Erik M. Conway is the historian of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. His most recent book, Exploration and Engineering: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Quest for Mars, was published in 2015. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County panel titled “Are Americans Turning Against Science?” at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, Conway spoke in the green room about his reef aquarium, becoming more of a people person, and why he’d enjoy being an astronomer in another life.
You have many hobbies, from downhill skiing to scuba diving. Why do you think it’s important to have hobbies?
I have hobbies because I always like learning new things. That’s one of the reasons I became a historian. As a historian, you research a thing, you write about it, publish it. Same with my hobbies. I picked up reef aquariums seven or eight years ago and high-powered rocketry a little more recently. The rocketry one has the extra advantage that you mostly do it standing up, whereas most of my job involves sitting in front of a computer. That’s hard on your body after a while. The rocketry gets me out to the workbench, standing up, moving around, and learning new manual skills.
What was the most challenging thing about serving in the Navy?
I was both an enlisted person and an officer. I was an officer longer. Generally in the Navy, jobs as an officer are mostly dealing with people because you’re a manager, fundamentally, a leader. That was hard for me because I’m a book person. I’m one of those kids who was perfectly happy if my parents sent me to my room because I could just sit in a corner and read a book. So, being a people person—well, becoming more of a people person—was a challenge for me.
You have a 130-gallon coral reef aquarium in your living room. What’s in it?
It’s a hodgepodge. It’s not thematic in any way. The aquarium’s been running about 10 years. I have a mixture of hard and soft corals. I think there’s nine surviving fish, all different because most tropical fish don’t tolerate fish like themselves. They’re very, very territorial. One-hundred and thirty gallons sounds like a lot, but it’s too small for a real reef. Like probably everyone else’s aquariums, certain things do well in mine and others don’t. Soft corals do swimmingly well.
When do you wake up and what do you wake up to?
I wake up at usually 5:45, because, well, really, that’s when my wife wants to get up, and it’s not like you can sleep after that. If it were up to me, I’d sleep longer, but it’s not. We’re so programmed right now that we rarely need the alarm.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past year?
I’m writing another book, so I’m reading a lot of stuff. Right now I’m reading a Richard Slotkin book [Gunfighter Nation] on the myth of the gunfighter in American 20th-century culture, which is amusing, disturbing, infuriating, and a few other things.
If you could only take one more journey, where would you go?
I guess, and, in this I’d be following in my wife’s footsteps, I’d like to see Antarctica. When she was in college, she was lucky enough to do seven field seasons there, so she’s a veteran, but I’ve never seen it.
What was the last thing that inspired you?
I’m working on a history of market fundamentalism. I was at a museum and looking at the papers of J. Howard Pew; he was an astonishing funder of free-market, right-wing causes. This is a case of being both infuriating and inspirational: The records are amazing, and I was like, “I have to tell this story.” So, I guess in that sort of sense, it’s a positive and a negative, right?
What’s your favorite place to eat in the Altadena area?
The place we go the most, I think, is either the Athenaeum at Caltech or Saladang, which is a great and inexpensive Thai place up in Pasadena.
Who was your childhood hero?
Probably my parents would tell you John Glenn. I outgrew hero worship, but probably John Glenn.
What profession would you like to practice in your next life?
Besides the one I’m doing now? I like what I do. Sometimes I wish I had the math skills, the competitive skills, to go into astronomy, astrophysics. I love all the exoplanet discovery stuff going on now. One of the most profound findings in my lifetime is the enormous number of planets outside our solar system. If I could live my life again, maybe I would have thought about going into that.