionally we will get, uh, well all manner of things really, you know, covering everything from the origin information of the universe, cosmology and so on, through to, uh, you know, the presence of planets around other stars and so on. So it is an important part of the research landscape and you know, it's uh, it's very much uh, very much part of us as well.
Sian Prosser: It is, and it doesn't coincide exactly with the founding of the society of the first journal, which we set up with memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, and that ran until 1978. But monthly notices was brought up for like really prompt up to the minutes [00:35:00] announcements and updates in astronomy. And as Robert said, it's, it's just a huge publication, not, not just in terms of research impact, but like from my perspective as, as the library and again, it's still available in print form and I would say it's not monthly anymore, it comes out in three volumes per month and combined they take about six inches on the shelf. And I would say it's about a meter a meter and a half of shelf space every year.
Robert Massey: Unfortunately the majority of people don't subscribe to the papers ones anymore.
Sian Prosser: Yes. It is the most, um, paper's a very sound preservation medium for days. I think more and more journals are moving online though, online only. The other journal, which we must mention is Geophysical Journal International, which as you can tell, concerns the the science of, of the earth, that has been running in various forms since [00:36:00] around 1917 when we started publishing a, a geophysical supplement. In fact, just today I came across some early plates of diagrams, like metal printing plates that the printer [inaudible 00:36:14] formatting the, the figures to, to show all the different sort of seismological measures or there was an article about the sunspots as well. I showed them to my colleagues in the journal editing team and we're going to, they're, they're going to hopefully turn that into a social media story later because we want to promote our journalists, as Robert said, it's not just a matter of having the journal publication on, on the journal publisher's website, our partners are Oxford university press.
But Robert takes a lot of time to comb through the publication so you can talk to him more about this. And he's got a real instinct for what's newsworthy and what can come out as a press release. And, and that helps to get the astronomical community's work and the geophysical community's work out there in the spotlight, get, get the [00:37:00] world looking at current developments.
Robert Massey: To be fair and to, to denigrate my own role slightly, these days, there's simply so many papers we actually rely on authors coming to us rather than trying to read through them all because there are simply hundreds of abstracts to go through. That would be, almost be an impossible task. But I think even as recently as 25 years ago, you know, it was, it was way smaller and it was feasible to do that, but the kind of scale of publication, and I suppose that's not just the fact that scientists are publishing more papers and there's a whole debate about whether they should be, but, but also just that, you know, you've got rising science countries like China and so on just producing more content. It's become an absolutely burgeoning field and they do rely on online repositories like archive and so on to search through these things much more quickly.
I suppose in a sense it's an interesting challenge because what you might want to some, a system for being able to, to get to the number of this stuff more quickly, you know, to actually say, well, can we, uh, have a, a [00:38:00] system where we can just read the stuff that's related to our subject? Or do we want people to have that oversight of science? You know, do we want them to be able to look at things that aren't necessarily in their field? If they have too many papers, that probably becomes a bit harder actually.
Mat Kaplan: I will bet you that some AI expert listening to this is going to look into this now. You've led me to asking, uh, to hear more about your library, which I hear is the envy of, of many universities and other institutions.
Sian Prosser: It probably is the envy of many places apart from perhaps the university at the [inaudible 00:38:35] observatory, which has probably the best astronomical library in the U.K. We still have perhaps the second best, and one of the collection strengths is both the archives and I have mentioned the Hershel papers as being the jewel in that collection. And we also have a really enviable collection of early printed books. Non talking [00:39:00] about things like the first edition of Copernicus, which has that really key wood cut showing the sun at the center of the solar system. It has the major works of Johannes Kepler in which he in a series of publications arrives at sketching out what are now known as his three laws of planetary science, in which he comes, he, he expresses the fear is that, the reason that Copernicus's theory doesn't quite add up is because the orbits are not perfect circles they are ellipses and we have the first edition of Newton's Pinker pier Mathematica.
Mat Kaplan: Ah, wow.
Sian Prosser: She lays out the rules of gravity. But as well as all of these major works in the history of science, we have lesser known but still really beautifully illustrated, beautifully bound items. For example, we have an amazing collection of like 50 or 60 early [00:40:00] printed books like [inaudible 00:40:01] the first books to be printed in Western Europe, um, before 1500, including books like The Sphere by Johanna's Desacobasco or John of Hollywood, in which he clearly lays out the, the state of knowledge in the late 15th century, which was that the earth is clearly spherical and there are many ways of demonstrating this just from first principles or from observation. And I like to, this is one of the books that I like to bring out during public events, during open house, to just really highlight to people how long, um, you know, educators, people in universities and the medieval era and before knew that the earth was round. It's, you know, the idea of the earth being flat is almost [inaudible 00:40:51] to be honest.
Mat Kaplan: Yes, I know of a few people who could benefit from reading that book, uh, today. Uh, sadly.
Sian Prosser: Really, really good [00:41:00] simple woodcuts. Just imagine a picture for example of a boat and there's somebody in the deck and there's somebody in the, in the crow's nest and you can see the eye line of the person in the crow's nest seeing the shoreline before the person on the deck. You know, just things like that which are very, very accessible.
Mat Kaplan: The library I know is made available to researchers of, of, of all stripes. Uh, how does that work? I assume that you're members, the fellows are, have ready access, but uh, do you also grant access to researchers from uh, outside of the RAS?
Sian Prosser: Yes, we welcome for researchers who are not members, and we have people coming from all over the world.
Mat Kaplan: I will note that the RAS began to accept women as members, as fellows, if you will, in 1915, well before women gained the vote here in the United States.
Robert Massey: And before they gained the vote, well even three years before they even gained the partial franchise in the U.K actually as well.
Mat Kaplan: Interesting. Since we are talking about uh, research now and how the [00:42:00] society supports it. Robert, if you could talk about the, the programs that are in place to support research, but also the, the men and women who do this work.
Robert Massey: Sure. I mean, we're, well we have four and a half thousand members and they're all of a single graves' called uh, fellows. And yes, that does, does include women, has done as you point out for a century fortunately. Uh, the answer is that the society is very much a convening body. So we are there to represent the interests of astronomers and geophysicists, and also off the science. So the way we do that is we publish the journals we've talked about already. You know, we, we enable that work to be shared, but we also run a, a big program of scientific meetings. You know, we invite people from all over the world to attend those, to put proposals together and they run every month during the kind of academic season. Uh, and alongside that we have very many people booking the building as well. So any given week you know, you will find anything from a seminar or an extraterrestrial life to a discussion on, I don't know which missions the European space agency should be in the decade [00:43:00] ahead.
And our big event each year is the national astronomy meeting, which is, uh, which, uh, takes place with hundreds of people coming together to discuss the latest findings in the field. So that's the sort of stuff we do, uh, as well as that we have a grant scheme where we enable people just to apply for quite small amounts of money, it's not, not as rich as say a government research body, but little bits of seed funding that say enable, might enable a student to travel to a conference or support an undergraduate doing a re, a research project, or possibly to pay for travel to one of those conferences, not just ours, but, but somewhere somewhere else in the world where they wouldn't be able to do that otherwise.
And, and many people write to us, uh, later on or particular write to me actually if they're promoting some research and say, this was enabled by that little tiny bit of money you gave me, that enabled me to go to the conference to have that conversation with the leading astronomer somewhere else in the world that gave my career a real boosts. So it's that kind of thing that really helps as well as the library obviously, you know, we, we also help [00:44:00] to promote the science with the media and we are a political advocacy body to an extent too, so we will argue that there should be some, some level of support for our sciences to continue and to thrive because although the U.K is obviously a small player on the global stage, we do have a pretty good research output for our size and an awful lot of people at least historically have come here for a period of time or sometimes chosen to settle here because they recognize the strength of that because they can be involved in these global projects if they're based here.
Mat Kaplan: Well not that small of a player, the U.K that is.
Robert Massey: Well, I don't know less than one percent of the global population. You know, we shouldn't get too excited-
Mat Kaplan: Let's just say that you punch above your weight.
Robert Massey: That's the expression we often use and which, which, which you hear endlessly from our government I think that, uh. But it's fair, but at the same time, I'm also conscious of the fact that there are hundreds of other countries in the world.
Mat Kaplan: You mentioned, uh, being involved in space and science policy decisions as we are at the Planetary Society. And so I was very interested to see that. How far does that [00:45:00] go? I mean, what kinds of, uh, policy activities does the RAS take on?
Robert Massey: That's very much in my domain. I mean, we've, we've been as anybody who, you know, follows the U.K will know that the U.K, uh, even before the, the COVID epidemic was a bit, was paralyzed by a another kind of policy issue-
Mat Kaplan: Right.
Robert Massey: So we've been putting a lot of effort into that and trying to ensure that we're, we remain outward looking and internationally connected, not just obviously with the rest of the world as it always has been, but with our European partners. Uh, but we do do things like we try to say, well look, you know, if there's a budget settlement coming up, do not forget fundamental science because astronomy, nobody, I think credibly would say, look, you should be spending half your science budget on astronomy. Although we'd love that obviously, but not, we're fairly realistic about these things. But what we would say is that, look, if you want to inspire children to pursue careers in science and technology, then infusing them about the wider universe is a great way to do it. And to do that, it really is rather helpful if you can point to things your country is doing.
So the things we do really, [00:46:00] really well, like I don't know, membership of the European Southern observatory or, or being the host for the headquarters of the square kilometer array or being the lead partner on missions like [inaudible 00:46:09] that's heading to mercury or, or later on this decade, the juice mission, juice mission that will go to Jupiter. Those things really, really matter. And if the public hears about them and they, they understand that the U.K has that talent or that you know, there is a small but nonetheless finite possibility that you can actually be one of those specialists that you could for at least a period of your life get to do science [inaudible 00:46:32] exciting. It's more likely to persuade you to study it.
Mat Kaplan: Much to be proud of and, and to respect and protect, uh, as well as we, uh, feel the same way here in the States. You briefly mentioned one of you that uh, your headquarters, Burlington house is uh, the host to events both for the society of course, but also for outsiders apparently. It has quite a history itself, doesn't it Sian?
Sian Prosser: It does. We moved here in [00:47:00] 1874 and the building was built especially for the Royal Astronomical Society. It's part of two wings that were built onto the Royal Academy of arts premises, which occupied a 17th century mansion that was built by the Isles of Burlington. Fro, from our first meeting in a pub we occupied a number of rented rooms in the[inaudible 00:47:24] garden area of London. And then we moved to a place called Somerset House, a former royal, palace I believe. But then the government wanted to repurpose that building for births, marriages, and deaths for like civil service functions. So they very kindly built some new premises a new kind of science park in the West end of London. I believe that there were thoughts, there were plans of offering the society space in the area where the natural history museum and the science museum and other national, other national [00:48:00] institutions are now way over in the West of London.
But I understand that not only the Royal Astronomical Society, but other societies felt they would just be way too far from the centr of London and just very, very lenient. So that's where they were like, "No, we want to stay near the center." So we are just a stone's throw from Piccadilly circus it's very, very central. Facing onto the courtyard that has on one side the Royal Academy, but also other learners societies. For example, the society of antiquaries that's um, a learning society of archeologists and other people interested in historical studies. The law society of chemistry, the geological society and the Linnean society. And speaking personally, one of the great things about working here is collaborating with my neighboring collection managers. We like to put together joint events and programs, drawing on like the similarities as well as the differences in our collections.
Mat Kaplan: I would love [00:49:00] to be part of one of those events and perhaps to visit Burlington House someday. But beyond that, if I or anybody else listening to this wanted to become a member of the Royal Astronomical society, do we have that option?
Robert Massey: Well, you do. Um, generally we're not. So we're not a society say for everybody in the sense that we welcome an awful lot of people. What we don't want to do fundamentally is take your money if you're not going to get anything out of it, you know, to be, to be idealistic about it. So we are, we are there primarily for the professional research community, but we do have a lot of amateur astronomers. There are what's described as an advanced level. And that, yeah, just means that they've got some kind of commitment to advancing the science, they're regular observers, perhaps they're Astro images or something like that.
Uh, we have a lot of people who previously studied astronomy, you know, that doesn't have to be a postgraduate level, that can be an undergraduate level as well, who then go on to completely different things. And perhaps, I don't know, I'm not, I'm making up this example, but you know, if you were working as a wine merchant now, but you'd study destroy me in the past, we'd probably [00:50:00] be okay with that because it's an affinity and it de, it demonstrates that you would get something out of membership. So it's not an onerous application process. You just go to our website and apply. Ideally you're with someone who's already a member to, to help with your nomination or you can apply in your own right.
But if you're just uh, starting out amateur astronomer, it's probably not for you because the, it's not, it's not very expensive at 130 pounds a year. But I wouldn't want to take that money from somebody who wasn't going to get something out of it. But you do get the right to attend our meetings with a discount. You come to many of our scientific meetings that we don't charge a great deal to get into those, but that's free. You get free access to our journals and benefits like that. And of course, uh, you know, easier access to things like the library and uh, to book meetings in our premises and all those things. So generally I tell people, particularly students membership starts at five pounds that, that's a real bargain, you know, it would make, if you're, if you're a student studying astronomy or space science or doing space engineering or something like that, it's a, it's a really, really good deal.
Sian Prosser: It [00:51:00] is a real bargain and I believe it also means that you're eligible for applying for our program of grants.
Robert Massey: You are that's absolutely right. Um, some of them, some of the education ones, you can even do that outside of the society with support from within it. But that's absolutely right, if you want one of those travel grants I mentioned before or you, your, or your supervisor wants to apply for a bursary for an undergraduate and so on that, that, that kind of thing becomes possible if you're a member.
Sian Prosser: And it also means that you can participate in the society on one of our committees if a vacancy comes up.
Robert Massey: True and, and run for council and even president.
Mat Kaplan: Wow.
Sian Prosser: Yeah. To be a member of council or to be a trustee is, is a great way of representing the astronomical community and steering the organization. Um, I should also say that for people who have a genuine interest in astronomy but might not have for example like undergraduate credentials or who are just starting out as Robert said, we do have a program [00:52:00] called friends of the Royal Astronomical Society. And that's a growing group of people who I believe it's 40 pounds a year and there's a whole program of events and activities later on just for them. And it's, it's actually a really nice growing community of members.
Mat Kaplan: Some outstanding opportunities. Sian, your PhD is in medieval French though you've also studied astronomy and you have an advanced degree in library science, not surprisingly, but how did you find yourself working for the Royal Astronomical Society?
Sian Prosser: Very good question. I think that my serious answer to this question is I absolutely love to study the history of the book. That's what I did my PhD on. Basically got into history of science to the history of the book. And I've always loved manuscripts of, of any age and that's why I'm absolutely delighted to be helping people access the collection of [00:53:00] amazing hand drawn tour and observations and catalogs and organizational records about the society itself. I remember when I first started working here what a steep learning curve it was. People were asking about planetary positions and I had to work at what white ascension was and [inaudible 00:53:18]. And that made me decide to study a bit more about the subject. I mean, I was brought in because I had a degree in library and information studies and I, I had the basic skills to manage any kind of collection, in theory.
But um, yeah, I went to some evening classes at the world observatory of Greenwich for six weeks and then, um, I was lucky enough to get a place in the university college of London certificate in astronomy, which is an evening class, which took place over two years. I really liked working with this community of astronomers and geophysicist. They're just excellent in sharing their learning.
Mat Kaplan: As a lifelong astronomer, Robert, I, I wonder if [00:54:00] working at this place with its tremendous historical significance for the field, if it has special meaning for you?
Robert Massey: It does. Look, I mean there are, there are various places in the U.K and around the world that could be considered part of that sort of spiritual heritage of astronomy and the RAS and Burlington House is very much one of them. I mean, I used to say the same about uh, Greenwich when I worked there because it was one of the earliest, earliest still operating observatories in the world.
Mat Kaplan: One of my favorite shrines of science.
Robert Massey: Exactly. And you know, and I think actually we underestimate the heritage value, these things that are peril because when I think of say Jodrell Bank up in Cheshire, which has just got that world heritage status, you know, or um, uh, the Paris observatory and all these landmarks of scientific history that really, really matter. And you go in and you think, well, okay, you know, this isn't a contemporary research facility say with state of the art telescopes cited in the Andes, but actually you are very conscious of the fact that all these things were done here.
You know, there was a meeting, uh, at least over the way from [00:55:00] us, uh, in 1919 discussing the findings of that expedition to prove general relativity, hugely important things or that you know, or that they uh, discuss the announcement of the discovery of Pluto or you know, that they criticized the fact that the U.K hadn't been as successful as it might've been in the discovery of Neptune. So, so these things, they're there and you think, of course it's like any other job, you go into the office and you sit down and you do your work and you have a strong coffee to wake yourself up and you, you gossip with your colleagues and all the rest of it. But, not that I ever do that obviously, but you are at the end of the day, you know, you go to not just now and again when you wonder around, if you're locking up or you're looking at the buildings, you do see something remarkable. I mean obviously the kind of things that you know, that Sian Prosser described like first edition Copernicus, where there aren't many places in the world where you can go to work and, and fairly easily take a look at something like that.
So it is, it is a privilege and you know, I think everybody in the building doesn't forget that, you know, they are aware of the fact that this is a place where special things were done and, and continue to happen to this day.
Mat Kaplan: Before we [00:56:00] close, I want to give you a chance to, uh, promote something that the RAS is planning for November of this year, uh, when Mars will be close to earth.
Robert Massey: Oh, well, National Astronomy weekend. I mean, that's one of the things we're involved with. Uh, it's not, um, it's not just us, it's U.K astronomical societies like the society of popular astronomy, the British Astronomy Association, the local astronomy groups, people in Greenwich and so on. And the research councils who are very interested in this because there will be at least one or two missions to go, going to Mars this year, which is great. But although, although the lander, the U.K lander is like, you know, now just been delayed. But that's fine, the European space agency one, others will still be there and it'll, it'll get there eventually. But the point about Mars is that it's a remarkable object because it captures our imagination. It's one of the places that's most likely earth in the solar system. Although, yes, I do realize obviously you need oxygen, you can't just step out and, and enjoy it in a like a science fiction landscape.
But if there's that [00:57:00] tantalizing possibility there might just be life there. The real, world which is evocative, and yet at the same time having looked at it with some pretty good telescopes, you realize just how hard it is to see very much as well. So when it comes close to the earth every 15 or 17 years or so, when it's, when it's really good, then it's a great time to encourage people to do that. And for astronomical societies, for amateur astronomers in particular actually to help the public see that and get them to get that magical experience of looking at it. So yes, as a, as a public thing later in the year, I'd be delighted to see as many people as possible getting their first look at Mars.
Mat Kaplan: If my travel someday brings me to Burlington House, I want to, uh, also make it very clear that, uh, you and your colleagues, uh, would be very welcome to visit the headquarters of a different society, my society in Pasadena, we don't go back uh, nearly as far as you do we're just celebrating our 40th anniversary this year. But um, I, I think that organizations have a lot in common.
Robert Massey: That will be a [00:58:00] huge pleasure. I mean, you know, don't underestimate your influence. You're hugely, I think you're a very famous organization as well, so it's a pleasure to be talking to you today.
Mat Kaplan: Thank you for that.
Sian Prosser: I just want to say thank you very much indeed.
Mat Kaplan: Thank you both very much, this has just been a wonderful, a delightful conversation. I hope to repeat it someday in person there at Burlington House.
Robert Massey: Excellent. That'd be, you'd be very welcome there, we look forward to seeing you there.
Sian Prosser: Yeah, that would be great.
Mat Kaplan: Congratulations again on this 200th anniversary of the Royal Astronomical Society. Again, we will put the link to the society, which will be easy to find even if you don't go to the show page. Uh, this, this week's episode page for Planetary Radio, but we have been talking with Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society and to Sian Prosser, the librarian and archivist there at the RAS. Bruce Bats and WhatsUp are moments away.
Kate: Hi, this is Kate from the Planetary Society. How does space spark your creativity? We want to hear from [00:59:00] you. Whether you make cosmic art, take photos through a telescope, write haikus about the planets, or invent space games for your family. Really any creative activity that's space related. We invite you to share it with us. You can add your work to our collection by emailing it to us at connectatplanetary.org that's [email protected]. Thanks.
Mat Kaplan: Time for WhatsUp on Planetary Radio, and if I could pull it off and didn't mind being in such poor taste. Now I would be speaking in a British accent, but they seem to be better at speaking in American accents. People don't realize that you're actually British and you always, you've been putting on an American accent for us ever since the beginning of this show.
Bruce Batts: Well, that's true, Mat. It was subtle. I've been in the, I've been in the States so long that it's, it's just really gone away. Okay, this is terrible. This needs to stop now.
Mat Kaplan: Instead you can tell us about the night [01:00:00] sky, what-
Bruce Batts: I'm comfortable with that. Yeah. We've got in the pre-dawn, those three planets look in the East in the pre-dawn and you will see really bright Jupiter into its lower left, yellowish Saturn in to the farther lower left, reddish Mars and they're kind of separating Jupiter and Saturn and heading away from Mars and the sky and Mars watch for it brightening and brightening over the coming months. We've got in the evening sky still Venus just looking super bright over there in the evening West. Uh, on the 26th, the Crescent moon will be hanging out near Venus, so that'll be lovely. Comets, they're out there, but they're definitely not naked eye. Comet Atlas broke up, but now we, we have a possible pinch hitter that'll come in, we'll see, I'll keep you posted. So there may be a naked eye comet. I'm not saying like super bright from an urban area, but there might be one in mid to late May still probably not coming out. [01:01:00] The dogs hate that.
Mat Kaplan: I'm really getting angry with the Oort cloud. I mean, is it true millions and millions of them out there. How come we don't get more? Come on cloud deliver.
Bruce Batts: Sentences I never thought I would hear. I'm really getting angry with the Oort cloud and be careful what you ask for.
Mat Kaplan: Okay. Nevermind.
Bruce Batts: All right. We move on to this week in space history, big week in space history, 30th anniversary of the deployment of the Hubble space telescope. That thing's still just cranking. I mean, obviously it had some servicing missions, uh, along the way, but I think it's done neat stuff. It's done something. It's called the Hubble space telescope.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah. Ever since they, uh, I mean even before they corrected the optics, it was doing some good work. But my goodness since then, I think still considered the most famous astronomical observatory of all time. Uh.
Bruce Batts: Seems likely, but that's [01:02:00] not a technical question so I don't have a good answer. Okay. What is going on to me not having good answers about other things. And let's talk about [inaudible 01:02:10]
Mat Kaplan: Wow.
Bruce Batts: We'll be coming back to X15 pilots, but I thought I'd, uh, note things that some people, you might know that eight X15 pilots went above the U.S air force definition of space, 50 miles. One Joe Walker on two flights went above the FAI definition of space at a hundred kilometers, that made going with the FAI definition Joe Walker, the 13th person to have reached space.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, because he did that well into the, uh, Soviet and American space programs with capsules?
Bruce Batts: Yup. Exactly.
Mat Kaplan: Hmm. We did have a bunch of people who talked about what about all those pilots who, who made it above 50 miles? That air force definition but only Walker who went past, you said FAI, that's the Karman [01:03:00] line, right? A hundred KM or 62 miles?
Bruce Batts: Yeah, it is indeed. It's a, it's the general international definition from the Federation, [inaudible 01:03:08] I don't know how to speak French. I apologize.
Mat Kaplan: first we mangle English or at least British, and now-
Bruce Batts: What else can we mangle? I'm sorry.
Mat Kaplan: Just trying to be fair here.
Bruce Batts: Well, that's why I went with FAI, but I felt like I had to express what, what it was. There's no real magic as to where space starts it. It's a gradual transition, but there is some, some physics as to why you might pick, round it off to a hundred kilometers, but essentially it's a fairly arbitrary definition. So let's get onto the trivia contest. I asked you, which X15 pilots later flew on NASA spacecraft missions?
Mat Kaplan: And it's that word later that I think is very important because I mean, there were people who just thought that this was a little bit too ambiguous, I'm talking about U.K Gilbert. Uh, [01:04:00] but later after the X15, we have a winner from a part of this planet that we have never, uh, had a winner from before, at least in my memory. Pavle Kamisha lives in Belarus. There are only two of them. Neil Armstrong, Gemini eight and Apollo 11 and Joe Angle, STS two and STS 51 I, is that an I or a one? I'm not actually sure. He did also mention, uh, that accomplishment by Joseph Walker who uh, across the FAI, the Karman line, all of this Pavle that's enough to make you this week's winner. Congratulations you if you choose to have it. We probably don't speak what is spoken locally there.
Bruce Batts: But we could mangle it I'm sure.
Mat Kaplan: [laughs] Yeah, we have a good track record there. Uh, we will be happy to record a message for you Pavle, uh, of, uh, any reasonable length and uh, we'll be in touch with you [01:05:00] about that. Rather than a lot of, uh, other sort of random responses from listeners this week, it's time for a Planetary Radio, a space poetry festival.
Bruce Batts: Wow.
Mat Kaplan: We have three of them. Gene Lewin, a regular contributor at, uh, up in Washington. The pilots that flew the X15 reached speeds and heights few men have seen of those that reached the heavenly height were dubbed astronauts on return from flight. One of these nights did not return, posthumously awarded his title earned. Only two could add a NASA space mission to their shingle, Neil Armstrong and Joseph H. Ingle. That's a little scratch but it works. It works. Also from the state of Washington, Marine Bens, Neil Armstrong and Joe Angle, mired in X15 fame were pushing past all limits, yet found it all too tame NASA bestowed opportunities to hurdle through the stars. So those two former boy Scouts roamed far but [01:06:00] not to Mars.
Bruce Batts: Yep.
Mat Kaplan: And finally from our poet Laureate Dave Fairchild. A dozen pilots flew the ship we know as X15 a rocket powered beauty hypersonic limousine and two of them went on to space. First Armstrong. He was rad. The second was Joe Angle born in Kansas I might add, Dave, who happens to be at Kansan. Uh, that's it. That's, that's our festival for this week.
Bruce Batts: You know, I happened to notice he was, that Joe Angle was, was voted a free, I think it was Kansan of the year in the like 1963. So.
Mat Kaplan: No kidding.
Bruce Batts: Among his many, many, many occasions.
Mat Kaplan: Did he ever say on shuttle, "[inaudible 01:06:44] I think we're not in Kansas anymore?"
Bruce Batts: I don't know, but I don't think my dog's like your Joke.
Mat Kaplan: [inaudible 01:06:52] Probably beat them in the audition. Uh, what do you got for next time?
Bruce Batts: That's a, it's two part kind of Q like. First part straight [01:07:00] forward. What is the name of the launch spacesuit used for launch and landing in the Soyuz spacecraft. And what does it have to do with Japanese sample return missions and SpaceX rockets? Go to planetary.org/radio contest.
Mat Kaplan: Wow. I don't begin to, I don't even know the first part. And the second part, my goodness, we really ought to come up with something special for this, uh, much more special than our voices on your, uh, voicemail system. Tell you what I mean, we'll figure out some way to get you something special, like a rubber asteroid. Okay? It may take a while, but we'll get it to you. You have until the 29th. That'd be Wednesday, April 29th at, at eight AM Pacific time to get us this answer. And win yourself our voices and a mystery prize that will probably include a rubber asteroid.
Listen, there is one other thing we have to [01:08:00] mention. We brought it up sort of nebulously last week. Uh, now we can be a little bit more firm, on Thursday, April 30th at one PM Pacific time, that's four PM Eastern and a 2000 hours UTC. You and I will be live. I'm not talking Planetary Radio live here, which is not truly live. We're talking WhatsUp live and we hope that all of you will join us because you'll get to participate to learn more and to watch it for that matter, you can go to planetary.org/live planetary.org/live Thursday the 30th be there.
Bruce Batts: Be there. You'll see our beautiful faces as well as hear our bad accents.
Mat Kaplan: Anyway, it's kind of your show because it is WhatsUp, but are going to have random space facts and maybe some trivia questions for people?
Bruce Batts: We will indeed. We'll also, we'll you know, [01:09:00] talk about the night sky because, because we can. And we will also take questions from the world, which is a little terrifying.
Mat Kaplan: This is how it's going to start. We're the first and hopefully we won't ruin it for our colleagues.
Bruce Batts: But if we do, we'll go out in a blaze of glory.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, we may find ourselves above the Von Karman line. Uh, we're done. Let's, get us out of here.
Bruce Batts: I'm Matt, we should think about what's your favorite accent is to mess up. That'd be great. God, there look up in the night sky and think about the accent you would mangle. Thank you and goodnight.
Mat Kaplan: Aye. Laddie that's it. I'm done and he's done too. That's Bruce Batts. He's the chief scientist of the Planetary Society who joins us every week for WhatsUp and for WhatsUp live on Thursday, April 30th.
Are you in the mood for one more poem? Here's a little present from the Royal Astronomical Society and British poet [01:10:00] Laureate, Simon Armitage. The RAS asked Armitage to create a work that would help them mark the society's 200th anniversary. With his permission here is Simon Armitage reading astronomy for beginners.
Simon Armitage: You were eight and fishing for planets and stars, slopping a bucket of rain into the backyard. You were waiting for cloudless dirk expecting the pinpoint reflections of [inaudible 01:10:28] on Mars to crystallize under your nose or a constellation whole and intact to glaze the surface like a web of frost. Or what if the moon grew hard and dense in the waters depths like some knuckle of dinosaur bone, you'd need a landing net, but only Polaris proved itself in the liquid lens then dissolved when you lifted it out on your fingertip. [01:11:00] A Russian telescope didn't help, some camera obscura inside the tube flipped the map of the galaxy upside down. In the people eyepiece, families dangled from ceilings like bats and she ponged from green clouds by the hooves. You were 30 by now.
Tired of the stakeout. Tired of panning for sun spots and fool's gold. You traded starlight for bird life. Birds with their costumes and songs and shows. Once in a shoulder of sand on Windermere's West shore, a Dunnock Kurt said while eating bread from your open hand, old brightnesses old loaves and now you're scanning again for omens and signs. Apple bobbing for hyper giants and white dwarves [01:12:00] calling down deep space onto a blank page trolling for angels and black holes with a glass jar. Knowing we're dying, knowing we'll never make it that far. Where did that tin of luminous stickers go? And the solar system mobile spinning on near invisible thread. When she left home, you crushed out on your daughter's bed and woke in a Navajo cave, a remote language of light coming steadily into creation overhead.
Mat Kaplan: Planetary Radio is produced by the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by its Anglo Fillic members. You can join space royalty at planetary.org/membership. Mark Hilverda is our associate producer. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Peter Schlosser. [01:13:00] Be safe everyone. Ad astra.