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May 4th, 2013

The first time I saw tholins...

A recent set of fun Tweets  by @PlanetDr about making tholins in the lab – organic gunk thought to represent material made in atmospheres of places like Titan by UV irradiation of less gunky organic gunk found in those atmospheres – included an excited "You know who made up the word tholin? And who did the first tholin work? Carl. Sagan. (Yes THAT Carl Sagan)" It got me to reminisce about when I first heard the term. My memory does not necessarily match the truth, so let me first tell the story as I recall it, and then check to see if anything I remember can be confirmed...

It was at the DPS meeting (Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society) in Tucson in the early 1980s. I know I already had graduated from Arizona's Lunar Lab but I was still a post-doc in Boston, so that puts it between 1978 and 1983.

Carl Sagan was at the peak of his popular fame, and somewhat insufferable at the time. (He was a lot of fun in his youth; and he was an older, wiser, and humbler man in his last years. But fame is not kind to most people, and it certainly wasn't to him.) The meeting organizers had invited him to give a public talk, but he also decided to present a paper...

He swept into the meeting room, with his entourage, just as his name was being called. He got up and described making chemically gunky things in the lab, illustrating their chemical structure with dramatic hand gestures. ("They make lo-o-o-ng chains of carbon...") And he announced the name he had given them -- "Tholins"!

What he did not expect was the snickering of laughter from a corner of the audience, mostly from the young grad students working at the meeting.

He finished his talk, did not stay for questions, and swept out of the room, haloed by his entourage. So he didn't meet the young Arizona grad student running the slide projector for that session, named Dave Tholen. (Spelled differently; pronounced the same way.)

In 1990, Dave Tholen won the DPS Urey prize for best young planetary scientist.

Fact checks:

The DPS web site confirms that the DPS meeting was held in Tucson in 1980.
According to the LPL web site, Dave Tholen got his PhD in 1984, and I know he hadn't arrived by the time I left in 1978, both of which are consistent with him being a first- or second-year student in 1980.
The first paper by Sagan and Khare using the term "tholin" was published in in Nature in 1979. So this meeting wasn't the first time the term was used in public, but certainly it was new to most of the people hearing it at the time.

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