Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Upon a Peak in Darien (WW108)


Our guest on WW this week was David Southwood. He and I both had the joy of working on the Huygens probe in 2005. Of course, our participation on that project was at very different levels - he as senior project leadership with ESA for many years, myself as a graduate student in the US contingent of the DISR Instrument. I was probably amongst the most johnny-come-lately participants, having started in 2004 on a project that had existed in one form or another since 1972.

I mention Huygens because Professor Southwood lists that mission amongst the highlights of his career. However, he has participated in more scientific projects, space missions and scientific endeavors and has won more awards and accolades than I can possibly list in this space. To give you a flavour, he has worked on missions to every classical planet in the solar system and astronomical projects beyond it, was part of the magnetometer team that discovered evidence of liquid water on Europa, led the Cassini Magnetometer Team and has contributed greatly to the study of space weather.

I was extremely fortunate to get the chance to speak with Professor Southwood as he was in Toronto a few weeks ago to give the annual J. Tuzo Wilson lecture at the University of Toronto. I also need to thank his host, Dr. Nigel Edwards (a former prof of mine, back in my undergraduate days) for fitting WW into his and David's schedule at the last possible moment. We and our listeners appreciate your flexibility and accommodation!

What makes this interview one of my favourites is that Professor Southwood really epitomizes what we are trying to do here on Western Worlds. Not only do we want to share the Science of other worlds with you, but also how we get there (Engineering/Space Technology) how the decisions about where to fly get made (Space Agency/Space Politics) and how all of that comes back around to you, our listeners (Education/Public Outreach).  Professor Southwood has led a hybrid career that has combined the best of all of these worlds, and I for one, will take his advice to heart. If I can achieve in my own career even a few percent of what he has been able to do in his, I will count it a resounding success.

If you missed our broadcast, fear not! You can download a copy of Professor Southwood's interview from the WW webpage here. As usual, my introduction is under the cut.



 The author, upon a peak in Hawai'i in 2008

Like stout Cortez, with eagle eyes, he star’d at the Pacific – and all his men Look’d at each other with wild surmise – Silent, upon a peak in Darien. You’re listening to Western Worlds!

Hello and welcome back for another conversation here on Western Worlds, an AFM*Original show heard right here on Astronomy.fm. My name is Dr. John and I’m coming to you this week as every week from the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at Western University located in the Sister City of Nanjing, China:  London, Ontario, Canada.

I mention our fair Chinese sister city because for space exploration, just like for municipalities, there are advantages to teaming up. No one knows that better than tonight’s guest David Southwood. In his role as the Director of Science and Robotic Exploration at the European Space Agency, Professor Southwood managed the contributions and priorities for space science betwixt and between nineteen member states as well as spearheading ESA’s cooperation with NASA and other space agencies the world over. Under his watch, the number of planetary missions at ESA and the science they have returned have both increased to the point that today, euro for euro, ESA is just as capable as NASA when it comes to exploring our solar system.

Let us not forget, however, that Professor Southwood is also a distinguished scientist having taken part in planetary magnetometry since the early 1970s. He was a part of the team that discovered direct evidence of present-day liquid water beneath the surface of Europa and led the CASSINI Magnetometer that, even now, continues to collect data at Saturn. With such experience comes the privilege of choosing the evening’s quotation and I have deferred to David’s choice of Keats.

A few weeks ago in our interview with Paul Wiegert, you heard half of “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer.” But the ending is even more poignant. As David painted the image for me: imagine a navigator arriving in southern panama after crossing the Atlantic. To properly appreciate this new territory, the navigator and all his crew trek inland before climbing a mountain to get their bearings. But the view that awaits them at the top of the hill is not the end of their discovery. Instead, it is the inception of future journeys held captive within the mind’s eye as it stares into the boundless blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean, glimpsed for the first time.

Our Scientific exploration of the solar system is the same. Though we see through the eyes of our robotic probes, the vista revealed is, for ourselves, no less immediate. Each journey opens up new pathways of exploration, each answer begs new questions and through it all we are awed both at the complexity of our sister worlds and at our ability, through our technology, to make the unknown known. It was a privilege for me to be able to speak to one of the architects of that knowledge base and to share that conversation with you.

Given the expertise of our guest it is appropriate that transitioning us through the program tonight is Howard Shore’s “Evenstar” from “The Lord of the Rings,” a composition that subtly honours two of the planets on which our guest has worked. At the same time, I can only hope that this evocative music gives you a taste of what both David and I have felt, standing on that peak of discovery.

Without further ado, let us transition to my interview with Professor Southwood.

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