Jastrow, Robert

Jastrow, Robert
Sep. 7, 1925-Feb. 8, 2008
American physicist


American physicist, author, and educator, was born in New York City, the son of Abraham Jastrow, a car salesman, and the former Marie Greenfield. As a student at Hunter College Elementary School in Manhattan, Jastrow won first prize at a science fair held at the American Museum of Natural History for his exhibit on "The Economic Potential of Cotton." He graduated at fifteen from Townsend Harris High School, a school for gifted students at that time associated with the City College of New York, and enrolled in a pre-medical program at Columbia University. There his interest shifted from medicine to biophysics and finally to theoretical physics, in which he won his B.A. in 1944 when only eighteen. Continuing at Columbia, he received an M.A. in physics in 1945 and a Ph.D., also in physics, with a dissertation on quantum mechanics in 1948. While in graduate school he was a lecturer in physics at Columbia (1944-47) and an instructor in the school of engineering at Cooper Union (1947-48).

During the academic year 1948-49 Jastrow was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, where he continued studying under Dr. A. H. Kramer, the theoretical physicist who had been his mentor while on a visiting professorship at Columbia. After Leiden, Jastrow did further post-doctoral work at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton and at the University of California at Berkeley, and in 1953-54 was assistant professor of physics at Yale where he won recognition for his studies in high-energy protons, known as the "Jastrow potential." In 1954 he became a consultant in nuclear physics at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, where his career in the space program began.

Though Jastrow began his work at the Naval Research Laboratory as a specialist in nuclear physics, he soon became involved in Project Vanguard, the first American effort to develop an artificial satellite. In 1958, after the disintegration of the world's first satellite, the Soviet Union's Sputnik, Jastrow received worldwide attention with calculations proving that the satellite's booster rocket could not have landed on American territory, as the Soviets had maintained. Soon afterward Jastrow was asked to establish and head the theoretical division of the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). An early contribution of that division was the discovery, based on observations made by a Vanguard satellite, that the earth is more pear-shaped than perfectly spherical. In 1959 Jastrow was appointed chairman of NASA's lunar exploration group, which planned many of the scientific investigations of the moon that were later undertaken in conjunction with the Apollo astronauts' moon landings.

In 1961, in order to take advantage of the scientific expertise concentrated in New York, Jastrow moved his NASA office from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and established the Goddard Institute for Space Studies near Columbia University, where he became adjunct professor of geophysics. Continuing as a professor of geology and astronomy at Columbia, he also took on the duties of professor of earth science at Dartmouth College in 1974. Under Jastrow's direction, the Institute for Space Studies has undertaken significant research on the origin of the solar system and the physics of the moon. It has also conducted investigations into the causes of weather phenomena, providing the groundwork for long-range weather and climate predictions.

In addition to his research, administration, and teaching activities, Jastrow has been a prolific author and editor of scientific works for scientists, students, and the public. He also edited the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences from 1962 to 1974. Astronomy: Fundamentals and Frontiers, a textbook he wrote with Malcolm H. Thompson, published in 1972, became the most widely used astronomy textbook in the country with new editions in 1974 and 1977.

Both on television and in print, Robert Jastrow has long been active in explaining space science and promoting the space program to the public. He is a frequent contributor to Science Digest and other popular magazines, writing on such subjects as "The Case for UFO's" (Science Digest, 1980), "The Space Program and the National Interest" (Foreign Affairs, 1972), and "Science and the American Dream" (Science Digest, 1983), in which he argued that the 1978 reduction in capital gains tax, by encouraging venture capital, would help keep America in the forefront of technological advance.

Many of Jastrow's articles are excerpts from or otherwise related to his concurrently published books. Thus the article in the June 15, 1978 New York Times Magazine, "Have Astronomers Found God?", coincided with his book God and the Astronomers, a brief, fifty-seven-page volume on the theological implications of the Big Bang Theory of creation, which he compared to the Biblical creation story. He returned to this theme in an interview in the August 6, 1982 Christianity Today, observing that "Astronomers now find that they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation … as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover." A strong proponent of nuclear preparedness, Jastrow maintained in this interview that "the move for nuclear disarmament doesn't recognize the existence of evil," which is present in every society but "can take the reins of power" in a totalitarian state. In "The New Soviet Arms Buildup in Space," an article in the October 3, 1982 New York Times Magazine, he warned that the Soviet Union would soon be dominant in space unless Americans supported President Reagan's call for funding an American nuclear buildup in space.

Jastrow's first popular book, and the first volume in what became his major trilogy, evolved from a 1964 series of lectures he delivered on CBS-TV's Summer Semester. Titled Red Giants and White Dwarfs: The Evolution of Stars, Planets, and Life, the book deals with the origin and evolution of the universe (red giants and white dwarfs being older stars, in later stages of stellar development, than our sun), with a sweeping summary of events up to the dawn of life on earth and, finally, the appearance of humans. The book was generally praised for its clarity, accessibility, and style in popularizing complicated material. It was revised in 1971 and again in 1979 to include new information and photos obtained from NASA and Soviet space flights.

In 1971 Jastrow returned to Summer Semester with another series of lectures in which he extended his synopsis of cosmic history to speculate on technological advances of the twenty-first century. In print, he followed Red Giants and White Dwarfs, which concentrates on the astronomical prelude to life on earth, with Until the Sun Dies, which shifts the focus to the forces that have guided evolution and shaped Homo sapiens in his present form. Noting that Darwin's theory in the nineteenth century united humans to other animals, Jastrow calls his approach a new Darwinism which unites life on earth to life in the cosmos. Comparing his synthesis to a "natural religion," Jastrow notes that "like other religions, this one has a cosmology" (the scientific theory of the origin of the universe) and a "moral content" (in the "adversity and struggle" which he placed "at the very heart of evolutionary progress").

In effect, Jastrow views the whole history of the universe as a progression leading to the moment when, "Finally, man stands on the earth, more perfect than any other." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, H.S.F. Cooper called Until the Sun Dies "a sort of scientific rewriting of the Book of Genesis [which] shares the flaw of the Biblical acount: [the assumption] that we are somehow the culmination of creation." Unlike some anthropocentric cosmologists, however, Jastrow believes in the likelihood that other intelligent beings have evolved "in many parts of the universe"; and he foresees still higher forms to come as today's Homo sapiens, "the man of wisdom," becomes "the root stock out of which still more exalted beings must emerge."

It is a particular form of this further, future development of still more intelligent life that Jastrow takes up in The Enchanted Loom. After summarizing the astronomical and biological developments detailed in his previous two volumes, Jastrow concentrates here, as he puts it in the preface, on "how the brain evolved, the way it works, how it balances instinct and reason, what it is evolving into." Looking back, Jastrow sees the history of life as a flow "from the simple to the complex, from lower forms to higher, and always toward greater intelligence." Looking forward, he sees human intelligence enlarged and extended by the computer. Early in the book, after announcing that computers "have ushered in the Golden Age," he sets forth the vision with almost rhapsodic anticipation:

A bold scientist will be able to tap the contents of his mind and transfer them into the metallic lattices of a computer. Because mind is the essence of being, it can be said that the scientist has entered the computer, and that he now dwells in it. The machine is its body—a new form of existence. It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe … [It] could live forever … [and] roam the space between the stars.

Explaining how this might come about, Jastrow foresees that if the present trend toward computer miniaturization continues, the machine's circuits will become as densely packed as the electrical systems in the human brain. If they could then be wired to work like the brain, says Jastrow, "man would be able to create a thinking organism of quasihuman power—a new form of intelligent life." He concludes that "the era of carbon-chemical life is drawing to a close on the earth and a new era of silicon-based life - indestructible, immortal, infinitely expandable - is beginning."

Like other reviewers, R. M. Restak in the New York Times Book Review found Jastrow's vision thought-provoking but optimistic and imprecise in its view of computers' capabilities. In contrast, the noted evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, conidering the book in the New York Review of Books, found Jastrow's idea of future intelligence possible and his argument "conceivably correct in outline." However, like H. S. F. Cooper in his review of Until the Sun Dies, Gould took issue with Jastrow's almost theological depiction of the entire history of life as an "inexorable and progressive march to increasing braininess; the carbon-to-silicon transition then simply completes a universal directionality." In fact, Gould notes, the fossil record reveals that "life is a ramifying bush with millions of branches, not a ladder." Gould also saw in Jastrow's argument "an unacceptable density of factual errors" in biological detail and an illogical association between biological and technological evolution. Like other reviewers, however, he found Jastrow's speculations thought-provoking and his presentation "eloquent"—a term that was also used by the American Scientist reviewer John A. Eddy. Expressing a common reaction to Jastrow's popular writing, Eddy said, "Jastrow is a clever teacher and a good explainer; while he sometimes oversimplifies we cannot care: he is such a good storyteller and puts us so at ease."

As a scientist Robert Jastrow has received the Columbia University Medal for Excellence in 1962, the Arthur Fleming Award for outstanding service in the United States government in 1964, the Columbia University Graduate Faculty's Alumni Award for Excellence in 1967, and the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement in 1968. He is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Physical Society; a member of the International Academy of Astronautics, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Leakey Foundation; and a member of the Cosmos, Explorers, and Century Clubs. In 1967 he married Ruth Witenberg, a former Israeli Army sergeant. They lived in New York City.

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