Interstellar Records, E-Mails, Deadly, and Ann Druyan


Although many know Ann Druyan best at the wife of Carl Sagan from 1981 to Dr. Sagan’s death in 1996, she is also (among many other things) an Emmy Award-winning American writer and Peabody Award-winning producer, as well as the creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Record Project.

Although many of you know my daughter by her callsign, “Deadly,” her full name is Eleanor Ann Arroway Tupper, the first three given components of which are the name of the protagonist of Sagen’s 1985 novel (and 1996 film), Contact. She goes by “Ella” in daily life and it thus far blissfully unaware of the burden that we’ve placed on her in terms of luggage monograms and federal tax forms.

Mary and I sent a copy of Ella’s birth announcement to Ms. Druyan. The announcement explained Ella’s name and gave some background about why we chose it. Shortly thereafter, we received a very nice letter from Ms. Druyan, in which she congratulated us, explained the name of the character (Eleanor for Eleanor Roosevelt, Ann for Ms. Druyan herself, and Arroway as a play on Voltaire’s real name, “Arouet”), and the pleasant surprise that her family also cherished Kurt Vonnegut’s Eliot Rosewater baptism, which that we put on the front of the announcement.

Since that time, I have written an e-mail to Ms. Druyan every few years with an update about Ella. I don’t have any particular reason to think that we loom large, small, or at all in Ms. Druyan’s thoughts. In fact, I admit that there are reasons to think that this practice might be regarded as creepy. But I do it anyway, always with the proviso that no response is expected.

As the creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Record Project (the project that came up with the content of the so-called “Golden Records” that accompanied Voyagers 1 and 2), I’m pretty sure that she understands the process of putting together a message to be launched into the aether.  The Voyager records have vanishingly small chances of being discovered by a civilization capable of decoding them (the best opportunity is for the record on Voyager 1, which will pass within 1.6 light-years of Gliese 445 in about 40,000 years). But we sure learned a lot about ourselves as we came up with the content. (Someone suggested the collected works of J.S. Bach, but someone else said that that would be too likely to be regarded as showing off.)

And that’s how we view the occasional e-mails to Ms. Druyan. As opportunities to compose messages to the cosmos. If it is odd to use Ms. Druyan as a proxy for the cosmos – well, one could do a lot worse.

Here’s the e-mail that we wrote today.


Ms. Druyan:

Just another artifact since the last one four years ago. Please don’t feel that you need to respond in any way. Being the creative director behind the Voyager Interstellar Records, you understand better than most that the composition of the message is the most important part of the exercise. Thus, I like to launch these messages on the same theory. It is, in some ways, arbitrary that your e-mail address is the one on the To: line but, just as spacecraft require a vector, so, too, do e-mails require an address.

Eleanor Ann Arroway Tupper (“Ella”) turned 12 earlier this month.

For her 6th-grade science experiment, she flew a USAFA motorglider to 12,500 feet MSL while her instructor/test subject (me) used a pulse oximeter to measure his O2 saturation every 1,000 feet. She made a graph to show the falloff of O2 sats with altitude, had me breathe from an oxygen bottle at altitude to remove uncontrolled variables (like temperature), and produced a video to use as a part of her presentation to her class. The weather was such that we had to do the flight on a school day. The e-mail to the attendance office included the attached picture. (Best-ever note from a parent to a school attendance office even if I do say do myself.)

Ella and I visited and toured Fermilab in May and Aricebo and the VLA are on the list for the next few years.

She also won the Michigan middle-school state forensics tournament in Declamation, delivering a cut of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2011 Barnard College commencement address.

We’ve seen the reboot of Cosmos and we really enjoyed it. Thanks for helping to make it happen! The Sisters of the Sun episode inspired Ella to write her fifth-grade biographical paper last year on Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and I think she role-played Cecelia for the class.

She’s also a student pilot and has been training on and off since 2015. She’ll be old enough to solo when she hits 14 and we’re making that opportunity available to her if that’s what she wants to do. Her brother, Nicholas (callsign “FOD”), soloed this summer and is working toward his private pilot checkride in 2018.

I’m sure that there’s no doubt in your mind about the impact that you’ve had. But, in the unlikely event that such doubt exists, please let this e-mail be an artifact of that influence. A scientific and skeptical worldview is more important now than at any other point in my lifetime. Or Ella’s. You’ve helped to instill that in multiple generations and therein lies our best hope.

Best regards,

- Steve


#ReduceTheStupid Part 4: Banana!


So it’s Thanksgiving. What do I do? I get up early and write provocative stuff. Because science reduces the stupid.

This is the fourth in a series of pieces that I’ve cast onto the waters to see what kind of traction they get. None has yet equaled the Blood post (especially if you include the shares that SciBabe got by misappropriating it), but we’ll see how this one goes.


The Labor of Decades Repaid in Moments


Yesterday, I smelled burning leaves. I heard a steam locomotive’s whistle. I saw the colors of the changing leaves. All of these things visited me while sitting in the back of a glider flown by my son, who left me little to do but receive these indica of the world around me.

There are those who view the calculated risks we take as irresponsible. Our studies as wasteful of valuable time. Our labors as tilting at windmills. They fail to understand labors of decades that are repaid by moments. But we know that moments are more than enough.

You and I will again meet those people – probably at the coffee machine tomorrow morning. Do your best to suffer them.



I Move that Candles be Brought

On 11 September 2001, I was in Lansing for a meeting of the state’s registers of deeds to try to draft proposed legislation that would allow recording of electronic documents with electronic signatures. Electronic documents and signatures had been authorized and effective in Michigan since the enactment of UETA on 7 October 2000, but conveyances of interests in real property still needed to be recorded in order to be effective. A ragtag group of registers of deeds, title companies, and lawyers were working on bridging that gap.

AA 11 hit the north tower while I was getting gas in Fowlerville on the way to Lansing. I was at the offices of the State Bar of Michigan as coordinated news coverage was beginning to put all of the pieces together.

Though we stayed within sight and earshot of the TV monitors showing coverage of the events, several of us sat down and went over some of the major issues of the legislation. It was really hard, but we did it.

On 19 May 1780, the skies darkened over Connecticut and much of the rest of New England and parts of Canada. Although the exact cause is not known, it likely involved uncommon weather conditions and forest fires upwind. It has since become known as New England’s Dark Day. The Connecticut legislature was in session and many of the members were so affected by the darkness that they moved that the legislature be adjourned so that they could go home and prepare for the end of the world.

Abraham Davenport was a member of the Connecticut legislature and a colonel in the Connecticut Connecticut State Militia. He was at the session of the legislature that day. He famously said “I am against an adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I move, therefore, that candles be brought.”

I was not a CAP member in 2001 or I might have had directly-related duties to which to attend. Instead, I was a lawyer with what I understood (and understand) were important opportunities to help new technologies find acceptance and use in commerce. Lacking a uniform to put on and go try to be helpful, I and a few others sat down and did the best we could. We figured that working on legislation would be the last thing that those behind the attacks would imagine that the target would do in reaction.

I didn’t know the story of Abraham Davenport then. I only heard it later in a Christopher Hitchens book, But I like to think that I did the right thing.

I’d like to think that we all might do as Davenport did. Lacking a uniform, an aircrew slot, an ambulance, or a badge, let us continue the unsung but vital processes that are so important to our communities.

I move that candles be brought. And keep bringing them in for as long as the darkness lasts.

Because Glider – Audio Episode Show Notes

2-33 on Runway 02

This is a two-part presentation, but I wanted to keep everything in one place.  Accordingly, I’ll put links to both audio parts here as they’re released.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Because Glider: Being an Account of One Man’s Path to the CFI Certificate by Way of Uncle Ernie’s Holiday Camp, a Couch at a Radio Station, &c.

If you follow me anywhere on social media, you’ll know that I recently completed the Herculean effort of becoming a certified flight instructor (or “CFI”) in the glider category.

I first started flying gliders in 2012 when my friend, and later instructor, John Harte, invited me to go fly a motorglider after a haircut that I had scheduled in Detroit one Saturday. By the second time we flew, I was training for the rating. Four months later, I was a commercial glider pilot and, six months later, I flew my first airshows as a performer in the same aircraft. Since then I’ve logged more than 200 hours in motorgliders, more than half of that in formation.


Winter in the ASK 21

Through the kind efforts of Mark Grant, Chris Felton, and others in the Civil Air Patrol, I even added an aerotow endorsement so that I could fly gliders that had no onboard powerplants. I earned that one after about 20 tows, most of them conducted in Owosso, Michigan in single-digit Fahrenheit temperatures where you had to close the canopy and hold your breath until you had airflow through the window on takeoff so you wouldn’t completely frost the inside of the canopy. If you earn an aerotow endorsement in Michigan in the winter, you have well and truly worked for that endorsement.

And then, like the urge of Ishmael to get to sea, I began to feel the urge to do the next big thing. Certainly, there are plenty of challenges that could have been that next big thing. I really ought to add both single- and multi-engine airplanes to my commercial certificate.

But a number of things pushed me to go for the CFI. I’m very broad in aviation, but not very deep. Until I started flying gliders, I could fly a lot of stuff, but only with private privileges. I did my glider checkride at the commercial level simply because the practical test standards are about the same for private vs. commercial and the only other requirements are the knowledge test and a more comprehensive oral during the checkride. (Written test and comprehensive oral? Oh, please don’t throw me in that briar patch!) So the idea of taking a single category of flying all the way to CFI appealed to me.

I have a son who was getting close to turning 14 at the time. His name is Nicholas, but most of you know him by his callsign, “FOD.” He has about 30 hours bumming around in the TG-7A with me, most of it sitting there in the instructor seat while I fly. 14 is an important age for someone who flies gliders because that’s the age at which you can solo. And it doesn’t matter that the aircraft has an engine and a propeller. If it’s certified in the glider category, you can solo it at 14. I decided that it was not enough to just fly around with him or teach him without having the CFI in my pocket. I wanted to take him to a real CFI for the solo and the checkride.

Lastly, I had always thought that instructing would be fun and that I’d become a much better pilot if I did it. During the DC-3 rating, I had the chance to sit in the back and watch somebody else fly under circumstance where I could just watch and think about flying. That was one of the most productive experiences I’ve ever had in flight training. I couldn’t help but think that being able to really observe and critique would make me a much better pilot.

So, last spring, I decided to go for the instructor certificate. This is the story of that journey.
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