Home / Science / Within the interstellar and rocky world of astrophysics Elizabeth Tasker

Within the interstellar and rocky world of astrophysics Elizabeth Tasker



Astrophysicist and author Elizabeth Tasker knows one thing with certainty: if you stay with her long enough, you are likely to hear some kind of fact about the planet.

This is how she is.

Tasker, who teaches at the Japan National Space Agency (JAXA), will join young adult author Ria Voros for the national conference tour Passion for Astronomy: a tale by two authors.

Tasker's fascinating book, The Planet Factory and Voros's latest novel, The Center of the Universe, are now available.

The two women will explain how Voros's writings united the couple (a character in Voros's book is based on Tasker) and how binary stellar systems and mothers and daughters are similar. Think about that for a second. The events will also have Tasker discussing his book, his work and his love for a good exoplanet.

The couple will be in Vancouver on April 26 at the UBC and on April 28 for two events (the Humanist Association B.C. and the MacMillan Space Center). They will also give talks in Victoria on April 27.

Tasker, a native of Great Britain, took some time to make computational models of planets and stars to answer some questions.

Q: Obviously, the first question for you is, what about that black hole image? What did you think when you saw it?

A: Black! I really enjoyed the great revelation around this event. The image is not only incredible, but there is a hole where light does not escape. – But press conferences around the world really emphasized what a global effort was, both in terms of the technology used (telescopes around the world) and the scientists who came together to make this possible. This is really the reason why I became a scientist: to be able to contribute to projects that nobody could achieve alone. As an exoplanet scientist, I was not connected to this particular project, but it is an excellent demonstration of how science should work!

Q: What does that image mean for us here on earth?

A: That we should stop talking about building walls and, instead, combine the best experience in the world to achieve incredible things.

Q: Do you have a standard line or fun fact that you use to explain to a layman what he does?

A: One of my great interests is how diverse and strange the rocky planets can be. We often hear in the news about the discovery of a new planet "similar to Earth". But in truth, all we know at this moment is that its size is similar to that of Earth. The problem is that the same happens with Venus! Venus and Earth are extremely close in mass and radio. Venus orbits closer to the Sun, but in reality it only receives about twice as much radiation (sunlight) as we do. If we looked at Venus around another star, we might think that it had an atmosphere similar to Earth and, therefore, estimate a surface temperature around 27C. It sounds pretty good, right? But in truth, Venus has a thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide, so its actual surface temperature is about 460 ° C and can melt lead. The longest a spacecraft has survived on the surface of Venus is approximately two hours. (That was the Venera 13 Soviet mission in the early 1980s). So I'm very interested in the rocky planets, but more about asking me how different they can be from Earth, than looking for one that is very similar: I find the idea of ​​a totally strange landscape fascinating.

Q: What is it that most excites you about the universe and I suppose that beyond?

A: Since I wrote a book about exoplanets, I suspect you know the answer to this question! Like anyone who has the misfortune to be near me long enough to volunteer for a planetary event. But while I worked on galaxies, stars and planets, just imagining what the surface of another world might be really inspires me.

Elizabeth Tasker's Planet Factory is now in paperback. Photo: Courtesy of Raincoast Books

Courtesy of Raincoast Books /

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Q: What made you want to become an astrophysicist?

A: My dad took me to the planetarium when I was nine years old and I was hooked! At that time I was struggling a lot in school, I have dyslexia and, well, being nine years old was usually difficult! – but I discovered that there were many books and events such as planetarium shows directed at my level, which really helped me to feel that I still enjoyed learning, even if my school work was a bit difficult at the moment. Later, I read physics at the university thinking that there were probably many areas of the subject other than astrophysics that I had not had the opportunity to explore. There was, but astrophysics was still my favorite.

Q: Your book The Planet Factory looks at exoplanets. What are exoplanets and why are we seeing them?

A: Exoplanets or extrasolar planets are planets that do not orbit around the Sun. Most of them orbit other stars, although we have found evidence of so-called "rogue" planets that seem to have no stars. It is very likely that these were born orbiting a star, but then were expelled from the system in a sling driven by gravity after a close encounter with another planet. Both the planets around other stars and the rebellious planets are exoplanets.

As for why we are looking for them, I think it is perhaps one of the oldest questions of humans to ask ourselves if we are alone in the Universe. The first step to answer this is to find out if there are other rocky planets that may have a suitable surface for life. Our first set of planetary search telescopes (and remember, we only found the first exoplanets in the early 1990s, so it is still a very young field) have told us that the formation of planets is common and that they can be find planets around many stars, even in systems quite different from ours, for example, around binary stars, like Tatooine in Star Wars. Our next generation of telescopes, instruments such as the James Webb Space Telescope or ESA's ARIEL mission, will take the next step by examining the atmosphere of some of these planets and this will be our first clue as to what the surface could really be like.

Q: What exoplanet really surprises you and why?

A: At this time, we do not know much about individual exoplanets: we usually know their size and orbit and … that's it! But from this, we have discovered something surprising: many planets orbit much closer to their star than any planet in our Solar System. This strongly suggests that the planets migrate: that is, they form in one place but then move inward toward the star.

What this means is that even a planet the size of Earth that orbits at a distance similar to a star like our Sun might not have formed there at all. It may have formed much farther, perhaps near where our giant gas planets, Jupiter or Saturn, currently orbit. If so, such a planet could be the core of a gas giant: a planet that was forming like Jupiter, but then moved inland and its thick atmosphere vanished. The core of a gaseous giant would be very different from Earth, probably made mostly of ice instead of silicate rocks. If I had geology, maybe the volcanoes would throw away ammonia instead of sulfur. Can you imagine how that landscape could be? Or maybe the ice would melt and the planet would become an aquatic world, completely covered by the ocean. These tempered but migrated worlds interest me more: how are they really? It is possible that the planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 may be examples of migrated planets, since they are similar in size to Earth but have lower densities.

Q: Do you think there is another planet similar to the earth?

A: Among the planets we have discovered so far … maybe not. Planets the size of the Earth are so small that they are very difficult to detect. Those we have seen so far are orbiting red dwarf stars; Stars smaller and fainter than our own sun. The darkness of these stars allows the planet to orbit much closer than the Earth to the Sun, but to receive a similar amount of starlight. However, such close orbits, which usually last for days or weeks, probably mean that the planet is blocked by the tide. Like the Moon that orbits around the Earth, planets blocked by the tide have a side that faces the star permanently, creating a world divided with one hemisphere of the eternal day and the other of an eternal night. Such a world would have to rebalance the heat between the day side and the night side to be habitable and even if it succeeded, such a world would surely be very different from Earth!

Q: In the book you say that Earth may not be the best place to sustain life, what?

A: I think this could refer to the discussion on super-habitable planets, which was an idea proposed by astrophysicist René Heller. So we can blame him for this idea! However, the main idea here is not that there could be planets, more habitable, than Earth, but that they could be habitable for a longer time. This is very important when you try to catch the first example of life in another world: the longer you stay, the more likely you are to see it. For example, one day our Sun will light up as the end of his life approaches. When that happens, the Earth will get too hot and our seas will evaporate. The slightly dimmer stars known as orange dwarfs have a longer lifespan than our Sun, so a habitable planet in that system would have more time to develop and sustain life. Another idea is that a planet slightly larger than Earth could have more natural resources that could help sustain life longer. As we currently have only one example of a habitable world: ours! – We are not sure that this is true: a larger planet would have a stronger gravity and that could produce a flatter landscape that might not favor life as much as the rugged and varied terrain of the Earth. Who knows?

Q: You write about space missions. Would you go to Mars if they offered you a seat?

A: Do not! Is it a terrible admission for someone working in a space agency? But I confess that I never wanted to be an astronaut. The prospect of being tied to a huge fuel tube that is then ignited to take off into space is completely frightening! Also, although I admit that the opinions would be incredible, I would always be confined to a small area. I like to run. Neither am I really sure I have the right skill set. I could offer my fellow crew members some amazing facts about exoplanets and write some blog posts for people at home, but they probably want someone who is a bit more practical with a hammer or medical supplies.

While I believe that human spaceflight is extremely inspiring, the space missions that interest me the most are robotic missions focused on science: this is what the institute is based within JAXA: the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science ( ISAS) – works in missions like asteroid explorers; Hayabusa2 from Japan and OSIRIS-REX from NASA, and the European / Japan mission to Mercury, BepiColombo, along with the NASA Insight mission to Mars, we could really learn what it would take to form a habitable planet.

Q: Recently, the issue of gender inequality in space programs was highlighted again thanks to the debacle of the size of the space suit. What do you think about that topic?

A: Argh. It's enough? Of course, safety should come first when considering any activity in space, so the decision to abandon the first spacewalk for women when it was discovered that the size of the space suit was not adequate was the only sensible option. But it is frustrating that work to recruit girls in STEM fields is frustrated by the lack of equipment necessary to do their job. The Canadian geophysicist and science communicator, Mika McKinnon, recently wrote that women often need to pay a security tax to provide their own equipment, even in the field work of the Earth, since the sizes provided favor men.

If it costs more to hire a woman due to lack of equipment, that will be another barrier that has nothing to do with capacity.

Q: You are doing talks with the author of Y / A Ria Voros, who uses you as a character in her new book El centro del universo. How does it feel to be a role model in a work of fiction?

A: I've heard people talk about writing a book like having a baby book; a reflection on the amount of work that is dedicated to constructing the narrative and the amazement of seeing the finished product printed for the first time. In truth, I suspect that this is not a perfect analogy! Seeing my own printed book was an incredible experience, but seeing myself as a character in Ria's book was perhaps even more bizarre. Ria places me in the Center of the Universe doing activities that I have done many times; giving talks to people interested in planets. In fact, in the book I give a talk in Seattle that Grace can not attend; When Ria contacted me for the first time, I was really about to visit the United States to do exactly that! It is quite amazing to see the experience that I have had many times through the eyes of another person.

When I first read The Universe Center, I was not too worried about how they portrayed me. Ria had a story to tell, and I was happy that my character was used to help in that story. But even though Ria and I had only exchanged a few emails, I was surprised at how much I saw myself in Elizabeth's fiction. The fictitious advice that I give to Grace is definitely the kind of thing I would say to an aspiring astrophysicist, namely: the goal is amazing and should go for it, but do not hold back when not considering other opportunities as they appear. I felt very proud that Grace saw me like that and, I hope, of Ria's readers. It's amazing to have a book with a strong female STEM protagonist like Grace.

The new novel by Ria Voros, The Center of the Universe, Vancouver. Photo: Courtesy of Kids Can Press.

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Q: Have you seen the increase in the promotion of STEM studies among young girls who bear fruit in their field?

A: I feel that this is definitely a work in progress, since women are losing STEM at different points throughout the race.

Many girls stop being interested in science in their early teenage years, since it is considered an interest of children, and they present to the incipient female scientist the absolutely ridiculous option to identify with their gender or their interest in science. Just what ?! I suspect that language makes a big difference here: terms like manned spacecraft or saying something is a girl's program because it's easier to use, it simply underlines the concept that you can not be a girl and a true scientist. What the hell do they have to do with each other? So, while I have also been guilty of using language carelessly, I believe that this movement to neutralize words to terms as a crew has the potential to make a difference.

I have seen first-hand the different role models they can do, which makes me particularly honored to be included in Ria's book as a role model for Grace. My first job as a professor was at the Hokkaido University in northern Japan. After the first year, one of the graduate students in astrophysics who had just completed his doctorate sent me an email in which he told me that he would never have applied to his next research position if it had not been for me. I was surprised, since I never felt that I had tried to persuade her to stay in academia or to change her mind about the next step in her career. Then I realized that just seeing someone a few steps above you on any scale of the race can make a big difference as to whether you see yourself there.

Q: What do you say to those who wonder why we spend so much money on studying space, going to Mars, etc., when we have real-time problems here that could use the money?

A: I think there are many answers to this, both in terms of the resulting technology that develops, for example, the CCD in your iPhone's camera was developed for astronomy, just like the technology that is used in medical imaging tools , such as magnetic resonances or computed tomography (CT) scanners, and in terms of inspiring the next generation of scientists. For me, I find the second example, perhaps the most powerful argument. In "The center of the universe", my character tells Grace that the aspiration to astronomy is amazing, but he should not ignore other possibilities for his future. Space exploration and astronomy are very visual sciences, which allow young and old people and from all walks of life to participate and enjoy the results. How many people do you think saw the first image of the black hole this week? Of them, I am sure that many were still in school and perhaps for the first time, they saw themselves as a scientist who made such a discovery. Some of these young people can pursue careers in astronomy, but many may find that their love for science leads them to become surgeons, engineers or marine biologists. The power of space to attract people to our global effort to understand the Universe that I truly believe pays for itself hundreds of times.

Q: What is your favorite novel or movie in space and why?

A: I admit, I loved Interstellar. The planets that are visited in the film seem to be similar to Earth in terms of what we can see from Earth, but when the crew arrives they find very different worlds. This is exactly why I am excited about the diversity of planets: the worlds of the size of the Earth that we have discovered so far have nothing to do with our own planet, and I find that exciting! I also like the fact that the ending was completely crazy. For Cooper to return to Murphy, he has to get into a black hole. We have no idea what is beyond the event horizon in such a location, but it is not a good bet to return home. This emphasized for me the distances to these neighboring worlds and how difficult interstellar travel would be. But this does not mean that we will not learn more about the exoplanets that we have discovered: as the telescopes improve, we will discover their atmospheres and we can even visualize them directly. This tells us a lot about what it would be like to be there and, possibly, if someone is already there.

dgee@postmedia.com

twitter.com/dana_gee


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