Robert Jastrow, R.I.P.

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Physicist Robert Jastrow, founder and director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Mount Wilson Institute which manages Mount Wilson Observatory in California died last week at the age of 82. Jastrow, an excellent popularizer of science, was the author of Red Giants and White Dwarfs and The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe.

The New York Times' obituary correctly notes:

"He had a deep sense of the need to interpret science and make it available to the public," said Albert Arking, a former student of Dr. Jastrow. As an ambassador of science, he was a natural, Dr. Arking recalled, saying, "His enthusiasm for science was infectious."

http://americathebeautifulphotos.com/images_worldview/Jastrow.jpg

Besides being a fan of his books, I got to know Jastrow in the mid-1980s when I was working as a television producer for the PBS foreign policy program American Interests. We had him on as a guest to debate the feasibility of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative a number of times. I later encountered him as a skeptic in the debate over the seriousness of man-made climate change (he was the head of the Marshall Institute which has published numerous reports highlighting defects in climate models, temperature data sets and the politicization of climate change science). Ironically, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies is now home to cllimate modeler James Hansen, one of the biggest proponents of the argument that unmitigated global warming is likely to be catastrophic.

Setting aside those scientific controversies, I will always fondly remember Jastrow for his generosity in taking me on a personal tour of the Mount Wilson Observatory several years ago. I got to see and touch the 100-inch Hooker telescope that enabled astronomer Edwin Hubble to discover in the 1920s that Milky Way was just one of billions of galaxies and that the universe was expanding. That was a moment of true awe for me.

The world will miss this happy warrior for science.

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  1. I will always fondly remember Jastrow for his generosity in taking me on a personal tour of the Mount Wilson Observatory several years ago.

    You lucky ducky! I am sooo jealous.

  2. It’s funny, I moved last month and came across my copy of red giants white dwarfs and perused it for the first time in a while.

    Great primer, but it’s funny how even after only twenty years it seems dated. For example, he gives equal time to the steady-state and big bang cosmologists (although he believes the latter are correct). Also, he seemed a little too optimistic on the whole (what would be called now) SETI thing. I wonder if both of these are why he was on the ‘skeptic’ side of climate change.

    Still, a good popularizer of science (and definitely less political than Sagan) and a loss to the field.

  3. We had him on as a guest to debate the feasibility of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative a number of times.

    I am of the opinion that no one with a semester of physics could possibly believe that SDI could ever be made to work in the real world. For the simple reason that no matter how good you make it, it can be defeated for one thousandth the cost.
    What was Jastrow’s opinion?

    I’m sorry I was unaware of the man while he lived.

  4. I worked on Mt Wilson when I was in grad school back around 1980.
    When you spend time on the mountain, the past and present, the earth and sky, the near and far, and the 19th and late 20th centuries come together in a way that is truly awesome.

    Someone asked if science has ever created the equivalent of a cathedral:
    Yes, Mt Wilson and other great observatories. Too bad most people cannot experience them firsthand. I was lucky.

  5. I didn’t know the man. But I would also like to touch the 100-inch hooker.

  6. He probably didn’t make the militant atheist wing of the scientific community very happy when he wrote God and the Astronomers:

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0393850064/reasonmagazinea-20/

  7. He probably didn’t make the militant atheist wing of the scientific community….

    I don’t know of any atheist scientists that advocate violence in support of their worldview.

    Please provide an example of such a person.

  8. I didn’t know the man. But I would also like to touch the 100-inch hooker.

    twisted merkin –
    You are likely not alone. IMRO, an 8’4″ prostitute would be a very popular lady.

  9. Still waiting, David, for you to name a single member of your “militant atheist wing of the scientific community”.

  10. er, Mark, I didn’t mean militant as in “violent”, just militant as in arguing that good science entails, or somehow compels one to, atheism.

    Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, et al.

  11. Militant:
    Etymology-
    Late Latin militare (“to serve as a soldier”)
    Adjective-
    militant (comparative more militant, superlative most militant)
    aggressive or combative
    fighting or warlike; belligerent

    Retraction accepted.

  12. This is what Merriam-Webster OnLine has to say. Def #2 definitely describes Richard Dawkins accurately. He is a militant atheist in the scientific community. And a fine populizer of the biological sciences as well.

    Full disclosure – I’m an atheist who can get militant when theists impugn my morality because I recognize the holy books for what they are, substandard fiction.

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