Times Past

A life in science can’t begin early enough and should continue as long as possible

“Everyone should have their mind blown once a day.”

Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer write in “Starstruck: The Cosmic Journey of Neil deGrasse Tyson,” “While Neil is rocking the world of science, he hangs onto his memory of being a small boy having his mind blown under a starry dome.”

If you have a budding young scientist in your family, you’ll want a copy of this richly illustrated book as a holiday present.

The Charles Hayden Planetarium opened in 1958, the year Tyson was born to a middle-class Puerto Rican mother and a black sociologist father in the Bronx. Young Neil loved looking up at the night skies from the roof of his apartment building, but the lights of the city often obscured the view.

At the age of 9, he was taken to Hayden Planetarium where the Zeiss Starmaster projector displayed the planets, constellations, Milky Way and other galaxies created by the “Big Bang,” against the black ink of space created by the inside surface of the domed ceiling.

“The universe called to me,” he said.

He began reaching for the stars. He’d wanted to be a baseball player, but now he wanted to be an astrophysicist. He took the subway to Hayden Planetarium as often as he could.

When his family took a trip to the country, away from the city lights, he was again amazed. The sky looked just like the dome at Hayden Planetarium! Later, with a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia, he became its director and the lively host of the TV series, “Cosmos: A Personal Journey” beginning in 2014.

Liz was reminded of young Neil’s experience because our own budding scientist, our “adopted” granddaughter, Izzy Niño de Rivera, an eighth-grader at Laguna Middle School. Izzy has started working on her “Nobel Prize Project,” dealing with the moons of Jupiter. Her science teacher predicts that Izzy may work for NASA someday.

Izzy was inspired by a recent New York Times article on UCLA Professor Margaret Kivelson, who along with her colleagues, devised the magnetometer aboard the spacecraft Galileo, which flew by Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter, in 1996.

Dr. Kivelson’s work revolutionized the way in which magnetometers could be used in research for outer space.

Now 90, she’s working on the plasma instrument for the Europa Clipper, NASA’s next great voyage to the outer solar system that’s scheduled for launch in 2022!

A life in science can’t begin early enough and should continue as long as possible.

My grandmother introduced me to outer space. On a cold December night in 1943, I took a pair of toy binoculars and announced that I was going out to spot enemy aircraft. The “Great Los Angeles Air Raid,” now regarded as a false alarm, had occurred in late February 1942.

My grandmother humored me. When I was certain that there weren’t any enemy aircraft, she turned my attention to one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky, named after Orion, a hunter in Greek mythology.

She was reading me Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sanitized children’s version of Greek mythology, Tanglewood Tales.

She took me by bus to the Griffith Planetarium, which I immediately recognized from its exterior as Dr. Zharkov’s laboratory in the movie serial, “Flash Gordon.”

The inside was even more mind blowing. The massive Zeiss Planetarium, resembling one of the alien spaceships from War of the Worlds, recreated the skies over the Holy Land in 4 BCE to explain the “Christmas Star.”

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo--He is Past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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