Astronomer Jiří Grygar on a life of promoting stargazing and scepticism

Jiří Grygar, foto: autor

It’s pretty fair to say that anybody in the Czech Republic who knows anything about astronomy has learned at least some of it from Dr. Jiří Grygar. Something of a Czech Carl Sagan, Dr. Grygar has been a frequent personality of Czech and Slovak television screens since his popular programme “Windows Wide Open to Space” in the late 1970’s. He was the chairman of the Czech Astronomical Society and is one of the founding members of the Czech club of sceptics, Sisyfos, which battles pseudoscience and charlatanism in the Czech media. I met Dr. Grygar in his tiny office at the Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences, and asked him to tell me about how he first became interested in his life’s passion.

“I was a very avid reader. I started reading I think at the age of five. And whenever I read books about popular science I was very much attracted to science or technology. I would always tell my parents that I wanted to become an engineer or a geologist or something like that. And once when I was nine, I got my first book dealing with astronomy on a popular level; it was especially written for teenagers. I was very attracted by the book and I announced to my parents that I would become an astronomer. They laughed of course because they knew that in a fortnight I would say something else, but that was not the case.”

Jiří Grygar
But you were only nine, so what happened when you realised everything it would entail, the mathematics and the difficult physics?

“Yes, it was practically immediately that I started to be really serious about my future profession as an astronomer. So at the age of ten I realised that it was necessary to be very good at physics and mathematics. We did not have physics at that time in school but we did have mathematics and I was very bad at it, I was one of the worst in the class. So I realised that to be an astronomer I need to be not bad, not even average, but much above the average. So I bought a book about mathematical problems for grammar school students. I was not yet a grammar school student, but during the summer holidays I really mastered about 1,000 of these problems, and in that way I just overcame the deficiency.”

In most countries, I would say, astronomers tend not to be well known public figures, but you have I think made a strong public impression, much of the public in the Czech Republic knows your name and they know about your work, how did that come to be the case?

But when they are in the dome of the telescope, it is night and you have to switch off all the lights, the surroundings are very intimate and they lose this shyness and they start to ask very queer questions. Sometimes I was just caught by surprise. So at home I really studied, I tried to think up analogies from daily life, and in this way I started to be trained in answering all kinds of questions regarding astronomy. And I think that made the difference, I had an advantage in being able to explain these sometime difficult astronomical problems, even to people who had received no education in it, because I had this training from the dome.”

And it was that I guess that brought you your television programme “Windows Wide Open to Space”...

“Yes, because I knew what I could expect from the general public and so I applied this experience in the television series and just followed my instinct, because the science behind astronomy is difficult.”

Tycho Brahe
What has the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia contributed to the study of astronomy and the study of space?

“Under the communist regime the best work that was done was the study of small bodies of the solar system, like comets and minor plants. But, you know, that was based on a really exceptional tradition that we had in Czechoslovakia or the Czech lands under, say, Charles IV or Emperor Rudolf II. Rudolf II in the 16th, 17th century invited to Prague the greatest observer, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler, the greatest theoretician in astronomy, and many others followed, so at that time Prague was practically the astronomical capital of the world. So I think astronomy has been very popular since then. Take the Prague clock at Old Town Square. It is one of the oldest such machines in the world and it could only be made because we had good astronomers who could calculate all these motions... It’s quite a complicated machine, it’s practically a computer.”

I’ll just ask you one more question and that’s about Sisyfos, how that came into being.

“It happened after the Velvet Revolution. On the one hand we were all very happy that we finally had the freedom of speech, and we discovered the drawback of this: that if you have the freedom of speech then you also have the freedom to publish all kinds of stupidities, about healing, about pathogenic zones, about the end of the world, about astrology of course; such is freedom. And actually the first initiative was from some of the journalists, because they said, you know, we have the freedom of speech, we cannot punish these people, we cannot take them to court, but we have to do something. And our colleagues in Slovakia had already made such a society in 1994, and finally we realised we had to do something similar and in 1995 we established this Czech sceptic’s club called Sisyfos, because we know that our work was Sisyphus-like, because we knew we could never finish it and that we would always lose.”

And do you feel you’ve had any success in combating stupidity?

“Yeah, I think so. I think now it is quite clear even to the more innocent public that there really is a dividing line between critical reasoning and all kinds of speculation. So I think it’s very well known now in our country. Of course we are very much criticised that we are suffocating free thinking and that throughout the history of science those people who had fresh ideas are always ridiculed until some years, decades or centuries later it becomes clear that they were right, so we are merely inquisitors. But I don’t think we are going to change our minds, because it seems to be rather important, and I think many people are happy that Sisyfos exists.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 14, 2009.