Skip to comments.The Great Stargazer (Johnny Carson, a great promoter of science)
Posted on 01/25/2005 11:39:11 AM PST by jalisco555
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.
Steve Allen was another talk show host who was very much concerned with popularizing science; he served on the boards for both the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and the The Center for Media Integrity.
I think you'll all like this.
I did not know Carson was an amateur astronomer until I heard Merv Griffin mention that on Fox last night. It gives me a bit more respect for Carson's intellect after hearing that. I have a 10" Meade telescope, and can identify with Carson's hobby. Of course, I am sure he had a better view where he was. The haze gets pretty thick here in Florida sometimes.
I remember watching many of Carl Sagan's appearances on the Tonight Show. He was a frequent guest when the show was 90 minutes long and was often the final guest of the night. You could tell how much Carson enjoyed talking to Sagan. Another frequent guest, not mentioned in the article, was Joan Embry of the San Diego Zoo who would often bring some exotic animal. Of course, she always wore her zookeeper short-shorts and Johnny loved having her on as well.
Being of a certain age, I grew up watching Johnny Carson and found his interest in astronomy, the arts, music, etc. to be fully sincere as opposed to the shallow lip service and patronizing condescension of most so-called "celebrities" in the entertainment business.
He was constantly able to share his intelligence without pandering to his audience since, unlike his many peers in the industry, he had the gift of having deep respect for his audience.
And as an aside, he was instrumental in sowing the seeds of my own interest in astronomy.
He will be missed in many more ways than one.
Carson and Randi took Geller down brilliantly. Geller was able to set up his tricks in advance somehow on his various TV appearances and Randi was onto him. He and Carson sabotaged Geller's setup. I've seen tapes of the appearance and the look on Geller's face when the everything failed to happen is priceless. He was finished after that.
I heard one of his producers say on Fox that Johnny would have authors and scientists on during his early Tonight Show years in New York. As he got more competition, they booked more stars and then moved to Burbank.
I didn't know this stuff. Thanks for the ping.
Speaking of Carson and space...One of his funniest jokes was when ABC announced that The Flying Nun would be one of their new shows. He said that NBC was developing a competing show called Space Rabbi.
I read long ago that Carson had a 16" Celestron SC.
That is nice. One can only dream....
Might as well mention one of Carson's more negative guests vis a vis science: he once had Paul Ehrlich on his show, and in fact, it was on that single appearance that Ehrlich was automatically made an "authority" on population control.