My Top Ten Scientists
SF author and aerospace engineer Eric Choi
cites the scientists and engineers born
in the 20th Century who have influenced him
Like James T. Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru, I am going to fully exploit the conditions of the selection. First, I am expanding the scope of my article beyond scientists in the narrowest sense to include engineers. This is appropriate since engineers are really applied scientists (my degrees actually say 'applied science'). Second, I am being careful to say that I’m writing about scientists and engineers who have influenced rather than “inspired” me. Nine of the ten people on my list are truly inspirational, however, as you will see I consider the tenth person to be influential despite a mixed historical legacy.
My parents worked in the airline industry, so I have always been interested in people who make things go into the sky and beyond. James C. Floyd is a British-born Canadian engineer who worked on a number of iconic aircraft during his time at A.V. Roe (Avro) Canada Ltd. While most Canadians are aware of the CF-105 Avro Arrow supersonic interceptor, my favourite aircraft of that era was the C102 Avro Jetliner, which was the first jet-powered airliner in North America and the second in the world (after the British de Havilland Comet). Following the publication of my alternate history story about the Avro Jetliner in the anthology Arrowdreams, Mr Floyd honoured me with an invitation to visit him at his home in Toronto. I was overwhelmed by his intellect, humility, and kindness.
As a child, I found equal inspiration in both science fiction (particularly Star Trek) and the real-life space programme. One of my earliest recollections is of building a Voyager spacecraft model out of LEGO, cutting pictures of Jupiter and its moons out of a magazine and imagining my little plastic probe had taken them. Linda Morabito, a Canadian-born astronomer working as an engineer on the Voyager flight operations team, discovered the first evidence of active volcanism beyond Earth when she spotted in an optical navigation image a massive plume of sulphur off the limb of the Jovian moon Io. Ms Morabito was just one representative of the genius and dedication of the entire Voyager science and engineering teams who achieved the greatest journey of discovery in the 20th Century.
No self-respecting space geek can write an article like this without mentioning Carl Sagan. I never saw the original Cosmos television series, but I read the book years later and it had a profound influence on me. As a child of the final years of the Cold War, Sagan’s closing plea that humanity has an obligation to survive because we are the local embodiment of the Universe grown to self-awareness was a powerful statement of purpose and hope. Sagan was also one of the co-founders of The Planetary Society, an advocacy group whose work in education, public outreach, and research would have a direct impact on me. In my final year of secondary school, I was doubly honoured to receive their New Millennium Scholarship and get first place in their Mars Institute Student Contest. A letter of congratulations signed by Carl Sagan remains one of my most treasured possessions.
As part of the prize for winning the Mars Institute Student Contest, I was given an opportunity to attend a conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). This was the first time I had ever attended a technical conference. I was a teenager who didn’t know a soul, and I was intimidated to be amongst all those professionals until an engineer named Daniel Levack took me under his wing. Dan treated me not as a student but as an engineer-in-training, engaging me in technical discussions and listening to my ideas. He also gave me one of the best pieces of wisdom I have ever received, which is that the purpose of university is not to teach you how to do a job but to teach you how to figure out how to do a job. It was truly a magical moment when I was reunited with Dan two years ago at the Small Satellite Conference, this time meeting him as a peer. He gifted me a copy of his Philip K. Dick bibliography (see also wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_K._Dick_bibliography).
My undergraduate thesis supervisor was James R. Drummond, who at the time was a professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Toronto. Jim is the principal investigator for MOPITT (Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere), an instrument aboard the NASA Terra satellite that uses correlation spectroscopy to characterise the sources and sinks of carbon monoxide in the lower atmosphere. I will always be grateful to Jim for my first opportunity to work on a real space project, and I greatly admire both his work as an atmospheric physicist and his commitment to encouraging more women into science. Amongst the undergraduate summer students working in his lab, I was outnumbered by women three-to-one. Jim remains active in the Canadian space programme, most recently serving on the Government of Canada’s Space Advisory Board.
After receiving my undergraduate engineering degree (again, a “bachelor of applied science”), I pursued graduate studies at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS). My graduate thesis supervisor was Peter C. Hughes, whose textbook Spacecraft Attitude Dynamics remains a standard reference on the topic. Peter was part of a team of UTIAS engineers, under the leadership of the late professor Bernard Etkin, who helped save Apollo 13. They had to determine the maximum pressure that could be sustained by the tunnel connecting the command module to the lunar module that would be sufficient to jettison the lunar module without damaging the hatch and seals. The team solved the problem in less than six hours using little more than slide rules, a blackboard, and their collective expertise.
One of the highlights of my engineering career was the opportunity to work on the Meteorology (MET) instruments on the Phoenix Mars Lander mission. Diane Michelangeli, an atmospheric scientist at York University (Canada), was the principal investigator for the MET payload. I was the systems engineer with the industrial contractor, which was an important but not particularly high-profile role. Diane always made me feel like a key contributor to the project, for example, by making sure my name was included on her website along with the programme manager and the chief engineer. She died of cancer shortly after the launch of Phoenix and never saw the successful conclusion of the mission whose scientific accomplishments included confirming that snow falls on Mars (a most appropriate discovery for a Canadian instrument). The Diane Michelangeli Memorial Scholarship was established in her honour, awarded to a female doctoral candidate conducting research in atmospheric, Earth, or space science or engineering at York University.
The late Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman has been mentioned by other authors in this series. His Feynman Lectures on Physics, (see also www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3mhkYbznBk) co-authored with Robert Leighton and Matthew Sands, helped me get through undergraduate engineering (our first year classical mechanics textbook was so bad that one of my classmates took his copy to a gun range and shot it). As an engineer, I am particularly interested in Feynman’s role in the Presidential commission that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger accident. He famously debunked the claims of NASA managers by dipping a piece of O-ring material from the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters into a glass of ice water and demonstrating that the rubber seal had no resiliency at cold temperatures. For many years, I had over my work desk a quote from his appendix to the Challenger accident report: 'For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled'.
Another scientist and engineer who played a key role in the Challenger investigation was astronaut Sally K. Ride, the first American woman and the first LGBTQAI person in space. She graduated from Stanford with an undergraduate double major in physics and English, and in her youth she was a nationally ranked tennis player. It was not just this diverse interdisciplinary background that made her a role model (inspiring me to pursue both aerospace engineering and science fiction writing), but also her humanity and compassion. After a whistle-blowing engineer, named Roger Boisjoly, testified before the Challenger commission, the normally reserved Dr Ride gave him a hug. This act of kindness helped sustained Boisjoly through many difficult years of being shunned by colleagues and friends. The protagonist of my story 'Fixer Upper' in the anthology Science Fiction by Scientists is named Kristen Bartlett, recognising respectively the first American woman and the first American man in space (Sally Kristen Ride, Alan Bartlett Shepard).
My tenth person is the one that falls under the influential but not necessarily 'inspirational' category. Qian Xuesen (Hsue-Shen Tsien) was a Chinese-born aeronautical engineer who made fundamental contributions to the early American space programme, which included working with Theodore von Kármán and Frank Malina to establish the foundation of what would become the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). During the Red Scare of the 1950s, the U.S. Government deported Qian back to China, where he is today revered as the father of the modern Chinese space and ballistic missile programmes. Qian was the subject of my alternate history story 'The Son of Heaven' in the anthology The Dragon and the Stars. Last year, I had an opportunity to visit the Qian Xuesen Library and Museum at his alma mater of Jiaotong University in Shanghai. The museum’s contradictory narrative that the Americans were horrible to extradite him but he really wanted to return to China all along was never explained, and his role in providing pseudoscientific cover for Mao’s disastrous 'Great Leap Forward' was conveniently ignored.
I will conclude by again invoking the Kobayashi Maru scenario and changing the test conditions one more time, by citing an eleventh person who is neither a scientist nor an engineer and in fact is not even real person: the one-and-only James Tiberius Kirk. Despite not being born when the original Star Trek series first aired, that science fiction franchise has influenced me as much as any of the scientists and engineers mentioned here (let alone others). So, I will close with one of my favourite Kirk quotes, which I think is more relevant today than ever: "The greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown – only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.”
Eric Choi is an aerospace engineer, writer, and editor in Toronto, Canada. His short stories have appeared in over 20 publications. He co-edited the hard SF anthology Carbide Tipped Pens with Ben Bova and the Chinese-themed anthology The Dragon and the Stars with Derwin Mak. The space projects on which he has worked include QEYSSat (Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite), the Phoenix Mars Lander, the Canadarm2 on the International Space Station, RADARSAT-1, and MOPITT (Measurements of Pollution on the Troposphere). In 2009, he was one of the Top 40 finalists (out of 5,351 applicants) in the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut recruitment campaign. He can be found at www.aerospacewriter.ca as well as tweeting @AerospaceWriter.
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