Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons Paperback – 6 Apr 2006
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The weird and wonderful life of John Whiteside Parsons - a pioneering rocket scientist who also delved into the occult
Brilliant rocket scientist killed in explosion screamed the front-page headline of "The Los Angeles Times" on 18 June 1952. John Parsons, a maverick rocketeer whose work had helped transform the rocket from a derided sci-fi plotline into a reality, was at first mourned as a tragically young victim of mishandled chemicals. But as reporters dug deeper a shocking story emerged. Parsons had been performing occult rites and summoning spirits as a follower of Alesteir Crowley. George Pendle tells Parsons' extraordinary life story for the first time. Fuelled from childhood by dreams of space flight, Parsons was a crucial innovator during rocketry's birth. But his visionary imagination also led him into the occult community thriving in 1930s Los Angeles, and when fantasy's pull became stronger than reality, he lost both his work and his wife. Parsons was just emerging from his personal underworld when he died - aged thirty-seven. In "Strange Angel", Pendle recovers a fascinating life and explores the unruly consequences of genius.See all Product description
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In one sense it’s a typical American story of the triumph of individual ability over lack of formal academic training. Despite dropping out of his college degree very early on, Parsons went on to become a recognized expert in explosives, to inspire a team at Caltech to built experimental rockets, and to devise single handed the first usable solid fuel for rockets. Along the way, you’ll discover why the US experimental rocket facility is confusingly called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But that’s only the start.
For instance, Parsons didn’t exactly have the poor start in life you might expect from the story above. And much more importantly, there were two strands in his life that make the story particularly fascinating, each intertwined with his rocket science. First there was science fiction. Now it’s a bit more respectable, but back then it was considered pulp garbage – yet Parsons had a strong involvement in the SF community, and many of the well known names of the period appear in his story. Secondly, he was an avid member of Aleister Crowley’s bizarre cult, the OTO. This made for a very interesting social life, not to mention some complicated family relations.
The whole mix is fascinating. Parsons’ struggles to achieve a working rocket would make a good story in their own right, but add in the science fiction, add in the strange religion and characters like L. Ron Hubbard – and finally, throw into the mix Parsons’ horrendous death in an apparently accidental explosion at home… it’s powerful stuff.
The only slight moan, and it is very slight – Pendle uses the common trick of opening with the most dramatic part of the story, in this case Parsons’ death. Because of that, the book ends rather abruptly because it leads up to the dramatic moment, but doesn’t actually mention it because that has already been done. But hey, who could resist that opening.
It’s a cracker, that rarest of things a popular science book that’s a page-turner too. What more can we say?
Pg. 42: The close relationship that John had with his grandfather is discussed.
Pg. 147: This page lists some of the influences that shaped John's spiritual views. One of the books that is mentioned as having a strong impact is The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer.
Pg. 202: This page discusses how Parson's self-confidence was at a high level when he had just invented a whole new type of rocket fuel. This chapter also touches on his very colorful and exciting love life. I admit that I believe,in my humble opinion, any movie and/or play that is based on the details of his personal life would be very interesting and compelling to watch.
Pg. 239: This portion of the book discusses how Mr. Parsons would work in harmony at his job. One of the advisors that he turned to for further fuel experiments is chemist Linus Pauling.
The book also touches on some of the well-known men that knew John Parsons such as Aleister Crowley, Robert Heinlen (he wrote the science fiction book "Stranger in a Strange Land"), and Ron L. Hubbard (who is known for the controversial religion that is Scientology).
What fascinated me the most about what was included in "Strange Angel" was that it was listed how John Parsons was instrumental in the creation of the rocket, and he was self-taught. This information is inspirational to me because it confirms that brilliance/genius exists in people from various educational backgrounds (high school graduate, bachelor's degree, master's degree, Ph.D. etc.).
"Strange Angel" by George Pendel is a great book to obtain if you are open to reading fascinating biographies of scientists that courageously dared to live an unconventional and free-spirited life.
Worth a read to see what you make of it.
Is it a plane? Is it a train? Sorry, don't know.