What happens when a chemistry student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decides that literature is more interesting than test-tube experiments?
A scientific best seller is born, and astronomer Mark Littmann hangs another honor on the wall of his Baltimore, Md., home."Planets Beyond: Discovering the Outer Solar System," a 286-page, $22.95 text, has netted the former director of Salt Lake's Hansen Planetarium the prestigious 1989 Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics. In addition, the book received kudos from the Astronomy Book Club and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific listed it as a book of the year.
On top of all that, he has a contract to write its sequel,"which will take advantage of the beautiful pictures of Neptune that have come back from Voyager 2."
Two other books, for which he already has publishers, are also in the works. And his former feature, "Comet Halley: Once in a Lifetime," published by the American Chemical Society, is still selling in bookstores throughout the country.
Littmann, who's always reached for the stars that others only gaze upon, has been busy since leaving Salt Lake City.
It's been only five years since the rising literary star resigned as director of the planetarium. He had become embroiled in a controversy with the Salt Lake County Commission that stemmed from his distaste for complying with various regulations that applied to other agencies.
The personable Littmann, whose home-grown star shows were purchased by other planetariums nationwide, doesn't keep in touch with the planetarium he directed since its 1965 opening.
He's not one to dwell on the past.
"I am very proud of my tenure there and grateful to members of the board of directors, Salt Lake City and the Hansen family," he said in a telephone interview. "But I think the county government made a tragic mistake in terms of how they attempted to operate the planetarium. And I still think they, in their dealings with me, showed a great lack of ethics.
"So I am not sorry to be gone from that circumstance, but still love the Hansen Planetarium and my participation in the past."
Littmann's now part of new history in the making.
Utahns, who once heard Littmann's melodic voice on KCPX-Channel 4 (as a weather man), on KZJO Radio (as a Renaissance man) and in classrooms at the University of Utah and Westminster College (as an honors instructor), recently listened to his report from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when America's Voyager 2 encountered its fourth planet on a flight through the outer solar system.
Littmann, recognized and respected nationally, has found his place in the universe. And, his home - Baltimore.
The scientist left Salt Lake City in 1985 to join the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore as science communicator. Since, in addition to writing books, he's penned several booklets for scientific organizations and an educational and exhibit project for NASA.
He now teaches at Loyola College.
Nonetheless, Littmann, a native of St. Louis who married Peggy A. Owens of Salt Lake City in 1980, returns to Salt Lake City often so the couple's two children - Beth and Owen - can visit their grandparents, Thomas and Bea Owens.
"But we stay in Baltimore because of the great number of resources that are of value to me . . . ."
"It's an important area in terms of space research and astronomy research, and it's handy to have that kind of resources and brain power around that I can easily consult with. But Salt Lake City will always have a fond spot in my heart," he said.