GRAIL’s launch was originally scheduled for the morning of Thursday, September 8, so we all got up and headed for the buses when it was still dark outside. Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘held court’ with a bunch of us as we waited in the parking lot; I don’t remember everything he talked about, but I do remember the Pleiades. They were overhead, and Tyson told us that, although the Pleiades does not comprise seven stars, it’s called the “Seven Sisters” because of ancient myths. The Greeks and Romans gave the subjects of their myths places in the celestial sphere, as you see over and over if you read Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Sisters was the closest they could come to matching a character/set of characters from myth to what they saw in the sky. (In the myth, Orion pursues the Pleiades until Zeus makes them stars, and the constellation Orion still ‘follows’ the Pleiades cluster in the night sky.) So they tried to make what they saw fit the myths they believed in.
Eventually, though, we boarded the buses and headed for our viewing site at the causeway. We had quite a while to wait, and I was so tired that, I’ll admit, I took a chair and nodded off. Too bad I did, because I saw a kind of crowd a ways down from where I sat; only later I heard that Tyson was still talking to everyone who stayed nearby. In fact, it sounded like he would have talked straight through the launch, if it hadn’t been scrubbed due to weather/wind concerns higher in the atmosphere.
Here are a few photos I captured on the causeway, at any rate. It looked like a beautiful morning, but clouds started to roll in by the first launch window.
Sunrise at the causeway.
Setting up cameras for the launch.
Waiting, as more watchers arrive.
Helicopter flying over from the south.
The view of SLC-17 from the causeway (plus some grasses because I like taking pictures with distant objects framed against near ones).
Wherein I get distracted by patterns, water droplets, light and shadow while I wait.
Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke twice during the GRAIL NASATweetup in September, once during the afternoon of lectures after our tour and once the next day, after the scrubbed launch attempt. Other speakers on Wednesday included Charlie Bolden, NASA administrator; Maria Zuber of MIT, the head scientist behind the GRAIL mission; Jim Adams, a planetary scientist at NASA; and Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame [Lt. Uhura], who–and this was a surprise to me–spent time recruiting female and minority astronauts in the 70s and 80s.
Tyson would talk all day if you let him, and if he were talking to you, you probably would. Very engaging speaker, and he interacts with the audience a lot more than other speakers (which is part of why he’s the only one I got pictures of on Wednesday–I also should have just turned on flash and set my camera to auto, but oh well). He was the only one who came into the audience, which gave us in the back a good chance to shoot photos…including one of him dragging an audience member out of his seat in illustration of a point about providing evidence for your claims… 😛
"Our sensory system is not only feeble, it deceives us. You cannot claim to understand the universe through sensory devices where half the time they're giving you the wrong information or allowing you to interpret it the wrong way."
"Drag the alien back with you!"
"We have to love the questions"
At the end of the talk on Thursday, Sept. 8, Tyson made the comment that scientists have to “love the questions themselves.” It’s a quote straight out of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I got really excited to hear him say it; it’s not that common for people to cross the boundary between art and science naturally, without making a fuss about it, and I’ve since seen a video in which he used it in another talk. I believe he knew the reference he was making, which is both very cool (scientist quoting poet) and very odd (Rilke goes on to say “do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you”). There may be ways of interpreting Rilke’s statement such that Tyson’s use of it doesn’t mean “don’t try to answer the scientific questions that seem very difficult,” but that tension is there. Yes, live the questions, as the poet said, but don’t let that stop you from seeking answers.