The cosmos, yesterday

Book interview: Dr Jillian Scudder, Astroquizzical

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It is through reaching an understanding of the universe that we reach a better understanding of our home planet, says author Jillian Scudder. To do that we need better telescopes, rockets and robotic exploration vehicles. Without these technologies we simply can’t push back the knowledge frontier.

“I think that people in general need to know more about space,” says Dr Jillian Scudder. “But then again, I’m a little bit biased.” Scudder, whose new book ‘Astroquizzical’ sets out to impart that knowledge, has gained this bias by being an astrophysicist and assistant professor at Oberlin College, Ohio. And yet, despite being heavily involved in academic research that she admits is ‘extremely technical’, her excellent debut book is all about making complex concepts, if not exactly easy to understand, then at least a little easier to grasp.

What makes ‘Astroquizzical’ special is that “it contains all those weird facts that I don’t get to talk about very often”. Developing her point, Scudder says that if you are going to start reading about space, “generally there is an agreed set of information that writers try to convey – basic facts about the universe and how it works. Because my book is based on things that other people have thought of – questions from students for example – you wind up delving into bits of astronomy and astrophysics that spark public curiosity, but are not commonly addressed. It’s a fun book for that reason, because these are not topics that trained scientists have come up with. They are more points of curiosity brought to me by the general public.”

Curiously, in the digital social media age, ‘Astroquizzical’ represents something of a reversal, as it is based on edited articles from Scudder’s highly successful blog that has been running under the same name for five years. The blog started because Scudder, as an academic astrophysicist, was frequently asked a series of questions. Most commonly the first would be: “So what do you actually do?” The second would be a query about how space works. “And I wanted to give complete answers. So instead of saying stuff like ‘the same side of the Moon faces the Earth just because it rotates on its axis at the same speed as it orbits the Earth’, I am looking into the root of what they’re really curious about. Which is why that is the case. Which means that you have to go into the details of the physics, which is a much more complicated relationship that I need to explain.”

Scudder feels that an understanding of the way the universe works is important for engineers, and not just because of her inherent assumption that the engineering mind is an enquiring mind.

“Engineers build all the best things that help us get into space,” she says, referring to the telescopes, computers, rockets, robotic surface vehicles... “all the things we need to explore the cosmos. We need the development of technology so that we can build our best telescopes. Without them it would be difficult to push the frontiers of what we know. The newest telescopes are extremely challenging. The technology involved in making sure that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), for instance, can survive launch, get to its correct orbit and then unfold with no chance of repair, is incredible.”

We read it for you

Astroquizzical

In her enthralling cosmic journey through space and time, astrophysicist Jillian Scudder discusses our home planet’s place in the universe. Based on her popular blog, ‘Astroquizzical’ provides a guide to our solar system and beyond, explaining how things work in response to genuine questions either sent to her by readers or raised by students in her classes. The result is a highly readable primer for a basic understanding of phenomena such as shooting stars, black holes, galaxies and the origins of the universe. Beyond the flawless presentation of known facts and current thinking, Scudder explores further by positing counterfactuals and thought experiments. Is it possible to go back in time and see the Earth from the past? What would happen if a wormhole opened between the Earth and its moon? And how can we transport life around the universe?

‘Astroquizzical’ starts off on Earth, which pays logical tribute to how in the past our knowledge of the universe was seen from the home planet. “But I extrapolate to say that while our view is by definition Earth-centric, it needn’t be special. We no longer think that we’re in a particularly unusual part of the galaxy, and neither do we think our galaxy is in a particularly unusual part of the universe. So if you were to put another observer – another class of intelligent creature – on another planet in a different part of space, their view will also be centred on their home world. But everything should, in broad strokes, look similar to how it looks from ours.”

But that statement in itself is based on the human-centric observation that assumes “physics should behave the same everywhere”. What this means is “you should be able to put a telescope anywhere you like in the universe and see the same sorts of things. The problem is that from here, you can only see so far before you start going back in time, resulting in shells of distant past surrounding the Earth simply because it take time for light to get to us.”

The challenge in writing ‘Astroquizzical’ was that the book is founded on what Scudder calls “the kind of question where I had to figure out how to go about explaining the answer”.

Her favourite is the not-illogical question about how and why the universe doesn’t get swallowed by a black hole. Another, which refers to her academic research, is why, if galaxies are mostly empty, when they collide they simply don’t pass through each other unstopped and unharmed. “Now that is a good question and it is quite tricky. There is a scientific reason for this, but it is extremely technical. And so now I need to explain this to a reader who isn’t a professor in astrophysics. How do you go about explaining the interactions of millions of billions of stars in a way that makes sense?”

The wider purpose of astronomy, says Scudder, is that it pushes the advancement of technology, “because we are constantly trying to exceed the limits of what we can achieve in terms of measurement: getting our telescopes to be smaller, lighter and faster.

“It is also a readily accessible science,” she claims. After all, “it is easy for most people to look up at the Moon. As long as these people don’t get shut down in their curiosity too early, this provides a starting point for them to understand the world that they live in.” What’s important about this sense of wonder is that “astronomy and astrophysics have a reputation for being gateway sciences. I think that is a wonderful thing for keeping other sciences present in people’s lives.”

The real triumph of Scudder’s ‘Astroquizzical’ is that it brings high-altitude, notionally abstract ideas to the general reader, presented in an entertaining and accessible way. For those more familiar with the universe it will also help to fill some of the knowledge gaps created by advancements in current thinking.

In short, it should be required reading for every engineer and technologist.

‘Astroquizzical’ by Jillian Scudder is from Icon Books £16.99

Extract

Expanding Universe

One of the most important discoveries to come from studying the early universe is the principle that the universe is expanding with time – and the longer we wait around, the faster the expansion is proceeding.

It was not actually that long ago that scientists thought the cosmic family tree ended with our own galaxy – it was believed that all the objects in the night sky belonged to our own Milky Way. In the early 20th century this view began to change rapidly and the family tree began to be populated with other galaxies. The work done to establish that our Milky Way did, in fact, have siblings, marked the beginnings of a new branch of astronomy – the study of galaxies beyond our own.

Scientists began to take measurements of what we now know are other galaxies, trying to determine how far exactly they were away from us. However, a curious thing appeared in every measurement of these ‘nebulae’, as they were then called. Each one appeared to be moving away from us.

This particular measurement is relatively straightforward. The new stars that form within galaxies are usually surrounded by gas that didn’t quite make it into the formation of the star. The new-formed star can then heat the gas. The heated gas glows a very specific colour depending on what it’s made of. Hydrogen, for instance, has a very bright pink-red glow, and oxygen glows green. These colours are due to the exact wavelength of light that the atoms produce when an electron loses energy, and we know these wavelengths precisely from experiments on Earth. If the light reaching us from another galaxy is not the colour we would expect, then there has been some movement between the object producing it and us receiving it. It’s the same phenomenon as a Doppler shift in sound waves.

Edited extract from ‘Astroquizzical’ by Jillian Scudder, with permission

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