A Galaxy of Interests
How big is the moon in the sky? Extend your arm upward and as far from your body as possible. Using your index finger and thumb, imagine that you are trying to pluck the moon out of the sky and, ever so carefully, squeeze down until you are just barely touching the top and bottom of the moon between your fingers. How big is it? The size of a grape, a peach, an orange?
(Actually, it is the size of a pea. The moon has an angular size of only half a degree. From Totality: Eclipses of the Sun by Mark Littmann, Fred Espenak and Ken Willcox.)
Science seeks precision and predictability.
UT Journalism Professor Mark Littmann has led a life rich in science but short on predictability.
Having found a way to blend so many different interests into his own career, Littmann says he encourages his students to discover what their own passions are — and then find a way to make those things part of their lifework.
Littmann’s personal history has been an odd combination of beakers and books, of theatre and science. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and literature from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and went on to get his master’s degree in creative writing from Hollins College, followed by a doctorate in English from Northwestern University.
In 1965, Littmann became the first director of Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City, Utah. He held the position until 1983. "I got the opporturasilnity to direct a large planetarium coming right out of graduate school," Littmann said. "It was something I had never expected to do and had never thought of doing. It was one of those opportunities you just can’t pass up — so there I was, with a state-of-the-art star projector and a large domed theater — responsible for conveying astronomy to the general public."
Littmann wrote and directed planetarium shows to do just that. He wrote articles and the publicity to promote the shows. The shows became so popular that 700 planetariums around the world used them — the first time planetariums had used another planetarium’s show.
Although he had rarely acted or worked backstage, he saw the planetarium programs as theater and used the opportunity to indulge his passion for drama. Littmann even arranged for a number of plays to be performed there, including science fiction works, Shakespeare, and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." He also staged the first light shows ever in a planetarium and ran a film festival of award-winning television commercials.
Before coming to UT, Littmann taught astronomy at Loyola College in Baltimore, astronomy and literature at the University of Utah and Westminster College in Salt Lake City, and literature and writing at Northwestern University.
Littmann came to UT in 1991 and helped to develop the School of Journalism and Electronic Media’s science communications courses. Few universities offer courses in science communication. Even fewer offer more than one course. Littmann teaches three: Writing about Science and Medicine; Environmental Writing; and Science Writing as Literature. All are open to upperclassmen and graduate students regardless of major. The courses have no prerequisites other than a student’s interest in writing about science.
Although Littmann didn’t realize it when he created Science Writing as Literature, it was the first course of its kind.
Littmann’s books include The Heavens on Fire: The Great Leonid Meteor Storms; Totality: Eclipses of the Sun with Fred Espenak and the late Ken Willcox; Planets Beyond: Discovering the Outer Solar System and Comet Halley: Once in a Lifetime with Donald K. Yeomans.
Now Littmann is involved in another project that allows him to blend his love for theater with his love for science and writing. He is working on a play about Caroline Herschel, sister of the German-born British astronomer and composer William Herschel and the first woman to be a professional astronomer.
As much as Littmann gets pleasure from his writing, he said he finds the success of his students even more satisfying.
While at the planetarium, Littmann had a life-changing experience — his first experience with a total eclipse of the sun.
In 1979, he organized a trip for a group of astronomers to take an airplane flight over the clouds in Montana to view the eclipse. He went along.
"I had never seen a total eclipse," Littmann said, adding that he figured a total eclipse, like a partial eclipse — which he had seen, would be "rare but nothing awfully special."
The experience left him in awe. "Nothing I can say and no picture you’ve ever seen conveys the wonder of the event," he said.
Since then, Littmann has "chased" total eclipses and seen three more. "Each one is completely different," he said. "But you can never remember all of its greatness. I want to go back and back."
The next total eclipse will happen on Aug. 1, 2008, in China. The next one visible in eastern Tennessee will be in 2017.
After seeing his first total eclipse, Littmann began writing a book. Totality: Eclipses of the Sun was published in 1991, and its third edition will come out this spring. The editor of Sky and Telescope magazine has called the book "The best work on eclipses ever written."
In the book, Littmann said, "I try to convey what the eclipse is like in words, but words are inadequate. I try in photography, but that is inadequate too."
Littmann describes how people have tried to make sense of eclipses through history as well as the superstitions surrounding them. He also explains how a total eclipse was used to help validate Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
"I talk about how they come about, why they’re rare, and why in another few tens of millions of years, we will never again have total eclipses of the sun."
Joe Buchman on Mark Littmann
Joe Buchman was an assistant professor of broadcasting at UT when he met Mark Littmann. Since leaving UT, Buchman has taught at several universities, including Utah Valley State College and Indiana University. He and his wife, Cindy, now live in Park City, Utah, with their four children.
We bumped into each other on our way to lunch, and the first thing Mark Littmann ever said to me was:
"I hear you’re auditing an astronomy course? Why?"
"I saw this planetarium show at The Museum of the Rockies last year. Just an incredible show. All about the Big Bang, stellar evolution, efforts to discover if there’s sufficient mass for the universe to collapse into a Big Crunch, with another Big Bang, or grow infinitely cold and dark, and perhaps out of that nothing, another Big Bang will arise. And how this all may have happened over and over again — like time lapse photography of a flower blooming. But of THE UNIVERSE!! It’s called ‘Springtime of the Universe,’ and Mark, you’ve got to see this show!!"
We stopped walking. Mark was turning crimson red. I was worried he might be having a heart attack.
"Mark, are you okay?"
"I’m fine Joe. It’s just that – well — I wrote that show."
I don’t remember what we had for lunch, but I sure do remember the first time I met Mark Littmann — it changed my life. Mark would later introduce me to my future wife, but his planetarium show ‘Springtime of the Universe’ had an even greater impact. It opened my eyes to the universe, caused us to become friends, and led me, and later Cindy and me, to chase total solar eclipses, including the one coming to Mongolia, August 1, 2008. We will be there, in the Altai Mountains, looking heavenward together with our four children — all thanks to Mark.
Most of these guys had been planning to be in this bar in Mazatlan, Mexico, for years. Some since they were small boys. Many for decades. I hadn’t planned to be there at all.
I got caught up with this tour group from Wichita, Kansas, at the last minute. Their leader was Jose Olivarez, director of the Wichita Omnisphere. We’d all come to see a "monster" total solar eclipse — over six minutes of totality. All of us were a bit drunk and celebrating the miraculous find of a "hole in the clouds" a few hours earlier. Everyone else in Mazatlan had been clouded out.
I was just getting used to the taste of Mexican beer when Jose turned to me and asked:
"Joe, I know why all these people are here, except you. Why’d you chase this eclipse?"
"It was Mark Littmann. He gave this talk at the university and — "
It was just like one of those old E. F. Hutton commercials. As soon as I said the words, "Mark Littmann" everyone in the bar, now in reverent, awed silence, turned to me.
"You know Mark Littmann?!?!"
"Why, yes, he’s one of my colleagues at the University of Tennessee. I saw his show ‘Springtime of the Universe’ and –"
"Oh that’s a great show, but his best one is ‘Sky Watchers of Ancient Mexico’!"
"NO! NO!! THAT’S NOT HIS BEST. His best was ‘The Universe of Dr. Einstein.’"
"SURE, that was a good one, but not as good as ‘Our Place in the Universe.’ Now THAT is a GREAT SHOW!!!"
"YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!!! ‘The People: Sky Lore of the American Indian.’ NOTHING TOPS THAT SHOW. NO WAY!!!"
Beer was getting spilled and I was worried that, for the first time in my life, I’d started a bar fight — in Mexico — over planetarium show scripts.
But for the rest of that trip, I didn’t buy another meal — or beer. They were all free so long as I could come up with another Mark Littmann story. From canned peas and the size of the moon to his Star of Bethlehem show, I had enough to get by, in a fine style, for the rest of the trip.
Total solar eclipses are fun. But they are even more fun when you go as a friend of Mark’s.
Mark Littmann holds the School of Journalism and Electronic Media’s Hill Chair of Excellence in Science, Technology and Medical Writing. He also lectures in astronomy and organizes the UT Science Forum (see sidebar), a weekly brown-bag event featuring UT, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other area scientists.