July 2021

PhD ring featured in LabX-NAS

My PhD ring was featured in this week’s Scientist Show & Tell for LabX and the National Academy of Sciences. When I first laid eyes on it at Jean Jean Vintage, I thought it looked exactly like a black hole with big jets shooting out of the top and bottom. I would visit it in the store and try it on periodically until I just had to have it. Since the ring looks like the artist’s illustrations of black holes that I use in research talks, it seemed like fate to commemorate getting my PhD.

On the left is a radio image of the giant lobes formed by jets, powered by the supermassive black hole at the center dot. On the right is an artist’s illustration of an accreting stellar black hole with jets shooting out the top and bottom. (Credits: NRAO, me, NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

You can show LabX’s posts some love on their Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and other scientists can submit their favorite object to show & tell here.

Black holes at the end of time in Loki

Now that I’ve pulled myself together after watching the Season 1 finale of Loki (and only barely), I want to mention the brief black hole science we see in the beginning of the episode. (MILD SPOILER AHEAD)

At the beginning of the episode, we fly past black holes and what looks like a rainbow bridge/Einstein-Rosen bridge (/wormhole) as we zoom in to Loki and Sylvie approaching the Citadel at the end of time. At first, I, like everybody else, was like “oooh, space, pretty”, but then my science brain kicked in.

First, the visuals of the black holes are fairly accurate. They have a bit of an accretion disk with some spiral arm structure on the edges, similar to what we see in spiral galaxies. They’re clearly 3-D spherical “holes” instead of 2-D circular “holes” in spacetime, and they even have a bit of a bright photon ring right around the event horizon. Sure, they aren’t verbatim simulations like the one below from NASA, but they’re very pretty and artsy-cool looking. In storytelling, the appeal of the science matters much more than the rigor of it. Checkmarks all around for effort and follow-through!

[GIF of a black hole nearly edge-on, from NASA Goddard/J. Schnittman. All the variants of this simulation are worth oohing and aahing over.]

Einstein-Rosen bridges (or wormholes) are most likely the inspiration for the Bifrost rainbow bridge that Heimdall controls. As an observational astronomer, I feel obligated to point out that although these are mathematically possible, we haven’t seen any observational evidence of them in our universe. Sorry. I still like them in sci-fi.

The other awesome science part is that black holes WILL actually take over at the end of the universe. There’s a Crash Course Astronomy video by the Bad Astronomer himself, Phil Plait, explaining the concept of “deep time” embedded below. In about 10 trillion years, degenerate zombie stars (black holes, neutron stars, and white dwarfs) will be the primary source of energy generation in the universe. After that, protons (one of the primary building blocks of atoms, and all matter) will decay. Anything that isn’t a black hole will dissolve into energy and tiny subatomic particles, and we’ll be left with black holes! That will happen in about 1 duodecillion years (1 with 40 zeroes after it). After that, things get super boring from a visual perspective, and I’m glad they didn’t go with that for Loki.

So, it makes scientific sense that He Who Remains/Kang the Conqueror lives in the black hole-dominated end of the universe. Using the visuals in the establishing shot was 😘👌 *chef’s kiss*

I absolutely love reading and watching science fiction, and it makes my nerdy heart so happy to see my research topic incorporated into the story.

(Header image: Disney+/Marvel Studios)

Podcast playlist for Abtract: The Future of Science

After listening to about 16 hours of podcasts this past weekend for a drive to Rochester and back, I’m putting together playlists of astronomy- and space-themed episodes from science podcasts! These playlists will be a great way to learn more about outer space in an approachable, accessible (read: non-expert, non-academic) way. First up: the podcast Abstract: The Future of Science.

Yes, I was on this one, and my episode is listed below, but you should listen to the other astro episodes, too! I’ve put the episode description beneath them along with a link to the episode pages on Apple Podcasts. I’ll do posts like this in upcoming weeks for more science podcasts, like Ologies (the UFOlogy episode is what sparked this playlist idea), Science Rules! with Bill Nye, Flash Forward, and Sean Carroll’s Mindscape. More ideas are welcome!

Abbie Stevens is an energetic, friendly and curious postdoctoral fellow in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. She studies black holes and neutron stars by looking at X-ray light coming from stars they’re gobbling up!
Tune in for answers to questions like…
How do binary systems form?
What is the process of stellar evolution?
What are the different types of black holes and where do we find them?
How do stars die and what kind of remnants do they leave behind?
and many more!
Get the episode on Apple Podcasts.

Lisa Dang is an enthusiastic, outgoing and optimistic PhD student in Astrophysics at McGill University. During her graduate degree, she also held a research position at the NASA Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena, California. Right now, she’s studying the diversity of exoplanets and their climate, with a variety of space telescopes, and most excitingly with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. She hopes to understand how planets form and evolve, to ultimately uncover the recipe for habitable planets! When she’s not busy scratching her head looking at copious amounts of data, you can find her traveling, drawing, or taking care of her plants!
Tune in for answers to questions like…
Is there life in the universe beyond earth?
How do we define life?
How old are you in “Hot Jupiter” years?
What and how have we learned about exoplanets?
What are the mechanisms behind tidal locking?
and more!
Get the episode on Apple Podcasts.

Our guest this week, Shaziana Kaderali, is a Master’s candidate at McGill University in Aerospace Engineering. Her research is focused on Space Situational Awareness and Spaceflight Dynamics. She helps satellite operators avoid collisions, among much else! She’s a jack of all trades and a master of all of them, and we’ve got her on the show to talk all things aerospace!
Questions Answered:
What’s an aerospace engineer thinking about first thing in the morning?
What do we mean by dynamics and specifically aerospace dynamics?
What’s going on up there in orbit around our lovely little planet?
Should we be worried about the exponential increase in orbital objects and debris in freefall around the earth?
What is the future of aerospace engineering going to look like?
How do we dispose of dead or defunct spacecraft and what’s the end-of-life process?
and many, many, many more!
Get the episode on Apple Podcasts.

Our guest this week, Bryce Cyr, is completing his PhD in Cosmology at McGill University. He’s studying the theoretical structures known as cosmic strings (unrelated to string theory, but we discuss that too). They might shed light on the nature of the early universe and the origin of dark matter!
Questions Answered:
How did the universe begin? Where did it come from and where is it going How far back can we look?
What’s the big idea with the cosmic microwave background?
Why is gravity problematic?
What’s the goal of string theory? What about cosmic strings, are they the key unification?
What’s the big hold up on the grand unified theory of physics?
and many, many, many more!
Get the episode on Apple Podcasts.

Our guest this week, Mitchell Kurnell, just started his PhD in Mechanical Engineering in the Aerospace Mechatronics lab (yeah you know the one, he’s worked alongisde Eitan Bulka (Ep.11) and Ali Safaei (Ep.39)). Our discussion is split between his master’s research on nuclear physics, and his PhD research on cube sats.
Questions Answered:
Is nuclear energy a safe energy alternative and can we entrust our future in these fission reactors?
How can we use lasers to learn about a material’s composition?
How big and how small are the satellites in orbit above our heads? What are they doing up there?
What is space junk and does it pose a problem to other satellites in orbit around the earth?
and many, many, many more!
Get the episode on Apple Podcasts.

Our guest this week, Andrew Saydjari, is midway through his PhD in Astrophysics at Harvard University. Andrew’s research lies at the intersection of Astrophysics and Machine Learning, and he’s studying the massive dust clouds in our very own galaxy. Tune in to tap into the wealth of knowledge that Andrew’s bringing to Episode 31!
On this week’s episode we answer questions like:
Why should you care about interstellar dust clouds that are a million times as wide as the earth’s orbit around the sun?
What do spectra of light tell us about the molecular make-up of these clouds?
How much information can I glean from just a single image of a molecular cloud out there in space?
And how does the symmetry of molecules factor into all this?
Get the episode on Apple Podcasts.

Interview for the podcast Abstract: The Future of Science

I was interviewed by Jeremy Ullman for his podcast Abstract: The Future of Science! We had SO MUCH FUN talking about black holes, neutron stars, supernovae, the Milky Way galaxy, the recent outbursting black hole named 4U 1543-47 (which I talk about in this twitter thread), and more. It’s 30 minutes long, available on Spotify (embedded above), Apple Podcasts, and wherever else you like to listen. My in-laws have already listened to it, and they said that both the science and my talking speed are understandable 😊

I’ve realized that not many people know that I stutter. My speech is usually fine these days, but it used to be very bad and very, very noticeable. I’ve been through years of speech therapy, and I think my early interest in music and singing was in part to help me get over my stuttering. Of course, I didn’t let it get in the way of doing and loving theater throughout school, though it partially informed why I didn’t seriously pursue acting beyond college. So, it feels QUITE momentous to be featured in an audio-only medium, and to have loved every bit of it. Jeremy can confirm that I didn’t stutter during the recording and he had no troubles editing.

I got myself a fancy Yeti mic and learned the basics of Audacity, and now I want to be on everyone’s podcast. Let’s talk!