So, this week I was supposed to meet Buzz Aldrin. It didn’t happen, but how it almost happened is a story. And it reminds me of all the other famous (and almost famous) that I met (or almost met)…
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Now, on to the story telling, involving number of Nobel Prize Winners including one who taught at our Vatican Observatory Summer School not long ago (incidentally, there’s still time to apply to the school, here ), some well known writers, and various Popes and Presidents, each of them with a story…
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Patrick Nielsen Hayden once described me as a “micro-celebrity” which sounds about right (probably one millionth of the US populations knows who I am). If you know who Patrick is, you’ll be impressed; if you’ve never have heard of him, well, that’s my point.
The science fiction author and blogger John Scalzi has a whole post somewhere about how when he goes to a science fiction convention he’s surrounded by fans but if by mistake he should go to the next hotel up the street, where, say, orthodontists are meeting, no one would know who he was.
I once went walking down 5th Avenue in New York City hoping to see someone famous on the street, before I realized that I am so out of touch with current pop culture that I wouldn’t recognize a “famous” person if I saw them. Just about that time, two women approaching me stopped, and one pointed in my direction. “Look!” she said. I tried to turn around surreptitiously to see whom she was pointing to. “It’s the Pope’s Astronomer!”
There was a time in my youth when I would read Sky and Telescope in wonder and awe at the experts writing there. Eventually the time came when I realized I knew most of the people writing the articles, and I knew first hand a lot of what was being written about there. Nowadays I am back to recognizing hardly anyone; the field has grown, and a lot of it has passed me by.
But I got to thinking a lot about “famous people” this month. For example, I went up to Geneva for the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences, which every few years they hold in conjunction with the European planetary science community. (I took the train, which was great!) I didn’t attend a single session; I spent all my time in the hallways talking to people. Lots were old friends, now big names. A few were old friends who used to be big names… It was pleasant to be remembered, and humbling to see how much new stuff is being done by some current big-name scientists who had not been born when I entered the field.
While there I also went to Mass with my fellow Specola scientist Jean Baptiste Kikwaya at the local Jesuit community, which Father Sosa, the Father General of the Jesuits, was visiting. There was a time when meeting Father General would have been a big deal; now he was the only guy at the Mass (besides JB) whom I felt comfortable enough to joke with. (Fr Sosa’s previous job had been running the Roman Houses, like the Specola; he’s the one who had recommended me for the job of Director.) Father General knows me. Heck, the Pope knows me. How did that happen?
But when it comes to name-dropping, I am a piker compared to other Jesuits. Perhaps one of the most notorious name-droppers was Martin D’Arcy, who appeared on the radio with Bertrand Russell and, according to his NY Times Obit: counted among his friends leading minds of his time: Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and T. S. Eliot. Dame Edith Sitwell and Evelyn Waugh were among his converts. Mr. Waugh used Father D’Arcy as the basis for the character of Father Rothschild in his novel Vile Bodies. The fictional priest was described as one who remembered “everything that could possibly be learned about everyone who could possibly be of any importance” in London in the 1920’s.
But it was another British Jesuit, far more modest, who showed me how it was really to be done.
I was staying at a Jesuit residence in London, Copleston House (which is not far from Abbey Road, but that’s another story). One of the older residents, Fr. Robert Murray, showed up while I was having breakfast. He’d just heard of the death of one of his novitiate classmates, and began reminiscing about his own journey into the Jesuits. He’d learned about the Jesuits from a friend while he was at Oxford, but he wasn’t a Catholic yet. And it was awkward to convert because his parents were Protestant missionaries in China.
“China?” I asked. “During the war?” He said yes, and noted that they were living in Shanghai. “Were they interned?” Yes. “In the same camp as J. G. Ballard (who wrote about it in Empire of the Sun)?” Yes, the family were great friends of the Ballards. I was impressed.
He went on to describe how he started looking for a Catholic who might introduce him to the faith. His aunt, who worked at the Oxford English Dictionary offices, knew a Catholic philologist by the name of… Tolkien.
Ok, I thought this was amazing. He didn’t mention, I only learned later, that Murray became a great friend friend of the Tolkien family, doing the weddings of the children and officiating at Tolkien’s funeral.
But then it came out why his aunt was working at the OED. Her father – Fr. Murray’s grandfather – was the Professor Murray of “The Professor and the Madman” fame who created the OED! Three legitimate namedrops in one story, and all of them mentioned matter-of-factly…
So what is my story about Buzz Aldrin? As a part of the world-wide celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Apollo, the US Embassy to the Holy See wanted to bring Buzz Aldrin to Rome. He’s a friend of the ambassador and her husband, Newt Gingrich (to drop another name; I have met her, but not him). The first idea was that he would come out and see the telescope dome where Pope Paul VI addressed the astronauts. Given his failing health, that seemed like a lot of travel on a day when he would have many other events, so I wasn’t surprised when we were told that probably wouldn’t happen.
Plan B was to have an event where he and I would appear on stage at the North American College, a seminary here in Rome for young priests-in-training from North America (often considered a training ground for potential future bishops, etc.) I was up for that; it was on my calendar for last Wednesday. Alas, the week before the event, we heard that Buzz’s doctors didn’t want him to fly to Rome at all. He’s 89, so I totally understand; I don’t like flying over the Atlantic anymore, either, and I haven’t hit 70 (yet).
He would not have been the first Apollo astronaut of my acquaintance; I did get to meet Bill Anders, the guy on Apollo 8 who took the famous “Earthrise” photo, at a meeting of the IAU Nomeclature committee meeting last year. And twenty years ago, when I was on book tour for Brother Astronomer, when I showed up at a bookstore in Albuquerque, who was there to see me but Apollo 17’s Jack Schmitt! So I was able to top a friend of mine who collects astronaut autographs, by saying, “I don’t have any astronaut autographs, but I know an Apollo astronaut who has my autograph.”
(As for trading autographs, I confess I was floored when, many years ago I did a radio interview with Terry Pratchett, and he showed up with a copy of my book for me to sign to him!)
All of this leads up to the event this month that inspiring my musings, the Nobel Prize in Physics to Didier Queloz. Didier was one of the instructors of our 2007 summer school, which was on the topic of exoplanets (the thing he got the prize for, along with his colleague Michael Mayor).
He wasn’t the first Nobel laureate to visit the Specola, though he was the first to get the prize after being an instructor. And he wasn’t the first visitor we had who deserved to get the prize…