On this third full day of the American Astronomical Society conference in Seattle, we had a lot going on. This was the big day for our students to present the science results of their NITARP study and the poster we had all put together.
After a quick breakfast in my hotel room, I took some time before the plenary session to help set up the student poster and to wander around a bit. This was also the day for posters on astrobiology topics, so I looked them over. I was especially impressed by posters on science instrument proposals to look for dark energy with a detector called DESI (Dark Energy Science Instrument) and galaxy clusters with NuSTAR, an x-ray telescope that would detect at higher energies than Chandra. I also saw a poster on the results of the G-Hat search for extra-terrestrials that might be detectable in WISE data from the excess heat that a galaxy-wide civilization would produce. It was disappointing to find that the results so far have been negative.
The plenary session this morning was amazing and brain-warping. Max Tegmark of MIT spoke on “Inflation and Parallel Universes: Science or Fiction?” He is a well-known author of the leading book on the multiverse theory called Our Mathematical Universe. He had a bit of trouble with his microphone at first and wondered if it might be in a parallel universe somewhere. He began by noting that all of our astronomy results so far have had the affect of enlarging our universe, whatever we mean by “our universe.” If a universe is everything that is, then additional universes can’t exist except in imagination, which is where his theories lie.
We can look at four levels of the Multiverse: (1) Unobservable extensions to our own universe. Our local Hubble Bubble is everything we can observe, or that has had enough time elapse for light from it to reach us. There could be other Hubble Bubbles, such as what would be visible from an observer at the very edge of our Hubble Bubble – to him/her/it, we would be at the edge of the universe and half of what we can see would be non-observable to her/it/him. Over time, as our Hubble Bubbles expand, our observable regions would continue to overlap further, but there would be an infinite number of such bubbles in infinite space, including some just like ours. Since one could argue that these bubbles are extensions of our own universe, they would follow the same physical laws but not necessarily the same initial conditions.
(2) Post-Inflationary Regions, places that are not in our own space-time and started with differing physical laws entirely, such as those postulated in Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves. These universes could be inflating or expanding faster than our own, have a speed of light faster than ours, or differing parameters for the four (five?) forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces because the initial symmetry breaking event worked out differently. These areas are permanently outside our observable universe.
(3) Separate branches of quantum wave functions, otherwise known as the Many Worlds hypothesis or Hilbert Space. This idea states that because of quantum uncertainty, any possible event that could happen eventually does happen in an infinitely uncertain universe. So there is a universe where you are Batman. Think about that!
(4) Other mathematical structures, or Platonic Realms, or what Tegmark calls the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis. This suggests that the reality of the universe is mathematical in nature and can contain self-aware subsets (us, in other words) that can comprehend the mathematical nature of the universe. My brain began to go “Huh??” at this point. [Or was it that my brane began to go “Huh??” Sorry. A little multiversal joke.] I guess the idea that our universe is really a computer program isn’t so strange after all. If our universe is one possible system of mathematics, there could be others based on other self-consistent laws.
His discussion got deeper as he progressed, and my notes show I was writing rapidly trying to keep up. He delved further into realms of philosophy as well as physics. He said that some of the implications of these four theories might be testable, or at least could narrow the possibilities. If you can verify some part of one of these theories, then you can’t throw it out. One part implies the rest – you can’t throw out the parts you don’t like, such as taking the caffeine out of coffee. So if one part can be proven, the rest must follow.
He spoke of the inflationary period in our universe, when the universe apparently expanded faster than the speed of light should allow. One of the properties of dark matter is that it doesn’t appear to become diluted with time. He drew a diagram showing how inflationary matter eventually coalesces into normal matter (with quarks and such) and the inflation slows down. He described the nature of pocket universes, a “horn model” of divergence, talked about the absence of scalar fields, and how the Higgs Boson followed the simplest model proposed as an example of Occam’s Razor.
How all these ideas tied together was beyond me, but he was speaking to an audience of professional astronomers and cosmologists, not to high school science teachers like me. I’m just glad I could follow as much as I did.
He finished up by talking about ways that we might test parts of these theories. We need more refined cosmological data at Planck scales and some proposals, such as the BICEP instrument on the Keck array and the HERA project. He spoke of the limits of the data from the WMAP and Planck probes, which he helped to prove. We might be able to soon have better data, such as looking for gravitational waves left by inflation.
I returned to the exhibit hall and checked on our student poster. My students are scheduled for this afternoon, and the other students seemed to be doing well. I looked at more posters and visited some of the booths. Dr. Hintz and Dr. Joner of Brigham Young University had a poster on comparing the Hydrogen Alpha wavelengths of several open clusters, including two that I studied with them during the summer of 2014. The charts and graphs looked very familiar, since I had made my own versions of them. It’s good to see that I was doing it correctly.
At noon I attended a Town Meeting led by Dr. Paul Hertz. As the Director of the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, he is the point person for all of NASA’s astrophysics research missions. He shared news of budget amounts. Congress restored funding for SOFIA (yay!) but with a reduced budget. He announced that they had also moved Education and Public Outreach away from the field centers and put it under the central Science Mission Directorate, which I think is a bad thing. Yes, it might be more efficient from a budgetary standpoint, but it is the difference between having reporters at headquarters reporting on World War II versus having reporters embedded with the troops at the front lines. The field centers are the front lines of NASA research, and it is there that the action occurs and the exciting stuff gets done, so that’s where the education needs to happen. If it gets centralized, all of the great EPO people I’ve worked with at the field centers will be out of a job, and the SMD will homogenize and regularize the content and insist on “systemic change” and “reaching under-represented groups” and “leveraging NASA assets through partnerships” so that lone teachers like myself from suburban school districts won’t be able to participate anymore. I wrote letters to all of Utah’s congressional delegation in 2014 and said all of this – only one responded. I had a nice 30-minute conversation with a staffer for Senator Mike Lee about this issue.
In the past, each space mission was required to spend 1% of their budget on education and public outreach, which meant the efforts were uneven and ranged from printing fancy books (ala the Voyage to a Ring World book done by the Cassini team) to the Solar System Educators Program I’ve been a part of, but it meant there were more opportunities to get involved. Now education has a fixed budget of $42 million overall and the old days are ending soon. What comes next, I do not know, or if I can even continue to be involved.
Dr. Hertz reported on ongoing efforts, including testing of the James Webb telescope, the 25th anniversary of Hubble, WFIRST, exoplanet detection efforts, and the Small Explorer Announcement of Opportunity, where 25 proposals were submitted. They will select a number of these for feasibility testing, then narrow it down to two missions. This is how it goes – about 20% of all mission proposals eventually receive some funding, but this goes down as budgets remain flat, costs go up, and the number of proposals continues to increase.
The rest of his presentation was to look ahead to the next Decadal Survey in 2020. We are now halfway through this decade, and missions are moving forward as planned, so it’s time to think about the next decade. What are the missions we want to do? He said his office is soliciting feedback, knowing that proposals would be only a sketch given that technologies haven’t been developed yet. Some of the possible missions he mentioned were a Far Infrared Explorer, a Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (cool!), a UV/Optical/or IR Surveyor, an X-Ray Surveyor, etc. Now that the huge budget hole of the James Webb will be complete, there might be room for 3-4 big missions if the science is compelling.
After the Town Hall Meeting, I attended a concurrent session on astronomy education led by Dr. Tim Slater of the University of Wyoming. I had been visited by his wife, Stephanie Slater and by their graduate student, Debbie French, at my poster the day before. The session was quite packed and I was a bit late getting there, so I had to listen in through the door at first, then find a seat for the next presentation. The presentations centered on scientific research on the effectiveness of various educational programs, most of which I had not heard of. I wish I could say there was some take away for me, but this was all research-based educational theory, not practical education strategies. I had to remember that this wasn’t an educator conference, it was a science conference. But at least I had some exposure to the Slaters and a possible graduate program to look into.
While in the session I got a phone call from the Utah STEM Action Center about my student travel grant. They said it was basically approved, but that I could apply for more if I wanted. Well, OK – if you insist. This should now pay for my extra two students, as the NITARP program will only pay the way for two of them and I brought four.
I went looking for a place to each a late lunch and walked around a few blocks from the convention center while the light lasted and found a sandwich shop that was still open. It was a chilly but sunny January day and the city was nice to explore. I just wish I’d had the time and energy to go further. I haven’t even glimpsed the Space Needle since arriving.
I headed back to the exhibit floor, which was up a long escalator on the fourth floor and a bit of a hike to get to. My students were doing well – Elena and Kendall were as entertaining as ever. I did some more exploring around the hall. One interesting stop I made was at the booth for the LIGO project (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory), which was finally scheduled to go online this year with their improved, lengthened laser paths. Basically, they have two tunnels underground at right angles and several miles long with lasers shining down them at the same wavelength. If any gravitational waves pass through the detector, the beams will go out of phase and create an interference signal that should be extremely sensitive – so sensitive they have to be miles away from any surface traffic.
There are two detectors, one near Livingston, Louisiana and one in Washington State near Hanford. A third detector would allow for triangulation of the direction of the signal, as an event gets to the detectors as slightly different times. Little did I know (or they, for that matter) that their experiment would get positive results within the year almost as soon as they turned it on (actually during final testing). They detected the gravitational wave signature of two colliding black holes on Sept. 14, 2015. Then they detected a second event on Dec. 26, 2015. Here is a link to the press release: https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/news/ligo20160615
For the first time, we have something besides light to look at – we have waves to hear. It’s like using sight all your life and suddenly discovering that you have ears. Both detections agree perfectly with General Relativity. Looks like we can’t throw out Einstein yet.
When the session ended at 6:00, we took photos with all the NITARP students by the poster in a whole group and by schools. We packed up everything and headed back to the hotel. On the way downstairs at the top of the escalator was the big AAS sign, so we stopped and took photos in front of it for posterity.
Some of the group are heading back first thing in the morning, including Kendall, who is actually here as her family moves to Washington, D.C., where her father will be heading up the Washington Seminar Program for BYU. She has an early flight to Reagan National Airport. We decided to have a last dinner together as an entire NITARP group, and we found a nice Asian Fusion restaurant across the street from the hotel. The food was good but a bit small in portions, so we decided we wanted to top off the meal with crepes. We walked back to the convention center where there is a crepe shop that the students had already tried out, and I got a delicious chocolate and cream crepe. We said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel.
I had schoolwork to do but was exhausted, so I crashed again.