Is There Beer in Space?

Space is a cold and barren place. Nothing can exist there, nothing!” Ludwig Von Drake, an obscure uncle of Donald Duck and a professor of astronomy, is sitting on a high stool in his observatory. When he sees that he is being filmed, he falls off and lands on the floor with a loud thump. “Now I can see stars I’ve never seen before!” he groans. He walks over to a table with a large pile of books on it. The thickest of them all is a guide to space travel that he wrote himself. In a 45­-minute-­long monologue, he tells us in a thick German accent how mankind discovered the planets in our solar system and has fantasized about everything that might be crawling around on them. Every now and then, he picks up a book from the large pile and reads from it, and then throws it nonchalantly into a corner of the room. He tells us about Copernicus and Galileo, and about Kepler’s dreams about Martians, Fontenelle’s speculations about life on other planets, and even John Herschel’s Great Moon Hoax. Science fiction comes to life in the colorful cartoon: Hairy space beings and flying saucers shoot across the screen. At the end, the professor has the last word. He finds all these fantasies poppycock; nothing can live in that empty, barren space! But, as he is speaking, Von Drake is kidnapped by a black Martian robot from one of his stories.

The cartoon, Inside Outer Space, is part of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, a television series from the 1960s. The absent­minded duck professor hosts a number of episodes, each with their own topic: the history of flight, the color spectrum, space—all exciting stuff for American kids in the Space Age.

duck with doctorates: Ludwig Von Drake, Donald Duck’s eccentric scientist uncle, claimed to have 98 academic degrees.

Lou Allamandola spent his teenage years in the science-­crazy 1960s. He grew up in a Catholic family in the state of New Jersey. His grandparents were immigrants from Italy, and he didn’t learn to speak English until he went to school. He still clearly remembers the Disney cartoons with Ludwig Von Drake, which were broadcast on Saturday evenings. “Von Drake called the interstellar medium—the empty space between the stars and the planets—a barren place where nothing could exist,” he tells me. “That was all we knew in the ’60s. Now we know better. Interstellar space is full of molecules that we also see on Earth.”

I speak to Allamandola one Wednesday morning while he is visiting Leiden Observatory. He is a tall man with curly hair, greying at the temples. His accent reminds me a little of the Italian-­American Mafiosi from . While we are talking, the door of his office opens now and again, colleagues who urgently need his opinion on their latest research results or to correct an article they are writing together. He tells them all to come back in the afternoon. “When I’m here, far away from my own office and telephone, I find it easier to say no,” he says. That office is at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. Since 1983, Allamandola has been head of the Astrochemistry Laboratory, where they study how molecules behave

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus9 min readSociety
The Health Clinic Crisis on Main Street: Community health centers, a lifeline for Americans, are in critical condition.
Things have been different at the Tumwater Family Practice Clinic since COVID-19 came. Its patients in Washington state are being triaged over the phone, tested at the curbside, and treated by the doorstep. Many patients, afraid of contracting the di
Nautilus8 min readScience
The Carouser and the Great Astronomer: It’s a fine line between oblivion and immortality.
The two men in the coach were both 28 years old, born within a few months of each other in 1571. Frederik was Danish and Johannes was German, and for different reasons they now found themselves jostled together, in early June of 1600, traveling from
Nautilus6 min readScience
The Hidden Life of Viruses: The COVID-19 crisis has made the dark energy of evolution visible.
If there is one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed, it is that there is much that we still don’t know about the world around us. Forget about the trillions—OK, more than trillions—of galaxies in the universe that we’ll never explore. Jus