Mad Scientists of the Modern Age: Jack Parsons

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Think that mad scientists are confined only to the literary world?

Think again. The annals of history are littered with kooky researchers

and batty experiments, and many of their stories actually outdo their

fictitious counterparts.

This week, Newton Blog tells the tales of some of the past century's most loopy scientists, and recounts their

surprisingly profound contributions to modern knowledge. Today, Jack Parsons: a brilliant rocket scientist, but a failed magician. 

No man may have done more to launch modern jet and rocket propulsion research than John Whiteside "Jack" Parsons. Born in 1914 to a wealthy, but dysfunctional family, Parsons began working with explosives at the Hercules Powder Company during his senior year of high school. He later suffered through only two years of college at the University of Southern California before dropping out, but his minimal education didn't stop him and a small band of reckless compatriots from engineering and testing rocket fuels at Caltech.

When World War II rolled around, the U.S. military discovered Parsons and his rebels of rocketry and generously funded their experiments. With such a monetary fertilizer, the group soon grew into Jet Propulsion Laboratories, the entity that is today responsible for an impressive host of successful treks into space, including the recent Curiosity Mars Rover.

207477main_p1-RocketBoys-516.jpgThe original "Rocket Boys." Jack Parsons is in the right foreground. (Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Amidst Parsons' explosive success, his relationship with the occult was a constant. At one time, he became the head of the California branch of a magical order called Ordo Templi Orientalis. He also attempted (unsuccessfully) via a mystic ritual to create a "Moon Child," which, as explained by Reason's Brian Doherty was thought to be "a magic being... who would

usher in a new age of unfettered liberty and signal the end of the

Christian era and its outmoded morality."

Parsons' life ended abruptly in 1952 at the tender age of 37 while he was working with powerful explosives at his home laboratory, a seemingly fitting, albeit unfortunate end for a scientist whose burning fascination was with fire and flame.

Sixty years later, Parsons' untimely death remains an intriguing source of unsubstantiated hearsay. Heretical American journalist Michael Hoffman II contends that Parsons may have been trying to open a doorway through which a magical being could come into existence, and it backfired. But a considerably less fantastical explanation is infinitely more likely. Again, from Doherty:

One close pal... noted that "Jack used to sweat a

lot and [a coffee can in which he was mixing explosives] just

slipped out of his hand and blew him up."

Parsons' devil-may-care attitude and his daffy beliefs undoubtedly contributed to his early death, but they likely also contributed to his success. "His science was built on intuition, and

his magic on experiment," Doherty wrote.

Parsons was willing to believe that the impossible was possible, and because of this, brave explorers are now able to soar into space on rockets he pioneered.

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