Moments of Truth: Stories about pivotal moments

This week, we’re presenting two stories about pivotal moments in science when everything suddenly becomes clear.

Part 1: When puppeteer Raymond Carr gets the opportunity of a lifetime, to work on a big-budget show about the evolution of dinosaurs, he worries about how his creationist parents will react.

Raymond Carr is a Jim Henson Company trained puppeteer who has been performing for more than 15 years. He has traveled to every major city in North America and parts of Europe working on multi-million dollar productions. He is skilled in state of the art animatronics, Muppet-style puppetry, motion capture digital puppetry, and traditional theatrical puppetry. Raymond is one of the main characters for the Jim Henson Company's new show, Splash and Bubbles on PBS Kids.  Some of Raymond's other credits include: Nick Jr's Lazytown, Walking with Dinosaurs The Arena Spectacular Tour, various projects for Cartoon Network & Adult Swim, The Center for Puppetry Art, The National Black Arts Festival, and Bento Box Entertainment  He also performs improv with The Jim Henson Company's live show Puppet Up Uncensored.

Part 2: A trip to the Kennedy Space Center reminds Wade Roush of what originally inspired him to pursue science journalism.

Wade Roush is the host and producer of Soonish—a tech-and-culture podcast with the motto “The future is shaped by technology, but technology is shaped by us”—and co-founder of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. He’s a longtime science and technology journalist who trained in the history of science and technology at Harvard and MIT and has worked for Science, MIT Technology Review, Xconomy, and other publications. In 2014-15 he was acting director MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program. Wade’s puppy Gryphon thinks his master spends too much time speaking into microphones, but he mostly naps through it.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Raymond Carr

In the summer of 2009, I found myself trying not to kill a man with a giant robot animatronic dinosaur puppet.  It wasn’t my fault.  He was the one that jumped the guard rails and put himself in mortal danger. 

Let’s take a step back, back to the beginning.  Back to the beginning of life on this earth.  Back 6,000 years ago.  What?  JK, you all.  I know that life on earth started around 3.6 billion years ago now.  I’m totally cool with it now.  You're welcome, science.  I believe you. 

So I've been a professional puppeteer my entire life.  I've had the privilege of, as you said, working on some really cool shows, but when I was 26 years old, I got the opportunity of a lifetime.  The fourth largest touring show in the world wanted me to join them.  At the time, the largest touring shows were like the Rolling Stones and U2 and Bruce Springsteen and a giant robot dinosaur puppet show. 

This was a big deal.  The show traveled with seventy-five crew members and twenty-five semi trucks and had a production budget of 20 million dollars.  And they flew their crew, i.e. me, to a new city every week.  This is coming from me who started out doing puppet shows for kids in churches so it was a bit of a step up. 

And to be clear, this isn’t like It’s-a-Small-World, Hall-of-Presidents style animatronics.  These were like sophisticated free-roaming creatures that were built by the same people that built the puppets for Jurassic Park and Star Wars.  Each creature cost about a million dollars, weighed about a ton each and were anatomically correct, so my brachiosaurus was about forty feet tall. 

We operated them with three different puppeteers, one inside of the creature driving it around and one operating the facial features and the sounds of it, and then one, myself, operating the body of the puppet using the sophisticated and highly sensitive animatronic interface that kind of looked like a metallic spinal cord with a motorcycle handle at the end of it.  All of this was in service of educating and entertaining people about evolution of the dinosaurs throughout the years.  This was a very serious puppet show. 

But when I go the news, I was terrified of telling my parents.  I mean, what would they think?  What would their friends think?  Despite their best efforts, their child believed in evolution. 

See, both my parents are ordained ministers and I think the world of them.  I was homeschooled in a conservative Christian environment.  This was a place where we learned about creation science through the lens that God created the earth 6,000 years ago and seven days, period. 

Now, pro tip.  If you're ever debating somebody who believes in creation science, it’s not that they don’t believe in science, period, it’s just that they see scientific information through a very narrow lens.  And I’m going to be honest.  It’s like me, who’s someone who believes in evolution now, it’s kind of the same way.  I don't really understand all the details behind carbon dating but I just go with it assuming that the earth is billions of years old.  I act on it on faith.  So for me, this was a big deal trying to inform them that I was going to do this. 

A quick overview on what creation scientists believe about the explanation of dinosaurs.  And to be clear, we didn’t believe silly stuff like Jesus rode dinosaurs or God put dinosaur bones under the earth to test us or stuff like that.  We believe seemingly well thought-out theories based on ancient biblical text.  So bear with me. 

God created the earth in seven days.  On the sixth day, God created all the land animals, including dinosaurs and humans.  At the time, there was a firmament or a layer of moisture around the earth that basically blocked harmful radiation from the earth that’s causing animals to get larger and live for longer periods of time.  Adam lived about 800 years, dinosaurs grew big and tall. 

After a while, man became evil and junk and God decided to flood the earth.  He did that by causing the moisture on the sky to come down to the earth.  Noah built an ark and got all the animals into the ark, including all the dinosaurs.  Not, every species of every dinosaur but every kind of dinosaur which could be narrowed down to about fifty.  He took all the adolescents and babies onto the ark and thus surviving the flood. 

After the waters receded, this is how we get all of our fossils in the ground.  After the waters receded, the dinosaurs came out and lived amongst humans for several generations but since they didn’t have the protection layer of the firmament around them, they died off after several generations but not before man interacted with them.  That’s how we get the explanation of the behemoth and the leviathan in the Bible and dragon myths throughout the world.  Get it?  Got it?  Good. 

And it was this pseudo science that I was about to embark on that I had been taught my entire life that I was going in direct contradiction to what I was about to start doing. 

So it was a Saturday.  I remember it was a Saturday because we had three shows on Saturdays and I was exhausted.  At the end of my time on this tour, I performed this production 800 times.  But despite that, the repetitive nature of live theater I couldn’t really phone it in.  I had to pay attention every time because, with my animatronic interface, I operated about a hundred yards away.  And we performed in giant arenas like Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center and the Philips Arena.  So if I moved the wrong way or missed a cue, I could send my 40-foot tall brach into the audience or into another crew person. 

So I was very tired.  Then I heard on the radio headset the stage manager go, “Oh, my God.  Nobody move.  Nobody move.” 

Photo by Rob Felt.

Photo by Rob Felt.

From a distance, very far away, I could see a tiny little man jump over the guard rail, run up to my dinosaur and start to climb it to mount it.  At the time, the only other human character on stage was this paleontologist who basically narrated your journey through prehistoric era.  He was kind of this Indiana Jones style cross between a Broadway star and an action hero. 

So the paleontologist took a moment in between his monologues, saw the renegade gate jumper and made a beeline straight for him.  Our jackass hero was at a crossroads.  With security coming in from behind and an angry fake paleontologist coming in from the front, and a terrified animatronic puppeteer operating and trying not to hurt him a hundred yards away underneath him, he did the only thing he could do.  He made a beeline for the exit only to have security tackle him and put him in cuffs. 

After the moment, the paleontologist, in true show-must-go-on fashion, made a quick quip to the audience and continued on as if nothing has happened. 

There's a certain kind of adrenaline that pumps through your body when you have to hold something so sensitive so firmly.  By the end of the show I was exhausted.  I don't remember much about what happened next.  The stage manager came and told us what little information she had about him. 

The one thing I do remember, and probably will never forget, is his explanation.  When asked why he did what he did, all he said was, “I just wanted to hug a dinosaur.” 

And you know what?  I kind of understood where he was coming from.  I mean, bear with me now, but this was his one chance to really get it up close and personal with the real thing.  He could really embrace the thing that we've all loved for so long.  It’s a bit of a stretch but…

When people home school their children, it’s generally in the hopes that they're going to impart a specific world view on their children for the rest of their lives.  And for me to take this job, in a way, was an acknowledgement that my parents’ sacrifices of home schooling me were in vain.  So despite all that, I decided to take the metaphorical leap from my childhood over the guardrail into adulthood.  It’s a bit dramatic but you get what I’m saying. 

To their credit, my parents shocked me with how cool they were.  They were not only supportive but they were very encouraging.  To this day, I don't really understand why, although in hindsight the hefty paycheck probably helped to do with that.  But just like that, my parents evolved. 

Science asks more questions than it provides answers and it forces you to be okay with that.  It’s not reliant on one specific world view or tradition.  When we learn new information, we have to adapt and move forward.  Even if that information is that our badass childhood heroes probably look more like giant chickens than dragons, we still have to deal with that fucking information.  Feathers on raptors?  Come on, science! 

But just like that gate jumper, science doesn’t care, so you might as well hug it out. 


Part 2: Wade Roush

It’s May of 2016 and I’m in Florida at Kennedy Space Center with my whole extended family, including my niece Lucy, who’s seven, and my nephew Karen, who’s ten. We are there to witness the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and I’m pretty darn excited because I've never actually seen a space launch, a rocket launch in person. 

But we have some time to kill before the launch, so I don't know if you've ever been to Kennedy Space Center, but it’s not really just a space port.  It’s also a theme park.  Because this is Florida and everything is a theme park.  So we decide we’re going to kill this time by going into a pavilion.

This pavilion is all about the history of the space shuttle program.  The beginning of this experience when you go into the pavilion is you walk up this long, circular ramp and then they herd you into this big auditorium.  They show you a movie and the movie ends in a pretty spectacular way.  So basically, they're showing this computer-generated paper airplane-like toy early model of the space shuttle before it got fully fleshed out.  

And it’s soaring over the earth and the music is swelling and the space plane comes to a stop.  Suddenly, the lights go down and the screen rises up.  Right behind the space plane is the actual space shuttle Atlantis. 

The audience walks through the hole where the screen was and you're there nose-to-nose with Atlantis.  And I walk through.  I’m looking at Atlantis and I realize there are tears running down my cheeks. 

I didn’t really want to have to explain to Karen and Lucy why their uncle was crying about the space shuttle because their uncle is a technology journalist and he writes about space and this was a little weird.  So I went off into a corner to collect myself and I thought back to a day thirty years before that. 

I remembered working on a problem set in the basement of the science center in the computer lab and a friend of mine from the college newspaper came over and said, “Hey, did you hear the news?”  The space shuttle blew up.” 

And he was the kind of guy who would pull your leg about that kind of thing so I said, “No way.  What are you talking about?”

He says, “No, I’m serious.” 

So I grab my bags, I ran across the yard, I slammed up the stairs, I flung open my dorm room door, I flipped on the television and there it was, those images of the Challenger exploding 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986.  All you could see was this giant exploding ball of flaming fuel and the solid rocket boosters kind of veering off in crazy directions like fireworks. 

And because the networks didn’t have anything else to show, they kept repeating that image all day long and it kind of got seared into my brain.  It wound up changing my life because, up to that point, I had been a super NASA fan boy.  I had been a real space geek. 

When I was in fourth grade, I made this big poster of the Saturn V rocket that was like six-feet tall.  I remember the teacher put it up on the classroom wall and that was the proudest day of my life.  Now, that I was in college, I was studying physics and astronomy.  I even had a job at the observatory working for an astronomer who studied x-ray stars, and he was helping to build a satellite that was going to go into space in the cargo bay of the space shuttle.  But now, that was all completely on hold because the space shuttle program was shut down and they were trying to figure out how this happened. 

It turned out that the cause of the accident was that some hot gas had escaped in between the joints of one of the solid rocket boosters.  These solid rocket boosters were built in segments.  The joints were supposed to be kept sealed by these rubber O-rings.  On the morning of the launch, it was a super cold January day, the coldest day that NASA had ever tried to launch any rocket.  And Morton Thiokol, the company that had made the solid rocket boosters, called up NASA and said, “You know, we’re not completely sure these O-rings are going to work when it’s so cold.”  But they got overruled and the shuttle launched anyway with results that we all saw on television. 

So seeing this accident investigation unfold, for me, was kind of a scales-falling-from-my-eyes moment.  I started to think more critically for the first time about science and about technology, and it occurred to me for the first time that there are all these risks that we never really account for until it’s too late.  There are all these chains of human decisions that seem logical and rational in the moment but lead to catastrophe. 

Photo by Kate Flock.

Photo by Kate Flock.

So I basically decided to change my life.  I quit my job at the observatory, I dropped my major, Physics and Astronomy, and switched into the History of Science.  I decided to become a science journalist.  I went to graduate school to study more History of Science and History of Technology so that I could be a better journalist.  I wrote my whole dissertation about technological accidents, so I got pretty obsessed.

But throughout that time there was one disaster, two actually, that I could never bring myself to write about.  One of those was the Challenger, that terrible accident that killed seven astronauts.  The other was the Columbia, the other space shuttle that was destroyed.  It was destroyed on reentry in 2003 killing another seven astronauts. 

I did go on to be a science journalist.  My day job basically is to help people think more critically about science and technology. 

Basically, back to the present, I’m nose-to-nose with Atlantis and I’m struck by two things, first off.  One is that this ship is a lot bigger than I expected.  I had never seen a space shuttle up close.  This thing, it turns out, it’s like the size of a 737.  It’s kind of overwhelming. 

The second thing, it’s beautiful.  It’s this enormous machine.  It’s kind of weather beaten, it’s kind of pockmarked because it’s been in space.  It’s travelled more than a hundred million miles in space but still it’s got this grace to it. 

There are actually three surviving space shuttles.  The other two are parked in hangers and they're just sitting on the ground.  But at Kennedy, they've taken the Atlantis and put it up on these pillars and they kind of canted it at an angle.  It’s got dramatic lighting and the cargo bay doors are open and the satellites, that robotic arm that they use to repair satellites is extended and it looks like it’s flying in space.  So there's a lot of theme-park, showbiz thinking that went into this whole presentation. 

But that wasn’t why I was crying.  I think the reason I was crying was that seeing this beautiful, graceful, gigantic spaceship in person sort of made the space program tangible for me for the first time.  Basically, that brought me back to the place where I had to admit to myself that this technique I had developed for detaching myself from the stories I was covering wasn’t working anymore.  I wasn’t able to maintain that critical distance that a journalist is supposed to have towards his subjects. 

So we left the pavilion, we went out to the launch viewing site, we waited for the Falcon 9 rocket to launch, and they wound up scrubbing the launch for a technical glitch.  But they rescheduled it for the very next day so we decided to pile back in the car and drive back to Kennedy and see if we could catch it the second time. 

This time we went to Cocoa Beach, walked out to the end of a long pier and stood there in the wind and the waves and waited for the rocket to launch.  Finally, it did and it just arced into space, the most beautiful thing you've ever seen.  And a few seconds after the launch, the sound hit us.  We were like ten miles away but it’s so loud that you can hear the roar, you can even kind of feel the roar in your chest. 

I looked down at Karen and Lucy and I saw the amazement on their faces.  And, for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was seeing all of this through a child’s eyes as well.  Thanks.