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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

November 23, 2020

In Conversation

The Scientists - Dr. Carolyn Porco 6 minute read

Photograph courtesy of Dr. Carolyn Porco

I've been lucky enough to know groundbreaking planetary scientist Dr. Carolyn Porco all my life. She got to know my parents (Astronomer Carl Sagan and Writer-Producer Ann Druyan) in the early 1970's and in the 1980's when they all worked on the fabled Voyager mission to the outer solar system.

From 1990 to 2017, she led the imaging science team on the Cassini mission at Saturn. She’s spent her career exploring the solar system virtually, discovering moons, rings, seas, lakes, and geysers on other worlds from the comfort and safety of Earth, and devising unique ways to bring the rest of us along on the journey. I asked her about what drew her to science, how we might better celebrate our greatest discoveries, and how staring up at the Milky Way makes her feel.  Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sasha Sagan

Interview Sasha Sagan

SFor someone who's reading this and imagining what it would be like to be a planetary scientist, what does that consist of day to day for you? 

DCP I no longer can say I'm just a planetary scientist. Twenty-seven years of my life were completely consumed working on a space flight mission. That is a wholly different experience than just being a scientist doing research, publishing papers. The scientists chosen by NASA to conduct the scientific investigations of the Saturn system with Cassini had to do everything from, in our case, oversee the design and build of the cameras, build the operational procedures and databases to design imaging sequences and generate commands that were uplinked to the spacecraft and receive the images in return, and, in the case of my CICLOPS [Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations] group, essentially ran a news magazine by processing images and writing figure captions for public release five days a week for years. On top of all that, we also had to do our science, make our discoveries, and publish our results in scientific journals. 

And all of it was crafted from whole cloth! I distinctly remember the day when I realised in a panic, "Oh my God, I've gotta figure out how we're gonna operate the camera to be in sync with the motions of the spacecraft" because we didn’t have a way to do that. That turned into a massive computer code. It was a lot of work that changed in character over 27 years.

Finally, from the very first day, I saw the imaging team as the documentarians of the mission. We had the task of returning the visual record of our travels around Saturn. So I wanted the images and movie clips to be the lure and the means by which members of the public felt they were along for the ride. I paid particular attention to precision, detail, and realistic colour in the processing of our products for the public and to the manner of presentation … in particular, my Captain’s Log commentaries. Cassini and its images have been dearly loved by people the world over and I’m enormously proud and delighted that we succeeded. The whole world went to Saturn with us!

SI saw where you said that when the Huygens Probe deployed to Saturn’s moon, Titan, it should've been celebrated with ticker tape parades around the US and Europe. I think that's a great image. Could you talk a little bit about what made that specific event so significant that it was worthy of celebrating in the streets?

DCPWell, it was the first time a device of our own making, a device that people handled and touched, landed on a moon in the outer solar system. It took pictures on the way down, and because of its final picture taken from its landing site — of the Titan horizon, with all those cobbles of ice strewn across this plain of organic material — you could imagine yourself there, walking on it. 

You can't over estimate the power of an image to allow us to place ourselves elsewhere. And in the case of the Huygens landing, it was like we were in one universe one moment, and in an entirely different universe the next. And it was a universe in which we had been transported to a place that was entirely unknown only moments earlier. And this wasn’t Star Trek.  This was real!
It was really… it was a tear jerker. And it was so beautifully international. I had nothing to do with the Huygens Probe. I was just an invited guest like everybody else who was just sitting there, at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, listening. During the press conference, the celebratory speeches were given in Italian, French, Dutch and German …  all these different accents. It felt to me like this is what the words “United Nations” are supposed to mean: Nations of the world joined in a common endeavour and in this case, it was to come to know a planetary system as remote and alien as Saturn. It was goosebump raising. I’m glad I lived to see that moment.

SSo how do we get to a society or toward a society where this sort of thing really is celebrated publicly?

DCPI think if more people understood the value of scientific inquiry, if they appreciated in their gut that this is the way forward. It has always been the way forward. It's why there are cell phones and televisions and computers. It's all from scientific inquiry and technological progress. And if people fully appreciated what scientific inquiry has wrought and we went back to honouring old-fashioned values like honesty and integrity and truth, I think we could get there.

SHow does the strict adherence of the scientific method in your work influence the other parts of your philosophy, political or spiritual, the other elements of your life outside of work? 

DCPOh very, very, very much but I can't say it's the scientific method that turned me in this direction. I think I was attracted from a young age to science once I learned what it was and could see that we humans know as much as we do because of this exacting process called science. It was enormously attractive to me because it was a way to find out the objective truth instead of just having to accept the proclamation of some authority figure. So I think I was always inclined to be a person who would be a truth seeker. I don't know how else to say it. 

A lot of males come to the study of astronomy by doing things like making a telescope. It's something they can get their hands on, they can build, and they make a telescope. That wasn't me at all. I was spiritual from the beginning. My turn towards astronomy started with a spiritual quest, when I was young, about 13. I started to ask those questions. I was kind of like a 13-year-old going on 80. I think I was far more serious when I was young than I am now. I was asking those questions like, "what does my life mean?”, "what am I doing here?"

This quest to find the meaning of my life morphed into the next stage, which was, “Okay, well, where is here?”. And that pointed me in the direction of astronomy. The desire to know, to come to grips with my existence, brought me to seek the answer in the study of the cosmos. For a period of about four or five months, I tried to be a devout Catholic because that was the religion I was born into. Really, I tried the whole thing. I went to mass during the week, whatever I could do to get in God's good graces. But it just felt like putting on a jacket that was too small.

S What do you wish that the average layperson understood about our place in the universe?  

DCPI had a woman, a brilliant, brilliant woman, who worked for me for a number of years. She's Italian, she's from Milan, and she told me that when she came to the U.S, she took the opportunity to go into the American southwest. It was the first time she'd ever seen the Milky Way! When you think, when you look at the Milky Way and you know what it is…. it's not just sprinkling of stars on a flat background. It's a bloody absolutely enormous galaxy that you're embedded in and looking at edge-on. It's just so, so exalting and exhilarating when you realise that, isn't it? 

SIt truly is. 

DCPSo that's what I think people need to feel all the time and it would give them perspective. I think we're all missing perspective. Life is so magnificent and fleeting. Even the earth's existence is not forever. After 40 plus years of spending my career studying other planets, I've come back with the same feeling, believe it or not, the same feeling that astronauts come back with, you know? I kind of feel like I've spent the last three decades really at Saturn and now I've come home. Now I'm coming home and I'm looking at the beauty and the lush life-giving magnificence of our own planet and I'm appalled that we're destroying it. I want people to realise that we and the earth are one. We're made from the same cloth and if it perishes, we perish.

SI couldn't agree more. Lastly, let me ask you this: What mystery still keeps you up at night about the universe? What would you most like to understand that you don't yet? 

DCPOh boy. I guess I really would like to know, for sure, if there's intelligent life elsewhere. As I'm lying in my bed thinking about this, is there some other organism, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions or billions of light years away from me doing the same thing? If I knew, for certain, there were intelligent beings elsewhere, struggling in the same way we are, I'd feel like the universe was a much less lonely place.