Thursday, May 24, 2007

Two more farewells

Today's paper's obituaries brought the news of Stanley Miller's passing. Miller's experiment with Harold Urey is notable for many reasons. First, it sparked the whole field of abiogenesis, and second it is recognizable to many persons outside of biology or chemistry. Indeed, there used to be a video at the National Air & Space Museum of Julia Child running the experiment, cooking primordial soup (I think the video can be found in some libraries). Miller's experiment did not prove abiogenesis, nor did it prove a particular model, but it did demonstrate that interestingly complex organic compounds could be generated from simple processes that might have existed on a pre-life Earth. Indeed, it is the fact that Miller's work stimultated debate & testing about what the prebiotic Earth was or was not like, the hallmark of good science on the outer fringe.

The obituary also noted that Miller's thesis advisor, Nobel Laureate Harold Urey, insisted that he be sole author on the paper. I've always known this as the Miller-Urey experiment, but that was awfully gracious of a senior scientist, and a model not always followed. At my department at Harvard there was a story of a graduate student whose defense was snubbed by his advisor due to a dispute about failing to include the advisor on a submitted paper.

I've been meaning to note one other passing of a great pioneer. In The Right Stuff, there is a scene of the potential Mercury astronauts enduring an exhalation test, and at the end only Scott Carpenter & John Glenn are still blowing bubbles. That is now the case in real life with the passing of Wally Schirra. Schirra was notorious as a jokester, but it is also notable that when it came time to name his capsule, he picked Sigma 7, for the letter's relevance to math, science & engineering. His sigma was indeed spectacular, splashing down within sight of his recovery craft. As a kid I never understood why Schirra retired just before he would have had a lock on a slot to go to the moon. As an adult, I can begin to fathom how exhausting all the training was.


Neil said...

As a kid I never understood why Schirra retired just before he would have had a lock on a slot to go to the moon

There are rumours that Schirra and his crew were blacklisted by NASA after Apollo 7 - the infamous "near-mutiny" flight characterised by bad relations between crew and ground control. I don't know if there's any truth to that.

Interesting that Schirra is the only guy who flew Mercury, Gemini and Apollo too.

Astronaut biographies.

Keith Robison said...

Yes, the blacklist is the other explanation. Some books claim Scott Carpenter was blacklisted after his Mercury flight with some flight controllers blaming him for not being careful with his maneuvering fuel reserves.

On the flip side, Gus Grissom was clearly not blacklisted for the Mercury door blowout & John Young clearly wasn't pushed aside for the corned beef sandwich incident.

That is the fun part of reading modern tellings of the space flight story -- the glossy rah-rah of the earlier books is replaced with a more comprehensive and nuanced version which suggests the influence of human complications.