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Interview of Steven Dick by Jon Phillips on September 2, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/XXXX
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In this interview, Jon Phillips, Assistant Oral Historian for AIP, interviews astronomer and historian of science Steven Dick. Dick recounts his early interest in astronomy and branching out into history as an undergraduate and then graduate student at Indiana University. He discusses his work as an astronomer at the United States Naval Observatory and pursuing the history of astronomy in his spare time, as well as his subsequent tenure as NASA’s Chief Historian and the workings of the NASA history office. In the remainder of the interview, Dick describes his work on the history and social impact of astrobiology, and the scientific, religious, and cultural implications of the search for extraterrestrial life.
This is Jon Phillips, Assistant Oral Historian at AIP. I’m here with Dr. Steve Dick, former Chief Historian at NASA. Today is September 2nd, 2020. And, as I warned you, the cats will get involved here. [Laughs] And, so, thank you so much for being here today and for doing this.
Good to be here.
Thanks. So, to start off, I guess, can we go back all the way. Where are you from originally?
Indiana. I’m a Hoosier, born and bred.
I grew up in a little town in southwest Indiana. Mt. Vernon, Indiana, and was raised on a farm. Farm boy.
Now, growing up, did you have any interest in science or astronomy? What sort of things were you interested in at that point?
Right. I had an early interest in astronomy because the skies were very dark where we were out on the farm. And I would always look up at the stars and wonder how many there were and what they were and that sort of thing. And a little bit later I was also affected by the space program, of course. I was a big fan of the space program. As an early teenager I used to get these mailings from NASA called NASA Facts, and they would talk about the latest things that were happening. And I would always wait for those big brown envelopes with the NASA Facts. I didn’t have my own telescope, but I had a borrowed telescope that I would use to observe the Moon and various other things. It was the dark-sky site out by the farm which made the sky so spectacular, and sort of initiated my interest.
Had your family, sort of, been farmers going back a ways? Or, —
Oh, all the way back. Yeah, my father, he’s still alive, he’s 96. He was a farmer his whole life. And the Dick family came over from Germany, my father’s side, in the mid-19th century. I’ve written up that genealogy in my memoir, a self-published document called Stardust Memories: A Dick Family History and Memoir (2019). And then on my mother’s side, she’s also from Germany. She was a war bride. My father was in World War II, and towards the end of the war she became his secretary. They fell in love and in 1947 she came over and they were married in Mt. Vernon, Indiana.
And what did your mom do growing up? Did she help out on the farm? Or did she have a career?
She mainly was just on the farm, but she would also teach German. Of course, she knew German very well. And she also worked as a receptionist in our local doctor’s office for a while.
And there were also several other war brides in the Mt. Vernon area. Two others especially who she became good friends with. So they had a good social connection. From my father I think I got persistence from working in the fields, which was hard work. But from my mother I got more of the intellectual side because she was always pushing education. And she died at a young age. She died when I was only 15.
In 1965 from cancer. But even before that we had taken a trip up to Indiana University, which was a couple-hour drive away. So there was never any doubt that I and my two sisters—I had one younger sister and one older sister—would go to college. Which we all did. Which was unusual for the Dick family. My father was one of eleven. And he’s the only surviving one now. I think very, very few of my cousins—I’ve got something like 26 cousins—went to college. So, it was unusual.
And by the way, my father only went to the eighth grade.
Oh, wow. What was he doing in World War II, if you don’t mind my asking? If he had a secretary…
Well he didn’t go over until ’44 so that was towards the end. But he was in combat. Went up through France and then into Germany. And when the war ended, he was in Germany then. And so he was put in charge of a depot. A parts depot in Karlsruhe. That means “Karl’s rest”. And my mother was there and that’s when she went to work for him as a secretary. And the rest is history, as they say. [Laughs]
I’m curious, was your family religious when you were growing up?
Yes, I would say so. My father especially. My mother’s parents, one was Catholic and one was Protestant. And I believe she had to be baptized when she came over here, but she was a pretty devoted Catholic when she converted. And my father was, too. And, by the way, some indication of that is my older sister, who’s just one year older than me, became a Benedictine nun.
And she is still a Benedictine nun. She went right out of high school into the convent. She went in one direction. But I eventually went in another direction. I’m not a religious person unless you want to talk in terms of cosmotheology or something like that.
We will talk about that. I’m looking forward to that.
And, so, your sister who went into the monastery. You said all of your siblings were college educated. Did she do that before becoming a nun? Or while she was nun?
While she was a nun. She went into nursing school. She’s actually a nurse. So, she’s worked many parts of the nursing profession from cardiology to social services and neonatal and all kinds of things during her career. So she’s not been cloistered away in a convent. She’s done good work all her life. And my other sister, my younger sister, is a medical technologist. So she also went into the medical field.
Very cool. So, then, you had an interest in astronomy, you said. You had a telescope that you borrowed. When you got to Indiana University were you planning on studying astronomy already at that point?
I was, yeah. Right away I declared a major in astronomy. Indiana University had a good astronomy department at that time. Frank Edmondson is well known as an astronomer in his own right. He also married the daughter of Henry Norris Russell. So Frank Edmondson was influential in my career. Kent Honeycutt, Martin Burkhead, Hollis Johnson: those were some of the professors who were there at the time. And I actually was not all that great in physics or math. But I stuck it out. I liked the observational aspects better. Another thing as an undergraduate was that there was a seminar that had a big influence on me. We had a seminar with just a few students, and what we read was Shklovskii and Sagan’s book, Intelligent Life in the Universe. That came out about 1966. So, I would’ve gone into Indiana University about 1967. 1967-’71 for my undergrad degree in astronomy. So that book had been out for a few years and that really sparked my interest in the whole extraterrestrial life debate.
Yeah, I can see that. And, going in, were you set on becoming a professional astronomer? Was that the long-term goal?
I think that was my goal when I first went in. In fact my senior year I applied to various grad schools and was accepted at Vanderbilt. But a couple blocks away on the IU campus was the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. And I had taken a few courses there. I always wondered when I was taking the astronomy courses, “How did we get to know that? You know, how did we come to know that?” And the textbooks and the lectures didn’t explain that very much. And that’s one of the things that I was really interested in. So, even though I’d been accepted into grad school to become a professional astronomer, I decided to go in another direction for history and the philosophy of science. The department was History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University. I was on the history side, but I took philosophy of science courses too so my degree is in the history and philosophy of science. And, of course, that’s during the time when they had some very well-known people there: Sam Westfall, the great Newton scholar. He was working on that while I was there. Vic Thoren, who was the historian of astronomy.
Let’s see, who else was there? Well, Ed Grant. Ed Grant who was the medievalist, but ended up being my dissertation advisor because after the first or second year of graduate school I put in for a thesis proposal for a master’s first and then PhD. And, carrying on my interest in extraterrestrial life debate, I proposed that I do a dissertation on the history of that subject. So, I went around to see what had been done on that, on the history of the debate, and there had been nothing done on it that I could find. For probably good reason because the extraterrestrial life debate was kind of taboo in itself. And to do the history of something that was taboo was even worse. [Laughs] So, Vic Thoren, who would’ve been the logical person to be my advisor, was more into technical history of astronomy. He was writing what turned out to be the definitive biography of Tycho Brahe. So all these technical things about observation and observational accuracy, and all that sort of thing. Which eventually I got to later in my career at the Naval Observatory in a scientific sense. But anyway, he said “Well, there are two things wrong with a dissertation on the extraterrestrial life debate in the History of Science Department. First of all, it’s not science. And, secondly, it has no history worth writing. [Laughs]
So, I persisted and went to Ed Grant, the medieval guy who knew very well that there was a medieval plurality of worlds tradition. And he took me on right away. My dissertation ended up being on the Plurality of Worlds: The Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant. I started with the ancient Greeks and went all the way up to the middle of the 18th century. And one of the chapters in there is the chapter on the medieval plurality of worlds tradition. Ed Grant and I read some of the original medieval Latin which I had learned from my Catholic school background. I learned Latin as an altar boy. So, I knew Latin pretty well. And then went on to have four years of Latin in high school, also.
Oh, wow. Was that a public high school?
Yeah. That was a public high school. That’s right. Back in those days they still taught Latin.
Things have changed.
Yeah, so I actually made use of that, reading not only medieval Latin but some of the Kepler that hadn’t been translated yet into English, and that sort of thing for my dissertation. So that turned out very well. I think I convinced people that it was a subject that was worthwhile doing. And, in fact, it was the first dissertation published as a book out of that department. And that department had been since the late ’50s or so. It was one of the original History of the Philosophy of Science departments. So, my dissertation showed that it wasn’t just a crazy idea that crazy people have but it was tied to various cosmological theories going back to the ancient Atomists, the infinite number of inhabitable worlds. And then Aristotle who believed that there was only a single world in the sense of cosmos, and that was all tied to his physics. And then the idea of a “world” changed to a planet rather than a cosmos when the Copernican theory which made the earth a planet and the planets potential Earths. And Descartes proposed that there were other solar systems. And then Newton, and there you get into natural theology and the magnificence of God in creating a plurality of worlds. So, I just show that the idea was tied to all these cosmological worldviews, interspersed with theology and philosophy. And I think that was a novel approach.
How was it received while it was in progress? You know, at conference talks or whatever, outside of your department? Did people generally have the same reaction? This isn’t history of science; what are you doing? Or were people…
Well, not so much. I do remember giving talks on it at the History of Science Society meetings, and people were interested and asked questions and nobody threw tomatoes at me. [Laughs]
So, no, I don’t remember getting any pushback from the wider history of science community.
I’m also curious, did you reach out into other disciplines? I did, sort of a survey of the literature, I don’t know, maybe 10 years ago, on this topic. And even still, you know, there are historians doing it but you also get a lot of bleed over from literary scholars and religious scholars, and such. Were you, sort of, dabbling in those waters, too, at the time?
Not so much in the dissertation, although as I say, with Newton you get into natural theology and that sort of thing. And, of course, with Westfall there I could go and ask him anything about that whole thing. But in the early ’70s still, when I was in grad school, you know, the literature was not very broad at all. As I said, there’s no history on it at all. There are maybe a few little articles, but that eventually grew. It has grown now to the point where astrobiology and society has gotten to be a large subject. And theologians and philosophers and all kinds of people are writing about it now. And, of course, I got into that in some of my later work.
I guess, going back a little bit, was that specific topic on the plurality of worlds and the potential for life what ultimately kicked you over into the history and philosophy of science track? As opposed to pursuing astronomy more directly?
That’s a good question. When I went into the History of Science department, I don’t think it was with the idea that I was going to write the dissertation on the history of that idea. I just was interested more in the history of science. And it didn’t have so much math or physics as the science itself did. Although I will say, I do think it’s important to have some science background when you’re writing on these things and that undergrad degree, of course, helped me along the way. Even though it wasn’t, for that early period at least, directly relevant to the ancient Atomists and that sort of thing. Or Aristotle.
But when I got to do the more modern period, which I eventually did in The Biological Universe book, that was very important. Now, there were other people beginning, in the 1990s like Karl Guthke, who was the Harvard cultural historian who wrote a very good book on the extraterrestrial life debate from a more literary point of view. The history of the debate is written really as what Michael Crowe and I call the Cambridge trilogy, because my dissertation was published by Cambridge University Press, followed by Michael Crowe’s book from Kant to Lowell, and then The Biological Universe covering the 20th century. Michael Crowe, I should mention because he played a very important role in my career. He was a professor at Notre Dame working at the same time that I was working on this early history, he was picking up in the mid-18th century and going up to Percival Lowell. So, we had a lot of correspondence back and forth. That’s one indication that even back then at least one historian of science other than myself was getting interested in the subject.
And he wrote a very thick volume; it took him 15 years, I think, to write that volume. Mine came out from Cambridge in 1982. His came out from Cambridge in 1986. And then, I wrote The Biological Universe which did the 20th century. It picked up from where Mike Crowe left off. And that was published in 1996, followed two years later by an abridgement called Life on Other Worlds, which was eventually translated into four or five other languages. They wouldn’t translate the bigger book because The Biological Universe was 600 pages or so. They didn’t want to translate that. But they would translate a shorter version, an abridgement, which is what happened. So the Cambridge trilogy, plus Karl Guthke’s work, I think, became the foundation for the history of the debate.
And then at the time that you’re working on your dissertation, there’s a lot of activity at NASA, and just more generally with, you know, planetary missions. The Viking landers. The origins of SETI. Was that informing you at all during this period? Were you following that and dwelling on it while you were writing? Or did that sort of come around later?
Well, I was also a big space enthusiast, going back to childhood even. So, I was certainly following all of that. But it didn’t feed directly into Aristotle and up through the middle of the 18th century. That I was collecting for my later work The Biological Universe, which must have taken me 10 or 15 years to write, at least. Because eventually I went to work at the Naval Observatory, and that’s another whole area.
Yes. That was going to be my next line of questions for you. So, you wrote your dissertation. Turned it into a book published by Cambridge. A very fascinating and influential book. And then, you went to work at the U.S. Naval Observatory as an astronomer, not as a historian. How did that come about?
Well, there weren’t a lot of jobs in the history of science. [Laughs]
I did have job interviews, including at Harvard, which at that time had a rotating three-year position. And I interviewed at three or four places and I always came in second. So that didn’t work. But by this point, concerning both my undergraduate and my graduate, I’d been at Indiana University for nine years. And I was determined I wasn’t going to be there anymore. So, I was going to do anything to get out of the university. And I actually applied for the Air Force of all things. And was accepted. And I was about ready to go off to the Air Force when I got a call, it wouldn’t have been an email in those days. This would’ve been in 1976. From, well, I call him the mad scientist out in Princeton named Bogdan Maglich. He wasn’t associated with the university, but he was a high-energy physicist working on a nuclear fusion project.
This was not associated with the famous Princeton Tokamak Project, which was a huge project right up Route 1 there in Princeton. He was a high-energy physicist, a student of Luis Alvarez, the Nobel Prize winner. And his idea was to collide various beams of particles and produce fusion rather than putting them in a Tokamak pressure cooker and trying to do fusion that way. I was not working on the fusion project, but Maglich had this interest in history of science. And he wanted to hire two historians of science to work on a project for his publication, journal called Adventures in Experimental Physics. And, so, he offered me that job, and it turns out, he offered Craig Waff the job also. We were the two historians of science. It was August of ’76, my wife and I pulled up stakes, had a little U-Haul and drove out to Princeton, set up there and went to work on that publication. Now, it turns out that although I said mad scientist, he was a very good scientist but he had no political skills. And this was all privately funded. So, he was applying for funding from what in those days was ERDA, the Energy Research and Development Agency, he precursor to the Energy Department. They set up a team to look at this project. And they kept asking questions and he didn’t like the questions they asked. And he told them they were all a bunch of idiots. [Laughs]
And so he didn’t get his funding. That meant that our job, my job and Craig Waff’s job, didn’t last either. He couldn’t get any more funding.
So, there we were stuck in Princeton. And both Craig and I went into New York City to look for jobs. And the employment agency there said they had a job in Princeton with a publishing company called Arete. It’s a Greek word for excellence. And they were going to publish the first online encyclopedia which ended up being Grolier’s. But I was hired there as a science editor, which was quite a good experience. Because I had to commission articles and edit articles and all that sort of thing. I was there from about ’77 ’til ’79 when I went to the Naval Observatory. So, a couple of years, but it was very interesting experience because you had editors there covering every field of knowledge. And you had to negotiate what the boundaries were between what you were going to commission out and what they were commission out, and who was going to cover what, and that sort of thing. So, that ended up being quite interesting and I got to make a lot of contacts that way too.
You said this was supposed to be an online encyclopedia in 1977. What was the sort of framework they were going to use for that?
Good question. I don’t know the details of that, but it may not have originally been seen as an online encyclopedia. In fact, there was a 28-volume hard copy of this. It was called the Academic American Encyclopedia to start with. But it was bought by Grolier’s and they eventually put it online. And that became the first online encyclopedia.
I should say that Adventures in Experimental Physics, even though it lasted less than a year, was also very interesting because the point of that journal was to tell the discovery stories of the various scientists. I remember we would go out and interview people like Joe Weber about gravitational waves and that sort of thing. And then he would write up his discovery story. Well, of course, he didn’t actually make a discovery. [Laughs] But he was a pioneer in the field anyway. And we would write side notes. This was not a technical journal. It was more of an educational thing. A sort of a high-level education thing. And five volumes of that were eventually published. The volumes that we worked on, though, were not published because we ran out of money before that point. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Of course.
I remember visiting Robert Dicke at Princeton and various other people at Princeton, and Joe Weber. So, that was an interesting little project even though it didn’t last very long.
Hmmm. And just briefly going back to the Air Force. What position were you going to be going into at the Air Force? Were you going to be an astronomer there, as well, or a historian? Or…
No, no. I actually, I was actually applying to be a pilot, believe it or not! [Laughs]
And remember, this was in the days around 1975 when the Vietnam War was over. So, I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe that I wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam because that was all over. I was not a fan of Vietnam but I guess I was so desperate that I was willing to do anything.
Did you have any flying experience at that point? Or was this just something that sounded fun?
No. None whatsoever. But I had very good eyesight. 20-20 eyesight. That’s just one of those forks in the road in anybody’s career.
I mean, if I hadn’t gotten that call from Princeton, I would’ve gone in the Air Force and my career would’ve been in the Air Force. Totally different! So, that’s just one of those serendipitous things that happened.
And then, what was the path from Arete to the U.S. Naval Observatory?
Okay. Yes, well. You know, commissioning articles and editing other people’s articles was okay to some extent. But I always wanted to write my own stuff.
So, I was looking around at various places. And I had been to the Naval Observatory when I was in grad school. Debbie Warner was there. I don’t know if you know Debbie Warner?
But she was in what at that time was called the National Museum of History and Technology. And then it was eventually changed to the National Museum of American History. And then politicians thought well if taxpayers are paying for that we should make it American History. Which is kind of parochial but anyway I was there for a summer with her. And during that time, we were working on various instrumentation in the collection and everything. During that time, I went up to the Naval Observatory which was up Massachusetts Avenue not very far away from downtown. And met a bunch of people there, astronomers. And one in particular who was interested in history by the name of Bob Rhynsburger. And, you know, he was telling me all about the history of the Naval Observatory and all this. And we actually became very good friends during that summer and some of the other astronomers, too. And so when I left Washington I said, “Well, if you ever have a job at the Naval Observatory, let me know.” It was four years later when I got this call saying, “Well, we’ve got a position open in what was called the Transit Circle Division. So, the Naval Observatory does astrometry, positional astronomy. And they asked if I wanted to apply. So, I did and I accepted the job then.
I moved down to Washington. Started as a GS-7, which is very low. Because all that counted was my Bachelor’s degree in Astronomy. They didn’t care about any PhD in the History of Science. [Laughs] So, I had to work my way up through that whole ladder. It was very difficult to get promotions at the Naval Observatory. That’s one of the things about the Naval Observatory, I don’t know if you’ve ever been there or not, but the grounds are beautiful. Seventy-eight acres. The vice-president lives on the grounds. His house was 1,000 feet from my office this whole time I was there. Twenty-four years it ended up being. From 1979 to 2003. So, it’s beautiful grounds but in the Navy in general, and especially the Naval Observatory, the promotions are rather suppressed. When I went to NASA I found that the secretaries at NASA were making more than the astronomers at the Naval Observatory. [Laughs]
Anyway, I enjoyed the work. It was observational work which, I mentioned before, I always liked. It turned out I was at the finishing edge of this transit circle technology. The transit circle is a very specialized telescope, a small telescope. The one I used mostly was 6 inches in diameter, but it’s extremely specialized. What you do is observe stars as they cross the meridian. And you’re trying to get the most accurate position possible down to microdegrees. Billionth’s of degrees. So, there’s a lot of science that has to go into that for corrections of refraction in the atmosphere and flexure of the instrument and all kinds of things. So, that’s what I got into in 1979. I became an observer there. And of course, in my spare time, and this was encouraged by my supervisor, Bob Rhynsburger, this guy who was interested in history. I did history on the side. And right down the hall from my office was the best astronomy library in the country, the Naval Observatory Library.
By 1980, a year later, I’d already done an article in “Sky & Telescope” on the early history of the observatory from 1830 up to 1865. But there was nothing in my position description that said I was supposed to be doing history. So, I had to be a little judicious about how much time I spent on that. [Laughs]
The main thing was the astronomy. I observed on that transit circle until 1984, and at that point, the Naval Observatory was looking to start a southern-hemisphere station. They had a southern-hemisphere station in Argentina back the ’60s and ’70s. And they had to come back to Washington because of the politics down there, and they couldn’t go back there. But they still wanted to do southern hemisphere work because they wanted positions for the entire sky. So when I got there, they were already looking at site maps for various places deep in the southern hemisphere. It had to be around minus 40° latitude. So, it was decided that we would go to the South Island of New Zealand. And in late 1983 already, I was told that I would be one of the three or four people going on the initial expedition to New Zealand.
To do southern-hemisphere work. So in January of 1984, we pulled up family. By that time, I had two sons. The youngest one was only three months. And the other one was 5 years old. We pulled up stakes and moved to New Zealand. And that was a nominal three-year tour of duty down there. So we were on the South Island of New Zealand for three years, the South Island being the least populated island. The North Island, of course, has Auckland and Wellington. The South Island has Christchurch, but it has many more sheep than it has people. We were just across the Cook Strait from Wellington, in a little town named Blenheim. Our work was on the top of a mountain. Not a real high mountain, about 5,000 feet, called Black Birch, and our facility was officially the Black Birch Astrometric Observatory.
We set up a southern-hemisphere observatory on Black Birch, and that’s what I did for the next three years, from 1984 to 1987. We had a 7-inch transit circle. We also had an astrograph and various other instruments. That was an interesting experience setting up a new observatory in New Zealand and observing the Southern skies. As a bonus it was just the time, 1986, when Comet Halley came around. And although Comet Halley was not very visible in the Northern Hemisphere, where it was very low on the horizon, in New Zealand it was on the zenith. So it was a pretty good comet in the southern hemisphere. We got a lot of publicity around that. Although, I should say there were some protests about the U.S. Navy coming to the southern hemisphere because of anti-nuclear feeling, and that sort of thing. In fact we almost had to move to Australia, but that didn’t happen.
Occasionally you had a protest. But being up at 5,000 feet on the mountain top and not very good roads sort of isolated us from too much of that.
Did you set up that observatory from scratch once the team got there? Or was there already a facility there? Or how did that—
Well, there was a facility called Carter Observatory a little further up on the mountain. Very small observatory run by Canterbury University down in Christchurch. But we set ours up from scratch. There were two or three buildings. There was a building that housed the actual instrument, the transit circle. Then there was the office building with the computers, and all of that. And the big difference between the 6” transit circle in Washington and the 7” transit circle in New Zealand was that the one in New Zealand was run remotely. We could sit in the office and do all the observing from the office. So there were lots of interesting experiences there. It turned out that the site was pretty good in terms of seeing and being clear, which is what we’d done the site-map testing for. Looking at cloud cover and that sort of thing.
But what we didn’t reckon so much was the wind. The winds would often get up to a hundred miles an hour. And when they got to a hundred, we couldn’t observe. So, there were a few times at the beginning when we opened the door to go from the office building to the telescope, and the door would just fly off down the mountainside. So, we reversed the hinges on that and when it was a hundred miles an hour we couldn’t get out. Also it was quite snowy in the winter. So, it was quite an adventure, but we did the program. I did my three years’ worth. And it ended up being about a 10-year program with two or three other teams that came after I left. Between the 6” and the 7” transit circles, we covered the whole sky with about 30° overlap or so that. both instruments observed, which is always important.
Now, it turned out that in the early 1990s the European Hipparcos satellite went up, which was an astrometric satellite. And we were still in the middle of our program in New Zealand. I was gone by that time, but we were in the middle of that program in New Zealand, and the Hipparcos satellite was able to do millions and millions of positions. Star positions 10 to100 times more accurate than the transit circle did. So our whole program ended up not being worth much scientifically. Of course, we didn’t know that when we started. And the Hipparcos satellite almost didn’t make it because it was put in the wrong orbit.
Somehow they got it, with software and various fixes, to work. But in the end, that really superseded transit circles. And there are no transit circles left anymore. So I was one of the last people to work on the transit circle. Of course the most famous transit circle in the world in the Airy transit circle which defines the prime meridian in Greenwich. If you’ve ever been to Greenwich, you can stand in one hemisphere with one foot and the other hemisphere with the other foot—but all of those transit circles have now all been superseded by astrometric satellites. And Hipparcos was superseded by the satellite called Gaia, which is now doing billions of star positions with all kinds of astrophysics. So, the transit circle is really totally history now. But for a couple hundred years, every observatory had a transit circle. And I just got in on the tail end of all that.
So you were operating the transit circle in D.C. for a while, and then you went to set up this new observatory with another transit circle in New Zealand. And your formal training for all this was a Bachelor’s in Astronomy?
So, was that sort of jumping in the deep end and having to learn on the fly? Or were you sort of already, do you think, well set for that? Or what was that like?
There was a lot of on-the-job training. I mean, we didn’t learn transit circle astronomy in college.
I wouldn’t think so. [Laughs]
At Indiana University my degree was actually in astrophysics, not in astronomy. They were still giving degrees in astronomy and in astrophysics. And if you wanted to do classical astrometry, you could do that. But I went more for the astrophysics. I did take some courses on astrometry and least squares, and that sort of thing, which helped. But there was no training on how to observe on a transit circle or do the reductions on a transit circle and that sort of thing. So, there was a lot of on-the-job training by the other astronomers.
Okay. And so then when you were done in New Zealand your next position was still at the Naval Observatory but as a historian of science. Now, was that a natural transition based on the work you’d been doing in your free time? Or how did that come about?
That’s a good question. There’s a story there. We were agitating for a history position. And there were people at the observatory who were supportive of a history position, although by this time, my mentor, Bob Rhynsburger, was gone. He retired a year after I came. So he couldn’t agitate anymore. The librarian, Brenda Corbin, was very supportive. You probably have not met her because she retired from the observatory, oh, at least 10 or 15 years ago now.
Yeah. I haven’t met her.
She was very good, and she was also into history. And some of the other astronomers gave her support to go to the Superintendent (a Navy Captain who headed the Observatory) and even while I was in New Zealand to agitate for a history position Knowing that the Naval Observatory is the oldest continuously operating scientific institution in the U.S. Government. So they made a case and when I got back, we finalized it. And Gart Westerhout, the Observatory’s Scientific Director, supported it. They actually established the position for Historian of the Naval Observatory. That would have been in 1987 when I got back. But then it didn’t last too long because in 1990 or so came the downfall of the Soviet Union. Defense budgets went down. Budgets were cut everywhere, including the Naval Observatory. So, they’re looking at their staff billets, their staff numbers, and they’re saying, “What? Historian? Can’t we have a real scientist here?” [Laughs]
What happened was that the public affairs person left the observatory and they combined my history position with the public affairs position.
So, I did history and public affairs. The only problem with that, of course, is that public affairs is a 200% job. Everybody wants to see their name in the paper, you know. They don’t care so much about history. [Laughs]
So, that’s why even though I started the history position in 1987, the Naval Observatory history wasn’t published until 15 of 16 years later, in 2003, just before I left to go to NASA. So every spare moment I had I would be down at the library writing the history. Which is no way, you may know, to write history. [Laughs] You start over a hundred times.
You can’t really immerse yourself. The good thing was the library had a lot of the primary documents. I mean, it’s really an excellent library. And there were some archives there, and I also made good use of the National Archives where the official records reside. So, whenever I had the chance, I would go down there and do that. I also did probably 100 hours of oral history interviews with past and present astronomers. But as I say, the public affairs was just all-consuming. Especially when you had events happening like Shoemaker Levy 9 Comet or something like that.
We would have open houses, and thousands of people would come. This is in the middle of Washington, and that’s how popular astronomy was. Also we always gave tours, which I thought was important. We had a lot of young people come through and look through the 12” telescope. Of course, we had the 26” inch refractor there, too, which was the largest in the world back in the 1870s when it was erected. And it’s the telescope that discovered the two moons of Mars. The famous story of Asaph Hall and the two moons of Mars. That one normally was not used for tourists. It was the 12” telescope on the dome; the dome on the main building there that was used for tours. The 26” was still used scientifically. It’s still used today, believe it or not. It’s used to observe double stars, but now with these electronic detectors, all kinds of interferometric stuff to get around the Washington pollution. So, it’s still used today.
But back then, the only reason we would ever use that 26-inch telescope for public purposes was when somebody like the Vice President, and this happened more often than you would think, wanted to come up and use the telescope and schmooze with somebody like Jesse Ventura, or whoever happened to be at his house, which was just a two-minute walk away. [Laughs] But it was interesting to see that some Vice Presidents were more interested in science than others. I mean, Gore was very interested in science. He would always have people up. And there are a lot of funny stories associated with that. I remember one time he called up, or somebody from his staff called up and said that the Prime Minister of Russia was here, Viktor Chernomyrdin. And he wanted to look through the telescope. So, we said, “Okay, we’ll set it all up.” And they always set up a nice wine and cheese and all this. Unfortunately, that evening it started to rain so they couldn’t observe, obviously, and he called up and said, “Well, we can’t come. Just cancel it.” We had the nice wine and cheese and everything. And then it cleared up, and they called up and said, “Well, we’re coming anyway.” [Laughs] So, they didn’t get any wine and cheese, but they got to look through the telescope. [Laughs] But that happened quite often with Gore especially. I mean some Vice Presidents like Cheney we never heard from, but some of them were interested in science.
You would’ve been there, sort of, during the tail end when Bush was Vice President, as well, right?
Let’s see. Yes.
Did he ever come by?
I’m trying to think of the dates now. Let’s see. George H.W. Bush was there, the elder Bush was there.
Yeah, he was Vice President through ’88. So, he would’ve…
That’s right. I remember going to their Christmas parties. That was one of the benefits. You always got invited to the Christmas party. You got your picture taken with the Vice President. But I don’t believe he ever came up to actually use the telescope. No.
Okay. Oh. But you saw a lot of Gore.
A lot of Gore. I actually got to know Gore pretty well because when the Mars rock potential nanofossils were announced in 1996, there was this big meeting down in the old Executive Office Building [now designated the Eisenhower Building]. And we all sat around the table and talked about the implications of that. I can tell you more about that later, but it is 1996 during my time at the Naval Observatory. In fact, I remember my bosses up on the second floor got a call from the White House saying they wanted me to come to this meeting with Gore. And they didn’t know what to make of that, you know. But that was one of the things that happened in the 1990s. And that was in the Old Executive Office Building. It wasn’t a big meeting. It was just in a large conference room.
And the reason that Gore knew about me was because my book, The Biological Universe, had just come out in 1996. And I don’t remember if I sent him a copy, or what. But, anyway, it precipitated this invitation to come to this meeting, which was to talk about the implications of Martian nanofossils, if this were true. Of course, the consensus now is that the supposed nanofossils are not biological in origin. Even though a few people still claim that it is. But at that meeting, there were probably 20 people there. Including David McKay who was one of the original NASA Johnson Space Center people who co-wrote the paper. Other scientists like John Bahcall, I remember, the astronomer. But also the unusual thing was that there were social sciences people there, and journalists like Bill Moyers. A theologian or two. I was the only historian there. This would’ve been in early December of 1996. Carl Sagan was a few weeks away from death. He was invited but didn’t come. His first wife, Lynn Margulis, was there. And Stephen Jay Gould. I say more about this meeting in my book Astrobiology, Discovery, and Societal Impact (2018).
And, so, it was kind of this salon where Gore is at the head of the table. And the NASA administrator, Dan Goldin, was on one side. And the Director of the OMB, the Office of Management and Budget was on the other side because there were budget implications here—which was right when astrobiology was starting to form as a discipline. And I think, the whole Mars rock thing sort of helped that. Some people, in fact, accused NASA of hyping it to get more money for astrobiology. [Laughs] That was a very interesting meeting. It went on for two or three hours. And I’ve looked for archives of that meeting. There are images. There were lots of photographs taken. As far as I can tell, there were no transcripts of the discussions. At least I haven’t found them.
That’s very interesting. Especially the scientists, the social scientists, and the theologians together. Just in my own research into the history cultural evolution, I know that Gore… is a fan of Teilhard de Chardin.
Who is a fan, did you say?
Gore. Al Gore is.
Oh, Gore. Is that right?
Yeah. Were any of the later things that you would be thinking about, you know, cultural evolution, cosmic evolution, present already at this point?
No, not that I recall. No. The meeting was more about the implications. And I remember Gore turning, started out by turning to Stephen Jay Gould and saying, “What are the least implications of this?” And Gould said, “Well, it depends on whether this is a second genesis or not.” You know, whether the putative Mars rock life was formed independently from earth. If it was independent that gives you some idea that wherever life can form, it does form.
Whereas if it’s not independent, it’s not so impactful. And then Gore asked me, “What was the biggest implication if it were true.” And I said, “Well, it could change our worldview in various ways.” And then I elaborated on that. But I don’t remember anything particularly about cultural evolution. It’s really too bad that there’s transcript of this. Because I went to the National Archives and found these images and some other documents. But no transcripts.
That is unfortunate. I would love to see that if it existed.
Anyway, that was an interesting thing that happened in the ’90s.
Yeah. And, so, then you stayed at the Naval Observatory until 2003, right? When you moved to NASA?
That’s right. Most of that time, from ’87 to 2003 would’ve been in that dual position doing public affairs and history. And somehow during that time I managed to get the history written. And, in fact, I think that was published in 2003 just before I left. By spring of 2003, they said I couldn’t do history anymore at USNO.
[Laughs] Oh, no.
It was another one of these budget cut things. You can’t even do history anymore. And so they wanted to put me in a position that was doing real science. and I was actually made the Acting Director of the Nautical Almanac Office, believe it or not.
Which is a position that Simon Newcomb had in the 19th century. That wasn’t exactly my cup of tea either. Doing all these calculations for the Astronomical Almanac and the Air Almanac and the Nautical Almanac, and this, that, and the other. But I did it for an entire cycle. Like, six or eight months. I saw all that through the press. And they were about to appoint me as the real Director for the Nautical Almanac Office when the NASA position was announced and I was offered that job.
I’m curious. What is the use of naval nautical almanac these days? Or, you know, 20 years ago?
There was quite a controversy about that. People were asking the same question you just did. [Laughs] Especially with GPS, you know. But the celestial nav people pointed out that, well, GPS can be jammed. And what do you do then? So, for a while they actually stopped teaching celestial navigation at the Naval Academy. But I think for only a few years before they realized that could be a problem. If we’re at sea and GPS is jammed then we don’t know where we are. So, for that reason, it’s still published. Or it is still published as a kind of a backup.
And, so, then when the NASA position opened up, that was for the Chief Historian.
And that seems like an obvious fit for you? Were you—was there competition for that role? Were you already in contact with NASA before then? And what was that process?
Well, I wouldn’t say in contact with NASA so much, except occasionally for the 1996 meeting we just talked about. I’m trying to think if there was any other contact. Well, I’d been doing the oral history interviews. That’s right. I did a lot of oral history interviews with a lot of NASA people, part of it under contract to NASA. And so I got to know a lot of NASA people that way. But that wouldn’t have impacted my getting the history position because those were entirely different parts of NASA. NASA’s a huge place. Most people don’t even know there’s a NASA headquarters. When they think of NASA, they think of Kennedy Space Center or Goddard, maybe. But Headquarters has, or had, some 1,500 people in the building down there not far from the Air and Space Museum. And the Chief Historian position, at the time, came under what was called the Office of External Relations.
This is another thing, even at NASA, they never knew quite what to do with the historian. Whether it should come under the Administrator or external relations or international relations or policy. And, so, the historian position gets kicked around. As with everywhere else, there are constant reorganizations. But at this time it was in the Office of External Relations which interfaced with not just the other agencies in the U.S. but also international space agencies. And the good thing about that was that I had autonomy. They pretty much let me do what I wanted to do. And, of course, my predecessor there had been Roger Launius. He had been there for a long time, maybe 15 years, something like that. I remember one glitch was that the position was advertised as a GS-15. And remember I told you how the Naval Observatory salaries were suppressed. Even as the acting Director of the Nautical Almanac Office I was only a 13.
And you can’t jump from a 13 to a 15. So, NASA had done this search. And they, I guess, wanted me, to be in the final few. So, they actually went back and made it a 14/15, which I was eligible for.
So, to get a bigger pool of people they actually readvertised the position as a 14/15. When I was hired, I came in as GS-14. And very quickly went to a 15 which nobody at the Naval Observatory was a 15 except for, like, the Scientific Director. [Laughs]
So, anyway, that was a very challenging job. 2003-2009 I was there during a period when all these landmark anniversaries came up. You know, the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, the 50th of NASA, and so on. And so I was given a lot of leeway on what I could do. One of the big projects was commissioning books. We had a pretty good budget. In fact, the budget sometimes was so big that I couldn’t use it all. But that’s a good problem to have.
[Laughs] Yeah, not bad.
In general, we would commission books on various subjects, having to do with, space science or something like that. And you would commission out a book for $100,000/year for three years. So, it would be a $300K project. And, when I left, we had something like 40 book projects going.
Yeah. Because my budget came not only from international relations, but also, if I wanted to commission a book on planetary protection or something, all I had to do was go to the planetary protection people and say, “Nobody knows what you’re doing. Wouldn’t you like to have your history written?” And to them, $300,000 is just chump change, you know. So, they’d say, “Sure. Here is it. Go find somebody to write this.” So, like I said, by the time I left we had all these book projects going. That was one of my big duties there. And anytime you have that amount of money in the mix they’re always looking at your budget. You have to slice and dice your budget in a hundred different ways. And you have deliverables on books. First of all to commission a book you’ve got to go through the same process as you do to get parts for the Space Shuttle. It’s just federal acquisition regulations.
So, you gotta do all this advertising and everything and finally choose somebody. And then you have these deadlines. And, of course, a lot of people, for various reasons wouldn’t make their deadlines. If they didn’t make their deadlines, I couldn’t pay them. Because you can’t pay people if they don’t produce. And in the meantime, the budget people would say, “You haven’t spent this so we’re taking your money away.” And then they would produce but I didn’t have the money anymore. [Laughs] So, it was just a terrible headache that way with the book projects. But, anyway, we did a lot of good books. And the other big thing was the conferences. We did a lot of conferences. One every year, starting with Critical Issues in the History of Space Flight. Another one was Societal Impact of Space Flight. All these are free online at the NASA History website. You know, one of the great things about being left alone and being in a position like it that you can make things happen. So, do a conference on the Societal Impact of Space Flight. Invite people from all over the world. And pay them to come.
And do a book. Societal Impact of Space Flight and two or three others that we did on the anniversary of Sputnik, Remembering the Space Age, and NASA’s First 50 Years for the NASA 50th anniversary. So those were all big projects, too, where I had an organizing role and a role as editor of the volumes. Well I could go on forever. Maybe you want to ask me a specific question?
Nope. Keep going.
When I came in 2003, it was shortly after the Columbia accident. That was what was on everybody’s mind. And return to flight. RTF, they call it. And one of the things they did was have a big conference on risk and exploration in Monterey, California. And that ended up being another book that we did called Risk and Exploration, which is also online. By the way, all the NASA books are online for free. It’s one of the great resources for space history.
I only discovered that recently, but I love it. Makes life a lot easier.
I didn’t actually organize the Risk and Exploration meeting. That was called the NASA Administrator’s Symposium. Because they really wanted to look at these issues of risk. Because people were saying, “You can’t go back until everything’s perfectly safe.” Well, nothing is ever perfectly safe. And one of the points at the meeting was that the first priority is not safety. The first priority is to go, otherwise you’re never gonna go. ’Cause it’s never gonna be 100%. It’s some level of safety you have to reach before you can go. And, of course, there’s always the question of what level that is. So, this meeting was very interesting because it not only had astronauts like John Grunsfel, who did four out of the five servicing missions for the Hubble telescope but also mountain climbers and deep-sea divers, and all kinds of people talking about risk.
My role in that was that the Proceedings probably would never have been published if it weren’t for me. Because I decided it was close enough to history that it was something that would be useful to NASA that we would do that. And, so, I actually joined with Keith Cowing. He’s the guy who runs NASA Watch which an independent watchdog that often criticizes NASA. So it’s not a NASA thing. But Keith Cowing and I, because he was involved with the organizing, put that volume together on “Risk and Exploration.” And I think it still stands as an interesting volume. Not so much a technical volume. It’s very readable and has lots of imagery and that sort of thing. But that’s one example of how the history office gets involved in a lot of different things within NASA. Which is one of the problems.
The history office is very small, really. There are only five people there. It depends if you count the NASA HQ archives or not. The archives also came under the historian. So, I was also the supervisor for the archives which had three people then. A few very good people. Jane Odom was the head archivist. Shortly after I left, she died of brain cancer. And we had Steve Garber who was another historian, and several other people in the history office. But you have all these incoming requests. Somebody wants you to do something. And the more you do, the more other people want you to do things. So, it’s really a balancing act because it’s a small office. You can’t do everything. But, if the Administrator calls you up and says he wants you to do somethin’ you gotta do it, right?
So, there was one thing we got involved in which was about NASA culture. How NASA employees felt about various things. Were they happy with the work they were doing? How could it be improved? And for some reason, the Administrator wanted the NASA history office to take the lead in that. I guess because we were seen as objective, which is good.
But that’s a huge project to go around to all the 10 NASA centers and do that kind of thing. So, we did that and I think came out with a good product. I’m tryin’ to think of what else. Oh, another one was when O’Keefe was there. When I arrived, O’Keefe was the NASA Administrator. Dan Goldin had left shortly before. And O’Keefe would be there for a few years until Mike Griffin came—Michael Griffin whose background was as an engineer. Different from O’Keefe who was a political guy. And then as I was leaving in 2009 Charlie Bolden came in as Administrator, a former NASA Shuttle astronaut. But one of the things that O’Keefe did, which was very controversial, was to cancel the last servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope. Which was hugely controversial because it meant that in two or three years Hubble would be useless as the gyros and the batteries and everything were running out.
And, anyway, this was all part of this risk and exploration thing. He said It was too risky.to send people up there again to service the telescope. And it got to be very controversial with politics and Congress and all kinds of people involved. And Administrator O’Keefe comes to the history office and says, “I want you to write up the history of how this happened so they can see how I made this decision.” So, that meant doing oral histories with all the major players. Grunsfeld and O’Keefe himself and people in space sciences who were involved. And all the Hubble people. And produce a report on that, which I did. So, these are just examples of things that people come to the history office to do in the midst of everything else we’re doing on conferences and books and other things. It was a very challenging position. And when I left there was about a year gap and Bill Barry took over. Bill is a very good guy who’d been at NASA for a long time. Had done his dissertation at Oxford, I think, on the history of the Soviet space program. Even though he didn’t have a degree in history, I don’t think. But he was a very good manager, and he’s recently retired. And, so, they’re now in the process of looking for another Chief Historian.
So, I would imagine at least that NASA would be a much more congenial environment for pursuing your interest in exobiology and astrobiology. And I know you did do some work on that still while you were at the Naval Observatory, and we should probably come back and talk about that at some point, too. But what was that like coming to NASA? Were you able to start, sort of, exploring that a little more thoroughly?
Well, at this point, let’s see. In 2004, Jim Strick and myself published what we call the Dick/Strick book, which was about NASA and the development of astrobiology. And most of that work had been done before I got to NASA because I didn’t get to NASA until late 2003. And that book was published in 2004. So, those oral history interviews had all been completed. But I continued my interest in astrobiology while I was at NASA although there wasn’t a lot writing I could do because of all these other things I just described.
I could go on and on. I didn’t even mention the Shuttle flights. We went down for most of the Shuttle flights. Often, they didn’t happen. You would go down. At 3:00 in the morning they would cancel and you’d fly back to Washington. [Laughs] But I did get to see, close up, a lot of Shuttle flights. And one of the reasons for that was the Office of External Relations which I was imbedded in was responsible for hosting all the other various space agencies when there was a Shuttle flight. So, we would interface with the Canadian, Japanese, European space agencies, when there was a Shuttle flight. And the other good thing about being in External Relations was that they had a huge budget. I mean, millions of dollars just for travel.
And this is not the case anymore, that if I wanted to go anywhere, wanted to go to Moscow, just take off and go. [Laughs]
Which we did. One of the book projects was Boris Chertok. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the name Chertok? Chertok was the deputy to Korolev, who was the Russian equivalent of von Braun. He was in his 90s by this time and had written his memoirs. Four volumes of memoirs in Russian in the previous decade or so. And one of the projects we took on was to translate that book and he actually elaborated it for us, so it’s much bigger than the original.
And we got Asif Siddiqi. I don’t know if you know Asif, or not? He’s an historian of science up at Fordham. He was the series editor for that. In any case, to make a long story short, for the first volume published in English I went to Moscow and they had a huge celebration. Chertok was there; he was something like 95 at the time. He would live another three or four years. And the American Ambassador to Russia was involved. Lots of cosmonauts there. It’s just another example of the kind of thing that the history office would do.
Right. Yeah. So then, going back a bit, the oral histories that you had done prior to arriving at NASA, were you pursuing those, more or less, completely independently at that point? Or was the Naval Observatory still, sort of, reluctantly sponsoring you as a historian?
Nothing that I did in astrobiology would be related to the Naval Observatory. No. That was all done on my own time. If I was going to, California or something I would take leave. For a while I did have a NASA contract for the Dick/Strick book The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, which included oral histories with astrobiologists. Those interviews and transcripts are all deposited at the NASA HQ archives. But that was all done on my own time. It was the perfect collaboration with Jim Strick; his background in history of biology very much complemented mine in history of astronomy. Just as astrobiology is very interdisciplinary, our collaboration was a case of interdisciplinary cooperation in history of science. I think it worked very well, as evidenced by the final product.
So that was just my side interest and there was no way the Naval Observatory had any kind of mission in astrobiology. But I often went to meetings. Some meetings would’ve been paid for by the Naval Observatory if they were the American Astronomical Society or the International Astronomical Union. I went to all of those meeting. And at one time I gave a lecture on astrobiology at the AAS meeting in Seattle. But the observatory sent me, not because of that but just because it was just the American Astronomical Society and I was the Chair or involved in the Historical Astronomy Division. The same with the IAU in Commission 41. I was the president of Commission 41 History of Astronomy. So, I would get sent to those things. And, of course, the IAU had a commission that started out as bioastronomy.
It’s interesting how the terminology evolved. You know, it was exobiology originally at NASA because the biologists were the ones mainly involved. But when the IAU got involved those are astronomers. So that’s a branch of astronomy. So, it’s bioastronomy. [Laughs] And only in the mid-’90s, and this is documented in the Dick/Strick book, did astrobiology become not only the accepted term but a whole new discipline which was broader than exobiology which had been mainly focused on origin-of-life studies. I mean, astrobiology is planetary systems and SETI and planetary science and all kinds of things. So, to answer your question, a lot of it was on my own time. I was getting well enough known in the astrobiology field that often my way would be paid, not by the Naval Observatory, but by the meeting hosts.
Sure. And then in the astrobiology community at that time, were you the lone historical voice in there? Or was there anyone else with you?
I’d say I was the only historian until I began the collaboration with Jim Strick. Which was, as I say, was an excellent collaboration because his background was history of biology. Mine was history of astronomy. And, of course, astrobiology combines the two. So, he actually wrote the chapters that had most to do with biology and I wrote the ones that had most to do with astronomy. And there was a lot of collaboration there which was really, really good. Sorry—what was your question again?
Oh, just your role as a historian in the astrobiology community?
I’d say before Jim Strick I was the only one. Now, occasionally you’d have somebody write an article. Even in Isis like Audra Wolfe who wrote about a very specific subject, Joshua Lederberg’s role, which was a very important one in exobiology at NASA, or that kind of thing. More on the cultural end rather than the science end. I guess I should say, I was always more interested in the science. I think that’s because of my training at Indiana University. And although I realize the importance now of putting it all in a cultural context which I did somewhat, that was never my focus. There was this whole argument about internal vs. externalist, of course, at the time.
And I was more of an internalist. And I would still argue that even for the externalist, you ought to know what the science is that you’re talking about. But I remember Ed Grant, who ended up being my dissertation advisor saying “even in medieval science you should be interested in the scientific concepts. I’m not interested in what they had for breakfast, ’ya know.” [Laughs]
So, that was the attitude I was tutored on.
I think history of science now is much more pluralistic, and it’s good that it is much more pluralistic. Although I don’t consider myself a postmodernist either. I think it goes too far in one direction sometimes. But to answer your question, I think I was the only historian at a lot of these meetings. And in fact the most recent book that I published with Springer is my collected works. And there’s a big section on astrobiology, the Naval Observatory, philosophy of astronomy, and so on. Each article I updated with a “Commentary 2020” which not only updated the science and the history, but also gave the context for some of the meetings where the papers were originally given. The astrobiology section has several papers from those meetings that I went to, like the bioastronomy meeting in Capri. The Isle of Capri; they always had great venues for these meetings.
And my role at those meetings would be to put things in historical perspective. I think I was the only one doing that for a long time. There’s an interesting story there, too, about the roadmap for astrobiology. You know, NASA likes to do roadmaps.
And the roadmap for astrobiology happened in the later 1990s. I was involved in the roadmap and we were divided into various groups and there was an “astrobiology and society” group. And we recommended that one of the principal goals be to look at various issues having to do with astrobiology and society. In the end, the roadmap mentioned, well, this might an interesting thing to do sometime. But it was not one of the main thrusts. By that time, you had social scientists like Alvin Toffler and various other people on that committee. And we made proposals, but NASA was not ready to accept yet the social science aspect of it so much, probably because they wanted the funding to go to science, not social science. And that eventually changed. And it changed especially in Europe with the European Astrobiology Society. One of their founding principles is astrobiology and society. I mean, it’s the European Astrobiology Society but one of their focuses is the whole astrobiology and society aspect.
It took a while for all of this to happen, although I think it was the early 2000s when we had a meeting at NASA Ames. There were people within NASA who were interested in the subject. And there was a conference at NASA Ames on societal impact kind of things, which I think you can still find online. Eventually you would get social scientists like Alan Tough from Canada, and Al Harrison from California. We’d all get together and talk about these things. Sometimes at the strangest venues, like this thing called the Foundation for the Future out of Seattle, Washington. And they wanted to look at a thousand-year horizon. And so they pulled some of us in to talk about what if life was discovered? You know, it’s one of those wild card kinda things. There were various meetings like that that I went to and for a long time I was the only one. But gradually it grew. I think, now, there’s a pretty robust astrobiology and society community.
Yeah. So, when you were doing these oral histories in the ’90s, I’m curious about the people you were talking to, what was their sense of now looking back on it there’s this coherent discipline coalescing out of these earlier, sort of distinct camps or threads? What was your perspective, I guess, on their awareness of coming together into a coherent discourse?
For astrobiology or astrobiology and society?
Yeah. Astrobiology in general.
Most of those scientists were not interested in the astrobiology and society kinds of aspects. Although I should say, before I forget, and this goes actually back to your question about my involvement in NASA. I forgot about this, so this is important. NASA Ames in Mountain View, California is really one of the great NASA centers doing lots of different things. And, in fact this is described in the Dick/Strick book. They were doing so many different things, that a top-level NASA review in the mid-1990s criticized them for not focusing, or not having expertise in any one thing. So, they said, “Well, we can probably shut that center down.”
Well, that’s when astrobiology was used to save the center, because it involves astronomy, biology, space science, and all kind of things. And that carried the day. Before that at NASA Ames the SETI program was located there, totally separate from the life sciences people.
It’s a different kind of community. But the head of the SETI of program at the time, based at NASA Ames, was a guy by the name of John Billingham who was a medical doctor. His background was more in the medical side, not the astronomy side. But he realized the importance early on of what the impact might be if they were successful. Because the SETI program had been developing very gradually through the ’70s and ’80sand was inaugurated in 1992. So, looking forward to that inauguration in 1992 with radio telescopes, John Billingham convened an interdisciplinary group of maybe 20 people, to talk about the cultural aspects of SETI. It was called CASETI (Cultural Aspects of SETI). And that was a group that was pretty interdisciplinary. In fact, Karl Guthke was at that meeting. You know, the Harvard historian. So that’s a case where another historian was involved. And anthropology people like Ben Finney, and I’m trying to think who else. Well scientists like Frank Drake and Jill Tarter were there. I have a photo of the participants and talk about the meeting in my Space, Time, and Aliens book.
And there were some people there from the State Department. Michael Michaud was fairly high up in the State Department and had as his avocation the whole SETI field.
And he’s written a book or two on that. So, even by the early 1990s there were some others. And this was a very unique thing that happened. I described it in one of my articles. There was a publication that came out 10 years later, a proceedings of what happened at that meeting. I would say, in terms of direct involvement in an official capacity my first involvement with NASA was those CASETI meetings in California.
Okay. And then, would SETI then, and this CASETI group, was that origins of your interest in cultural evolution as an object of scientific and historical interest?
Good question. It certainly helped; I think it probably was. Because by the mid-’90s I was publishing articles (see Space, Time, and Aliens) on cultural aspects of SETI and what the implications might be if we found life. And even in the wake of the roadmap in the late 1990s, I wrote an article about “societal impact of astrobiology, a preliminary reconnaissance at the turn of the millennium,” a reconnaissance of societal aspects. So certainly by the mid-to-late 1990s, or gradually evolving during the 1990s, my interest in cultural evolution came about.
And was that something that was already present, more broadly, in the nascent astrobiology community? Or was it really localized to one particular group?
Oh, well, that’s a good question because it was actually the SETI people who emphasized cosmic evolution. Which includes cultural evolution.
And they tended to concentrate more on the physical and biological science part of it, but the icon for cosmic evolution is, in some ways the Drake Equation. Which includes astronomical, biological, and cultural aspects because you’ve got L, the lifetime of technological civilization at the end of that equation. So you have to talk about evolution of culture and civilizations. And, in fact, now that I think about it, all the way back in the mid-1970s, there was this famous blue book project, not the UFO blue book. [Laughs] It was actually a blue book. Sometimes called the blue book. But it was a series of conferences headed by Phil Morrison when they were talking about NASA getting more into SETI. And there’s one section of that volume which has to do with cultural evolution, and that was headed up by none other than Joshua Lederberg.
So, you know, people like Joshua Lederberg had very broad interests.
I mean, for somebody to get into exobiology was pretty far out except that he already had a Nobel Prize by that time at the age of 38, or something. [Laughs] So, what do you got to lose? But that helped legitimize exobiology also when you got a Nobel Prize winner or two involved, you know.
His interests were very broad and that 1975 publication does include just a little bit on cultural evolution aspects.
Interesting. And did they see, either Lederberg or the later people that you were talking to in the ’90s, did they seem to have a sense of their own history? You know, if you push back a generation earlier than Lederberg you have, like, the 1959 Darwin Centennial at Chicago where the conference proceedings are split up into three parts: cosmic evolution, planets, stars, galaxies and such; biological evolution; and cultural evolution, and you have biologists and anthropologists along with astronomers and geologists and anthropologists all saying, “Yeah. This is a unified thing that we’re studying here.” And, my sense, at least, is that that went away, almost entirely, for a time.
Now when was that?
That was 1959.
’59. Oh, the Darwin Centennial.
Yes. Yeah. Exactly.
I think that’s exactly right. It would pop up every once in a while, and then at NASA with this whole idea of cosmic evolution, it kept popping up increasingly frequently especially in the SETI program. Until eventually it became a thing. Now, I’m sure there are other players outside NASA who have been involved in the whole cultural evolution idea. Well, cultural evolution is a huge, huge thing — including sociobiology and all kinds of angles.
[Laughs] Yeah. Yes.
But from an astronomical and NASA point of view, it was the idea of cosmic evolution. And as I say, the cultural evolution part of it was often played down because NASA had no experts on that subject. But people like me would point out that cultural evolution was very important. And that’s why I wrote this article, and many other articles, beginning in the early 2000s, 2003 or so, on the postbiological universe. Because my point was that you had to take not just astronomical and biological evolution into account, but cultural evolution. What might extraterrestrials have evolved into? And I suppose nobody ever did that before because who knows what they evolved into? [Laughs]
But, anyway, I made arguments that they might have evolved into postbiologicals, artificial intelligence. And that would have implications for SETI. Because one of the things about SETI is people think that we’re gonna make contact with people like us. Which is not very likely, you know. They’re not gonna be in the same timeframe as we are. I mean it’s possible that intelligent life evolved elsewhere billions of years ago. Billions and billions as Sagan would say.
You know, even if they were 10,000 or 1,000,000 years different from us, they’re not gonna be anything like us. And they may have evolved into postbiologicals. And how would that affect your search? Cultural evolution is very important.
Yes, also—Did the SETI people that you spoke with have an answer to that?
I think they pretty much ignored it. [Laughs]
I guess their point would be “Well, what practically can you do with radio telescopes different than what we’re doing now?” And there might well be things but they never have sat down to discuss it in any detail. I think they probably think they’re far out enough without trying to say, “We’re looking for postbiologicals.” [Laughs]
That’s another interesting point. Do you see a trajectory over this time of SETI being, maybe, brought more into the mainstream? And that there’s just always been a perception of them of at least a little fringe.
But as they are incorporated into this broader astrobiology field has that been shifting, do you think?
It definitely has, and I would say only in the last few years in a big way. Because NASA a couple of years had a meeting on technosignatures. The big thing these days is biosignatures and technosignatures. Technosignatures is just shorthand for an extraterrestrial signal, artifact, etc.
Mostly an intelligent signal. So NASA is for the first time starting to contemplate SETI again. For some reason, they’re still gun-shy about the whole thing having been canceled back in 1993 after one year because Congress framed it as looking-for-little-green-men ridicule kind of thing. But technosignatures is an up-and-coming field where NASA is getting more and more involved. And it’s just kind of is cobbled onto biosignatures, and there’s a lot of work being done on biosignatures, of course. Because now with all the thousands and thousands of planets, some of them earth-like, the question is what can you tell from their atmospheres, and that sort of thing. Biosignatures are the best way to search for in that kind of thing.
Now, these technosignatures, is this strictly analogous to biosignatures in that sense? You’re looking for the by-products as manifested in the chemical composition of an atmosphere or a planet? Or is it signals, and that sort of thing?
Well if you get a radio signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, that’s the best biosignature you can have, right? [Laughs]
If you can make sure that it is artificial, and, you know, if there’s a message, and if you can decipher the message, and all that sort of thing. I think that’s what they’re talking about mainly when they’re talking about technosignatures. It’s just a nice shorthand word. It fits right into biosignatures which is almost a field in itself. A sub-field in astrobiology. So, as far as I know, NASA is not giving a lot of money to that field yet. The other thing though, is there’s this Breakthrough Listen project now. This $100,000,000 project out in California which is funded by a Russian Silicon Valley guy, Yuri Milner. So NASA can say, “There are other people doing that so we don’t have to give a lot of money to it.” But, of course, if Breakthrough Listen comes up with something, I predict that NASA will put a lot of money into it. [Laughs]
And that’s when the societal impact of finding life will kick in, too. And that’s the argument I’ve used. That we ought to be thinking about these things now. You know, it’s sort of the same thing as when I started doing the history of the extraterrestrial life debate. It was taboo, and why would you want to talk about that. And now it’s, “Why would you want to talk about the impact of finding extraterrestrial life when we have so many problems here, you know?” And so I argue why you want to do that. It’s for the same reason you do it for contingency planning for anything else.
I mean, it might not be very likely to happen, but if it does, it’s a high-impact kind of thing.
[Laughs] Right. Absolutely.
So, along those lines, you’ve also done a fair amount on religion, or cosmotheology, the theological implications of life or intelligence elsewhere, and it makes perfect sense why it’s important, you know, in terms of where this announcement, if it happened, would have an impact.
But how did religion, enter into your thinking to begin with? Was it just a logical continuity from your dissertation? Or was it something that came up.
I talk about this in the book that was just published by Springer, Space, Time, and Aliens, which reprints a bunch of my articles including one on cosmotheology. Actually, the latest one on that subject; here have been several articles on cosmotheology. This is a long story. The first article had to do with the Templeton Foundation, which encourages dialogue on science and religion. And again it goes back to my 1996 book, The Biological Universe. So, the Templeton Foundation in the late ’90s wanted to have a meeting on theological implications of the discovery of life. I think the title was “Many Worlds: Theological Implications of the New Universe,” but life was certainly part of that. They knew about my book on the Biological Universe, so I got invited to this little conference, a very intimate conference with Sir John himself down in Nassau where he lived in the Bahamas, at his home. And this was a group even smaller than the Gore group. Maybe 15 people. People like Richard Dawkins; George Coyne, who was the Director of the Vatican Observatory; Ernan McMullin, who was a well-known philosophy professor at Notre Dame; Nobel Prizewinner, Christian de Duve; and, Paul Davies, the physicist. We had very high-level, well-known people to talk about this.
So, I guess the reason I was invited to that was because of The Biological Universe book, and there is a little section on theology. Maybe I called it astrotheology at the time, the impact in theology. So I was interested in it already back then. And then people realized that I was interested in it, and not many people were talking about. So, I’d get invited to these things like the Templeton Foundation meeting, that was a two- or three-day meeting. And then, somehow, they invited me to be the editor for that proceedings. The proceedings is called Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life, and the Theological Implications, published in 2000. That was very interesting because I remember presenting my cosmotheology article in there. And George Coyne, who got to be a pretty good friend, was quite skeptical of that because, my thing in cosmotheology is we don’t need the supernatural. That, you can have spiritual relation, and you don’t even need to call it religion. Or you can have a theology without the supernatural. And I remember one of his reactions at that meeting was, “There’s a special place in hell reserved for those who don’t believe in the supernatural.” [Laughs] Because, of course, that’s the basis for everything they do in the Christian church. And Richard Dawkins was an arch-skeptic and the only one who, after this meeting, did not submit an article. I think he was never involved with the Templeton Foundation again.
He was just very outspoken. He would butt in and say when somebody was up there talking, “What on earth are you talking about? Anyway, it was fun. It was a fun meeting. It was good to meet people like that. So, I kept getting invited to meetings like that. I think that’s how it grew. And eventually I got to know people from some of these meetings like Ted Peters. Ted Peters is a Lutheran theologian out at the Berkeley Center for Theology and Natural Science. A couple years ago he did a book called “Astrotheology,” with lots of different points of view from different religions. And I have one in there from the point of view of religious naturalism, meaning that you don’t start with the idea that the supernatural exists, where does that take you from there? That’s a serious ontological and metaphysical position.
In general, cosmotheology is just the idea of what kind of theology would you have given all that we know about the universe now, that we’re not the center of the universe for sure. We’re not the center physically. We’re probably not the center biologically and why should we be the center of God’s attention if there’s millions of planets with other life on them? So, that gets you into all kinds of interesting things. George Coyne’s successor at the Vatican Observatory is Guy Consolmagno who I also got to know pretty well because we were on the Board of the SETI Institute together. But he wrote a book called, “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” [Laughs] That was actually the title of the book but that was only one of the chapters in the book. His answer there was that you would baptize an extraterrestrial only if it asked.
Which I thought was a big improvement over the 16th century Age of Discovery, where they forced people to convert. So, you get into all kinds of interesting questions about doctrinal issues and Eastern religions vs. Western religions, and that sort of thing. And how they might approach the discovery of life beyond earth.
Have you found that the theologians, or the religious scholarly community in general, are receptive? It sounds like you had at least fairly longstanding relationship with people affiliated with Templeton. But, by and large, is there a bridge between religious thought and scholarship and astrobiology that is, I don’t know…
Well, I would say there’s a spectrum, you know. You have some people who are more conservative and others who are more liberal. Just like with everything else.
So, even within particular religions like the Catholic church there’s no consensus. There’s no official doctrine.
So, it depends who you ask. Although I would say, more often than not people in the Catholic and in general in the Christian religion (although probably not Evangelical Christians), tend toward the idea that somehow religions would adapt to the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. I mean, what’s the option? Religion is not going to go away. They’re not going to do away with religion. So, it would have to adapt somehow. Although, they kind of go over that very quickly. But people like Coyne would say, “Okay. They might adapt but it’s going to be a pretty rough adaptation because some of your basic doctrines like incarnation and redemption are going to have to be changed. And that’s not going to be easy.” But I think in general, people like Ted Peters have been very open. I mean, he invited me to give my point of view in his volume. And it always raises so many interesting questions. And it generalizes the idea of religions. How do you expand religion and theology if you have extraterrestrials? Or you start to ask new questions that haven’t been asked before. That’s what I like about it.
Huh. I know just from reading and watching videos and such, that this was a major topic when you were at the Kluge Center. The astrobiology chair. So, I wonder if you could, maybe, tell me little bit about how you, first of all, got that position with the Kluge Center. And then, what that experience was like. You were the second chair, right?
That’s right, after the astronomer David Grinspoon. So, this is something sponsored by both NASA and the Library of Congress. It’s officially called the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA / Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology. And Barry Blumberg, was the Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine and this was founded after his death. His death, by the way, happened at NASA Ames while he was giving a lecture.
He had a heart attack. And Barry Blumberg I got to know quite well, too, because he is another one these Nobel Prize guys who have very broad interests. And he would stop in my office every once in a while at NASA headquarters. He was on our list to get all these NASA publications. He would stop by to have various discussions on things. And he was also one of these people interested in societal impact of astrobiology. In fact, he was the first Astrobiology Institute director out at NASA Ames. So, after the Astrobiology Institute was founded out at Ames, he became its first really full-time director. He was, as I say, one of these people who was interested in all aspects, including societal implications. I think as a way of honoring him, NASA took the initiative to found this Library of Congress position, which is particularly focused on the humanistic aspects. Which, I think, is quite forward looking for a scientific agency to spend money on that.
They’ve now expanded that to the Chair in Astrobiology and Innovative Exploration, or something like that. This was founded around 2012. And of course, I became aware of it. At the time, I was the Lindbergh Chair at the National Air and Space Museum. I retired from NASA in 2009, became the chair, the Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the Air and Space Museum around 2011 or ’12. And then this other position at Library Congress I heard about was right up my alley. So, I applied, and David Grinspoon was made the inaugural chair, which was okay with me, because I was still recovering from my other chair. [Laughs]
But the next year I sent in the same application basically with a different date and I got it. And it turned out to be just a great capstone to my career because the Library of Congress in general is great. The Kluge Center is great. And the main problem is information overload, because you get a nice office, you know, looking out over the Supreme Court there in the Kluge Center.
And, of course, the surroundings of the Library of Congress are just tremendous. And you can sit there at your computer and request any book that you want, and before you know it somebody shows up with the book. And you’ve got your whole office full of books, so that the problem is to control yourself. [Laughs]
That sounds dangerous. [Laughs]
And try and get something written in the middle of all this. So my proposal for that year was to do the societal impact volume. And, in fact, we ended up with two volumes. Because until the whole pandemic thing happened the Kluge chair was charged not only with writing about the research project, but also with doing a conference in the fall. And, so, in September of ’14, shortly before I left that position, we did a conference on the implications of discovering life beyond Earth, or preparing for discovery. How would you prepare for the discovery of alien life?
That was another case where I had to put together a conference. An international conference, and the Kluge Center had the funds to bring people, internationally or nationally, and so I picked people who were in a variety of different fields. Philosophy, anthropology, and all kinds of different things. And that volume was published by Cambridge. It’s called the The Impact of Discovering of Life Beyond Earth, published, in 2015. But then I still wanted to write up all the research I had done at the Kluge Center. So that eventually came out in 2018 as the Astrobiology, Discovery, and Societal Impact volume, and the paperback version has just come out in 2020. That volume won the PROSE award for cosmology and astronomy from the American Association of Publishers. But putting the conference together was interesting. Because you’ve got all kinds of people saying they wanted to be involved. Like the UFO people.
I got a called from Edgar Mitchell, you know, the Apollo astronaut. And he said, “Why aren’t you including UFOs?” Because he was a big UFO buff. And there were open letters from former Deputy Premier of Canada, and all kinds of things about why didn’t you include this or why didn’t you include that. So, anyway, that was an interesting experience, and I think the volume that came out of that is an interesting one. But the Kluge Center experience was just a fabulous experience. A great place to be.
Sounds like it. [Laughs] The UFO point is actually a real segue. I was—I’m kind curious. It feels like with astrobiology back to exobiology back to the early days with Harlow Shapley and Frank Drake you’re exploring ground scientifically, or in a scholarly fashion, that has also been covered very thoroughly by science-fiction authors. And a lot of them have done very sophisticated thinking about these topics.
But that also introduces the problem of, well this is science fiction. This is silly. And now that you’ve got the line of demarcation between what’s serious thought and what is fringe ridiculousness still square within almost a science-fictional tradition but moving. Have you seen that? Has there been a lot of, I don’t want to say controversy, but maybe tension over that? What should be counted? What shouldn’t?
Well, yeah. In terms of UFOs, I could say that the SETI people are constantly distancing themselves from the UFO people. They had to, they just had to, you know, separate those two things. Especially when you’re looking for funding SETI was controversial enough without getting UFO people involved.
Although in The Biological Universe book, I do have a chapter on UFOs. Because I think it’s an interesting, well, whatever you want to call it.
Social, psychological, or sociological phenomenon, you know.
And the question always came down to, okay, 97% of the cases could be explained. What about the other 3%? And my point of view is always, “Well, I’ll keep an open mind and maybe it’s something psychological or maybe it’s something physical. But probably not extraterrestrial. Can’t jump to that conclusion.” So, I do consider that part of the whole debate, which I included in The Biological Universe. Now, in terms of science fiction, I also included that. I have a chapter on that in The Biological Universe. Because I do think that there are serious thinkers who have raised a lot of interesting questions. And I constantly emphasize that science fiction can be used as a jumping off point, at least to discuss the societal impact. In the book I did on societal impact I have a chart of science fiction novels and the various modes of contact. And one of the main points that I make is that if you’re going to talk about societal impact of finding life, it almost makes no sense just to say “what is the impact of finding life?”. You have to specify which scenario you’re talking about. You know, whether it’s microbes or intelligence. It’s a big difference. But also whether it’s indirect contact or direct contact. And all these various scenarios. So, you can play those out. And those have been played out by some very good science-fiction writers, and I don’t think you just leave those to the side because they were science fiction. You can make use of that. And so I’ve tried to do that, and I think that’s an important thing to do. And, of course, this kind of alien literature is an important part of science fiction. I got a little bit of pushback when the book that just came out of my collected works, is called “Space, Time, and Aliens: Collected Works on Cosmos and Culture.”
And some people say, “You’re not supposed to use the word ‘aliens’ anymore.” [Laughs]
Which I can see in some contexts, but I don’t think you’re going do away with it in the context of extraterrestrials.
Right. [Laughs] And then, I guess, there’s another side to the science-fiction part of this, and especially as it relates to things like cultural evolution, which is futurism. You know, thinking about either what an older civilization somewhere might be like. What humans, the future of human evolution will be like. And I was surprised you mentioned Alvin Toffler as one of the people participating with NASA at that meeting.
So, is that something that the astrobiology community is also thinking about at all? Working with the concept of, you know, where we’re going or what me might encounter in terms of the future?
Oh, absolutely. That’s one of the three main goals. The future of life. Now, I wouldn’t say there’s a whole lot of work being done on that, but that is in the roadmap.
As something that should be done. That’s a wide-open field that people take up, but probably not the scientists themselves. You need, more of the social scientists and the philosophers on that topic.
And sort of along those lines, I guess, one of the things that struck me in reading your papers on cosmotheology was the intelligence principle. Would you say that the increase of intelligence and expansion of knowledge is the fundamental, sort of, principle of cultural evolution.
And, considering everything that has been going on lately in current events where we have an epistemic breakdown and competing entire worldviews that are completely incommensurable.
What would the implications of the intelligence principle be for the current state of the evolution of our culture?
One of the things about the current situation is that I have been very surprised that a significant percentage of the American population doesn’t care about facts. I mean, much less science. Any kind of facts. They don’t care. It’s a terrible thing. I always like to say, “It’s the decline of civilization.” Whenever anything would go wrong at NASA, I would always say, “It’s the decline of civilization.” On a small scale.
Now, it seems to be actually happening on a large scale. So, the intelligence principle is at a higher level than that.
So I’m claiming that any society that can improve its intelligence, will improve its intelligence. Which, as you say, is counter to what’s happening now. [Laughs] But I’m thinking over the longer term. When you’re talking about cultural evolution you could talk about many different things. Biotechnology. All kinds of things. But intelligence affects all of those. You have to be careful here because you don’t want to get into areas like eugenics. And I don’t want to get into that and I’m not implying that. If intelligence can be improved and it is improved over the very long term you have kind of a Darwinian scenario. If there’s artificial intelligence that becomes much more intelligent than we are, where does that leave us? You know, it’s kind of a Darwinian struggle. And, so, you have to take that into account in cultural evolution. I’m thinking of cultural evolution over thousands, or tens of thousands, or millions of years when we’re looking at SETI. Now, in terms of it happening on Earth, people like Ray Kurzweil say it’s going to happen in a generation or sooner. I don’t think that’s going to happen that’s optimistic or pessimistic depending on your point of view, but the intelligence principle is one way of attacking the problem of cultural evolution in the context of SETI.
I was thinking that if you go back 50, 75 years, at least the biologists and anthropologists who are writing about cultural evolution were very insistent that whatever the driving principle of cultural evolution is, now that we have evolutionary theory, we have to choose whatever that is. And that it is possible to choose, basically, a cultural evolutionary dead end, and pursue that path. So, you see the intelligence principle as operating at a higher level than that. That there would be, at least, a tendency to circumvent any sort of short-term evolutionary dead ends.
Yeah. I guess I don’t talk about it in terms of choice. I did not get down to that level. I was just thinking of it more in terms of the Drake equation, you’ve got that cultural aspect, lifetimes of technological civilizations. And what pathway might evolution have taken given enough time? And I went for the argument for the artificial intelligence path.
That makes sense.
Not saying whether that was good or bad, but just that it might have happened. I mean we ought to think about it.
And, again, if you look at the science-fiction authors who’ve thought about this, it could go either way.
That’s right. Exactly.
So, I guess, I have run through the course of everything that I came prepared in advance with, but is there anything else that you would like to discuss that we should’ve talked about in terms of either, you know, specifically your work at the Naval Observatory, at NASA, or just in terms of the development of the field of astrobiology. Or cultural reactions, implications of, you know, if we ever do discover life or intelligence.
Well, in terms of my career I’m fairly happy with the way it evolved. A lot of the work at the Naval Observatory was very routine. But the astrobiology work that I did helped offset that, even though it was on my own time. And writing the history of the Naval Observatory was also important, I think. Because it’s one case study of a national observatory. All countries have national observatories. Greenwich, Paris, Pulkovo in Russia. And writing the history of our first national observatory, the U. S. Naval Observatory, the only one until the 1950s, was an important thing to do. And even though much of it was routine astrometric positional astronomy, there were other high points. Like the discovery of the moons of Mars. A year before I got the Naval Observatory was the discovery of the first and largest moon of Pluto by Jim Christy at USNO.
From the point of view also of the history of time, because the Naval Observatory is the nation’s timekeeper along with NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology). So, there were a lot of interesting things in that history, including the time ball history. So, one of the surprising things was how much feedback I’ve gotten about time balls. Because I wrote an article with Ian Bartky who was at NIST at the time about time balls. Because he was doing some research on the history of time zones down in the National Archives, and he said he ran across some correspondence to the Naval Observatory. It was called the Depot of Charts and Instruments back then in 1830. The correspondence was about establishing a time ball, which is a signal, a navigational signal to the ships in the port telling them when it’s noon. When the ball drops, it’s noon, and that’s important for setting ship chronometers down to about a second or so.
And I said, “No. It couldn’t be 1830, because the first time ball, everybody knows, was at Greenwich in 1833. The famous Greenwich time ball.” So, it turns out that this correspondence led us to the fact that the first time ball was deployed at Portsmouth in England in 1829. Not in 1833 in Greenwich, much to the surprise of the Greenwich people. [Laughs]
But, once you start looking at the history of time balls and evolution of that technology, it was one of the main things that observatories in the 19th century. So, there have been many, many offshoot articles by other people talking about time balls now. And, of course, everybody knows about the time ball dropping in New York City on New Year’s Eve.
That’s an artifact of the real time balls that were used for practical purposes. So, things like that you think might be obscure have some bearing on what’s happening these days. And, of course, they’ve dropped not just time balls, these days, but time pickles, and time this and that. Different cities drop different things. But, anyway, the Naval Observatory history was well worth writing. I don’t think I’ll be well known for the science that I did at the Naval Observatory. Although I did publish an article in the Astronomical Journal early in my career there. I think the title was something like “Precise Positions in the FK4 System for 120 Radio Reference Stars.” Which never got any interaction at all. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Sounds like it might be, there’s gonna be somebody sometime who needs to know exactly that, and it’ll be there.
[Laughs] That reminds me of Mike Crowe the other guy who wrote the extraterrestrial life debate history in the 19th century. I said, “How did you get into this?” He said, “Well, my previous book was on vector analysis and nobody ever said a word about it. So I thought maybe I’d write about something that people cared about.”
And, of course, he’s gotten very well-known from that book on the extraterrestrial life debate. And then there was NASA. I don’t think there could’ve been a better place to work than that in terms of challenges to a historian of what to cover, and how to cover it, and actually interacting with astronauts and scientists there. So, I’m pretty happy with that. And then capping it with the Blumberg chair.
Is there any project that you’re currently working on?
Well, I think I’m pretty well written out on astrobiology. The last few years I think I’ve done three books. Some of them had been percolating for a while and I just wanted to make sure they got finished.
[Following paragraph is an addendum Oct 15, 2020]: One subject I haven’t mentioned is my work on discovery and classification in astronomy. I did a book with that title published in 2013, and it was funded by the National Science Foundation. This was after I had retired from NASA and before my Lindbergh and Blumberg Chairs. But my thinking on that subject goes back to 1995 just as I was finishing The Biological Universe book and looking for a new subject. With my astronomy background and all the new astronomical discoveries I was always trying to place those discoveries in context. The idea of discovery turns out to be very interesting, and in the 2013 book I showed how discovery is an extended process consisting of phases of detection, interpretation, and understanding, each stage with its own problems. In other words I problematized the idea of discovery. There had been some work done on this but it remains a fascinating problem. I also found that discovery and classification went hand in hand, and that classification is a complicated and important philosophical problem. Astronomy has many piecemeal classification systems, as for stars and galaxies.
One of my unique contributions was to devise over many years a kind of umbrella classification system for all astronomical objects. I call it the Three Kingdom System, where the three kingdoms are planets, stars, and galaxies, and I lay out a system of 82 classes of objects that fall under those three kingdoms. This was broached in the 2013 book, and fully developed in another book Classifying the Cosmos: How We can Make Sense of the Celestial Landscape, published by Springer in 2018. In my view it’s extremely interesting how astronomers determine whether a newly discovered object is a new class, or falls under some previously declared class. And of course this is a problem in other areas of science such as biology.
My last book was the Space, Time, and Aliens book which just came out in April from Springer. It’s 800 pages, and represents a pretty good sample of my writings in a half dozen areas. But I think I’m pretty much written out on the astrobiology theme. I don’t want to keep repeating myself, which people often do.
You know, go to meetings and get the same talk over and over again. I’ve always been interested in writing science fiction. But I’m not at all sure that I could do it.
It’s a totally different kind of thing. I remember talking to Ben Bova once, a famed science-fiction writer. I said it must be nice to write science fiction because you don’t have to have any facts. You don’t have to have all these footnotes. [Laughs] You just sit down and write. He didn’t like that. He said, “It’s not easy. Especially if you’re doing hard science fiction. And, of course, he’s right.”
So, I don’t know if I’ll ever write science fiction or not. But I’m also interested still in some space history. The parallel between Wernher von Braun and Korolev in Russia and Tsien, the guy who’s not very well-known, but he’s the equivalent in China.
Maybe even in the form of a novel. I don’t know.
So, what I like to do is things that that have never been done before. You notice the extraterrestrial life debate I wrote about had never been done before. Societal impact, very little of it had been done before. So, I like to pick projects that haven’t been done before. I remember asking Sam Westfall: “Why are you writing another biography of Newton? There must be 50 of them!” He said, “Well, Newton is the only one who is worth writing about that many times.” [Laughs] The only one he would spend his career writing a book about. [Laughs]
And, by now, Newton’s actually done.
Yes, I think so. [Laughs] Although, who knows, in another 50 years what they’ll find out or have a different point of view.
That’s true. That’s true.
Great. Well, I guess, I will stop the recording here. Thank you, again, very much.
Okay. Thank you.