A childhood fascination with space was cemented into a career choice for Alan Harris on October 4, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik. It took three undergraduate years at Caltech to discover that the fledgling field of planetary science was springing up as a branch of geology, not astronomy. Following a hasty reorganization of his undergraduate studies, Harris went on to graduate school at UCLA pursuing theoretical studies of planetary formation, with emphasis on orbital and rotational dynamics. From graduate school he entered directly into a research staff position at Jet Propulsion Laboratory from which he recently retired after 28 years.
Harris’ primary research interest is in asteroids, particularly those wayward “Near-Earth Objects” (NEOs) that cross the orbit of the Earth and can slam into the Earth with devastating effects, as they have in the past. Over the last decade, Harris has advised various U.S. and foreign government commissions on the impact hazard and what to do (and not do) about it.
Harris has also maintained a hobby interest in pseudoscience and paranormal claims, mainly as cautionary examples of science gone wrong. He recently participated in the “Fourth World Skeptics Conference” to present an astronomical example of “pathological science,” a claim that the Earth is being pelted by tens of “house-sized comets” every minute and that these are the origin of the oceans. Most recently, on the first anniversary of 9/11, Harris (along with co-author Clark Chapman) wrote “A Skeptical Look at September 11th” in Skeptical Inquirer, in which they question the rationality or efficacy of both individual and government responses in the name of homeland security.