August 25, 2010

The Scientist: Joseph A. Burns

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According to Prof. Joseph A. Burns, astronomy is the oldest science. So, when the distinguished scientific journal Nature asked him to chronicle the great history of astronomy in less than 4,000 words, he knowingly embarked upon a difficult task.

“To have a system you can study, I believe that was first done with the sky,” he recollected while discussing his whirlwind review of space science. “I think about Greek or Roman astronomers or Babylonian astronomers, two millenia ago.”

Burns first developed interest in space science as a young man, wathcing mankind take its first steps into space during the space race – his office is now filled with books documenting the consequences and the history of the famed Cold War missions.

“It was kind of like being a tourist. When you go to Mars, you don’t know what the hell is going to be there.” For instance, the article states that until 1966, respected scientists still argued that vegetation possibly covered Mars, and until 1950, scientists still believed lunar craters were actually volcanoes.

“Few citizes today realize how poorly known the solar system’s members, including Earth, were before the space era,” he wrote in the July 29 issue of Nature. “During the late 1960s and 1970s, when my career was beginning, a new expedition to inner Solar System destinations seemed to depart every few months.” Burns started his career as a ship desinger, but when he relized he could apply the same principles of engineering to explain cosmological movements and planetary behavior, he transitioned into space science. He soon developed a particular interest in planetary science, as oppposed to astrophysicists, who study the distant stars and phenomena of the universe.

Burns developed an interest in planets for three reasons. First, he said, “Carl Sagan was very interesting to me … he engaged me to Solar System exploration.”

Second, Burns described the benefits of studying the physics of planets and satelites over physics of the entire universe. As an engineer, he feels that planets are more tangible than the universe.

Finally, he appreciates the diverse fields that study the solar system.

“Planetary science is so neat because it envelops so many disciplines,” he said, referecing the importance of geology, chemistry, and atmospheric science in the study of the solar system.

Burns’ first coordinated efforts with thet National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) failed to materialize – he had planned to cooperatae with a mission that would have sent an unmanned spacecraft to visit several asteroids and one comet in the late 1980s. However, NASA scrubbed the mission

“I came into the game a little late,” he explained. “Reagan wanted to close the planetary program and almost did.”

However, Burns received the opportunity to work on the imagining team of Cassini mission, which sent a spacecraft with 13 instruments around Saturn. The craft relays detailed images back to researchers on Earth.

“They (the images) look like their painted but they’re actually photographs,” he described. The vivid portraits of the ring planet are now on display in multiple locations, including the Smithsonian Institute. “We see weather systems, we see geology, we sand dunes everywhere.”

The Cassini photographs have changed mankind’s view of the giant planet. They have offered explanations for the structure of the planet’s great ring system. They even provided a glimpse of Titan, Saturn’s orange moon filled with methane lakes and a smoggy atmosphere.

18 months ago, Nature approached Burns with a challenge, that was, to chronicle the history the astronomy in less than 4000 words. Burns accepted the challenge, and proceeded to write a manuscript that even laymen could understand.

“[Last summer] I had sent Nature a manuscript that was all over the place, and I hadn’t gotten to the science and it was twice as long as they wanted.”

The representatives from Nature asked him to refine and focus the material, and he produced a review of astronomy from the time of Galileo Galilei’s first telescope to his own personal efforts with Cassini. In addition, the article approaches the topics of extraterrestrial life and future space travel.

“I do get pretty emotional about the things that have happened in the past half century,” he recounted. “To be a part of this run is pretty neat.”

Original Author: A. Drew Muscente