The canyon, the moons of Mars and the retired engineer

Most of my correspondence with the general public is on the phone. People either ring me directly or ring the observatory and get put through to me. I get a few emails too, but I don’t get many letters. In fact, I’ve only ever received one.

A retired engineer – let’s call him John – once wrote to me, explaining his theory about the formation of the largest canyon in the Solar System: Valles Marineris on Mars. It’s the 4000 km long gash across the middle of Mars; you can see it in most of the images taken by NASA orbiters. John’s hypothesis was on the formation of the canyon: he suggested that it may have been formed when a large asteroid collided with Mars at an oblique angle and gouged out material from the surface. The remnants of the asteroid then flew off into space, two of them becoming Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars.

I admit that I’m not a geologist, but this hypothesis seemed unlikely to me. Not whacky like the ideas espoused in “let me tell you why Einstein is wrong and I’m right”-type letters, but just not very likely. It’s also not the accepted theory of formation of the canyon. The letter had John’s phone number and asked if I could call. If someone goes to the trouble of writing (and it was a hand-written letter), then I’m happy to call for a short chat. Little did I know then that we’d be having these chats for the next two to three years.

John was very keen for me to forward on his letter and hypothesis on to someone at NASA who worked on Mars-related science. He had a particular scientist in mind (whose name I’ve since forgotten unfortunately), but I could find no trace of him online. I forwarded it to an eminent researcher at NASA who worked on Mars. It’s very difficult to do that without sounding like a nutter yourself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I got no response. I rang John to tell him this; he was not perturbed. He asked if I could keep trying, so I sent a few more emails. Nothing.

Every few months John would call me to ask if I heard back, and each time we would have a nice chat about NASA, Mars and his hypothesis. I would always tell him I thought it was unlikely, and that there was an accepted theory, but he would always politely ask for another opinion. This lasted a couple of years. Eventually, I spoke to a local researcher about John’s ideas, and he agreed with me that they were unlikely.

I must admit developed a slight fondness for John and his idea. He had old-fashioned manners from an earlier time, manners I wish more callers had (see this previous post, for example). He was determined to the point of stubborn. When I told him that another researcher thought his idea was unlikely, he accepted it with grace. A true gentleman.

Over the years, I also noticed that that John developed a nasty cough and seemed increasingly out of breath. He assured me he was okay when I asked though. I can only hope that he’s still going strong and that he has been able to see some of the amazing images coming from the Curiosity Rover and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. I know that he’d love them.


About drsimmo

I'm an astronomer and science communicator, these are my adventures. Views posted are my own.
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8 Responses to The canyon, the moons of Mars and the retired engineer

  1. John Rombi says:

    I’m a member of The MAS like Roger (in the August post). We all have great stories concerning the public…..BUT, after all that’s what we are here for….to educate the public on astronomy…Diplomacy at all times, but sometimes it does test your patience.
    90% of the time, you are able to convince the person with a concise, interesting answer..with others, you just smile!

  2. For sure! I consider myself to be pretty patient, and as long as the person is polite and open to ideas I’m happy to keep up a dialogue. It gets tricky if they become rude though, or dogmatically hold onto something that is plainly wrong.

    I’d be interested to hear how many calls, emails, etc you get at Macarthur!

  3. John Rombi says:

    We hold 4 public nights a year, with school visits interspersed in between.
    Apart from our members, we also have the public attend our Forums each month. That is 11 meetings a year…..MAS can also be contacted via number of email addresses supplied on our website..We are also well known via the print media in the Macarthur area and Southern Highlands…Inquiries from the public depends on any pending astronomical event, and also on the speaker & topic for each month.
    I have not been president for 18 months, so I would have to pass on the question to the current president, Chris Malikoff.
    But, I would have to say, that in the main, Amateur Astronomical Societies do an excellent job in conveying the information that is presented by Professional Astronomers.

  4. I’m impressed how well linked to the community MAS is. I also have no doubt that amateur astronomical societies play a vital role in conveying all things astronomical to the public. I wonder if most people realise that they have such an excellent resource in their area!

    • John Rombi says:

      When…….we have them in our “gentle grasp”, they are amazed at the information and images seen through the telescopes…..but I still think that there is a “yawning” gap between their question and finding where the answer will come from.
      School teachers can unfortunately be the worst offenders. When approached to hold a night for their students (FREE) it’s put into the “Too hard basket”…with students missing out.

      • Unfortunately, my experience with many school teachers (outside Scientists in Schools and similar programs) is not too different, although I understand some of the problems. The level of bureaucracy and administration to deal with getting students to a school event outside school hours and worse, outside the school grounds is very cumbersome.

        There are a lot of passionate science teachers who do not have the time to stray too far from the curriculum. We’re looking at ways we can link with it better, so that our activities can be a part of their teaching. But it’s tricky.

  5. John Rombi says:

    Agreed, but most of our sessions would be held at the school…My daughter finished Year 12 in 2006 and my son is about to head off to year 11 in 2013…I am aware of the amount of content matter in the curriculum (too much) but many times it has been the apathy of the individual teacher that has resulted in a negative result…..if you have any suggestions on how to over come this,we would be happy to look into them…..Science is a dynamic subject, but it isn’t until people are exposed to it, that they realise it…….The question is….”How do you fill the gap”?

  6. Roger Powell says:

    I wonder if the theory which “John” proposed to explain the formation of the Valles Marineris on Mars was something he had really thought through or whether it was just a brain flash. I also wonder why he dismissed the alternative propositions – something he must do to support his own theory.

    However, it’s not outlandish to imagine the remote possibility that he may be right – after all, the “Impact Theory” for the formation of our Moon is currently the favourite explanation, notwithstanding the fact that there is no “Valles Marineris” on Earth or Moon to show for it!

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