Thayer Global Speaker Series: ‘Planets & Poems’ wows with a wonder-filled evening
Human beings have gazed in wonder at Mars for thousands of years, but Dr. Sarah Stewart Johnson sees “The Red Planet” in ways ancient astronomers could only dream of.
It’s a view she loves and wants to share with as many people as possible.
“Mars has burst into Technicolor focus,” Johnson told those gathered March 30 in the Middle School Forum for “Planets & Poems: Dr. Sarah Stewart Johnson and Dr. Joshua Bennett In Conversation,” the latest installment of the Thayer Global Speaker Series. “We have a much more sophisticated understanding of the planet.”
A planetary scientist, former Rhodes Scholar, and former White House Fellow, Johnson is the Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor at Georgetown University. She received her Ph.D. from MIT and has worked on NASA’s Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers. She is also a visiting scientist with the Planetary Environments Lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
So, like any great scientist, Johnson brought a treasure trove of facts to demonstrate that our knowledge of Mars is now more science than science fiction. Accompanied by a presentation that included photos of a blue Martian sunset and a recording of wind blowing on the planet’s surface, Johnson guided her audience through a brief but compelling history of humanity’s fascination with Mars.
She began with the ancient Greeks, who viewed Mars as one of “wanderers” in the night sky that moved independently against the backdrop of fixed stars. Touching upon the evolution of telescopes to observe the planet, she highlighted one used in the late 1800s by Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, the director of the Brera Observatory in Milan, Italy, who mapped Mars with wonderfully elegant and evocative names for its regions. She also mentioned American businessman Percival Lowell, who in the 1890s built his own private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and became an influential proponent of the once popular theory that Mars was home to intelligent life.
Closer to the modern era, Johnson noted the Mariner missions of the 1960s, the Viking lander missions of the 1970s, the Pathfinder mission of the late 1990s — a mission which sparked Johnson’s intense curiosity as an undergraduate at the University of Washington at St. Louis — and the rover missions she had the privilege of working on.
And now, Johnson said, the Mars Perseverance Rover — complete with Ingenuity, its small helicopter drone — is gathering rock samples with the goal of bringing them back to Earth in the next decade.
“It’s becoming so real,” said Johnson, whose research focus is the search for life — or, as her bio puts it, “the presence and preservation of biosignatures” — on other planets. “We’re getting to know Mars so intimately.”
Despite that wealth of knowledge, Johnson said she has lost none of her wonder for studying Mars or anywhere else in the universe for signs of life. One current focus, she said, is “life as we don’t know it,” meaning life that may not be carbon-based or possess DNA.
“How do you contend with the truly alien?” she asked the audience.
A Kentucky native, Johnson spoke from the heart not only about her love for science but her love for those people, especially her parents, who nurtured her curiosity about the world. That intertwining of her own personal journey with the history of Mars exploration is the subject of her memoir, The Sirens of Mars, which was named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2020 by The New York Times Book Review.
Johnson spent the day on campus meeting with students in the astronomy class of Upper School Science Faculty Jamison Smith. She also met with students in Thayer’s Women in STEM chapter, including Maddie Stearns ‘23, who serves as president of the international organization. Johnson told those students what she told guests at the Thayer Global Speaker Series: trust your instincts, even if it brings you on a different path.
“There were times when I just had to trust myself,” she said. “Follow your gut and believe that you’ll figure it out.”
As for Bennett, a Dartmouth professor and a scholar-in-residence at Thayer, his contribution to the event was performing “Variation on a Theme by Mae Jemison,” the poet’s tribute to Dr. Mae C. Jemison, a former NASA astronaut and the first Black woman to travel in space. As inspiration, Bennett made use of the fact that Jemison once appeared as a lieutenant during a sixth-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
“Quiet has its own texture and richness,” reads a line from the poem, one of Bennett’s first commissioned works in roughly a decade. The poem begins with a recollection of his family watching the fictional space drama on television before touching upon Jemison’s real-life achievements as a physician, a researcher, and a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Endeavour (STS-47).
In his welcoming remarks, Head of School Chris Fortunato P ‘26, ‘28 praised the efforts of Upper School Science Department Head Don Donovan P ‘10, ‘13 and Upper School English Department Head Kate Hayman for their efforts on what was a multidiscipline and multimedia experience. The night included a student chorus singing The 5th Dimension’s hit “Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In,” a Q&A session with Johnson led by Smith’s astronomy students, and a portable planetarium housed in the Middle School’s Thompson Hall.
A skilled astrophotographer, Smith also displayed about a dozen of his works for the occasion, including an iconic photo of an enormous full moon rising above the Thayer tower. These celestial images were raffled off at the end of the night to the delight of the enthusiastic crowd.
The Thayer Global Speaker Series brings thought leaders, innovators, and difference-makers to the Thayer campus to engage the community in issues that matter to the world.