Another History Lesson

James A. Michener was a very popular author who wrote massive historical fiction books.  Several of these were turned into successful movies including “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” and “Hawaii”.  Others were made into TV miniseries like “Centennial.”   His stories were the basis for the classic musical “South Pacific.”  Obviously, Michener had a talent for reaching the popular culture in his day. 

A very good author of fiction can highlight human emotions and motivations in ways that strict historians cannot.  Really good fiction can help us understand the truths that underlie human life and its interactions.  Michener was always interested in what makes people tick. 

For the last week, a short section of his novel “Space” has been on my mind.  This part of the written work didn’t make the Hollywood film version; a pity that it didn’t. 

I’ve been wrestling on how to interpret this snippet in a blog; so far I have imagined at least 5 different ways to apply it as analogy to America’s space program in these days.  These applications are good for various positions in the current debate on space.  Picking one would probably give too much aid and comfort to one group and arouse the ire of the others.  So I won’t give you my interpretation.  I’ll offer the section for your consideration and wait for your comments to see how you think it applies today.


Near the end of the book, one of the fictional characters recounts an actual historical event as part of a planetarium show. 

“When the lights go down we shall see the heavens as they are outside this planetarium.  Now, I’m going to turn the sky-clock back 922 years.  It is again June 22 in A.D. 1054.  The sky look almost the same as it does tonight, a few planets in different positions, but that’s about all.

‘I’m going to speed through eighteen days, and here we have the heavens as they appeared at sunset on the night of 10 July 1054.  Let’s go to midnight in Baghdad, where Arabic astronomers are looking at the sky, as they always did.  Nothing unusual.  Now its 11 July 1054, toward three in the morning.  Still nothing exceptional.  But look!  There in the constellation Taurus!”

In the silence of the planetarium the audience watched in awe as an extremely brilliant light began to emerge from the far tip of the Bull’s horn.  It exceeded anything else in the heavens, infinitely brighter even than Venus, and increasing in brilliance each moment.

‘It was a supernova, in the constellation Taurus, and we know the exact date because Arabic astronomers in many countries saw it and made notes which confirmed the sightings in China.  Indians in Arizona saw it and marveled.  In the South Pacific, natives marked the miracle.  And watch as the daylight comes in 1054!  The new star is so bright it can be seen even against the rays of the Sun, which was not far off in Cancer.

‘For twenty-three days, the astronomers of Cathay and Araby tell us, this supernova dominated the sky, almost as bright as the sun, the most incandescent event in recorded history.  No other nova ever came close to this one. . . . .

‘This great star, which must have been the most extraordinary sight in the history of the heavens during mankind’s observation, was noted in China, in Arabia, in Alaska, in Arizona, and in the South Pacific, for we have their records to prove it.  But in Europe nobody saw it.  From Italy to Moscow, from the Urals to Ireland, nobody saw it.  At least, they made no mention of it. they lived through one of the Earth’s most magnificent spectacles and nobody bothered even to note the fact in any parchment, or speculate upon it in any manuscript.

‘We know the event took place, for with a telescope tonight we can see the remnants of the supernova hiding in Taurus, but we have searched every library in the western world without finding a single shred of evidence that the learned people of Europe even bothered to notice what was happening about them.

‘An age is called Dark not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.'”


Godspeed Endeavour and your crew. 

Serendipity – Part 1

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.


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.