On today’s “Fresh Eye” interview, we’re privileged to host Dr. Alan Hirshfeld, astrophysicist, teacher, and author of three terrific biographies of ancient scientists. Alan’s honors include winning the 2004 Power of Purpose international award from the John Templeton Foundation for his essay, “How Wonderfully We Stand Upon This World.”
Q: Welcome, Alan! Faraday, Herschel, and Archimedes–all were giant figures, and have had countless books written about them. What did you bring to the table? Was it something about your professional background that gave you special insight into these men? One reviewer of The Electric Life of Faraday said, “Alan…reminds us what sheer fun science can be…” Did the Herschel-Archimedes-Faraday stories have parallels in that sense also?
A: Although I love to write about science, I’m a teacher by inclination and experience. When I was a teenager, I’d drag my parents or any dog-walking passersby over to my portable telescope to see Jupiter or the Orion nebula. Even in mid-winter! For the last thirty years, I’ve taught astronomy and physics to college students — all levels, from beginner to advanced. And I’ve learned that the best way to teach science – and the most fun for me – is to pin the concepts to their historical context. There’s a compelling story behind virtually every advance in science, because science is a human enterprise. All of the participants, whether famous or not, have their quirky side. Or their dark facets. Or their flashes of brilliance or simply incredible tenacity. The story of science is the story of both individuals and humanity; it covers a single lifetime and it spans generations. This epic nature of scientific discovery truly appeals to me. Writing books about science is an extension of my teaching, only to a bigger class – and I don’t have to grade the papers.
• I don’t have any special scholarly insight into the characters I write about – I leave that to the academic historians. But I do try to use historical resources to get into the heads of past scientists, to get a visceral sense of what it would be like to be looking over their shoulder when they make the big discovery or even just putter around the lab. Michael Faraday’s 12-year-old nephew was present when Faraday discovered the electric motor. It was nothing more than a metal rod spinning under some invisible force, but the two of them literally danced around the lab table in celebration. That’s the level of connection I try to feel when I deal with historical characters.
Q: This isn’t really a question, Alan, but upon rereading your book, Eureka Man, I was again struck by your accessible and amusing way of describing Archimedes in modern terms. The way you noted “he was simultaneously defense secretary, 5-star general, and a one-man Skunk Works.” The way he saw that it would take “new technology” to defeat or hold off the Romans. Some months ago, you wrote a blurb for my book on ancient science, modestly saying that you hadn’t been able to slide into the sandals of Archimedes. I thought you did a terrific job of time-traveling. And from the excerpts I’ve read of your Herschel and Faraday books, you did them equal justice.
A: If I detect the question behind your non –question… Yes, I try to bring in modern analogues and cultural references if I think they’re effective in conveying an idea or encapsulating a personality trait. Again, it’s the teaching gene at work – much of teaching is effective communication (duh!) and the challenge is to fire up a student’s (or a reader’s) neurons through words and images, even through physical sensations.
• Before I get myself into trouble here, let me explain by example. To demonstrate the weird forces that seem to arise in a rotating frame of reference, like our spinning Earth, I ask my students throw a ball while riding a homemade, wooden merry-go-round. The path of the ball is seen differently by the students on the merry-go-round versus those who watch from the outside. Likewise, I try to immerse my readers in the world of scientific discovery, and a choice cultural reference sometimes makes that easier.
Q: What was your first scientific crush?
A: I assume we’re not talking about my lab partner in 8th grade earth science? I was absolutely fanatical about astronomy when I was a kid.
My aunt worked for the publishers of the Golden Books series. She gave me their Sky Observer’s Guide, which described incredible celestial sights one could see with a small telescope in the night sky. I memorized the constellations, the bright stars and the planets, got to know the cycle of the Moon’s phases. I started out with a cardboard sighting tube with little indicators that registered altitude and azimuth. Then graduated to a small cardboard-tube telescope. Finally ending up with a slightly larger telescope I paid for with a mayonnaise jar full of coins. All this happened eight miles outside New York City, not exactly considered a prime site for observational astronomy. My greatest accomplishment as a kid wasn’t hitting a home run in Little League or winning the science fair, either. My big “home run” was sighting the Crab Nebula in my 4-inch telescope through the suburban lights of New Jersey.
Q: So you were fascinated from childhood on by the heavens. What became your particular specialty within the field of astrophysics? Is it double stars (like Herschel)? What nonsteller objects do you study and which are your favs?
A: My academic training is in stellar interiors – the structure and evolution of stars. But to paraphrase the former defense secretary, we have to proceed with the brains we’re given and not the brains we wish we had. My talent – and, as it turns out, my joy – lies in teaching and writing, especially about the history of science. When I do look through my school’s telescope these days, I often gaze at Saturn, whose rings are always incredible. And I love Jupiter and its moons. But deep sky objects – nebulae and galaxies – are also an amazing sight, not so much because of the way they look – a faint smudge of light through the eyepiece – but because of what they are. The Andromeda galaxy looks like an elongated cloud, but that’s the collective glow of hundreds of billions of stars more than two million light-years away. We’re seeing Andromeda the way it looked when the earliest humans were roaming the plains of Africa. The telescope as time machine.
Q: What an enchanting phrase—the telescope as time machine. We’re going to explore more of Alan’s passions in Part 2 of our interview, but right now I’m going to finish up Part 1 with a quote from his winning essay on self-taught genius of Michael Faraday. A piece of writing, I might add, that was awarded a cool $50,000 in prize money!
• A short excerpt from “How Wonderfully We Stand Upon This World” by Dr. Alan Hirshfeld:
“Born in a London slum in 1791, Michael Faraday came to George Riebau’s bookbindery in 1805. The shop proved a fertile environment for the inquisitive, but virtually unschooled, Faraday. Books came in, books
went out, a steady stream of treacle and treasure that Faraday sampled haphazardly in his off-hours. This week’s ‘lesson’ might be Arabian Nights, next week’s a collection of Hogarth illustrations, and after that Fanny Burney’s edgy take on English society, Evelina. But it was books of science that excited him most.”
• Please join us next week for the second half of our absorbing interview with scientist and master sky-watcher Dr. Alan Hirshfeld