An Irishman's Diary
THIS morning we mark the birthday of two great men who, natal synchronicity apart, also shared a deep interest in physics and – albeit to varying extents – in the exploration of space.
Brian O’Nolan, better known as Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen, would have been 101 today. And you might think that, after the orgy of celebrations during last year’s centenary, there would now be a lull in activity. But not yet.
Striking an early blow for domination in the second century of Mylesian studies, his native Strabane and its Donegal neighbour Lifford will combine next Friday in the first annual Flann O’Brien Literary Festival Weekend.
The event is hosted jointly by the De Selby Institute – named after the mad scientist of the O’Brien novels – and the Riverine Autumn School, which is part of a visionary cross-Border reconciliation project announced last year.
I slipped the adjectives “mad” and “visionary” into that last sentence for a reason: because, in fairness to De Selby, the terms are often interchangeable. Something today’s other birthday boy knew well.
Robert H Goddard was born 130 years ago in Massachusetts, and his interest in space travel was partly the result of reading The War of the Worlds when he was 16. But a year after that, while exploring the relatively modest altitudes of a cherry tree one day, he had something of an epiphany.
“It was one of the quiet, colourful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet.” Like many visionaries, Goddard was also a modest man, who did not seek publicity except from those who could advance his ideas. Thus his 1920 paper, A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes – which discussed the possibility of sending rockets to the moon – was targeted mainly at the Smithsonian Institute.
Unfortunately those smart-arsed know-nothings at the New York Times also heard about it, and turned Goddard into a celebrity – of the “national laughingstock” variety, as he said himself – with a front-paged story and editorial.
In the latter, they lectured him on the hare-brained nature of his rocket schemes. It was impossible to propel anything in a vacuum, the paper wrote. Everybody knew that.
Although he did subsequently launch the world’s first liquid-fuelled rocket, and also had the patent for a multiple-stage rocket of the kind that would eventually take man to the moon, Goddard didn’t live to see the age of space travel.