When national debates turn to scientific matters, some seemingly contradictory themes emerge. We want more emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), while denigrating the humanities. Meanwhile, many prominent politicians cast aside — even mock — scientific evidence in areas like climate change.
It’s time to listen to Jim Garvin.
He’s NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center chief scientist. He got his undergraduate and Ph.D degrees from Brown University, a famously liberal school (with a killer space exploration program).
And he’s a very proud graduate of the Westport school system, where a parade of of committed teachers inspired a love for not only science, but history and languages too.
The other day, Garvin took time out from mapping Mars to talk about the map that — more than 40 years ago — took his family from Beirut and Australia to Westport.
“I was like a kid in a candy store” at Long Lots Junior High and Staples High School, Garvin says. “I had so many great opportunities to exercise my intellectual curiosity.”
In 7th grade, he and his friends wanted to study tides. Their science teacher hustled them into his VW, then drove them to Burying Hill Beach. They wandered around for hours.
That same year, Garvin told social studies teacher Tom Marshall he’d like to draw an ecological map of all the trees surrounding Long Lots. For an entire academic quarter, he did just that.
Staples was even more encouraging for a self-described “eccentric kid,” the 1974 grad says. He was profoundly influenced by physics teacher Nick Georgis (and his amateur radio club), and AP Chemistry (where Garvin lit fires — “not smart, but they were always contained”), along with advanced French instructor Alice Adolph (“absolutely phenomenal, and very funny”) and AP US History with Dave LaPonsee (“one of the most invigorating educational experiences of my life”).
Garvin says, “I hope those academic freedoms are still alive in Westport.”
At Brown — where he was mentored by legendary planetary scientists Jim Head and Tim Mutch — Garvin found his life’s work. Among his many accomplishments, he’s served as chief scientist for Mars exploration, and led a team of scientists who use the Hubble Space Telescope to explore the lunar surface in search of potential resources for human exploration.
Garvin was born around the time Sputnik was launched. Barely a decade later, men landed on the moon. Then came a robot on Mars.
Garvin is well aware of the power of science. But — in his role with NASA, and in testimony before Congress — he’s also seen the “total lack of scientific awareness” among some prominent people, and the “lack of desire to even care” in others.
Science — funding it, and encouraging students to study it — is not an easy sell, Garvin knows.
“It’s hard,” he says. “Taking AP Physics and advanced multivariable calculus at Staples is tough.” But the challenges are well worth it — individually, and for everyone on our planet, he says. (Not to mention whatever might be lurking on other planets.)
Garvin is thrilled to meet students who share his passion. A recent mentee is Nick Stern — a Staples grad now at Brown, who’s a budding astrophysicist himself.
“It’s easy to say ‘I don’t understand climate change’ or ‘Why do we even want to go to Mars?’ Garvin says.
“But we’re all in this together. Our planet is a spaceship hurtling through an enormous universe. We have to be aware of that.”
Education, he says — in the humanities as well as the sciences — can fill an important role, at a time of a certain amount of ignorance and fear of the unknown.
His work has pioneered and directed much of what man knows about Mars — and other space exploration — and could shape our planet’s destiny for centuries to come.
And not just in space. The technology Garvin supported that’s mapped Mars in 3 dimensions is now being used to map ice sheets on earth.
Garvin calls himself “the luckiest guy alive.” He went to a high school, then a college, that offered enormous academic freedoms. He reached his dream of working in a field he is still “tinglingly passionate” about.
“When I got up this morning, I turned on my computer and had a message from Mars,” he says.
“How cool is that?”
Click below for Jim Garvin’s TEDx talk on the frontier of space:
Click below for a video of Jim Garvin explaining his path from Westport and Brown to Mars (the sound improves after the introduction):