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February 19, 2009

Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Posted by John Baez

Three puzzles based on a conversation with the writer Tim Powers:

1. Which founder of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was also a practicing Satanist, and invoked the god Pan whenever a rocket was launched?

2. Aleister Crowley sent this person a warning. What was the warning about, and was it heeded?

3. How did this person die?

The first question is just a warmup: it’s easy to answer using Google. That’s cheating, but if you can’t resist, please at last refrain from giving away the answer. I bet at least one of our erudite readers already knows the answer.

The second question is the real one.

The third, like the first, is easy using Google.

Posted at February 19, 2009 4:40 AM UTC

TrackBack URL for this Entry:   http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/cgi-bin/MT-3.0/dxy-tb.fcgi/1917

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Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

This person also has their name on the administration building at Caltech. It has many weird architectural details, e.g. skulls.

There was an article in the Caltech alumni magazine some years back making the case that this group of people (person, Crowley, L. Ron Hubbard if I remember right, others) were the ones that originally gave California its nutso reputation.

Posted by: Allen Knutson on February 19, 2009 9:44 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Alchemy architecture at CIT; Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

I’m not mentioning the hyphenate with Gates (once the Chem lab where I broke many a piece of expensive glassware), but the line between science and occult at Caltech is strange indeed:

The Bridge Laboratory of Physics was built from 1922 to 1924. As Romy Wyllie writes [p.43]: “The first unit, East Bridge, is a fine example of Goodhue’s sense of balance and proportion. Between the rectangular upper windows he placed medallions representing Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, the four essential components of all matter according to the ancient Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Empedocles. Similar panels of double medallions on West Bridge symbolize modern science: one medallion represents the Compton effect (the scattering effect of electrons), the other the structure of the carbon atom.”

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on February 19, 2009 8:11 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Even the second question is easily answered using Google.

Posted by: pan on February 19, 2009 9:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

I didn’t notice that. As Todd notes, there may not be a unique answer.

For those of you who want some ‘spoilers’ that give away some of the answers, try this and this.

Posted by: John Baez on February 19, 2009 5:31 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Trying not to give too much away for those who still want to “think” about it without cheating via Google, I find something darkly amusing about this concoction “fulminate of mercury”. The very phrase sounds astrological/alchemical, with associations of Jupiter Fulmen mixed in.

Posted by: Todd Trimble on February 19, 2009 6:25 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Yes, I like the phrase ‘fulminate of mercury’ too — it’s almost as evocative as the title of the book that introduced the liberal arts: The Marriage of Philology and Mercury.

On the internet we see many people fulminate, but rarely do we see the fulminate ion in its raw form:

“Due to the instability of the ion, fulminate salts are friction-sensitive explosives.” Sounds like some people I know on the net.

Posted by: John Baez on February 19, 2009 6:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Completely unrelatedly, it was also key to the climax of season 1 of the Emmy-award-winning television series Breaking Bad. Season 2 premieres March 8!

Posted by: John Armstrong on February 19, 2009 7:47 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Hm, there’s an awful lot of Crowley lore out there. Given the extensive involvement between said person and Crowley, is it clear that the second question has a unique answer?

I first learned of Crowley after viewing a very peculiar film, Lucifer Rising by Kenneth Anger. Have you seen that, John?

Posted by: Todd Trimble on February 19, 2009 11:18 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Quite possibly there’s not a unique answer to question #2. I’ll take all correct answers! I only know one.

I’ve never seen that movie, Todd. I’ll check it out when I have a spare half-hour.

I know about Crowley because in my youth I spent time reading about various forms of ‘occultism’. If you haven’t read ‘em, I recommend James Webb’s books The Occult Underground and The Occult Establishment. There’s a lot of strange stuff going on in the background of our culture — this Satanist rocketeer is a great example. Flip over a rock and you never know what you’ll find.

Posted by: John Baez on February 19, 2009 6:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Since you’ll take all answers, here is one possibility I found:

On February 23, 1946 Parsons triumphantly wrote to Crowley, “I have my elemental! She turned up one night after the conclusion of the Operation, and has been with me since.” The Elemental was Marjorie Cameron, sprung from Parsons’ head like Sophia from the Godhead or Pallas Athena from Zeus. She adopted the magical name “Candida,” [candida – a vaginal and occasionally intestinal parasitic yeast/fungus -B:.B:.] calling herself “Candy” for short. Soon she married Parsons, and helped him with his magick.

Crowley sent Parsons an admonishment about Cameron. He reminded him of Eliphas Levi’s advice that, “The love of the Magus for such things [Elementals] is insensate and may destroy him.” Be aware that Crowley considered himself to be the reincarnation of Levi. Crowley also claimed to have intervened personally on Parsons’ behalf, presumably on the astral plane. He does not say…

Italics are mine. Could be read not merely as an admonishment, but as a warning, especially (if you are a believer!) when this is read as a premonition of Parson’s end. (Found here.)

Somewhat more lamely, I found:

Driven to distraction by the loss of Betty and without the incessant work of wartime rocket research to absorb his attention, Parsons threw himself into the only other part of his life he could control: his magic. He had been turning his interests to the more perverse branches of occultism in his quest to conjure up actual spiritual phenomena. As far back as 1943, Crowley had warned Parsons, “I don’t like at all what you say about witch-craft. All this black magic stuff is 75% nonsense and the rest plain dirt. There is not even any point to it.”

(Lamer because there is not the same sense of urgency to it, somehow. But Google faithfully turned it up, here.)

There goes a half-hour spent Web-surfing occultist minutiae…

Posted by: Todd Trimble on February 19, 2009 8:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Seriously; Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

I don’t want to go off on this tangent, but he was also close to L. Ron Hubbard.

JPL still has many occult cliques within, unknown to the administration as such, as these folks are utterly good at what they do by day. JPL’s administered by Caltech, unlike the normal government facility. Caltech is a great believer of academic freedom, freedom of speech, and the like. Prof. Geoffrey Landis wrote a good book review (was that in American Scientist?) on 2 books about JPL History.

There was a flap in the last 1-2 years of the Bush administration about Homeland Security requiring all JPL employees to go through new background checks to be re-badged, which led to a lawsuit that got some national attention. Many eccentric scientists and engineers rightly objected to open-ended scrutiny of their sex lives and political affiliations.

This whole subject is no joking matter. Remember: every religion begins as a cult, though not every cult evolves into a religion. Rocketry itself was cult-like, in USA, Germany, Russia, other early experimenting nations. Impossible to separate from science fiction, and other imaginative influences, which it then re-influenced in weird feedback loops.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on February 19, 2009 4:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

the-three-rocketeers; Re: Seriously; Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Landis agrees:


Right, American Scientist

Geoffrey A. Landis

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on February 19, 2009 7:12 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Jonathan, I guess John’s fishing for the word ‘scientology’. Perhaps his reasoning is ‘if even a complete nutter such as Crowley saw that Hubbard was a fraud, then why… etc, etc.’

I agree with Todd that the puzzle may have multiple answers. There’s a good story to be told about ‘Moonchild’ (added bonus: conspiracy theories regarding ???’s death).

No doubt John will tell us what we should have known if we would have been ‘erudite readers’ rather than merely persistent googlers.

Posted by: lievenlb on February 19, 2009 5:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Lieven Le Bruyn wrote

Jonathan, I guess John’s fishing for the word ‘scientology’. Perhaps his reasoning is ‘if even a complete nutter such as Crowley saw that Hubbard was a fraud, then why… etc, etc.’

I think this counts as a correct answer. According to what I heard last night, Aleister Crowley sent the Satanist rocketeer Jack Parsons a letter warning him that L. Ron Hubbard was not to be trusted.

Now, the very idea of getting a letter from Aleister Crowley warning me that someone was not to be trusted sends chills of irony up my spine…





… but it seems Crowley was right, and Parsons failed to heed his warning. From the Wikipedia article:

Sara Northrup (aka “Sarah Elizabeth” or “Betty” Northrup), began living with Parsons after his wife, Sara’s half-sister Helen Northrup, left with Wilfred Smith. Sara Northrup later married L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology and sometime magical partner of Parsons. Parsons and Hubbard participated in a ritual known as the Babalon Working which is famous in occult circles — loosely, it was an attempt to summon a living goddess and change the course of history. They were aided in this work by Sampson Bennetts of the Rosicrucian Order and his wife Sara Melian Gabriel, a spiritualist from India.

In January 1946, Parsons, Sarah, and Hubbard started a boat dealing company named Allied Enterprises. Parsons put in the sum of approximately $21,000— Hubbard put in $1,200, and Sarah nothing. Hubbard eventually abandoned Parsons and their business plans, leaving a port in Florida with the boat and with Sarah. It is said Parsons retreated to his hotel room and summoned a typhoon in retribution (viz., with an evocation of “Bartzabel” — the so-called “intelligence” supposedly presiding over the planet Mars). A Florida court later dissolved the poorly-contracted business, ordered repayment of debts to Parsons, and awarded ownership of the boat to Hubbard.

I find it fascinating that this sort of stuff is entwined with the early history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. We may imagine rationality and irrationality as polar opposites, and here at the n-Café we may embrace the former and shun the latter, but they aren’t so easy to separate. As Jack Parsons said, “freedom is a two-edged sword”.

Posted by: John Baez on February 19, 2009 7:11 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

“We may imagine rationality and irrationality as polar opposites, and here at the n-Cafe we may embrace the former and shun the latter.”

Hey, I happen to like e, although I’ve never really found a embracible instantiation. Certainly I’m not shunning it, what with it underlying Gaussian distribution statistics. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Posted by: bane on February 20, 2009 1:15 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

A Satanist scientist?

Did C. S. Lewis know about this? Jack Parsons might have been the inspiration for N.I.C.E.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger on February 19, 2009 8:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

This Hideous Strength; Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Some critics argue that the celebrity scientist/spokesman taken over by the Macrobe in “This Hideous Strength” was an intentionally cruel caricature of H. G. Wells.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on February 19, 2009 8:25 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Jack Parsons might have been the inspiration for N.I.C.E.

Which in another Everett branch is known as L.O.V.E… .

Posted by: Blake Stacey on February 19, 2009 8:55 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Posted by: ??? on February 20, 2009 2:18 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Groupoid Magic; Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

I almost hesitate to mention again that I’ve been working on for some years, and added 50,000 words since Xmas (250 double-spaced pages) of a novel “Axiomatic Magic” at an alternate history CIT (California Institute of Thaumaturgy), where Magic and Science coexist; Feynman is amateur sleuth in Sherlock Holmes style, Norbert Wiener in Nero Wolfe style. I’ve sent several chapters written as stand-alone short stories, novellas, novelettes to Analog, the New Yorker, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. There’s too much material in the actual Caltech archives; I’ve had to focus on the characters to make the story stronger. If I met Spielberg in an elevators, I’d pitch this as “Harry Potter meets A Beautiful Mind.” John Horton Conway is the prime suspect for a while. Composition of Spells defines a Groupoid. Not every spell has an inverse. There is a null spell as zero. It takes a while for the characters to figure out WHY someone would magically murder a Group theorist.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on February 19, 2009 9:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Hmmm … I had a friend in grade school who was into model rocketry, and I distinctly remember finding a book about the occult in his attic workshop.

Posted by: Richard on February 20, 2009 3:35 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

magical approach to technology; Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

From a Jack Parsons website, in the part of the David Wilson (Penn) interview which begins “The magical approach is technological in that you want to bring about changes in your own or others behavior, in the state of society, or in physical matter. But the starting point for effecting change is the consciousness of the magician himself. Or herself.”

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on February 20, 2009 8:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Fascinating stuff guys! Just another of many reasons why I lurk around here (cuz I’m a mathematical illiterate ,but I figure it might trickle into me after maybe 10^43 years). Thanks for posting something I could actually read! ;-)
For some reason it makes me think of “weird California” and P.K. Dick’s “Confessions of a Crap Artist” and other vestiges of California weirdness like Korla Pandit and Candy Bar. Keep up the fun stuff and get back to your n-categories!

Posted by: Russ on February 25, 2009 9:16 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

PKD, call your robots; Re: Satanist Rocketeer Puzzle

Russ – I’ve asked a mutual friend of Philp K. Dick (my father published PKD in paperback) what was the source of Dick’s robotics information. The originator of this thread, Tim Powers, did not know, nor did anyone else I’ve asked. I certainly enjoyed discussing Einstein-in-Pasadena weird stories to Tim and Serena Powers. If anyone reading this knows, do tell us.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on February 26, 2009 1:58 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

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