SPP: So have you always been interested in the universe? Did you know you wanted to make a career out of it? I mean many kids have stared up at the sky and wondered what is out there, but often that’s kind of where it stops.
Dr. Marcy: Well you know in my case, it’s funny you mentioned kid staring up at the sky, when I was 13-years-old I can remember my parents bought me a poster of the solar system. And it sat on my wall right next to my bed, so I had a little twin bed and right on the wall was this picture of the sun and Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, all the moons of all the planets were there, and the rings of Saturn. I stared at that poster and I was just amazed at the beautiful images of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn and all the moons that went around them.
I remember being pretty captivated at that age about the sort of beauty and clockwork of the universe. Of course that was just the solar system, but that was enough. Then the next year my parents having noticed that I was staring at that poster they bought me a used reflecting telescope four inches in diameter, pretty small telescope. But I still have that telescope to this day. I love that thing I took it out onto the roof of our house in Los Angeles and I would look at Saturn and the Andromeda galaxy and really just I was quite taken by the enormous grandeur and exclusive beauty of the universe.
SPP: Right. So you did know kind of early on that this is what you liked.
Dr. Marcy: Well I knew it’s what I liked but I certainly didn’t think you could make a living at it. How do you make a living sketching images of Saturn’s moons? That never occurred to me and even when I went to college at UCLA I thought well I’ll be a science major, I majored in physics and I took some astronomy classes, but I didn’t think that you could become an astronomer, I didn’t know anybody who was an astronomer, and I also didn’t think I was smart enough to be an astronomer. So I had a lot of strikes against me there.
SPP: Well actually that’s another good topic I’d like to just bring up quickly. How did you take it to the next step? I mean how did you get to where you are? Obviously I was reading about you and went to your page and you’ve really done a lot in the field and it’s quite incredible. So I was wondering how does that come about.
Dr. Marcy: I was taking physics and chemistry and math classes at UCLA and I thought I’ll dabble in astronomy, I really love astronomy, but when I graduated from UCLA I applied to graduate school and I thought well gee I’ll apply to graduate schools to try to get a PhD in Astronomy. But I didn’t know if I would get into any graduate schools, and again whether I was good enough to even be an astronomer, but a few schools actually accepted me. In fact a lot of schools accepted me into their graduate program.
So I just took it one step at a time when I went to graduate school at UC Santa Cruz I felt like I was just going to do the best I could. I wasn’t the smartest kid that was for sure, but every step of the way I just said “Well I’ll keep going and see how far it gets and when I fail I’ll drop out. And I will know that I’ve done the best I could do and have a good time and that would be that. Somehow every step of the way that the world kept opening the door and saying “Okay keep going.” When I got my PhD I got a Post Doctoral Fellowship that was a really nice prestigious one. I couldn’t believe it. So every step something good happened.
SPP: Well for our listeners who are unaware, can you kind of give us an overview of what it is that you do? I know you have a specialty which I’d like to hear about, but I’d also like to know kind of the grander scheme what you do.
Dr. Marcy: Well people say in a nutshell that I’m a planet hunter. They say it in a little bit of a joking way, but that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years or so. I developed techniques to discover planets around other stars, planets that orbit other stars that you can’t see. Even with the most powerful telescopes even with Hubble you can’t actually see planets, at least not easily, that orbit other stars. The planets are just lost in the glare of the host star, even with Hubble.
So we’ve developed some new techniques. And one technique that I developed that was very successful was to watch the star not the planet because you can’t see the planet, watch the star to see if it wobbles in space as it’s yanked on gravitationally by the planets. So a planet is going around the stars, held of course by gravity, but in turn the planet yanks gravitationally on the star making the star a wobble around every orbit of the planet.
So we were able to do that and we actually used the Doppler Effect measure the orbits of the planets, the masses of the planet, the occurrence rate of the planets. So we learned an enormous amount. We found Jupiter size planets, Saturn size, Neptune size planets, and we’re heading towards finding the first earth like planets in the universe.
SPP: While we’re on the subject of things I completely don’t understand, months ago we did an episode on astronomy, as I mentioned to you earlier. And at that time we had some listener’s kind of equated astronomy and these new discoveries to a type of religion, because it’s so hard to fathom these things that are so difficult to understand. What is your response to that in terms of jus the Average Joe these things are so farfetched? Have we really nailed it down to a science where you can say these things with any real certainty?
Dr. Marcy: This is a great question. And I’ll tell you there’s a bunch of answers but I’ll give you that just grabs me. In science it’s very competitive. There are a lot of astronomers, for example in the world, and when one of astronomer makes a claim that they’ve discovered let’s say a planet around another star other astronomers would love to show that that first astronomer was wrong. It’s sort of a badge of honor to be able to say “Oh I made better measurements, I’m smarter, I have a better telescope, and I’ve just shown Astronomer X was wrong because I’ve done it better.”
So that’s the competitive sort of dog eat dog world of science that you don’t hear much about in which egos are involved and people are trying to one up each other. And that’s healthy, that’s a good thing because what happens is this, I go out with the telescopes I have at hand. I discover a new planet, or at least I claim to do so, and now other scientists go out and they use their equipment, their telescopes. They try to shoot me down. They try to take data, actual measurements that show that I was wrong, and they can publish a paper saying I was wrong.
That’s the beauty of science that we have a culture in which doubt and skepticism really prevails. If somebody something in science in general, certainly in astrophysics, and it turns out to be wrong. The other scientists jump on that first scientist and white paper, published papers, showing that the first person was wrong. So it’s very hard to go out and make claims and get away with it if you’re wrong. The bottom line in science somebody else who doesn’t really agree with you should be able to do the experiment, make the measurements, and say yes or no about the results you’ve claimed.
SPP: I love that that’s a great answer. And it’s something I didn’t know because personally I believe that. I mean that that checks and balances system is great. We put our faith in numerous things that we have nothing close to that checks and balances and it seems only logical that we trust something that is verified by so many different intelligent people.
Dr. Marcy: Well I really agree with that. Just to amplify what you said think about prominent people in our public lives. For example, government officials, politicians, they might say something. Oh we should cut taxes and the society will be better, or somebody else say we should change the law on immigration and society will be better. But there’s no way to check that, people can just say anything it’s their believe. In religion similarly one priest can stand up and say one thing about what happened 2000 years ago, a rabbi can stand up, and somebody in a mosque can stand up and say something. But you can’t usually check the belief that God did this or some miracle happened 3000 years ago, but in science the hallmark is whatever it is you claim, whatever discovery you think you’ve made or fear you think you have somebody else has to be able to come along and verify it if they can. Your theory or your observations aren’t worth very much.
SPP: I’m glad we asked that because that’s something I hadn’t realized. Now I’d like to go back to what you were saying about finding earthlike planets. You’d mentioned in a previous conversation that we had that there’s a new NASA Kepler Mission to discover those earth like planets. I was hoping you could tell us a little more about that. Because coming from someone who doesn’t know much about it all it sounds kind of science fiction almost.
Dr. Marcy: Well this is absolutely unprecedented. NASA launched two years ago March 2009 a telescope in space called the Kepler Space Telescope. And this telescope does one thing unbelievably well, much better than the Hubble. It takes pictures, snapshots with a digital camera at the back of it of 150,000 stars every minute, minute after minute. And it simply measures the brightness of those stars that come out in those pictures.
And the idea is this, if a planet should be orbiting that star, any one of the 150,000 stars, and if that planet crosses in front of the star there will be a little blockage of the starlight dimming the star a little bit. And the star will dim every single time the planet orbits in front of the star over and over and over again, giving you a repeatable detection of this dimming of the star, telling you for sure that it has a planet. But it’s better than that.
The time it takes in between dimming tells you the so-called Orbital Period the time of the orbit and also the amount of dimming. Does the star dim by 1% or a tenth of a percent or a 100th of a percent? That amount of dimming tells you how big the planet is. The larger the diameter of the planet the more starlight the planet blocks, so you gain knowledge of the orbit and the size of the planet with this Kepler telescope. I can tell you that we’ve already discovered over 1300 planets or planet candidates, as we call them, because some of them might turn out to be wrong but we’re checking them. And most of them are undoubtedly right.
So this is an absolute avalanche of planets around other stars that we humans are finding for the first time.
SPP: That’s unbelievable. Such a great explanation because I can totally picture how that works and why it works, and I don’t know I just get fired up when learning things like that.
Dr. Marcy: It’s a neat thing. It’s a simple idea even a first grader can understand the…
SPP: Yeah absolutely. Now when you say earth like what does that men exactly? It doesn’t mean that there’s water, oxygen, or a chance of life, or something like that does it.
Dr. Marcy: Guess what?
Dr. Marcy: You’ve just asked the most profound question for which we don’t have an answer. And I’ll embellish your question with some ideas about how ignorant we are its kind of a fun thing. The term earth like really begs the question what properties does a planet have to have to render it like the earth? And we actually don’t know what it is about our planet earth that makes it special. Is it the size, the chemical composition, the silicate mantel, the iron nickel core, is it the atmosphere with its oxygen and nitrogen and other? Is it the temperature of the earth? Is it the aesthete of the earth? Is it the presence of the moon that somehow guards the earth or maybe the planet Jupiter helps guard the earth?
What are the properties of the earth that make it earth like? It’s kind of humorous, it’s like who was buried in Grant’s Tomb kind of thing. But we really don’t know what makes the earth special. And of course there’s one really hidden aspect of the earth that is looming behind the question of the properties that make it earth like, that looming issue is biology, life. The earth is still to this day the only planet we know that has life on it. So the question really that comes down to what’s so special about our planet earth that allows it to support life, allows life to evolve to intelligent species like humans that is somehow different from the other planets, certainly in our own solar system like Mars and Venice, that have certainly no intelligent life and maybe no life at all.
SPP: Actually this was going to be a question I was going to ask at some point. Anytime I get a chance to speak with someone as knowledgeable as yourself I have to get their opinion. Are we going to find life and are we going to do it anytime soon? I’m really hoping that happens while I’m alive so I’m hoping the answer is yes, but I was wondering what you think?
Dr. Marcy: Well it’s a frustrating situation because to back up a minute we all have watched Star Trek and Star Wars and we’ve read science fiction novels and other science fictions, Avatar and so on. It seems like according to science fiction that Milky Way Galaxy is teaming with intelligent life. And so it’s frustrating that in fact scientifically we actually haven’t got a shred of evidence that there’s any life out there in the universe at all.
Now that’s not to say that it’s not out there but it’s rather I would say a daunting task to discover life on some other planet, maybe a planet on another star. And it’s not clear. We don’t know how long it will be, next month, next year, next decade, or maybe not for over a century that we discover life elsewhere. So it’s just one of these scientific journeys, a quest, where you really don’t know if the treasure is out there beyond your reach, just beyond arms length or whether we really have a long ways to go.
SPP: Right it is frustrating. And you know I’ll tell you what keeps me going actually. When I think about stuff like this I was talking with a friend the other day and we were talking about how if you would have tried to explain the telephone or the television to someone a couple of hundred years ago they’d look at you like you’re crazy. I mean transmitting waves or audio/video across wires and all that, across the world it just sounds impossible. So it always makes me excited because it makes me think that things we think are impossible today could in the near or distant future actually happen. Do you ever think about that in terms of even things like time travel or teleporting?
Dr. Marcy: Yeah. It’s a very good question. And I’ll just embellish what you said. You can imagine Native Americans living here in North America, say 400 years ago, trying to contact alien life using smoke signals. It’s completely silly and they might be wondering why they haven’t received smoke signals back from those intelligent species out there. And of course as you say it’s because our technology may be so primitive, even today that they have appreciated what are the actual technological breakthroughs that will allow us to communicate with other species.
And indeed maybe we’re so primitive that they deem us sort of no more than we being bugs that we may seem so primitive that they don’t bother even trying to communicate with us. Having said that it’s a little bit daunting still that we do have laws of physics that, yeah maybe they’re sort of immature, but there’s a thing called the speed of light that seems to be the cosmic speed limit. Very hard to imagine that if we’re wrong that the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit, but maybe we are wrong. But people have fought very hard about it, including Lawrence Kraus by the way, and everybody agreed but does not seem likely that we’re going to be able to transport people over large distances.
So the idea of us humans traveling to the stars, perhaps traveling like Star Trek from one start system to the next. Those hopes and dreams are still sort of in the fantasy world and there’s no real technology, there’s not even really the basics of science, physics for example that seem to render that a real strong possibility, but you never know. And so we have to keep hunting for new laws of physics and science and new technologies that might allow us to travel to the stars.
SPP: While we’re on the subject of the new technologies I was hoping you could talk about maybe some new technologies that you might be aware of that we do have coming out. I know you told me earlier that there are plans for constructing the world’s largest telescope.
Dr. Marcy: Well there’s something so exciting going on right now in the United States and internationally that I’m jumping out of my socks. We’re trying to build the world’s largest telescope. This would be a telescope we call it the Thirty Meter Telescope, TMT for short. We call it that because the mirror that collects the lights would have a diameter of 30 meters, that’s about 30 yards. Think about that. A football field is a 100 yards across. So this would be a telescope with a mirror that is a third the size of a football field polished to a parabolic shape a good and smooth to within a fraction of the wavelengths of light. So it would be gargantuan telescope allow us to detect the most in galaxies and stars that are all the way back, the light having come to us from nearly the time of the Big Bang.
Dr. Marcy: So it’s a very exciting telescope. I can tell you a little bit more about it if you’re interested. It’s being built by the University of California in conjunction with Cal Tech and Japan, China and India and Canada. So there are four international partners, along with United States universities. And we’ve garnered funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. A lot of money I might say, well over $200 million dollars. So we’re well on our way to building this thing. And it would be located on the big island of Hawaii…
SPP: Oh nice.
Dr. Marcy: …high across a hopefully dormant volcano called Monaca.
SPP: Wow! That’s incredible. So this will hopefully expand our view of the universe. Is that the goal?
Dr. Marcy: You know there’s several capabilities for such a large telescope and one of them is really, and as you say to expand our view, but literally so in the sense that such a large telescope allows you to see galaxies that are very, very far away, so far that they’re extremely faint. So you need a big telescope to detect those faint galaxies and to study them. And galaxies that are very far away sent their light to us some 10, 11 or 12 billion years ago and the light has been traveling here all this time. And that long ago of course was just about the time of the Big Bang. So by detecting galaxies that are far away we’re seeing them as they were when the universe was just a baby.
SPP: So here’s something that just came to me. The Big Bang we estimate happened about, what 13 billion years ago or so?
Dr. Marcy: That’s right.
SPP: Okay so is there a possibility? I mean what if we just made a telescope that’s 40 meters long, could we see to the actual Big Bang? I mean is it just a matter of distance and size.
Dr. Marcy: You know it actually isn’t. It would be nice if true. Here’s the funny thing, early in the universe the first few hundreds of thousands of years, and even millions of years, there were no galaxies, there weren’t even any stars. In fact in the first few minutes of the universe there wasn’t even any atoms like hydrogen atoms and carbon atoms, oxygen atoms. They hadn’t been built up, they hadn’t been synthesized yet from the quarks and the energy and the gluons, and so on, that were floating around the universe, the photons. So we could only look at back so far with regular optical telescopes we need other techniques to see back even farther.
SPP: Yeah I mean it just came to me and I figured it sounds like the bigger the better.
Dr. Marcy: Yeah. That’s a good idea, but the basic point you said is exactly right. The bigger the telescope the farther back in space and in time you can look.
SPP: So just from your opinion what do you think the importance of searching for these planets is? What does astronomy provide us with and I guess planet searching specifically?
Dr. Marcy: Well the main goal in detecting planets on other stars is to open up new real estate that we can sell in lots and try to make a lot of money. Now this really doesn’t, it’s a very interesting issue that hunting for planets and indeed discovering the nature of our solar system, other stars, galaxies and the universe, there’s no profit here. There’s no practical application. You’re not going to have a better cell phone or better television reception or something like that. We’re not going to improve the quality of life here on the earth, at least in material ways.
The real value in finding out about the universe, what it’s made of, how it got to be the way it is, how our earth fits in, those questions really are what you would call aesthetic questions. They’re beautiful questions we like to know, we humans would, how we got here. How do we fit in? How is our planet different from other planets? So there’s a kind of value that’s sort of deep within us, sort of like when you listen to a piece of music that you just love, or see some art that you love or see beautiful scenery.
There’s a richness that we all feel inside when we see something beautiful. And I think learning about our universe, how it was put together or how our planet fits in has that kind of beauty associated with it. We feel like our lives enriched just because we know what we’re a part of and how we came a part of it. So that’s really what astronomy is doing. Ironically by looking out and studying the stars in the galaxies in the universe we’re really searching for our roots here back at home on the earth.
SPP: I agree with you. We may not benefit in any material way but sometimes we have to realize that there are other important things out there, namely where do we come from and why are we here?
Dr. Marcy: Definitely.
SPP: So I know I’ve been asking you some kind of grand questions and we’re not expecting you to say “This is the answer and I absolutely know it”, but you’re probably the best person to ask out of anyone I’ve spoken with and probably ever will speak with. So if the goal is to figure out where we have come from, how far do you think we’ve gotten in terms of answering that question? And where does the science stop in terms of this is what we think and this is what we know?
Dr. Marcy: Yeah it’s a great question and it’s funny I have two answers that I’m formulating in my head as you were asking it and so I’ll give you both answers. On the one hand we astronomers now have surveyed the universe going all the way back almost to the Big Bang. We still have questions about the nature of the Big Bang and the first few minutes and so on. But we understand the science around other stars.
We have a few remaining questions like are there earth like planets. We understand stars quite well, the galaxies that consist of stars. There’s some mysteries about dark matter and something called Dark Energy, of which our universe is composed. So we have some profound questions for which we don’t have the answers, but people generally think well we’ll learn the answer to this and then we’ll sort of cross that T and dotted that I on the universe and figure it all out. And so there’s a sense that we’re close to knowing virtually all there is know with just a few outstanding niggle details. And so that’s answer Number 1.
Answer Number 2 is you complete idiot, why would you answer Number 1 the way you did? Every era of humanity has imagined that they knew everything there was to know.
Dr. Marcy: So we always, our imaginations are taxed. Humans aren’t very good at seeing beyond the horizon and so we see the questions that loom in front of us by this niggle dark energy and our there earth like planets, and so on. And is there life out there? Those are good questions. But maybe they’re even bigger questions. Maybe there’s some other science, some other technology, maybe some other sort of reality that we just don’t appreciate at all, and that’s the way it’s always been throughout humanity that people were near sided, they thought that their civilization was the right one or the only one, that their knowledge was the right or only knowledge. We’ve been proven wrong time and time again every generation. So I’ve got to say we’ve should remain quite humble and imagine that there’s a lot out there and that we’re not even asking the right questions yet.
SPP: Right. That’s why I preference it with I’m not expecting you to know all the answers but just to give me your best guess, so I really appreciate that. Also it’s extremely relevant that I get to talk to you today because as of this recording the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed ending 30 years of shuttle flights. So perfect time to get to speak with someone like you. I wanted to get your opinion, are we doing the right thing? Are we limiting our space program? How do you feel about that?
Dr. Marcy: This is a very good question about NASA basically and ESA in Europe is facing a similar question. One thing has become obvious I think and that is there’s still a lot of promise in space travel, especially traveling to Mars, space probes to Jupiter, Saturn, exploring our solar system, using powerful telescopes in space to study our universe. So the value in NASA has never been greater. Going to the moon was good, but obviously we all want to go beyond. The question is how do you get there, literally and sort of managerially you might say “What is the model of NASA from the administrative standpoint? What structure do we want so that the engineers and the scientists can do the best jobs that they can possibly do?
And I think that what’s happening is it’s taken us sort of 15 and 20 years to figure it out. I think as a society we’re learning that NASA has to work in a different way. It has to have a more competitive aspect in which bidders that can do the work compete for doing that work and the best company will do some of it with NASA sort of overseeing it as an umbrella organization. So there’s a new notion that I think is actually correct that we need to engage the competitive spirit, the capitalism that has made America strong and a lot of the rest of the world strong. Bring that into bear so that the work that NASA needs to do can be done efficiently with modest cost, on time, and really keep the dreams alive of going to Mars and going beyond putting colonies on other planets, but doing it within a cost model, a cost captive site that’s manageable because we just don’t have infinite amounts of money.
So I think NASA’s doing the right thing in that the end of the shuttle era is a poignant moment for us to reflect what do we want? What sort of exploration as a species will make us proud from our generation like Neil Armstrong made people proud in the 60s and 70s, what’s the way that we can explore the universe to make our mark historically as an accomplishment for humanity?
SPP: Yeah and I agree. I think the competition will help us out. Hopefully we’ll keep making these advancements and we’ll keep moving on. Do you have any guess on how long we have until we’re actually able to travel to Mars?
Dr. Marcy: Yeah I’m not an expert on traveling to Mars, but I follow the activity pretty carefully. Unfortunately it’s not easy to go to Mars. Mars is a lot farther away from than the money by a factor of sort of a 100. And so you need spacecraft that can take you there. There are safety issues, human issues. I’ll give you one that’s frightening. If a solar flare goes off while you’re on a spaceship traveling to Mars the particles in that solar wind to the explosion of the particles can propagate into the spacecraft and kill the astronaut onboard. So we need ways to protect ourselves against these cosmic rays or solar wind particles that can carry you. It was sort of lucky going to the moon that that never happened. So there’s challenges just keeping humans alive during the journey that would take about a year to get to Mars, never mind getting them home, and keeping them on Mars in a colony. So these are great challenges and I give you a number. I’m fairly sure we won’t have humans on Mars within the next 25 years, but there’s a real hope that you can do it in 30 or 40 years if you put your mind to it. So the United States really has to stand up with some leadership. And somebody has to say just like the Apollo mission when Kennedy stood up and said “We will go to the moon and return them safely to earth.” We need to have leaders stand up now and say “It might take 35 or 40 years but we will go to Mars and colonize and explore that planet to learn about it and compare it to our home earth.”
SPP: You know it’s funny that you mention that because although it’s before my era my dad always said he remembers really well in one of his kind of favorite moments in history, is when Kennedy did say that about space travel, and then we kind of just made it happen. So I guess it was just a defining moment then political history.
Dr. Marcy: Yeah. And really what is beautiful about that is you can see so clearly how much we need strong and thoughtful leadership and presidents have a lot of capability to carry out that role, standing up inspiring congress to fund a NASA mission. It takes that kind of leadership when somebody articulates, somebody in the presidential position articulates the need to do something and then the whole country rallies behind it. But it really does take some brilliant inspired individual in the White House to do it. And frankly I think Obama is inspired enough to do this and I hope someday he does stand up and say “Here’s a great goal for humanity. It may not be immediately practical but it will inspire our souls.” And I think that’s an important part of being a human being.
SPP: I couldn’t agree more and I really hope it happens. Well Geoff I know I’ve taken up plenty of your time. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and I really, really appreciate you being on the show.
Dr. Marcy: It’s my pleasure. This was great.
SPP: Now I did want to ask you, do you have anywhere you’d like to lead our listeners, any Web sites you’re interested in?
Dr. Marcy: Well I would say the best thing to do that leads to mind is to learn a little more about this Kepler Space Telescope. It’s a sleeper and maybe as profound a mission as NASA has done in the last 20 years. And if you go to www.nasa.gov and hunt for the Kepler telescope you’ll find out more about what NASAs doing with Kepler. And the planets we’re finding, the earth science planets, and how we’re trying to verify them and learn whether they are indeed earth like. So Kepler’s the place to learn more.
SPP: That’s fantastic. Well again thank you so much for being on the show and I hope you continue to find more planets and expand our horizons.
Dr. Marcy: Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure for me.