Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Story of Robert Heinlein, Science Fiction, Friends, and History...

Once again, it has been too long since I have written an entry on this blog of mine, especially in light of the attention one of my bacterial ice nucleation videos received recently, which I wrote about here.

So because of my tardiness, here is a mid-sized story for this Saturday of our campus' Spring Break, about science fiction, Robert Heinlein, friends, and a bit of history.  I realize this post has not a thing to do with education or microbiology, it would seem at first. Bear with me, please.

However, I do have a "Cabinet of Curiosities" in my campus office with all kinds of unusual items:  several kinds of meteorites, fossils, netsuke carvings, billion year old stromatolites, Zuni fetishes, New Orleans vodoun items, a piece of amber with an ancient insect inside, and similar items over which I marvel.  I like the old German term for such a collection:  a Wunderkammer ("wonder cabinet").  I first became interested in science because of the awesome strangeness to be found there, and am reminded of J.B.S. Haldane's observation that the universe is not stranger than we imagine, but it is stranger than we can imagine.

Which takes me to this particular item, the centerpiece of my collection.

I grew up loving science fiction, and in fact I would argue that Robert Heinlein's "juvenile" novels (which were anything but childish) helped "raise" me toward adulthood as much as my parents did (I was an odd avian of a child for them to raise, truth be told).  One of my best friends---probably my best friend, though I don't see him much anymore, is the physicist and SF author Gregory Benford.  He knew everyone in SF, and I loved hearing his stories.

Though I never met Robert Heinlein while he was alive, he loomed large in my mind; I have read everything he has written (even the, um, uneven pieces of fiction).  I knew I wanted to name any son of mine after him (Robert Anson Heinlein is the author's full name...Anson Robert Quinn Martin is my first born's name); that was how important I found his writing as I staggered unevenly through adolescence.  But I never got a chance to "thank" Heinlein personally for giving my growing up a sense of adventure, color, and some pretty liberating (if more than a little libertarian) life lessons. Heinlein died in 1988, before I got to know Greg Benford well. 

Yes, many people did thank him.  But I wanted to do so, as well.  I mentioned all of this to Greg, and he pointed out at the time that Heinlein's widow, Virginia Heinlein, was still alive and living in a US Navy Retirement Community in Florida.  So I wrote to Ginny, as I was swiftly told to address her, and she wrote back. Eventually, we became e-mail correspondents.  Virginia Heinlein had a most unusual life, even before she met Robert Heinlein.

In her 80s, Ginny remained the superwoman that Heinlein had 
written about in fiction---every time there is a red-headed "does it all" polymath kind of woman in Heinlein's later fiction...well, those characters were clearly inspired by Ginny. She spent a good deal of time sharing interesting stories with me, and I learned a lot about "the story behind the stories."  I learned about how she and Heinlein sweated over calculating Hohman orbits of spaceships traveling between planets (with slide rules!) in "Space Cadet," and how Ginny had actually named the famous alien in "The Star Beast" "Lummox."

I could never call her late husband "Robert" as she did in conversation; to me he was always "Mr. Heinlein."  And though she insisted I call her "Ginny," I kind of wanted to salute each time I did.  A truly remarkable woman, and much missed.

Because Heinlein was so important to me, growing up, my lovely and brilliant wife Jenny Quinn tried to get me a handwritten or signed letter by the author, on eBay.  When I told Ginny about it, she became uncharacteristically irritable.  "What a waste of money," she exclaimed.  She was quite crusty and direct with me about it, insisting that Jenny not "spend a dime on that kind of thing."  I was polite.  And the price of the letter quickly went above Jenny's budget anyway.

A week later, I received a small padded envelope at my campus address at Occidental College, from Ginny Heinlein's address in Florida.  In stark Sharpie pen, the words: CAUTION RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL were written across the envelope. Please remember that this was before 9-11.  So I waved a Geiger counter over the package. Seemingly cold.  I opened up the package, and found what is pictured above:  a small plastic box, a piece of odd looking foamy grit-filled rock, and a typed bit of cardboard.

It turns out that Robert Heinlein had many fans in the sciences, and more than a few working in New Mexico on the first atomic bomb, Project Trinity.  One of those scientists, Robert Cornog, obtained a small sample of sand fused by the first atomic explosion for Heinlein.  Such items, formed by the extreme heat and radiation of a nuclear detonation, are called "trinitite."  This last link is particularly interesting, as the blogger analyzes his sample of trinitite using very fancy instruments and mathematics.   

But why would Heinlein have this historically interesting piece of trinitite?  Keep in mind that Robert Heinlein had written several stories about the possibility of nuclear material and war, without knowing about the atomic bomb project!  These include "Blowups Happen" and "Solution Unsatisfactory," both in 1940.  So it may not have been a surprise that Heinlein had fans among the physicists and nuclear engineers in the Manhattan Project.

Ginny wrote in an e-mail that the sample was originally so "hot" that it would expose film from across the room and was kept out in the garage (I don't know if that is accurate, but that is what she communicated to me).  But it quickly "cooled down," and was sat Heinlein's desk for over twenty years, while he wrote many of the novels I so loved as a boy and teenager.

And Ginny gave the object to me.  Ginny and I were never close friends, but we exchanged e-mails quite a bit before she passed away in 2003.  When my son Anson was born in 2000, Ginny sent us a spoon and tiny teddy bear, which my sons called their "Ginny Bear."  Here my youngest son Zachary shows off "his" Ginny Bear, when he was still quite small.

William Patterson is the official biographer of Robert A. Heinlein, having written a two volume analysis of the author's life and times (Volume I was fascinating, and I cannot wait for Volume II). Bill has written about some of the history of this artifact, and told me of some details that Ginny did not communicate to me.  He may wish to make more comments on this blog regarding this topic.  Bill Patterson is the "go to" guy for information about Robert Heinlein's life, that is for certain.

All I know is that this "totem" was a gift from Ginny Heinlein to 
me, a bit of history collected by the late, great Robert Heinlein.  It means a great deal to me.  And it sits in my campus office, along with other items from my "Cabinet of Curiosities" I use when I chat with students. But it is a true piece of history, and the prize of my collection.

I'm a lucky man in many ways.  This is yet another example.