Monday, July 13, 2015

A plethora of Pic(c)ards: Star Trek, Jesuit science and women in outer space

Those hats?  Would Jean-Luc ever be caught in s
such a chapeau? Auguste Piccard, Jean-Felix 
Piccard's twin is on the right. Licensed under 
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Summer makes me think of space.  I can still remember the thrum of the air conditioner, as I sat on a square white naugahyde cushions in the dim green basement, the cool air pooling around my bare feet, glued to one space launch or another.  "T-minus 10 minutes and counting."  Today I've got another countdown going in a spare window on my screen.  New Horizons is just over a million kilometers out from Pluto, 20 hours and 49 minutes from closest approach.

I'll admit to a long time fascination with extraterrestial travel.  I was born 6 months after Sputnik, held my breath through Apollo 13's aborted mission, waited in a long line to see one of the moon rocks (and then was too short to peer into the case), and can remember where I was standing when I heard the news about Challenger.  And yes, I'm a Star Trek fan.

Reading about the Pluto mission yesterday, I happened across a mention of Jean-Felix Picard, a 17th century Jesuit astronomer who measured the circumference of the earth to within 0.44% of the currently accepted value and made enormous strides in the development of telescopes, early steps on the path that allows me to click and see Pluto's topography.  Was there any relation between this Jean Picard and the future captain of the Enterprise Jean-Luc Picard?  Legend has it that another Jean-Felix Piccard - a 20th century chemist and balloonist Jean-Felix Piccard was Gene Roddenberry's inspiration for Picard, but spelling aside, the Piccards were from Switzerland, while Jean-Felix Picard, like Jean-Luc, was French.  Could the Jean-Felix's have been mixed up somewhere down the pike? I can't track down the original source of the rumor, but in the run up to the feast of St. Ignatius, I'm enjoying the thought that there might be Ignatian threads in Star Trek.

In the process I discovered an early 20th century Bryn Mawr graduate and chemist, Jeannette Piccard, whose altitude record stood for almost 30 years, broken by the Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova in 1963.

Oh. If you search Jesuits and Star Trek, you quickly find yourself in conspiracy theory territory.  Seriously, the Jesuits are the Borg?  (Check out the address of the Jesuit Curia to see where that myth got started.)

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