Tag Archives: discovery

Averted Vision

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When my daughter was in middle school, she became interested in astronomy.  We joined the local amateur club and built our own telescope.  It is amazing what sights can be seen with even a modest home built telescope in a light polluted suburb! 

 

One trick that experienced club members taught us was when looking for very dim celestial objects use averted vision.  The center part of your vision is very good for well lit color but not very good in dim light.  Away from the center of vision, the retina is better at picking up dim objects.  It seems like magic but if you avert your gaze slightly from a dim object, it will pop into view much more clearly.

 

Averted vision may be a metaphor for other subjects as well.

 

My boss has asked me to study NASA’s research and development grants.  Particularly, how their results differ from grants given by other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other non-defense discretionary agencies. 

 

This is a tough assignment for an old Flight Director. 

 

NASA has about a half a billion dollars actively at work in R&D grants at universities, research institutes, and various other places.  NSF runs about $2.5 billion in research grants every year.  NIH also pumps more money into R&D than does NASA.  What is different about the results that NASA gets from its investment in R&D? 

 

For one thing, there are specific questions that space exploration needs answered:  new types of space propulsion or power systems, closed loop environmental life support systems, and other mission critical applications.  To enable missions to the planets, NASA supports a lot of biomedical research on the effects of weightlessness and radiation on people and other biological systems.  These are the topics that the bulk of NASA’s R&D money goes toward.

 

Who would have thought that trying to get the most information out of planetary images from spacecraft would lead to image enhancing technology that greatly improves imagery from CAT scans or X-rays on people?  Or that NASA would be frequently asked by law enforcement agencies to enhance images from surveillance cameras to identify crime suspects?  None of these applications were on our minds when we tried to get better images of the craters on Enceladus or the methane lakes on Titan.

 

Discovery is like that.  Frequently when you are looking for one thing you discover more, sometimes much more.  The history of technology is full of hoary stories about researchers finding something other than what they were looking for:  Alexander Fleming finding penicillin in a dirty culture dish, Charles Goodyear leaving his rubber experiment on the stove resulting in the vulcanization process, etc., etc.

 

NASA is trying to turn dirty water into clean water so long duration space missions can be possible.  Seems like there might be a use for that on Earth, too.  You might see one of the practical results here:  http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2008/er_4.html

 

That is only one of a thousand.  NASA R&D does pay off, and not just for applications in space.

 

 

Sometimes when you see something out of the corner of your eye, it is like magic.

Why Explore Space?

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Are these two conversations, historic and current, so very different?

 

  

Walden, 1854, by Henry David Thoreau :  “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not . . “

 

Modern conversation overheard:  “Why would we want to throw money away on space exploration, it is just a waste!”  “Don’t we have problems enough here on earth?  We should solve (fill in the blank) before we explore space.”

 

 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

 

I wonder if the USA exports ice these days?  In 1869, the transcontinental railroad revolutionized travel and knit the United States together.  Thoreau was a great philosopher and I encourage you to read his works, but he had an aversion to technology that would have served us poorly a century and a half ago.  His philosophical heirs in this aversion to technology would likewise have us follow a path which will serve our nation – and our world – poorly for the next century and more.

 

Some people believe, in spite of fifty years of evidence to the contrary, that the technicians down at the Kennedy Space Center load stacks of fresh dollar bills (or maybe hundred dollar bills) into each space vehicle which is then launched into the great abyss as though money were toxic waste needing disposal.  Thoreau would have agreed that money is toxic, so maybe there is a connection. 

 

For at least two generations a number of thoughtful writers, scholars, professionals have helped us understand that space exploration, rather than being a distraction from “serious things”,  actually provides solutions to some of the most intractable problems here on earth.  By and large most people recognize the value that NASA brings.  But the nay-sayers are persistent, and the general public wakes up fresh every day, so we will try one more time to explain why space exploration is important for today and vital to our future.

 

Many reasons have been advanced to demonstrate why the United States of America should continue to lead the exploration of space.  At this particular point in time, let’s concentrate on four of these.  Limiting the discussion will keep it to a manageable size, just note that there are many more points which can be made,  which may be more applicable at other times or in different circumstances. 

Here are my top four:

 

1.  Space Exploration inspires our young people to achievements in education, especially in science, engineering, mathematics, and technical subjects.

 

2.  Space Exploration requires innovation and technological advancement which improves the national economy directly and for the long term.

 

3.  Space Exploration leads to better understanding of our world, its environment and climate, and allows for global monitoring of changes.

 

4.  American leadership in Space Exploration provides for greater national security in multiple ways that are at once subtle, tangible, and highly effective.

 

These, it seems to me, comprise a powerful subset of arguments in favor of expending at least a small fraction of our national treasure on this enterprise.

 

And it is a small fraction; the entire NASA budget makes up 6 tenths of one percent of the Federal budget.  Given the attention paid to NASA, it is easy to understand why some uninformed citizens believe that NASA’s budget approaches that of the  Department of Defense, or that of spending for Social Security.  In truth, if all of NASA’s budget were to disappear, there would be no appreciable savings to the national debt, no meaningful improvement in our national social safety net, and probably a net loss to the national defense.  Those who defend the space exploration budget are constantly finding new categories of spending which exceeds the NASA allocation:  Americans spend more on pet food than they do on space exploration; Americans spend more on cosmetics than on space; Gillette Razor company spent more to develop and market their new shaver than it costs to fly the space shuttle for a year, and on and on.  Nobody is advocating giving up our pets, or our personal beauty, but when we talk of programs which will have lasting impacts into the future, it is well to put the cost in context.  Don’t even get started on bailouts.  AIG, to take one easy example, has received more tax dollars in the last few months than NASA has in its budget for a decade.  America is the world’s only remaining superpower, both economically and militarily.  As a nation we have the resources to educate our children, care for our elderly, defend ourselves, and all the rest; and somewhere in all that it might just be important to devote six tenths of one percent to the future. 

 

 

Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to explore each of these reasons in some detail.  Please stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

Exploration is all about the unexpected

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Yesterday I was handed a paper to read which was commissioned by the Constellation Program to see if there was anything we could learn from historical exploration as a lesson for NASA.  That was a great idea.  I was excited to see that the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland was the scholarly organization which produced this paper.  I was just there!  I had walked across the campus!  wow, small world! 

I had great hopes for this paper.

After I read it, I felt disappointment.  I slept on it.  I read it again this morning.  I am still disappointed.

Probably it is not fair; the attempt to learn lessons from history is always a noble one.  Perhaps this is just too big a topic to address in a short academic paper.  So rather than criticize, lets take a look beyond the Venn diagrams and explore for the golden nuggets of wisdom that come with a deep understanding of the lessons that history of exploration can teach us.

The Strathclyde study said that Columbus’s voyages were a tactical (“program”) failure and a strategic success.  Really? 

I would offer the following episode from Columbus’s last voyage for your contemplation.  It is a story of discovery, knowledge, arrogance, ignorance, and lastly justice.  You decide if the result of the voyage is failure or success. 

This is from a great book — and a very timely read it is: “Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson, Vintage Books, 2000 ISBN 0-609-60233-0.  The book is about the great 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas.  These pages take you back another 400 years earlier.

Excerpts from pages 34-43.

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     Columbus set off on his first voyage on August 3, 1492, from Palos, Spain, with a fleet of three tiny caravels, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.  By nineteenth-century standards, the three vessels hardly qualified as ships.  They were large boats crewed skimpily with a few experienced sailors and adventure-hungry boys.  Not only did Columbus and his captains have no means of determining the exact location of their ships in the featureless blue of the ocean, they also carried none of the meterological tools that mariners in Isaac’s time took for granted. 

     After overcoming a few technical problems, the ships caught the trades and made quick, untroubled progress.  The weather was perfect:  clear blue skies, brisk and steady winds shoving big cotton clouds over the horizon, cool nights and balmy days, the overall effect one of languid, sloe-eyed sensuality.  “The weather was like April in Andalusia,” Columbus wrote, “the only thing wanting was to hear the nightingales.” 

     But something curious did occur during the first voyage.  A lookout saw them first, rising a long way off.  Astonished, he sounded the alarm.

     It was September 23, the fleet’s exact position unclear but the weather good, skies bright, no sign of a storm on any horizon.  Nonetheless, the lookouts spotted immense swells marching slowly and silently toward the ships.   Columbus and his captains turned the fleet into the oncoming seas and watched open-jawed as the surface of the ocean rose in great oil-smooth hills of blue and green.  The swells lifted the ships to exhilarating heights but posed no danger.

     What Columbus did not know was that these swells were most likely the advance guard of a hurricane rising hundreds of miles away, well out of sight – the same brand of swell Isaac observed as he stood on the seat of his sulky in Galveston four centuries later.

     The ships continued their journey; Columbus opened the gates to the New World.

 

     The more time Columbus spent in the waters of the Indies, however, the more he saw the flaws in his original appraisal of Caribbean weather.  Water spouts danced among his ships.  Tropical rains fell as if from a ruptured cask.  Squalls tore the sails from his spars.  By the time of his final voyage, Columbus had learned that the seas of the New World were both seductive and deadly, but in the process had become adept at reading the tropical skies for signs of trouble. 

     He was ready for his first true hurricane.

 

    Four years before the storm, Ferdinand and Isabella, intending to reward Columbus, appointed him viceroy of the Indies.  He reached Hispaniola in August of 1498 expecting to savor the perquisites of rank, but found rebellion and turmoil.  When word came back to Spain that chaos, not the sovereigns, reigned in Hispaniola, Ferdinand and Isabella dispatched an emissary, Francisco de Bobadilla, to straighten things out.  Secretly they had granted him extraordinary powers, which he demonstrated immediately upon his arrival.  It did not help that as Bobadilla sailed into Santo Domingo harbor he saw seven Spanish corpses dangling from the gallows.  Swaying palms were one thing; swaying countrymen quite another.  He used the hangings as a pretext to arrest Columbus and lock him in chains, a degree of public humiliation that speaks clearly of some deeper passion filling Bobadilla’s portfolio.  Greed perhaps, but certainly envy.

     In October 1500 Bobadilla marched the iron-laced Columbus through town and on board a ship, La Gorda, bound for Spain.  Bobadilla himself took over the administration of Hispaniola.  After returning to Spain, Columbus remained in chains for six more weeks before the sovereigns released him.  He pleaded for the license and funds to conduct one more great voyage.  In a sign of new warmth toward the admiral, Ferdinand and Isabella commanded Bobadilla to assemble all the proceeds from trade and the mining of gold that were owed Columbus, and to place these in the custody of his designated agent.  On March 14, 1502, the sovereigns granted Columbus another voyage.  Like wise parents seeking to head off the wars of jealous children, they forbade him to stop at Hispaniola.

     Columbus, delighted to be sailing again, set out with four caravels, and on June 29, 1502, found himself and his fleet off Hispaniola.  He saw that a great convoy of thirty ships was being readied in the Ozama River at Santo Domingo for imminent departure, but did not know at the time this fleet was carrying Bobadilla and a vast fortune in gold, including his own share.  That Bobadilla had consigned Columbus’s gold to the smallest and flimsiest of the convoy ships, the Aguja, was yet another mark of whatever hidden passion fueled his hatred.  If any ship was likely to sink, it would be the puny Aguja.

     Columbus has a least three good, practical, defensible reasons for what he did next:  First, the departing convoy presented an excellent opportunity for getting mail from his own little fleet promptly back to Spain.  Second, he wanted to trade one of his ships, a poor performer, for something a bit more spry.  Third, the weather had taken an ominous turn, exhibiting the usual troika of storm signs:  oily swells, oppressive heat, a red sky.

     For all these good, practical, and defensible reasons, Columbus sent one of his captains ashore with a request to permit his fleet to enter the harbor, a clear violation of the sovereigns’ orders.

     The new governor, Don Nicolas de Ovando, only laughed.

     Stung, Columbus lead his ships to the leeward side of Hispaniola to place the mass of the island between the ships and the rising storm.  He instructed his captains that if they became separated by the storm to meet in a harbor on Ocoa Bay, near what later became Puerto Viejo de Azua.

      Meanwhile, with great fanfare – trumpets blaring, cannon roaring, banners streaming – the thirty-ship convoy ferrying Bobadilla and Columbus’s gold sailed from Ozama and made for the Mona Passage, the strait between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico that connects the Caribbean to the Atlantic.

 

     The storm was a full-fledged hurricane.  Columbus’s fleet, sheltered in the lee of Hispaniola, caught a glancing blow that nonetheless topped anything in severity that Columbus had so far confronted.  “The storm was terrible,” he wrote, “and on that night the ships were parted from me.  Each one of them was reduced to an extremity expecting nothing save death; each one of them was certain the others were lost.”

     In a maneuver that went against customary marine practice, Columbus did not strike for open sea but instead brought his ship closer to shore to leverage further the windbreak afforded by the mountains of Hispaniola.  His ship survived.  On Sunday, July 3, he sailed his caravel into Ocoa Bay, the designated meeting place.  He saw no sign of the others.

     As his ship rocked gently in the gorgeous blue, its deck quiet but for the sounds of repair, Columbus watched the entrance to the bay through thermals of humid air.

     A lookout would have spotted it first as a glint of white against the settling sea.  He cried out, then perhaps wished he had not, as the glint disappeared and the ship eased back into the turquoise quiet.

     But another spark followed, a true sign now.  Sails and finally a ship.  Followed by another.  And, impossibly, yet another.

     All safe.

 

     And what of Bobadilla?

     The hurricane caught the convoy in the Mona Passage head-on, the eye passing close, perhaps directly overhead.  It drove twenty of the gold ships to the bottom with all hands.  One of these carried Bobadilla.  In all five hundred mariners lost their lives.  A few ships, gravely wounded, fought their way back to Santo Domingo.

     Only one ship of the original thirty made it to Spain:  the puny little Aguja, carrying Columbus’s gold.

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So I ask you:  success or failure?  Tactical or Strategic?  and whose?  

 It is nice to think that you can put the lessons of history into simple bins and categories.  But it seems to me that a true explorer searches for the deeper lessons that apply not necessarily universally, but to the current time and the current exploration. 

Do you think we will not encounter hurricanes on the way to the moon?  Perhaps not.  But we most definitely will encounter arrogance, ignorance, and stupidity. 

So what lesson did you learn today?

 

Anniversaries and Calendars

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As you all probably know, this week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of NASA and it is also the 51st anniversary of Sputnik and the start of the space age.  Last year on “Columbus Day”, I wrote a note to my shuttle troops on these anniversaries.  It may be cheating to recycle that letter, but I think it still applies.  Here it is:

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Calendars are funny things.  We count time as very important and try to keep track of special days.  But the calendars and the seasons don’t always match up.  For example, every school child knows that Columbus discovered America on October 12. 

 

Well, not exactly.

 

It was October 12 on the Julian calendar which was already out of sync with the universe by 9 days in 1492.  So we should really celebrate the discovery of America on October 21st, not the 12th.

 

And who really sighted land first?  In the wee hours of October 12 (old style), it was Juan Rodriguez Bermeja de Triana aboard Their Most Catholic Majesty’s ship Pinta that called out “land ho” (Tierra!).

 

So Bermeja discovered America on October 21, 1492.

 

So much for the history books.

 

 

 

Fifty years is a long time.

 

We have just celebrated 50 years of space exploration.  How do our accomplishments rack up next to those of the age of discovery?

 

The first permanent settlement in what came to be the United States wasn’t established until 1565 when Juan Menendez de Aviles founded San Augustine not far up the coast from the recently named Cape Canaveral.  So it took more than 73 years to plant a city in what became our country.

 

How about exploration?  One of the greatest expeditions came 48 years after Columbus, err that is, Bermeja first sighted the new world.  That was the expedition of Francisco Vazquez de Coronada which explored what would become Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.  Coronado detached one of his officers named Tovar to explore along his western flank.  In turn, Tovar dispatched a scouting party under the command of Don Garcia Lopez de Cardenas.  Cardenas found one of the great natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.  And what did they think?  They thought they were great failures.  They were not the slightest bit interested in finding wonders in the natural world.  These early Conquistadors were motivated by the opportunity to convert the natives to Catholicism, to win glory for themselves, and perhaps to find gold.  Poor Cardenas didn’t convert many Indians, and his superior officer, Tovar got all the popular credit for finding the Grand Canyon (go there today and see whose name is most prominent). 

 

And if you study their own words, you might just come to the conclusion that the search for gold was their biggest motivation.  No gold, no glory, few converts, and Coronado felt he was a failure.  What a different perspective history puts on that expedition.

 

Not that those early explorers lacked courage.  Courage was in abundance.  Hernando Cortes took on the mightiest empire in the new world, the Aztecs.  Against an empire that on a regular basis could put upwards of 150,000 warriors on the battlefield against their enemies, Cortes marched in with about 400 soldiers of fortune.  Mostly by bravado and trickery the Castilians defeated their vastly more powerful adversaries.  Well, the captain from Castile had help from superior weaponry, and the biology of European diseases did the much of the rest, but it took a great deal of bravado just to go in the first place.  So the cruel and bloodthirsty Aztecs were defeated by the only slightly less cruel and bloodthirsty Castilians.

 

One of Cortes’ officers, Bernal Diaz, wrote the definitive eyewitness account of those days in 1521.  He could hardly believe his own story: 

 

“Those readers who are interested by this history must wonder at the great deeds we did in those days:  first in destroying our ships; then in daring to enter that strong city [Mexico City] despite many warnings that they would kill us once they had us inside; then in having the temerity to seize the great Montezuma, king of that country, in his own city and inside his very palace, and to throw him in chains. . . . Now that I am old, I often pause to consider the heroic actions of that time.  I seem to see them present before my eyes. . . .  For what soldiers in the world, numbering only four hundred – and we were even fewer – would have dared to enter a city as strong as Mexico, which is larger than Venice and more than four thousand five hundred miles away from our own Castile . . . There is much here to ponder on.”

 

It is not surprising that Bernal Diaz did not title his memoir The Exploration of New Spain, but gave the book the more accurate title:  The Conquest of New Spain. 

 

As explorers, the early Castilians did not know what they were doing.  They left no accounts of the wonders of the land or its people, merely the dreary endless stories of fighting, treachery, deception, and blood.

 

By comparison, peacefully landing a dozen expeditions on our nearest celestial neighbor and building a great international laboratory with the cooperation of the leading nations of the world doesn’t stack up too badly.  Comparing the first 50 years, that is with their first 50 years.

 

What else can we learn about this comparison of explorations?

 

Here is a short list:  Sometimes exploration goes slower than you would expect.  Don’t expect the history books to get it right.  Don’t expect to be remembered.  Doing the right thing for the wrong reason really can be OK.  Explore for the glory of doing it, for the experience of being part of something bigger than yourself.  Explore for the difference it will make in the lives of people, perhaps your great great great grandchildren in five hundred years.  Even if they won’t realize how much they owe you

 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to camp on a high shelf in the Rockies, far from city lights.  The evening was perfectly clear: no clouds, no pollution.  The moon was old and did not rise until well past midnight.  When the sun set, the most spectacular sight appeared: stars and planets,  satellites and meteors, the milky way so close you could reach out and touch the dark dusty lanes wandering through the innumerable crowds of stars.

 

There is a lot of exploring to do.  It is just beginning.  We should do it together with our friends.  In peace.  And if we do find somebody out there, we ought to treat them right. 

 

And someday, when future generations read our memoirs, they will wonder what it was like to be among the very first to start on the voyage of discovery. 

 

You old Conquistadors, they will envy you.

 

You see, in exploration you need to take the long view.

 

Enlightenment Begins

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Thanks for letting me extend my vacation a bit to catch up on all the accumulated work that found its way to my desk. 

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share a couple of pictures from my vacation, especially since they play into this posting.

Athena falls at Rocky Mountain National Park Emerald lake at Rocky Mountain National Park

Sometimes I completely believe that the invention of the National Park is the best thing that America has ever done.  But then I realize that the opportunity to get away from the ordinary, into the natural world, is truly meaningful.

You can really believe that “Enlightenment begins where the pavement ends”!

Ok, I’ll confess, that is a slogan that was printed on a T-shirt I saw on the trail.

But the more I thought about it, the less kitschy it becomes and the truer it sounds.

Going somewhere you have not been before, getting out of the ordinary, seeing new things — all these start your thought processes in new ways. 

Returning to work, I have attended two different conferences on innovation that the agency has sponsored.  How do you innovate? How can people creatively find solutions to problems?   We had plenty of case studies and examples; some good and some not so good.  One principle stood out:  creative solutions come from unexpected places and generally from people who have a variety of different experiences.  If you look to people who all have the same background, all have the same problem solving skills, and all have the same life experiences then expect to get similar reactions to a challenge, and a very limited set of potential solutions.  To get a diverse, innovative solution set, it is important to go where not many have been, to experience life in ways that the average folks haven’t, and then to recognize and utilize these insights.

A frontier is a place where innovation is fostered.  The old cliche’ is “Necessity is the mother of invention”.  True, true.  And nowhere is there more “necessity” than on a frontier, a long way from the tried, true, and comfortable. 

Jules Verne wrote an interesting introduction to his book “From the Earth to the Moon”.  It smacks of 19th century nationalism, but listen to it anyway:  “The Yankees, the first mechanicians in the world, are engineers– just as the Italians are musicians and the Germans metaphysicians– by right of birth”

Nowadays, of course, there are plenty of Yankee musicians and metaphysicians, and the Italians and Germans make pretty good engineers, along with the Chinese and Indians.  But why would Jules Verne say that?  And why would the world embrace that?  There must be some basic truth there.  Invention was the glory of 19th century America.  Innovative solutions to the problems posed by a New World, the frontier, or the distance to other more advanced technology centers (like Europe) drove American innovation and creativity. 

Space is a frontier.  Space exploration (and exploitation) requires ingenuity in the face of new challenges: distance to technology centers (like earth!), lack of resources (air, water), and new and different resources to be understood harnessed (microgravity, vacuum).  I wonder how life on Earth will be affected by the discoveries and innovations of the 21st century and the new “frontier imperative”. 

You can learn a lot where the pavement ends.  I cam personally recommend at least one place in Colorado where the pavement ends at 12,000 ft MSL.  But there is no pavement on the moon, either. 

Yet. 

A lot to be learned out there.

 

 

Serendipity – Part 1

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One of the benefits that space exploration brings to mankind is a happy serendipity.  I have several examples of serendipity that we should explore together, but since folks may be unfamiliar with the term, here is a short personal story to illustrate how serendipity works in science.

When my daughter was in middle school, participation in the annual science fair was mandatory.  Lacking any ideas on a good project, she asked a family friend — an avid amateur astronomer — if he could recommend a good project.  Yes, one that his daughter had done a few years before, finding the rotation rate of the sun.  Easily done with a telescope, look for sunspots every day and track how fast they move across the solar disk.  This determines how quickly the sun turns on its axis.

As a bonus for later, my friend informed me privately that this is a trick question!  At the bottom is the secret.

We borrowed his telescope and learned many things right away:  first and foremost is safety.  Never look directly through a telescope or binoculars at the sun!  Also, the telescope can focus the sun’s rays enough to set the telescope on fire (this happened to our friend’s daughter).  We learned how to set up the telescope, collimate it, mask off part of the aperture, set up a projection board so that the image could be traced on paper, etc., etc.  We learned a lot very quickly.  I say “we” because as all parents know, science fair projects are a family activity.

Part of the official science fair process required my daughter to make a ‘hypothesis’ before starting the project that she was to prove or disprove.  Her hypothesis was something like this: “the sun will turn on its axis about every week”.  The science fair rules required proof or disproof of this hypothesis.

So after school, we started observing.  Immediately she encountered a problem:  the projected disk of the sun was completely blank.  The telescope setup was checked and rechecked.  Many days in a row, the solar disk always showed a blank.  We called the astronomer friend and tried every recommendation he gave us.  Nothing.  Just a blank, bright, sharply-focused circle of light.

Time was running short.  No data, no project; no project, no passing grade. 

So my daughter started reading up on the sun and sunspots.  Guess what?  Sunspots come in an 11 year cycle and it was right at the sunspot minimum.  Reports from professional observatories all agreed — no sunspots at this time.

Serendipity – finding something that you didn’t expect to find.  Who would have guessed that sunspots come and go?

My daughter learned a lot about the sun and sunspots.  But it didn’t prove or disprove her hypothesis.  The project was due, so she wrote up what she had learned — and what serendipity means — and put together a presentation about how sometimes in science you find out things that you didn’t expect.  Since hers was one of the very few astronomy projects at her school, this presentation got a blue ribbon in its category and the permission to go to the county science fair.

Our community straddles two counties, so she was allowed to compete in both science fairs which were two weeks apart.  In the first science fair, the judges loved my daughter’s project, her presentation, and her conclusion.  She won a big trophy, an impressive calculator, and a certificate for a free dinner at a fancy restaurant.  Quite a haul for the science fair project that went bust.

At the other science fair, she ran into a different mind set.  The judges said: you never proved or disproved your hypothesis. 

Yes, she knew that, but look what she did find out!  Sunspots come and go in cycles.  Isn’t that important?  And in science isn’t it important to have an open mind, sharp observational skills, and the ability to recognize what you didn’t expect? 

Not at all said the judges.  The rules are specific, prove or disprove your hypothesis.  No data, no conclusion, no project, no prize.  We walked out with a poorly xeroxed certificate of participation.  And marveled at the difference between the two mindsets.

So, rather than a dictionary definition of serendipity, I thought a real world, personal story might be a better illustration.  Many discoveries have been made by people looking for something else: vulcanized rubber, penicillin, the moons of Jupiter.  If science so narrowly defined as simply proving or disproving a previously defined hypothesis, we would not have made nearly as much progress and we have.

NASA has had more than a few examples of serendipity.  This week, that is my topic: serendipity.  Space exploration — finding out things that we didn’t expect.

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Oh, the trick question?  Did you know that the sun is a ball of gas and at different latitudes it rotates at different speeds?  Our friend set my daughter up!  Her hypothesis was going to be wrong no matter what, and she was going to discover something she didn’t expect even if sunspots had been everywhere.  Serendipity bound, she was.

She still has the telescope we made later that year.  And she still has the interest in astronomy that started with no sunspots.  To my mind that is the best science fair prize of all.