The Dark Side


Only Connect: Why is a Crater on the Dark Side of the Moon Called ‘Parsons’?


What of connections between early modernist films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis , the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California, the development of Scientology , Greek Fire , the adventures of British occultist Aleister Crowley , Chinese ICBM research, and the clasic science fiction of Robert Heinlein and L Sprague de Camp ? If you know much about any two of these you might have a few suggestions to make, and they would probably be right as far as they went, but that would simply not be far enough. To learn about an unusual time and place and the context for connections between people and ideas in some very particular landscapes try adding George Pendle’s Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons to your holiday reading.

Not for those of a nervous disposition this one dips in and out of early jet propellent chemistry, poetry, mythology, witchcraft, gossip, sexual obsession and university politics to develop a riveting ethnography of the life of science and the relationship between creativity, imagination, chaos and invention.

Few biographers can have had as charming, fascinating, disturbed and complicated a subject as the charismatic Jack Parsons . Parsons was one of the early pioneers of ‘rocket science’ in southern California, a compelling character with no formal qualifications but tremendous drive, passion and originality. His private life nearly overwhelmed his work as a scientist, and he died young in an explosion in his home lab.

On the way to this tragedy he achieved scientific advances and insights that made many aspects of modern aviation and space flight possible. The flip side of his personality and his voyage through the eerie fringe worlds of Los Angeles in the 30s and 40s might have made him a legend earlier if the Cold War had not intervened.

Now that the story of Parson’s life and his ‘suicide squad’ of rocket science enthusiasts is being told, Pendle’s book is just crying out to be made into a film. Read it and decide for yourself: was Parsons the embarrasment to science that many felt he was, or does this raw and well-written account of his adventures, and that of his friends and colleagues, shed light on the nature of at least some scientific research and the far reaches of creativity?

I find it interesting that the same area was also a crucible for advances in neuroscience and physics a little later in the 20th century, and it may be that this book could start a series of investigations into the relationships between the communitiy of creative scientists and the artistic, literary and spiritual networks of southern California during the same period. While presented as a biography, ‘Strange Angel’ is also an excellent historical ethnography. Once you have read it you will pretty much understand why a crater on the dark side of the Moon was named for Jack.

written by Teri Brewer



    November 20, 2005

    …and for a moment, I thought you were referring to the debating society’s guest lecturer this week, Jack Parsons…

    Odd coincidence.

    Burton MacKenZie

    November 20, 2005

    I didn’t know that. I always assumed it was a naming board giving a tip of the hat to Alan Parsons, who was an engineer on the Pink Floyd album “Dark Side of the Moon”. I smell an urban legend coming! 😉


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