Katie Mack: ‘When I went to study physics, I didn’t expect to be in a pop song’. Science

KAtie Mack achieved two improvisations with her new book, End of everything (astrophysically speaking). First, she writes about the end of the universe with a silence that does not make it truly hopeless. And second, she takes concepts in cosmology, string theory and quantum mechanics and makes them accessible. To speak directly, this gift will be familiar to 360,000 followers of Mac’s Twitter feed – @AstroKatie – Through which the 39-year-old cosmologist and assistant professor at North Carolina State University has become one of the most popular voices on science.

Why did you want to write about the end of the universe?
There are a lot of books about beginnings. I have read some of those books, and I am fascinated by the question of where do we come from. But there are very few books about the end. So I wanted to explore that other side. And I like the idea of ​​studying the ultimate destruction of reality; I think it is a good thing to be able to study.

The book goes through five theories about how this can happen – and you suggest that the most likely of these is heat death. Can you tell what will happen
Summer is death… well, it is in some ways the most disappointing possible ending. I think people are very sad when you talk about it. Our universe is currently expanding, and the way it is expanding is that the space between structures like galaxies and galaxy clusters is large. And in like 100bn years some other galaxies will be so far away from us, so soon, that we will not see them anymore.

That is the first stage. And over time, the universe becomes more and more empty. So you end up in this cold, dark, empty universe with the only thing that is almost a small amount of background radiation, which is basically the waste heat of the universe. That is why it is called heat death, because everything is so decayed that all that is left is radiant radiation and it is literally the waste heat of all the processes of the universe.

You are right, it is clouded.
it really is. I have had conversations where I have to talk about death from heat, and I have seen people put their hands in the front row and see that they have lost all hope in the world. I have done a couple of podcasts for young children and once I was explaining death from heat and the host of the podcast stopped me and he said: “I don’t think it’s suitable for children.” And I was like: “Oh no!”

Your lecture inspired a song – No plans – by Irish composer Hozier. Was this unexpected development for you?
Oh yes. I never thought I’d drop a name in a pop song. It’s not one Pop Geet, but yes, when I left school to study physics I had no idea. So we were following each other on Twitter for some time and I think that’s how he watched my videos online. And when he sings that song on stage – people have sent me videos – he’ll sometimes give a two-minute introduction to cosmology and actually explain the process of heat death and how it works . it’s so weird.

Watch the video for No Plan by Hozier.

So he is not worried about disappointing his audience?
Well, if you are familiar with his songs, he writes about a lot of, very sad, heart touching things. So he’s a bit in his wheelhouse, I’d say.

Why do you think you are so popular on Twitter?
This has been done slowly: I’ve been doing something on Twitter for 10 years, and over time I came to know that it was actually a good means to talk about physics in a very concise and predictable way. And a few times I’ve made a tweet go viral, and of course, does a lot. So I had an exchange with a climate denator at some point that ends up on these lists of Mansplainer SmackDown. I didn’t mean it to happen, but it got a lot of attention.

For those who didn’t see it, Your tweet The answer was from someone who suggested you learn some “real science” and read: “I dunno, man, I already went and got a PhD in astrophysics. It seems more than that There will be more at this point. “Didn’t JK Rowling write that this” valid forever “Twitter existed?
Yes, it was definitely a huge increase in my following: I think I went from 40,000 to 80,000 that week.

In the book you mentioned that Stephen Hawking was very influential. What was it about his work that resonated with you?
I got that stuff when I was 10 years old, and it resonated because all this is strange in mind. Black holes and space-time and time travel, the idea of ​​big bang … These are all topics that make your brain think about them. Then, later, I met him a lot because I was at Caltech [California Institute of Technology] As an undergarment and he frequently visited Caltech. When i was in cambridge [University], I would see him all the time if he had an office. He came to a point I once gave, which was wild.

Katie mac

‘I think it’s great that people read physics books for fun’: Katie Mack. Photo: Nerissa Eschner

Was that hard?
Yes, because he snatched me up! So technically, he was not mean. I was only in Cambridge for a month, and I was very nervous because I was talking about the primitive black hole, an idea that Stephen Hawking was one of its first promoters. And as I was starting my talk, I put the title slide and this mechanical voice says: “Thank you.” I thought maybe he was making fun of how he came up with the idea and everyone laughed and I moved on. Then during the whole thing, every once in a while, he would just say “Yes!” Yay no! “Or” I don’t think so. “And I’ll just look at him and he didn’t say anything.

So at the end of the talk, I asked someone what was going on. And it was a lunchtime seminar and the way his voice synthesizer worked was that it was the little thing that looked at his cheek and he would erase the words. And apparently it malfunctions when she eats. So his cheek was shaking and it was picking words at random from this quick selection menu: Thank you; Yes; No; Maybe. Nobody warned me and I am a graduate student and I am terrified. Here is my hero in the audience and he is busy in my seminar. So, “challenging” is a good word for him.

There was an eight-way bidding war between publishers in the US for your book. Want to read science books dealing with complex topics in this show?
Yes, I think it’s terrible that people read physics books for fun. I am super-happy that we do such a thing. Humans are a curious species, we want to understand stuff. And I love him.

What will happen next? How do you follow the end of the universe?
That’s the problem, I raised the wrong topic. Do i write prequel? A reboot?

End of everything (astrophysically speaking) By Katie Mac is published by Alan Lane (£ 20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. UK P&P over 15 pounds


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