Dr. SETI and "Cosmic Carl"

Fans of Skepticality (and let’s face it, who doesn’t love Derek and Swoopy?) know that the latest podcast includes an interview with Daniel Loxton, editor of Junior Skeptic and the man behind “Where Do We Go From Here?” and “What Do I Do Next?”  He unveils his latest project, Skeptics Mix Tape, which is a collection of fun, science-y, skeptical songs that make you want to dance and sing along.  Of course, the unparalleled George Hrab was involved with this, and his own song “Skeptic” is in the mix.  But I was super happy to see an artist that I actually know since “Cosmic Carl” by Dr. SETI is the second song on the list!

Dr. SETI is the nickname used by Dr. Paul Shuch, an engineer with years of experience in commercial, academic, and military pursuits.  An avid radio amateur, he served as the Executive Director of the SETI League, a non-profit organization that brings together amateur radio astronomers in the search for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence.  And let me tell you, if you thought amateur astronomers were awesomely smart and resourceful people, and they are, amateur radio astronomers are doubly so, with their understanding of radio engineering and creativity in designing their own projects.  I first met Dr. Shuch when he gave a performance at Lycoming College in my sophomore year, and I happily sang along to “Cosmic Carl” from the audience!  So, listening to Skeptics Mix Tape, I was transported back to that memory.

Dr. Shuch lived just outside of Willamsport, home to Lyco, so he stayed in touch with our department over the years.  In my senior year, we visited the “Very Small Array,” part of the SETI League’s efforts, at his home.  I loved the way that he could explain the instrumentation of the array, although this was four years ago now and I didn’t take good notes.  But I do have pictures!

Dr. Shuch, showing off the green and brown antennas. Why that color? Well the neighbors complained he was “spoiling the natural landscape.”

For the record, I think dishes are pretty.

Right after I graduated, Dr. Shuch joined the faculty at Lyco for a year to help out the understaffed physics and astronomy department. Although I’m sad that I missed his teaching there, I’m sure that his work with our Small Radio Telescope was fun and educational!

So, the song itself makes me *squee* because of my geeky love of Carl Sagan.  First of all, I saw “Contact” in theatres when I was 13, which is about the time I decided I wanted to be an astronomer.  I was fascinated with the character of Ellie and her drive to pursue her life’s work.  Later, I started working in radio astronomy in Socorro, New Mexico, near the Very Large Array (which is not actually an awful waste of space). I got to geek out by reenacting various scenes in the movie with my REU* compatriots, as my standard avatar shows.  And yes, we even came up with a “Contact” drinking game. I now own the book version of Contact, which is also fantastic, and “Cosmos” on DVD, which is totally inspiring.  But Carl Sagan also had a big impact on my life when I read Demon-Haunted World just a few years ago. That book was really my introduction to skepticism as a world-view, not just something used in science and while watching infomercials.  So I owe much of my love of and interest in astronomy and skepticism to Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan through their creative works.

So to Carl… “billions and billions of cheers!”

* REU = Research Experience for Undergraduates.  If you are a science major, this is a GREAT way to spend a summer doing research, especially if you attend a small institution with limited resources.

2 thoughts on “Dr. SETI and "Cosmic Carl"

  1. I had Astronomy 102 with Carl Sagan at Cornell in the spring of 1975. It was a tremendous experience. He was a regular on the Tonight show, Cosmos was about to begin, and he was a rock star professor. I remember him telling us that in all of human history, now was the most exciting time to be alive, because it was during our lifetime that we would learn whether life existed elsewhere in the universe. It is a tragedy that he did not live to see is prophesy fulfilled.

  2. I had the distinction of working by Carl Sagan’s side during the Voyager Fly-by of Neptune/Triton/Nereid in August of 1989. I had been invited by Gene Shoemaker to Cal-Tech for the Conference on Solar System Exploration which coincided with the Voyager event. I had been involved with the TAU (Thousand Astronimcal Units) program which has sinced morphed into the Far Horizon’s Spacecraft/program and now finds itself enroute to Pluto. As a result, I found myself with a blue tag, standing next to Ed Stone and Carl Sagan as a guest during the fly-by. It was 48 hours of WOW!!!! And I even asked Dan Quayle a question at his press conference that his answer to is still quoted today as one of the silliest answers ever to an astronomical question.
    Carl Sagan was, shall we say, somewhat arrogant and self-centered, but quite brilliant at public astronomy and getting “da common folk” (as he put it) to understand stuff.
    My one annoyance was that when he passed away, it was front page, stop-the-presses kind of event, yet when Clyde Tombaugh passed away months later, 1 paragraph on the back of section B of our crappy little paper. I thought Clyde did more than Carl (who NEVER discovered a planet; That’s right, I said PLANET!) and I had the honor of working with him as well. I even looked at Pluto one night with him. What a hoot!
    Anyway, Carl Sagan had his moments, but I did try to emulate, with some success, his style of public astronomy and outreach.

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