TCS Daily

The Great Stargazer

By Sallie Baliunas - January 25, 2005 12:00 AM

If you look up at the awesome Milky Way and smile about its billions and billions of stars, be grateful to Johnny Carson (1925 - 2005) for bringing the universe home through cathode ray technology, his vast talent and avid interest in astronomy.

Carson brought two distinguished astronomers and popularizers to The Tonight Show television audience and wider public notice.

Robert Jastrow's book, Red Giants and White Dwarfs: Man's Descent from the Stars, first published in 1967, describes scientific discoveries relating humans to the origin and evolution of the cosmos. The book grew from Jastrow's 1964 television lectures as part of the "Sunrise Semester" telecourse, a three-decade collaboration beginning in 1951 between New York University and CBS Network Television in New York City. From a desk and flip-chart, Jastrow explained the concepts of space science to viewers just as the United States embarked on the dream to land on an alien world - the moon - and return safely.

Jastrow was invited to Carson's television show in 1967 to chat about his book, and as a telegenic and warm explainer, was quickly scheduled back six more times. Jastrow's notes on book sales show that The Tonight Show appearances quadrupled the sales of his book. In contrast, less than two years later, Jastrow's significant television and newspaper exposure surrounding the 1969 Apollo moon landing only boosted sales of Red Giants and White Dwarfs by 50%. The conclusion? Carson sold books.

The Tonight Show was broadcast past my schoolchild's bedtime so I never saw those astronomy segments. But even on schooldays I could watch Jastrow deliver the cosmos to a city whose lights hid all but the moon amidst a grayish night sky. At 6:35 AM "Sunrise Semester" ended Channel 2's overnight broadcast blackout and ran until morning news at 7:05 AM.

Carl Sagan's The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective was published in 1973 and launched him as an extremely popular and recurring guest on The Tonight Show. With brilliant lyricism, Sagan explained the human drive to explore and research scientifically the question of life elsewhere in the universe. Sagan, also a prime force in the Viking landers on Mars, made planetary adventures real for Carson's viewers in a golden age of solar system exploration.

It was Carson who created when he famously impersonated Sagan the exaggerated Sagan-esque phrase, "Billions and billions." Sagan had only worked in "billions."

Sagan's appearances on The Tonight Show were still too late and I missed them, too. But I had long known of Sagan's work from I. S. Shklovskii and Sagan's 1966 book, Intelligent Life in the Universe, an excellent early technical treatment centered on the science now called astrobiology and exploratory missions of the solar system.

After Carson retired from The Tonight Show he contacted Jastrow, then Director of Mount Wilson Observatory. This scientific cathedral is where the great astronomer Edwin Hubble and the talented observer Milton Humason had discovered galaxies to be massive groupings of hundreds of billions of stars separated by enormous distances. More, Hubble and Humason found distant galaxies receding from ours, which we know today as the motions from the initial expansion of the cosmos some 14 billion years ago, named the Big Bang. Carson and Jeff Sotzing (his nephew and colleague) happily absorbed the majestic history of grease, rivets, mules, ball-and-governor clock drives and the 9,000 pound glass primary mirror of the100-inch Hooker telescope. They delighted in spectacular views of nebulae and planets from the 60-inch telescope. As we dined on a bluff overlooking the twinkling lights of the city below, I found Carson's creative comedy genius as natural and gracious as his passion for learning what is Out There.

A minor planet coursing in our solar system is named 3252 Johnny. The number orders it in an astronomical catalogue of orbits of such objects, and the name, Johnny, honors Mr. Carson.

On Carson's retirement from The Tonight Show Bob Hope commented:

"Johnny's leaving The Tonight Show is like a head falling off Mount Rushmore. He's had a profound impact on millions of lives. ...He added to their knowledge of a great variety of subjects - astronomy, wild animals, health, consumerism."

"If it weren't for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of the television," Carson once quipped, "we'd still be eating frozen radio dinners." And knowing far less about the billions and billions things in the universe.


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