Hometown U: UAA astronomer opens heavens to audience

Hometown UJanuary 19, 2013 

Dr. Travis Rector is associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

PHOTO COURTESY OF UAA

Where is heaven? What's the center of the universe? Isn't that a UFO?

Those are all questions UAA astronomer Travis Rector has fielded in public forums while sharing news of the cosmos with fellow Earthlings.

He's the first to admit that it is hard to put the universe in context for an audience that knows only Earth.

"As Carl Sagan so eloquently said, 'That little dot is everyone who has ever lived, all the things that have ever happened on Earth.' "

But Earth is only a piece of the universe. Sagan also wrote, "We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people."

Our home's tiny size is hard to grasp intellectually. Seeing it is downright unsettling.

The gasps are audible, Rector says, during a planetarium program called "Scales of the Universe," when he and computer technology whisk the audience away from our familiar blue orb, out past the edge of the solar system, out past our galaxy, out past places that can't even see our galaxy.

Sitting through that program left me with a sense of utter unimportance that lasted for days. I felt relief. Why worry--about anything? We're such small stuff.

I wondered if studying the universe allowed Rector to more easily detach from Earth and its concerns. As it turns out, hardly.

"Kids ask me all the time, 'What's your favorite planet,' " he said. "Well, it's the Earth. Have you looked at any of the others? They aren't nearly as interesting as the one we're on.

"That we have a place where life originated and evolved into what it is now is extremely rare. We don't even know how rare. We don't know if it's one in a million, or one in a trillion. And, we don't see anything close to what we have here. We may never."

He calls Earth "very, very small and very lonely." Understanding its fragility only increases his concern. He wishes more people worried.

"I think if people had a more cosmic perspective, if they had a better understanding of the finiteness of Earth, that might give them a greater appreciation for what we have."

I also wondered if studying something as immense and terrifying as the universe made him think about God, or a god.

"I get those questions," he said. He's never been religious, but he knows some very religious scientists, he said. By necessity they hold these two realms distinct based on the different ways they function.

"Religion is based on belief, and science is based on disbelief," he said. "When I go to a conference and I'm listening to a talk, I don't necessarily think the speaker is lying to me, but I'm trying to think of alternative explanations for what they are saying. I'm skeptical. The way science moves forward is by a constant willingness to change how you think about things."

Rector is empathetic when people ask, "Where is heaven?" Man once believed that earth was the realm of sin and decay and death. The heavens, conversely, were the realm of the pure and the eternal and the unchanging.

"So it was a big deal for Galileo to look at the moon and say, "Hey, look, there's mountains on the moon, and there are shadows. They look just like the mountains here on Earth." Galileo shattered the presumed division between "up there" and "down here."

Now science sees the heavens and the Earth on a continuum; the same rules of physics govern both.

That ever-changing story is a real challenge for students studying science, Rector said, because they often expect knowledge to be static. "They assume a scientist is a person who knows all the stuff in all the books on that shelf."

This too he finds understandable. After all, when they take a science class, students get tested on how well they remember what they've been taught. And truthfully, much of what they learn, like Newton's Law, hasn't changed in hundreds of years.

But then there are all the unknowns. Scientists thrive on the border between the known and the unknown.

"Take dark matter and dark energy," Rector said. "People say, 'That's crazy, we don't even know what it is.' But our understanding is improving and changing every week. Science is the constant process of improving what we know."

If there is one example of how well Rector manages to integrate Earth and the universe in front of an audience of nonscientists, it may be the answer he gave to one planetarium visitor who'd just watched "Scales of the Universe."

"So what is the center of the universe?" the man asked.

Rector smiled.

"My 4-year-old daughter. At least, she thinks she is."


Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

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