The Gemini Problem

There are two words that will upset most astronomers – ‘astrology’ and ‘aliens’. Although searching for extraterrestrial intelligence has embraced the scientific method in recent times,  (Area 51 memes aside) and the consensus amongst historians and astronomers is that human beings built the pyramids, astrology becomes more mainstream by the day. A recent video clip from The Bachelor Australia that has been making the rounds perfectly captures how most astronomers feel about this situation. So it got me thinking about pseudoscience and astrology in particular.

On the one hand, things like astrology are pretty harmless and have helped people with things like self-improvement and introspection. All of us (including myself) have beliefs that we follow that aren’t scientific at all but improve our lives. On the other hand, we have climate change denialism and the anti-vaccination movement that are causing serious harm to us as human beings and the planet as a whole. The trouble is figuring out where to draw the line. 

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Something else that bothers me about astrology is how it is specifically targeted at women. Young women who are interested in stars and space might be directed to a Refinery29 article about ‘black hole astrology’ (I refuse to link to it) instead of an article talking about the amazing scientific achievement that several women were involved in. Because astronomy is a field where women are underrepresented, it can be frustrating when you want to encourage girls to become scientists but all of the content targeted towards them is about astrology instead. 

My natural reaction to these posts is usually ‘No!!! You’re wrong!!! That’s not how this works!!!’ and panic, rather than taking the time to stop and listen to the other person and understand their reasons for following whatever they are following. Maybe they’re concerned about their children’s health. Maybe the politician that they trust told them that there are more pressing matters – like poverty and a weak economy – to worry about besides carbon emissions. Sometimes – like in the recent debates about plastic – people are living with disabilities and other concerns that you haven’t taken into account.

Added to all of this is that science is complicated. Many people have been told that they are not smart enough to understand something difficult or that ‘Western’ scientists aren’t to be trusted. 

While explaining complicated scientific concepts in a simple way is a challenge science communicators embrace, science remains intimidating to many people. And it is very easy to insult and belittle people – especially when you are (like I’m sometimes guilty of) coming from the ‘I’m a scientist who knows everything’ perspective. 

Like any good scientist, I am trying to figure out a methodical way of engaging with people around controversial topics. So far, I’ve come up with a few different questions to ask myself: ‘Does this belief cause harm?’, ‘Is this a stranger on the internet or someone I know?‘,  ‘Am I educated in this topic well enough to properly counter their argument?’, ‘Would I be insulting a traditional/marginalized belief system?’ and ‘Have I listened to their reasoning behind these claims?’. I think framing my responses to situations with these questions in mind will help my science communication be a little less frustrating and a lot kinder around controversial topics. 

How do you deal with controversial topics and pseudoscience that overlaps with your field? If you have any advice or questions that you ask yourself, please let me know!

Why Astronomers are so excited about the EHT Black Hole image

You must have seen the slightly blurry image of a black hole event horizon making the rounds on the internet in April. A bright, orange, cosmic doughnut. As an astronomer, this image was absolutely mind-blowing. In this post, I’ll share why this image is so important for science and its other benefits.

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Credit: Event Horizon Telescope

 

We are not actually “seeing” the black hole

I just wanted to clarify this important point because it is what is so mind-blowing about this picture. We are not seeing the actual black hole. We are seeing the boundary where light can’t escape from any more because of the black hole – called the ‘Event Horizon’. The ‘dougnnut hole’ at the centre is where light has been scooped out by the black hole’s extreme gravity. Because the gravity around a black hole is so strong, the light can’t escape that region and is trapped –  causing the darkness at the centre. Black holes – as well as their event horizons – have a very small size relative to other astronomical objects, which adds to the challenge in observing them.

It shows us that the impossible isn’t always impossible

If you asked me, two years ago, whether we will ever manage to get an image of a black hole’s event horizon, my answer would have been a strong no. For most astronomers, the idea of ever getting this close to imaging a black hole would have seemed impossible. Since black holes don’t emit light and are so small – observing them was – for a long time – thought to be something we would never be able to do.  We are in an era of science where the discoveries are completely blowing away our ideas of what is and isn’t impossible – and this is largely due to the work of many people.

It will help us understand different types of galaxies

My own studies focus on galaxies, so I find this particularly interesting. Some galaxies, like M87, have what is known as an ‘active galactic nucleus’. In other words, the black hole at the centre of the galaxy being ‘fed’ gas, stars, and other material through the disk surrounding it. This results in extremely large jets, being shot out from the central region surrounding the black hole. Since not all galaxies are active, having a measurement of an active black hole and – eventually when the Event Horizon Telescopes releases the image of our own, Milky Way galaxy’s black hole – a non-active black hole will help us understand the processes that create these Active Galactic Nuclei in a lot more detail.

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The galaxy M87, which contains the black hole shown in the image. M87 hosts an Active Galactic Nucleus. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

We can use black holes to test gravity

Black holes were once only theoretical objects. They test our theories of gravity to the extreme.  Although observations within our own galaxy showed stars orbiting something that could only be a black hole, having a picture of a black hole event horizon, which matches up with simulations and theoretical predictions so well, is a good sign that these extreme objects exist. This image is a strong indicator that Einstein’s theory of general relativity – which is what we use to explain gravity – is correct.

International collaboration is the path forward for science

The idea of the ‘lone genius’ – people like Einstein, Newton and Da Vinci who were thought to have worked on their own on amazing theories, making amazing discoveries – is dying out. The type of questions that we are asking nowadays in science is far beyond the scope of a single, brilliant mind. Taking pictures of black holes, detecting faint gravitational waves, building the world’s largest radio interferometer (a type of telescope that works by linking up multiple receivers), and detecting subatomic particles require many people all working together. Our world is increasingly divided over racial, political, economic and national lines. These big projects show us that when we put our differences aside and work together – we can do impossible things.