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.