Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Family Historian Blinded by Science

My family and friends know how passionate I am about genealogy and history, especially Norwegian-American and pioneer history.  But, there are other topics that also manage to get my heart jumping in a joyful pitter-patter.  I confess--I am not just a family history nerd, but a bit of a science nerd, too.  I have Moon in my Room on a wall in my house, and I have been known to buy calendars with nothing but photos of Albert Einstein gracing the parade of months.

Like many, I can trace an avid interest to a pivotal time or moment during my youth.  I was in junior high school when a perfect storm of events catapulted me into a lifelong long interest in astronomy and science-fiction.  Many years later, it led to a relationship with my husband.  Well, sort of.  Before me, he had never met a woman who appreciated classic science-fiction.  When we met at a dance many years ago, he asked what my favorite movie was.  I responded that it was War of the Worlds (the 1953 version produced by George Pal), which was one of my all-time favorite confort movies to watch and rewatch.  His face lit up and he asked:  "Will you marry me?"  While he said it in jest then, he meant it more a little later on!

Today, I have limited time and energy to keep up with all the news on the science front.  But. I will never forget the sequence of events that began in the eight grade, opening my mind and changing my outlook on the universe... forever.

A traditional planetarium with an ant-like Zeiss projector never fails to get me twitterpated.

During the autumn of 1966, the first episodes of a new television series, Star Trek, aired, and the lunch-time crowd I hung around with at school was obsessed by it.  While I was becoming enamored of Mr. Spock on TV, I was also invited to join a Camp Fire Girls group.  The first outing I participated in was an educational visit to the old Chabot Observatory and Planetarium on Mountain Boulevard in Oakland, California.  Within the domed and darkened planetarium, the tall, bespectacled astronomer dazzled us with images of a breathtakingly starry night sky.  We also experienced sunrise and sunset, the Aurora Borealis, constellations rotating through the seasons, and we did not even have to go outside.

For Christmas that year, I was given a book on astronomy and a modest-priced telescope.  It was a refracting terrestrial model that was better suited for marine landscapes and bird watching, but I didn't care.  I was "over the moon" to have it, and it felt like the mysteries of the universe were at my fingertips, waiting to be caressed.  Later on, I added star charts and a subscription to Sky and Telescope magazine to my hobby supplies.

I began haunting the science-fiction section of my local library for novels and stories to read.  When I learned to drive, I explored library holdings all around Contra Costa County.  My favorite destination was the Pleasant Hill Library, which meant a scenic 20-mile drive from my El Cerrito home along a rural county highway.  I discovered so many other-worldy worlds within the library stacks thanks to:  Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and more.

Then came Creature Features--a program that aired weekly in the Bay Area, with dry-humored, cigar-smoking Bob Wilkins as the host.  There were a lot of campy, low-grade horror movies watched on those Friday nights, but once in a while, the program delivered a classic of the type I appreciate to this day.  Included in these gems were the original Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and the innovative Forbidden Planet (1956)--known for its Robby the Robot character and often considered to be the best science-fiction film of all time.  I was then on the hunt for more films of the same caliber.  Carl Sagan's Contact is one of the more modern sci-fi films that speaks to me in a poignant way.

A school friend of mine, Margot, had a father who belonged to the Bay Area Science-Fiction Club.  Through his membership, he hob-knobbed with some of the local authors whose work I had been selecting from library shelves.  When I was asked to join Margot and her father at a couple of science-fiction conventions, you had better believe that I lobbied my mother with all my might to be able to go.  Luckily, she did not find any reason to keep me at home.

One of the events we attended was Baycon (1968)--the 26th WorldCon (World Science Fiction Convention).  After presenting our admission tickets, Margot and I were let loose inside Berkeley's Hotel Claremont to discover things for ourselves, while her father went about on his own agenda.  There were exhibits of science-fiction art like I had never seen before.  There were hidden rooms down long hallways where authors, including the highly respected Ray Bradbury, and others in the publishing business, gave talks or had discussions.  In an area near the lobby, a panel of people sat behind a length of tables.  Margot pointed and said, "There's Gene Roddenberry!"  The screenwriter and producer of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, was being honored by authors in a field where television was little recognized at the time.  What we were witness to, but could hear little of due to the massing crowd, was Robert Silverberg's presentation of a Hugo Award to the relative newcomer, Roddenberry:

Robert Silverberg (popular science-fiction author and toastmaster of the Baycon Hugo Awards Ceremony, 1968):
 "What shall we do next? We have such a long, long list of events. I’m standing, I have my shoes off, it’s quite comfortable up here. Let us give out another of those little plaques now. There, that shiny one down there. Is there a Roddenberry in the house? I have here a plaque with long pointed ears. This is National Kiss an Executive Producer of Star Trek Week–Harlan [Ellison], kiss him for me... This object says “To Gene Roddenberry for Producing Star Trek, 1967, presented by the Baycon Committee September 1, 1968.” 

Gene Roddenberry:
 "Thank you so much. I’m touched. I am also thankful to Harlan for his response." 

All I can say is "Wow"--that I, as a 14-year-old girl, should have been so lucky.  Margot and her father also took me along to the Bay Area Science-Fiction Club's private release showing of the 1968 movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, at a theatre on Market Street in San Francisco.  For the time, the movie was nothing less than jaw-dropping.

My budding interest in science turned more than just skyward.  Margot's mother took us to explore the Lawrence Hall of Science in the hills above the University of California Berkeley campus.  The view of San Francisco Bay from the parking lot was something to behold in itself.  But, the main thing I remember about the Hall in those early years was the large and dark lobby with many lighted cases where mineral spheres of all different sizes, colors, and patterns were on display.  They were mesmorizing.  My favorite pages within the Encyclopedia Britannica had always been the color photographs of gem and mineral specimens.  Lined up like smooth and precious marbles, the spheres hinted at a story deep in the Earth that I longed to know more about.  Sadly, the geology class I later took in college did not stimulate the romance I was looking for.

Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkely, California (postcard view).

As I continued to pursue interests sparked by the influence of some special friends during my middle school years, I attended several Star Trek conventions.  I have autographed souvenir photographs of cast members as proof.  I did not actually meet Leonard Nimoy ("Mr. Spock"), however, until many years later, when he gave a talk at the University of Washington campus while promoting one of his books.  As I reached the head of the line of people waiting for an autograph, he looked at me expectantly.  Suddenly I felt like I was in the eighth grade again.  I was so nervous that all I could do was smile bashfully.  Did I just lock eyes with Mr. Spock?  The historic moment did not fully sink in until later.  Spock was second in a short timeline of childhood crushes, preceded only by the "cute" Beatle, Paul McCartney.
When I lived in the Bay Area, I took every opportunity to visit the Morrison Planetarium in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.  Morrison was one of the largest planetariums in the nation.  It has been modernized and is now a digital planetarium, but when I visited it was still operated by aprojector.  Attending evening planetarium shows when the California Academy of Sciences building was closed to the public meant lining up in a roped off area alongside towering models in the hall of dinosaurs--an added treat.  Also in the direct pathway of the line-up was the museum's famous Foucault Pendulum.  The pendulum's heavy bob, a hollow 16-inches in diameter brass ball, is suspended by aircraft control wire of a carefully determind length, and anchored to the ceiling.  As the bob swings across a wide pit, the Earth's rotation causes the direction of swing to "precess," or turn clockwise above the floor.  With so many cool things to look at within the building, and freedom from daytime crowds, I loved waiting in line and anticipating the planetarium show as much as the show itself.

Another experience I consider to be a highlight of my life were trips to Lick Observatory and its Summer Visitors Program.  As the world's first permanently occupied mountain-top astronomical observatory, Lick Observatory is reached by a well-constructed mountain road winding eastward from San Jose, California and the Silicon Valley, or by a much longer way around--south along the Mines Road from the backyard of Livermore.  From 1888, the observatory has been under the guidance of the Regents of the University of California.  The Visit Information website has a video of Lick's mountaintop location that was filmed by a drone, offering unique views.

Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton, California

The Summer Visitors Program has been active for decades.  Once you reach the mountain top location, be prepared for a long evening.  Ticket-holders can enjoy the scenery of the Santa Clara Valley below and have time for a picnic dinner before the doors are opened.  After perusing the exhibits and gift shop in the main building, you can attend a lecture on a selected astronomy topic.  Visitors then have the opportunity to view the 120-inch Shane Reflector Telescope from behind a glass window inside its domed building, or look through one of two other telescopes.

The most popular event of the program is the chance to get up close and personal with the instrument the observatory is best known for:  the 19th-century 36-inch Great Refractor.  A select number of people are allowed inside the big dome at any time.  Stepping up and over the track where the dome turns atop the base of the building, you find yourself on a catwalk that hugs the inner curvature of the dome, but made safe by a railing. Then, in even smaller numbers, visitors are allowed to step down onto the wood floor and position themselves near the earth-end of the monster telescope.  But, instead of using just a stepladder to reach the eyepiece, the operator pushes a button to raise or lower the entire floor to bring the eyepiece in alignment with your eye!  I will never forget my first glimpse of the universe through that huge and historic refractor.  Within the dark view field sparkled Messier 13 (M13)--the Great Globular Cluster in the constellation of Hercules.  It was discovered in 1714 by none other than Edmond Halley, of Halley's Comet fame.  With a linear diameter of 145 light years, the Globular Cluster shone like a scattering of diamonds on a black velvet cloth.

Over time, there have been many other events that have fed my interest in science, especially astronomy.  Not least was the documentary series Cosmos:  A Personal Voyage, and its charismatic host and writer, astronomer Carl Sagan, with his penchant for explaining "life, the universe, and everything" in digestible, yet utterly fascinating, snippets.  And, let's not forget the launches of Voyager I and II, and years before those--the memorable day when humankind first set foot on the surface of the moon:  July 20, 1969.

Oh, and did I mention that I once took a drive to a comic book store some distance away from home, just to see a life-size paper mache model of the Martian made for the 1953 War of the Worlds movie?  I told you--a science and science-fiction nerd!

You may wonder what a post of this kind is doing in a blog that is all about Norwegian-American family history.  Since I am part of my own family's story, perhaps some of my tales are worth telling, too.  This is exactly the kind of detail that I often wish I knew about many of my departed relatives.  What did they find interesting or challenging?  What did they cherish the most?  What did they look forward to on a day-to-day basis?  What fueled their dreams and aspirations?

Have you thought about what sets your own heart to beating faster?  You have an opportunity to tell your story and eliminate a lot of guess work later on.  You never know who, present or future, may be listening!