Exploring the Planets: A Memoir by Fred Taylor
Roger D. Launius
Quest Volume: 28 #2 (2021)
Fred Taylor is the Pug Henry, Herman Wouk’s protagonist in the Winds of War (1971) who had a penchant for being in the center of anything happening in the years leading up to World War II, of planetary science. A scientist trained in the United Kingdom who spent the decade of the 1970s at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and then returned to Oxford to become a don, Taylor was a principal investigator, cooperating scientist, or advisor on all manner of missions to the planets. His memoir, Exploring the Planets, has chapters on many of these missions, in every case helping to fill in the general knowledge available on their operations and findings.
Taking a chronological approach, Taylor tells us about his background and training at the University of Oxford, his romances both with his wife Doris and sports cars, his postdoctoral fellowships, his decade at JPL and the missions he supported, his return to the UK and Oxford, and his career since. We learn how he began building radiometry and other instruments as a graduate student for measuring aspects of the upper atmosphere. He flew these on balloons and airships as well as other delivery platforms in the 1960s. They provided data of use in the nascent discipline of planetary studies, with Earth as the planet studied. Unbeknownst to Taylor at the time, this research on Earth from above led to the development of planetary science. Taylor was among a cadre of scientists interested in meteorology, climatology, geology, geodesy, oceanography, biology, chemistry, and a host of other disciplines that offered a planetary perspective on Earth. Naturally, and with NASA’s encouragement and funding, they also turned their attention to other planets in the solar system. Scientist Harrison Brown foreshadowed this in a National Research Council (NRC) study in 1961: “It seems likely that in the years ahead we will learn more about the Earth by leaving it than by remaining on it.”
As a recently-minted PhD in astrophysics, Taylor moved to JPL in 1970 and moved into planetary science full time, focusing on planetary atmospheres and meteorology. He became a principal investigator and built his first experiment on the Pioneer-Venus orbiter in 1978, measuring the atmosphere of Venus. This mission, more than any of his work beforehand, established Taylor as a major player in the planetary science community. His return to Oxford in 1979 did nothing to stunt Taylor’s investigations. He also was a key figure in the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Cassini mission to Saturn, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express/Beagle 2 mission, various other Mars missions, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), the Rosetta cometary study mission, and other efforts. Indeed, he seems to have been everyplace where scientific action was underway, very much like Pug Henry.
In my estimation, Taylor’s chapter on Galileo was his best. While he does not reveal much about the inner-workings of this mission, his account of the major science discoveries was instructive. He notes how the Galileo science team voted on the top 10 scientific discoveries from the mission, offers his take on these discoveries, and nominates some other results that he would have included on the list of accomplishments. For example, he thought that “the finding that Jupiter’s atmosphere at the probe entry site was very dry” deserved to make the list . “If this were typical of the whole planet, Jupiter would have much too little oxygen, which should be present mainly as H2O, to be representative of the Solar System as a whole. Where could it have gone? Trapped deep in the interior somehow, perhaps” . He emphasizes that the Juno mission to Jupiter has one of its goals the discovery of the answer to this question.
This is a solid scientific memoir as far as it goes. Exploring the Planets is a welcome addition to the literature of planetary science. It is part history, part statement of the scientific balance sheet, and part personal memoir by a well-respected space scientist. Taylor provides a sophisticated, but accessible account of what we know about the planets, along with some discussion of how we know it. He also offers insight on occasion into how some of this science was accomplished. While Taylor is a fine scientist, he is a poor historian. The basic chronology is correct, A precedes B and the like, but the core questions of why things happened the way they did is elusive. This is very much a story written by a non-historian. Other than himself, unfortunately one will look long and hard for human actors in this account of Taylor’s life.
Discussions of planning, politics, budgets, decision-making, setbacks, personalities, and coups are conspicuous for their absence. I had hoped for more of this. Taylor occasionally mentions that the many conferences he attended—planning, reviews, assessments, etc.—were trying. Of course they were, scientists are a notoriously contentious lot and duke it out over virtually everything. This is one of the strengths of science, the best data, analysis, and theories win out in a never-ending knock-down, drag-out. Unfortunately, Taylor provides no real details. Who argued for what, how did they do so, who countered and how? What was the result? I would dearly love to hear about that, and not because I love salacious stories. This provides a window into the sophistication of how honest people can differ, and debate and argue, and eventually come to consensus. In an era in which Americans seem to talk past one another, such debates serve as an object lesson on how knowledge is created.
About the Book
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Title: Exploring the Planets: A Memoir by Fred Taylor (2016-02-25)
Author: Fred Taylor
Publisher: Oxford University Press
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