Plans, Happenstance, and Lessons from Harlow Shapley

Today, we’re thinking about the serendipity of dates and events. On this date in 1947, the Spruce Goose made its only flight. (Read our post focusing on this aircraft HERE and a guest post by the curator now overseeing the aircraft HERE.) That means something to us, and we’re trying to figure out why.

Dates remind us that, as Abraham Lincoln, a fellow Illinoisan, reportedly said, “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.” One of the best things about a calendar, then, is that you can see more than one day at a time. You can plan ahead. Planning ahead doesn’t always feel great, as when one flips the page of her paper calendar on Sunday night. But we understand the benefits of preparation, of setting goals, of knowing how many days it’s been since we’ve written, of not double-booking, of showing up where we’re supposed to be.

A calendar also makes it possible to look back into the past, using a logical system of measurement. Arbitrary as it seems, the approximate time it takes for the Earth to orbit the Sun has become a meaningful timeframe for people, embedded deeply in our physiology and culture, a way to measure progress through life with annual birthdays, a means for comparison over time. A year is long enough that significant change can occur, but not so long that one can’t recall that past time. Looking back a year offers perspective that one day at a time doesn’t.

Discovery on Launch Pad 39A in November 2010

A year ago today, we were on the Space Coast. We’d arrived on Halloween to find out that the launch had been delayed until Wednesday, November 3. That slip gave us extra time to wander around Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and to see Robonaut 2 a year ago today (see that post HERE). Of course, by Wednesday, the launch slipped to Thursday. In the end, we didn’t see Discovery lift off at all. (We recounted the whole experience in our “Countdown to the Cape” series; read those posts HERE.) That experience—those extra, unplanned days at the Cape—set in motion our year with the space shuttle. Those events surrounding the not-launch framed our decisions for months to come.

What were you doing a year ago today? Does that have anything to do with what you’re doing today—or what your plans are for the future?

Eleven years ago on this date, the first residents of the International Space Station (ISS) docked. Humans have been living there ever since. Last year, when we headed to Florida, we didn’t see that anniversary coming. We focused on the launch at hand, and the ISS anniversary took us by surprise. Being at KSC for the tenth anniversary of human habitation of the ISS, especially without intending to celebrate such an event there, pointed us to why we had flown across the country. Sure, we wanted to see a launch, but the story was bigger. We traveled that first time not knowing exactly what to expect, not experiencing whatever it was we had expected, and finding our way.

When it became clear that we wouldn’t witness a launch during our trip last fall, we expected to be disappointed. We waited to feel really sad, to feel crushed or angry. When we left the Space Coast, though, we felt invigorated, excited, and full of new information. That’s when we decided to go back, and that decision shaped this past year and hundreds of other little decisions about how we’ve spent our time this year.

To explain what we mean, we want to tell you the story of Harlow Shapley, who was born on this date in 1885 in Missouri. When he was 22, he headed to the University of Missouri to study journalism, only to find that the opening of that school had been postponed. The university wasn’t taking any journalism students. Harlow didn’t want to return home; he wanted an education. So he looked at the university’s catalog of subjects. He couldn’t pronounce archaeology. Astronomy was next in the alphabetical list. That’s what he decided to study. Harlow Shapley left home to become a journalist and, through almost immediate and arbitrary circumstances, became an astronomer.

NASA’s obituary for Shapley notes that, later, he arrived at Princeton University at just the right time, when thousands of observations involving light curves and stars were awaiting analysis, and that Shapley was especially good for the task: “aided by his never-absent slide-rule, and unimpeded by any excess of mathematical sophistication.” Shapley’s dissertation opened new investigations into binary-star astronomy. And of course, he was a pretty good writer.

Harlow Shapley, like us, headed to California. From his perch at the Mount Wilson Observatory, he discovered “the dimensions of our Galaxy, and of the location of its centre.” The Milky Way is larger and younger than people had previously imagined, and Copernicus’s notion that the Earth wasn’t at the center of anything gained another layer of meaning with Shapley’s determination of our galaxy’s midpoint. He spent seven years in California, honing his astronomy, writing, lecturing, and administrative skills, then accepted a position at Harvard University.

He also had four sons and a daughter. One son is an 88-year-old mathematician at UCLA. Another was a NASA official and a member of the committee that drafted the memo upon which President Kennedy’s let’s-go-to-the-Moon speech was based as well as a member of the committee that investigated the Challenger accident. Alan, the geophysicist of the group, claimed that his first name, unusual for the time, had been chosen from the phonebook, just as his father had chosen his college focus. Harlow’s daughter followed in her father’s astronomer-author footsteps, with books on planets and satellites.

Over the years, Harlow Shapley garnered numerous awards, including the Henry Draper Medal, the Rumford Prize, and the Franklin Medal. A Moon crater and a supercluster of galaxies are named after him. He also played important roles in numerous organizations, including the National Science Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and often found it difficult to balance these roles with his scientific investigations and his writing. Harlow Shapley wanted to do a lot of things, and he proved to be good at several different kinds of tasks. In fact, he also studied ants.

All this is not to say that Harlow Shapley never got the story wrong. In fact, he criticized Edwin Hubble’s views of galaxies beyond the Milky Way, and Hubble’s ideas have gone on to shape the way we think about life, the universe, and everything. Error is always part of the story of innovation and creativity.

Infrared Image of Milky Way’s Core (Spitzer Telescope, NASA)

When we look back on our last year from the vantage of Harlow Shapley’s birthday, we realize that we went to the Space Coast as tourists, but we became journalists, science writers, and cultural critics. We went to watch a space shuttle launch, but that wasn’t possible. Harlow Shapley went to college to become a journalist, but when that wasn’t possible, he became one of the most influential astronomers ever. Our shift wasn’t nearly as drastic, and our contribution isn’t nearly as influential. But Harlow Shapley is a good, new role model.

Just to solidify this serendipity for our readers, we close with a little extra information. Today is Doug’s birthday, as well as Harlow Shapley’s.

Today and tomorrow, Doug is attending the IEEE International Games Innovation Conference. Tomorrow, he is presenting a poster on the topic of video games and virtual worlds, and his collaborator is Pattie Sobczak, who wrote a guest blog for Lofty Ambitions in March. Not a gamer himself, Doug had no plans a year ago (or thereabouts) to make this topic an area of expertise, but one thing led to another, and a year later, here he is because, last fall, we attended an interdisciplinary talk by an English professor that made Doug question how academics, particularly those who were no longer young whippersnappers, viewed games and how theoretical approaches were being used to understand contemporary gaming.

All these connections are loose, to be sure, especially at first. But these are the sorts of nudges that occur to frame a few thoughts, which then influence a decision. Do these connections really mean anything? Maybe not, but sometimes the noticing now leads to meaning a year later. Maybe the noticing is the meaning, for Harlow Shapley said, “Theories crumble, but good observations never fade.”


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