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Keith Mason in Space


Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash

The Berkeley Circle welcomed the prestigious figure of British Astronomy, Keith Mason, with some trepidation. Would we have the background enabling us to take aboard the technical expertise of the chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council? He was  to speak to us about the Red Planet, much in the news just now following the Mars 2020 Mission launched July 30, 2020 and landed February 18, 2021 on Jezero Crater, Mars.


We were soon reassured. Mason had been a professor of astronomy at University College London, his alma mater, and also taught at  the University of California at Berkeley. He had the knack of not  overpowering raw students with towering numbers or excessive detail. He put across his passion for his subject in language that excluded no-one. We were able to keep our footing in the universe as we moved back and forth over billions of years. Patience and simplicity were apparently the lesson of a life in astronomy.


From NASA’s Mariner missions in the 1960s our vision of Mars has gradually changed. Centuries of fantasy representations of the planet have been replaced by photographic images. Sensational by their novelty, their value was at first limited by the technical means available. Since then something like a history of Mars photography has unrolled. Keith Mason insists on the importance of visualisation at the present stage of exploration. His talk became an object lesson of what can be learned by an expert’s reading of detailed and precise photographs. In one after another of astonishing views he pointed out what they revealed about the history and composition of Mars. Every fact deduced and established seemed to lead on to another question. The excitement of the chase was clearly part and parcel of astronomy.


Keith Mason reminded us that humankind has never been able to contain astronomy within the bounds of numbers and formulae. It has always tended to reach out beyond to ask deeper questions.  He feels the recent photographs of Mars challenge us in the way great art does. To quote from one of his interviews, “Doing science gives you the same satisfaction as looking at a work of art. It expands your horizons. In that way, the value of science is similar to the value of art.” To philosophy and art add movie-going thrills. It’s an historic first to watch the rover, Perseverance, exploring the Jezero Crater or to follow Ingenuity, the small robotic solar helicopter, as it scurries over Mars. 


The success of the helicopter means that moving about on Mars will no longer be limited to the insect like crawl of the rover clinging to the surface. The task of Perseverance was to seek signs of ancient life on the planet in rock samples that can be analysed. Present conditions of low atmospheric pressure and radiation exposure make human habitation impossible on Mars outside of spacesuits. But knowledge of the planet’s past may indicate that conditions were not always thus. Life and running water may have once been present and if so the changes that occurred could help us to contrive a feasible habitat and survival method. Here the past, of course, is measured in billions of years. Astronomy takes us out of the everyday world. To engage in it seriously, Keith Mason tells us, we have to project ourselves into a place we have never known, an environment we must, science aiding, create with our imagination.


At the same time, Keith Mason’s own itinerary is anything but other worldly. It began on a family farm in Wales. The 1969 return to earth  of  Apollo II stirred him no end as a boy. He was enthralled by the brilliant and popular writing of Sir Patrick Moore and infected forever by that astronomer’s unquenchable enthusiasm for space. Keith Mason’s middle years in astronomy involved activity no longer called for today as data is now conveniently fed to control rooms. Astronomers in those years actually engaged at close quarters with telescopes, riding them, so to speak, like a racing driver. In a ticklish operation, the telescope’s cage had to be rotated in line with gravity. When, after such  experience  in  Australia and Chile, he settled into administrative work in the UK, Keith Mason’s interest in practical matters never waned. He remains intent on translating the advances of science into new products and applications. Moreover, in tune with the current social climate, he has actively encouraged a greater role for women in astronomy.



Peter Byrne

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