How to celebrate science: Ask questions, get creative, spread the love

Ever wanted to ask a NASA astronomer a question? Michelle Thaller is Big Think's resident space pro, and she is taking questions right now!

Michelle Thaller: So much of science culture, to me, seems like a holdover from the last century. There is still this formalism that’s involved, and to some degree scientific formalism is really needed because the whole point of being a scientist is if you write a scientific paper another scientist should be able to read your paper and set up their instrument just like yours and do exactly the same experiment, and if everything goes right they would get the same result, you know: “Point your telescope at this part of the sky, observe for this long and you’re going to see the same thing that I did.” At least you hope so.

And this formalism now is something that we constantly stumble over because I think scientists have made the mistake that the formalism IS science. It is a tool, it is a part of science, and it’s a useful tool. But science itself is an inquiry, and it’s curiosity. It is not a method. There is no such real thing as a scientific method; people go about being a scientist in many different ways with many different strategies. So there really seems to be this sort of—it almost is a rejection, as a scientist, of being very emotionally connected to your work, of being able to convey that to an audience, and I think that the word that I come up with is the idea of celebrating what we do, celebrating science, the amazing accomplishments, the amazing system we have in place that can invent new technologies, that can make new discoveries.

Celebrating something as simple as that there is a field of study called astrophysics where we’re doing everything from learning what set off the Big Bang to exploring the moons of Jupiter. These are wonderful things to be celebrated. And yet, as scientists, we think that it’s somehow kind of blowing our own horn, it’s very unseemly to do this.

And I often run into scientists that really resist science communicators like me trying to help them visualize their science. I think about exoplanets, planets around other stars. At this moment in time, we know of about 4,000 planets going around other stars in the sky. And we have some data on them. The data is usually just what the mass of the planet is, how big the planet is, whether the planet is solid or gaseous. But so often I run across scientists that just want to present the graphs of their data and they get very upset when we bring in artists—very well-informed artists, by the way—that work with the scientists and say well, you know, with that size of a planet and that distance from the star maybe it would have an atmosphere, maybe it would have clouds. Maybe it even has water on the surface. And we always say, we don’t know these things, but this is based on scientific fact.

A lot of scientists really, really rebel when you try to actually make it something visual and something emotional. It doesn’t seem to really be science if you let that happen.

To me, science is going to die unless science becomes something that everyone can be involved in. It can’t just be the purview of a few privileged people that separate themselves off from the rest of culture. You know, the same thing with art: Art is something that isn’t just done by professional artists. Anyone can draw and paint and dance and become involved in the arts and value the arts because of that. And everyone can ask questions. And everyone can wonder why a sunset is red or wonder what the planet Jupiter is made of. It’s not something that should be cordoned off and made into something separate from the rest of human life. And I actually think the survival of science depends on that. 

So as scientists it’s up to us to celebrate what we do, to celebrate the things we’re discovering, to celebrate ourselves, to actually say that this is something worth doing. To me, science has added so much beauty and richness to my life and so much emotion. And we start by telling people that, you know, “Come along and see what we’re learning and see how it changes your life.” And I mean that. Your life will be changed when you learn the things that we know—for the better.

And then all of a sudden it’s not something just done in an ivory tower by a few people. It’s anybody who can ask a question, any child that says, “Why?” That whole entirety of science, that whole spectrum has to be something that professional scientists curate and really encourage to grow.

Ever wondered why a sunset is red, or what the planet Jupiter is made of? Questions are the launchpad of every scientific journey, and now you have the chance to ask yours to a real NASA astronomer. Michelle Thaller, assistant director of science communication at NASA, will be answering questions from Big Thinkers, like you! To submit your question, click here. In this video, Thaller explains why questions are so beautiful, and why making science accessible to everyone enriches our world. It's public curiosity that allows science to flourish. "To me, science is going to die unless science becomes something that everyone can be involved in. It can’t just be the purview of a few privileged people that separate themselves off from the rest of culture. You know, the same thing with art: art is something that isn’t just done by professional artists. Anyone can draw and paint and dance and become involved in the arts and value the arts because of that. And everyone can ask questions," Thaller says. If there's something you've always wanted to know, submit your question here.

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."