The Science of Star Wars

Banner of "The Science of Star Wars", with a light saber, baby yoda in a beaker, and a helmet under a microscope.

Tomorrow on May the 4th I’ll be a panelist for a discussion on the science of Star Wars with Skype A Scientist! Join us at 1pm EDT (registration is free) 🤓 here’s the event info page with more about our host Dr. Dyanna Louyakis, biologist Dr. Morgan Halane, and me.

Comment (on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn) with questions you have (silly and serious) about the biology and astronomy/physics in Star Wars, and I’ll put them on the list!

Update: Here’s the recording on Youtube (pardon the technical difficulties at the beginning). Keep an eye out for my lightsaber chopsticks.

REOTown Reading Series

A bunch of dead butterflies displayed in a natural history museum.

In a terrifying departure from my modus operandi, I will be presenting a piece of creative non-fiction at the REO Town Reading Series on Thursday April 22nd! I’ll be telling a story about the brightest little pulsar in our galaxy. Join Mary Fox, Stevie Pipis, Selena Gambrell Anderson, and me with host and curator Matt Rossi on FB live starting at 7:30pm EDT.

UPDATE: Here is the video link for you to watch at your leisure! Thank you to everyone who tuned in. Transcript of my piece:

I’m going to tell you a story about the brightest little pulsar in the Milky Way, named Swift J0243.6+6124, and don’t worry, you don’t have to remember that name, and I’ll tell you what a pulsar is.
On October 3rd 2017 there was a very bright burst of light near the Perseus constellation. It wasn’t close enough to see by eye, but things that go ‘bump’ in the night tend to be interesting to astronomers, so we had telescopes at the ready. The Swift X-ray observatory was the telescope first to detect it, which is why ‘swift’ gets to be first part of its name. The telephone number in the rest of the name, and yes we actually call it a telephone number, is its location in galactic coordinates, which is like latitude and longitude for the night sky. For the next 150 days, taking us into the spring of 2018, we saw this shiny new source get unimaginably bright, then dim again. Not only were there X-rays, but gamma rays, visible light, and radio waves also shone from it during that time, in their own ways.
In the night sky, when something transient shines brightly in X-rays, this light often comes from near the remnant of a dead star, like a black hole. But calling it a dead star doesn’t quite convey its character; calling it a zombie star is far more accurate. Like zombie people, this zombie star is eating living stars, and it’s still quite active and spinning around, and in general, like zombie people, one could argue that its time as a zombie is far more interesting than its time when it was alive.
Many zombie stars have a little star friend that they grew up with. They orbit around each other as they’ve always done, but like we’ve seen too many times in the movies, the little star friend can’t bring itself to leave, which ultimately leads to its untimely demise. The zombie star feeds on its star friend, slowly draining the outer material from the star and forming a disk around itself, like it’s greedily filling its plate. This syphoned star stuff, waiting to be gobbled down by the zombie star, gets very hot, like 100 times hotter than the surface of the sun. It shines its heat light in X-rays, so when we detect these particular colors and shapes of X-rays from a point in the galaxy, we know that this whole zombie scenario is happening.
Now let’s check in with the ‘unimaginably bright’ aspect of this source. First, I need to tell you what we imagined the limit was. As a zombie star is eating, if it eats more stuff, it shines more brightly. But as your intuition may have already told you, things shining light in space cannot be infinitely bright.  There reaches a point where the radiation of the light shining out, pushes back and doesn’t allow more material to fall in. If there’s enough material, the system can even sustain this luminosity. In the 1920s, this luminosity limit was worked out in detail by Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, a British astronomer, physicist, and mathematician. An important detail to keep in mind is that this luminosity limit depends on the mass, or weight, of the object doing the eating.
When we as astronomers are observing X-ray light from these voracious black holes, we often don’t know how massive they are, so we just pretend that they’re all 10 times the mass of the Sun. In the sciences, when we’re trying to figure something out but don’t have all the information (which is how it goes in astronomy, more so than other fields), we simplify, make a plausible assumption, and move on. Some of the sources we see in the night sky are brighter than this luminosity limit for a black hole weighing 10 times the mass of the Sun, and we call them ultra-luminous. Also, if you’ve ever wondered what’s more than ‘ultra’, according to astronomers, it’s ‘hyper’. So, two things could be happening here: either it’s actually more massive than 10 times the Sun, so it’s shining normally for its actual mass, or there’s some funky, fancy stuff going on that is temporarily letting it be brighter than it should be.
But! Here’s the twist. You didn’t know there’d be a twist, but there is. When we were observing the X-rays from J0243, we instantly noticed pulses in the brightness of the X-ray light, nearly perfectly precise like the ticking of a clock. Black holes can’t pulse. There is no mechanism to get a signal this precise from them. However, neutron stars do, and some of them are so good at pulsing that we call them pulsars. Neutron stars are another type of zombie star, left over when a medium-big star is massive enough to die in a supernova, but not massive enough to collapse into a black hole.
A pulsar is a neutron star with two bright spots on the surface at the north and south magnetic pole, off-kilter with how it spins. It’s like if a neutron star were a light house, in that it’s always shining beams of light, but you only see it when they point in your direction. Pulsars are effectively cosmic clocks that are stunningly accurate out to many decimal places, and NASA is testing a technology to use them like reference points for interplanetary GPS.
So, knowing that J0243 is a pulsar, only a fraction the mass we first assumed for the luminosity limit, it is very super ultra hyper bright. It sounds like it shouldn’t be possible, but nature begs to differ. What’s probably happening is that the pulsar’s magnetic fields, which are thousands of times stronger than anything we can create on Earth, are holding things in place like Spanx, so it can eat even more and radiate even more. I think there’s an analogy here about Spanx holding stuff in, letting the star shine extra bright, but I prefer a more body-positive ethos so I’m going to let that slip away.
What does this mean?
I’ve been studying X-rays from this source, and one really interesting thing about it has to do with its iron levels. Though gas in space tends to be mostly hydrogen, there are trace amounts of other chemicals like oxygen, silicon, magnesium, and iron. If the gas gets hot enough (spoiler: it does), the iron can light up and fluoresce like neon lights. This shows up in cool shapes that we can see with extremely fancy and expensive X-ray detectors on satellites in space. If we want to know where this gas with iron is, like geometrically in the system, we can’t just take a picture because the whole system (zombie star, star friend, plate of stuff it’s eating) are way too small and way too far away.
Instead we need to figure it out from the physics, like a more boring, yet higher stakes, version of Clue. We know the weapon and the victim and the murderer, but not the room, and the room is important. The big weird wrench in the gears here is that the iron doesn’t know that it’s around a pulsar. It doesn’t see the pulsations. And like, How can you not know with such a stupidly bright pulsar, but anyways. The two possibilities are that it has a wall of stuff blocking its direct line-of-sight with the pulsar, or it has a cozy cocoon of dust and gas wrapped around it, diffusing the pulses into a strong, steady light.
I don’t have an answer to this yet. Scientific research is trial and error and error, ad nauseam, and I am in the thick of it. A very helpful colleague suggested some calculations I can do, but I haven’t done that yet, and instead I wrote this.

Exo-lent Planets! this Saturday

As part of the MSU Science Festival, I’m giving a public talk on alien worlds (“exoplanets”) this Saturday April 17 at 11am EDT! It’ll be fun for adults as well as kids. Here’s the link to join the webcast. You’ll need to register on the virtual platform (it’s quick and free) to access the details. See you there!

Skype A Scientist on YouTube

Selfie of me (white lady with straight, short, brown hair and red lipstick) looking at the camera with my cheek resting on my hand. There is a gallery wall of art and conference posters behind me.

Thank you Skype A Scientist for having me speak yesterday! As one of the finalists for the No Time Like The Presentation contest, I gave a 10-minute presentation on my research for a general audience. It was the first time in ages that I’ve given a talk with almost entirely new slides. I was so nervous and excited, and it was so fun!! The talks were recorded and posted to YouTube (see embedded below). I spoke first, but you should stick around for all the talks! I loved learning about everyone’s research.

First order of business now is to make a sign reminding myself to SPEAK SLOWER and hang it just above my monitors…

No Time Like The Presentation 2021!

Last week I submitted a 90-second video abstract of my research to the No Time Like The Presentation competition from Skype A Scientist. And I was selected to give a 10-minute talk on my research!!

The full-length presentations (from me and the other scientists selected) will be in April and streamed live to their Youtube page (and saved for later viewing).

Upcoming virtual public talks

Hi friends! I have a few public talks coming up in the next two months that I want to tell you about. They’re also listed on my science communication and outreach page (and I’ll keep that list updated). Join me from anywhere in the world!

How Do Scientists “See” Black Holes?, Tuesday April 6th on AstroZoom

A ~20-minute talk on the ways we can ‘see’ black holes even though light can’t escape from within the event horizon. It’ll be pre-recorded and sub-titled in Farsi by the host, with live Q&A after. The talk will be aimed at middle school and high school students (roughly grades 5-12).

Exo-lent Planets!, Saturday April 17th at MSU SciFest

A ~20-minute talk + Q&A about planets in other solar systems around other suns, featuring some well-known exoplanets in pop culture. This talk will be aimed at all ages.

The brightest little pulsar, Thursday April 22nd at the REO Town Reading Series

A story about the brightest little pulsar in our galaxy (it’s name is Swift J0243). One of four readings that evening. Aimed at adults, especially artsy ones.

How Do Scientists “See” Black Holes?, Thursday May 27th, Great Lakes Lectures

A 40-minute talk + Q&A on the ways we can ‘see’ black holes, going into more depth and detail than the April 6th AstroZoom talk. Aimed at high school students through adults.

If you’d like to book me to speak at your event, please contact me!

Webcam cover

I knitted a tiny hat for my external webcam, for stylish privacy when it’s not in use, and I wrote it up in my first ever knitting pattern! If you make it and find an error, please tell me and I’ll fix it 😬 If you don’t see the PDF embedded below, download it here.

Physics choir, Winter 2020

The MSU Physics choir, the Grand Canonical Ensemble (it’s a physics pun), had our virtual performance at the end of 2020! Since we rehearsed on zoom with sound off the whole semester, this was also our first time ever hearing each other and how we sounded together!! (I’m in the yellow scarf with the peach background)

Black Lives Matter and anti-racism resources

Aside from showing up at protests (wear a mask the whole time! to not spread COVID and to protect your identity!), talking with neighbors (I think I convinced an older white guy that being at a protest doesn’t mean you deserve tear gas), and donating money (scroll down for places), I’ve been reading and reflecting and flagging for follow-up. White supremacy is ingrained in nearly every aspect of my life. Recognizing it, unlearning it. and actively working against it is possible (and necessary!) and I’m in it for the long haul. If you’re tired of hearing about racism, imagine how tired Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are of experiencing and living it! Here are a list of articles, tweets, and organizations relevant to Black Lives Matter, protests, and anti-racism. Please read and share, and contact me if you have suggestions/corrections.

Articles I’ve read/on my to-read list

This is a mix of articles on current events and analysis of historical events that provide context for the current Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve put things in alphabetical order by author’s last name. You’re welcome to provide further suggestions!

Twitter threads that are extra super good

I’ve re-tweeted and signal-boosted lots on my twitter, but these threads get extra mention. Again, alphabetical by last name, where possible.

Organizations to donate to

Lansing-area twitter accounts to follow for protest and safety info

  • BLMLansing (FYI, they did not organize the May 31st protest; after a few hours of the nonviolent protest that formed, they strongly encouraged everyone to go home)
  • LansingDSA
  • BLMPolice and InghamScanner (tweets of what’s said on the police scanner)

Some more articles, while you’re here

If we’re mutuals on Instagram, you can also check out some info and resources I’ve saved to my IG Stories.

Take care 💖

Local Lansing farms for produce and meat

In an effort to both support local farms and avoid the grocery store as much as possible (no more than once every 2 or 3 weeks), I’ve been ordering things directly from farms! They’re listed in order of approximate distance from the city of Lansing. Some of them have come from a list of farmers market vendors in the area. Please let me know if I’ve mislabeled anything or missed one you love!

Fresh produce

Eggs, Meat, and Dairy

Other food

  • Rust Belt Roastery, Lansing: coffee
  • Ozone’s Brewhouse, Lansing: beer, new growlers and to-go cans (not refilling old growlers)
  • Stone Cloud Gardens (Marjorie & Bob Johns): jams and jellies, vinegars, handmade soap. Order at
  • DavePops, St. John’s MI: dairy-free popsicles; minimum order of 1 dozen, can mix and match flavors, Lansing delivery each week
  • Sandy Ridge Farm, Owosso: baked goods, syrup. Farm pickup hours are Friday 3-7pm at 3611 Tyrrell Rd Owosso; check facebook for options and order instructions 
  • Grampa’s Pasties, Richland MI: pasties! Taking orders and doing drops every couple of weeks