Tiny humans, big universe: How to balance anxiety and wonder in astrophysics
The universe is a huge place, inconceivably vast. And it can make even the most brilliant minds feel very, very small.
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer who studies binary stars and the life cycles of stars. She is Assistant Director of Science Communication at NASA. She went to college at Harvard University, completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif. then started working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Spitzer Space Telescope. After a hugely successful mission, she moved on to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in the Washington D.C. area. In her off-hours often puts on about 30lbs of Elizabethan garb and performs intricate Renaissance dances. For more information, visit NASA.
Michelle Thaller: One of the big challenges of my life has been to kind of breakdown this barrier as scientists being somehow The Other. You know, “Being a scientist isn’t really a normal way to be a human being.”
And somehow there are all these judgments about—that “you must be very logical” or “you must be very smart,” whatever that means. And no one ever seems to really understand that when you learn where the atoms in your body came from, you know, when you learn the scale of the universe, when you learn the stories that you’re involved in, there has to be some emotional response to that, you know?
That just doesn’t roll off you and never affect you. And I don’t really have a great way to deal with everything that I’ve learned being an astrophysicist, you know. If I ever give people the impression that all this is “just okay” with me, that’s entirely wrong.
There are days when, you know, I understand that I am a collection of atoms that came from the hearts of stars, that briefly comes together and forms planets and people and everything that’s in our world. And then, you know, I was observing one night at Mount Palomar, where we were observing supernovae. And supernovae are the explosions of an entire solar system. A whole solar system is destroyed. A star and all of its planets.
And our telescopes are so good now that at a typical night at Mount Palomar you see about 20 of those a night. You know, you see 20 entire solar systems ripped apart—every night! So we’re here very briefly, you know. We’re little collections of atoms that come together and scatter and then form other things and, you know, travel on through the universe.
And sometimes that’s incredibly inspiring, and sometimes you think about the story that you’re a part of. The water in my body has hydrogen from the Big Bang, from the very start of the universe. Then the oxygen came from stars that had to die, you know? You hold your arms around yourself and you have a story that’s billions of years and trillions of miles across, just in your own self.
And then you think about how brief we are and how, you know, we are this little collection that comes together and disperses.
And sometimes I hide under the bed and it’s given me anxiety attacks, and you cling to the people that you love and you have sex with all the wrong people, and you try to find some way to just kind of work out this energy that you don’t know what to do with.
So there’s a balance between nihilism and inspiration, and I have to say that while that balance is sometimes painful because you’re a human being and you don’t know how to deal with this scale of things. It is an absolutely wonderful place to walk.
That balance between being part of everything, and being so brief, or almost nothing.
And you have to hold those two things in your hands at the same time. And everybody you meet and everything you do in life—and when you’re out grocery shopping and when you’re driving on the highway—these thoughts just don’t really ever leave. So it’s not the easiest place to be. There’s no great answer there. There’s no great comfort.
But the inspiring part is you’re part of a story that is mind-blowingly dramatic and beautiful, even if you’re a brief part. And so to me the balance tips towards inspiration. Some days it’s more towards the nihilism, but you take that little bit of truth and you wrap it up and you carry it with you. It never really leaves.
The universe is a huge place, inconceivably vast. And it can make even the most brilliant minds feel very, very small. Yet NASA's very own Michelle Thaller thinks that we can use this to our advantage, by finding "that balance between being part of everything, and being so brief, or almost nothing." You can follow Michelle on Twitter here.
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