Tanit Sakakini for Columbia Magazine
What’s the coolest thing about the universe?
I think everything is cool about the universe. I used to think I was biased until I realized that, sharing the universe with the public, I’ve seen them get as excited as I am about the universe. I think there’s something inherent in what it is to look up at the night sky and to wonder what our place is in the past, present and future of the universe. And so, for me, as an educator and as a scientist, it’s a joy to watch people’s eyes light up and the spark in their eyes as they learn about the history of the sun, or our galaxy, or black holes, or the search for life, of the discover of planets, exoplanets, planets orbiting outside of our own solar system. So, it’s all cool.
For my talk, I’m going to be ranking the coolness factor. I’m going to be handpicking the 10 coolest things about the universe. I think it’s all cool, and I’m privileged to be able to share it with others.
How do you make astrophysics accessible to the average person?
I think people, once exposed, have a fundamental curiosity. So really playing into that curiosity makes my job very easy, much easier than it otherwise would be if people never looked up or never thought to think about stars or galaxies or the universe, so I already have a good start. In other words, I’m working with good material. And so starting from that point, there’s another important factor – our vocabulary, our lexicon in modern astrophysics is actually quite accessible. Many of our most important terms are just one-syllable words or [simple] phrases. You know, at the beginning of the universe, the Big Bang. The big red stars are red giants. Spots on the sun? Sunspots. So these are officials terms that allow me to jump right into the material without have this smokescreen of complex terms that I think get in the way of some of the other sciences when they’re trying to communicate to the public.
Who’s your favorite scientist?
My favorite scientist? Isaac Newton. Well, my favorite dead scientist is Isaac Newton. Just look at what he accomplished and how connected he was to the operations of nature. It’s just extraordinary. To the point where, there he is trying to learn, to figure out, for example, the motion of the planets around the sun, and realized that the math of the day was insufficient for him to solve the problem. So he just invents calculus. Here’s a subject that plagues people in school just to learn it, and he just invents it for some other purpose.
His early life is filled with brilliance and genius and insight. So, he is by far my favorite scientist. I have a bust of him in my office, and anytime I have a problem I can’t solve I just look over to him and say, “Well, he solved bigger problems.” It gives me great hope that the universe is tractable.
When did you first realize that science was your calling?
I was 9 years old, on a family visit to the Hayden Planetarium [in New York]. That planted the seed. It would take a couple years, however, for me to realize that you could make a career. And from age 11 onward, anytime an adult asked me that annoying question – “What do you want to be when you grow up?” – for me, from age 11 onward, whenever I was asked that question, my answer was “astrophysicist.”
What are your thoughts on the future of space exploration?
I have strong views that I think relate to the health of the nation’s economy. The Obama administration has some plans to go to Mars. That wouldn’t be until the 2030s at the earliest. So there’s some research now about how to make that happen. But for me that’s a little too slow. More money can make that happen sooner, and with a big investment – for example, if you doubled NASA’s budget (Right now, it’s one-half a penny on your tax dollar) – then you can do big missions sooner, and when you advance the space frontier, you innovate. You have to because you’re solving problems you’ve never seen before, and when you innovate discoveries are made and patents are patented and whole new economies are invented.
It also has a power to influence culture. You can have a culture of innovation when major discoveries are writ large in the daily papers, and we do not have such a culture right now. TW