What is dark matter?
We don’t know exactly, but we’ve got some good ideas. Dark matter shows up in the influence it has on the Universe around us. It’s mysterious, but we’re quite certain it’s there. Its influence drove the formation of structure in the Universe. So, because we have dark matter, we have regions that are dense enough to form stars and planets, galaxies and stars. If it weren’t for this weird, esoteric stuff that we don’t entirely understand, we wouldn’t be here. And I think that’s a pretty amazing thing.
Would you like to travel—literally, not virtually—into outer space?
No, it’s not something that drives me. Take 2001: A Space Odyssey—that’s a movie I’ve always enjoyed, but it’s perfectly fine to see a video stream of Jupiter rather than go there. The film Contact explores some powerful notions, too. And just to flip the idea, Buckminster Fuller once wrote that we’re all astronauts on Spaceship Earth. So we’re traveling through space right now!
If you had to serve on Star Trek’s Enterprise, which captain would you prefer?
Hmm ... that’s tough. I’d have to say Captain Jean-Luc Picard, but that’s because I’m a fan of the actor Patrick Stewart. Of course, there’s an interesting interplay between science fiction and science discovery. They do reinforce each other.
You explore so many data sets from research agencies. What’s wowed you the most, recently?
In 2013, Google Earth [in collaboration with NASA and the NOAA] released a sequence they called the “Black Marble”—very high-res images of Earth at night that they stitched together from multiple satellite images. There was an amazing variety of things you could see: nighttime light from cities, of course, but also from oil rigs in the Middle East and fishing boats in the China Seas. [Also visible were] places where, like in western North Dakota, the excess natural gas from fracking was being burned off. There were many surprises when you zoomed into the details.
What can people do about light pollution that obscures objects in the night sky?
You can visit the website of the International Dark-Sky Association and learn more. I’m impressed that they’ve retooled their message; it’s not only about preserving the night sky, but also about preserving energy and ways to create safer and healthier environments for people who live in urban and suburban areas.
What would you say to a high school student who loves astronomy but doesn’t have good math skills?
If the love of the night sky motivates you, join a local astronomy group. People who share that passion will welcome you with open arms. But if you want to be a practicing astronomer, you do have to be confident of your math skills.
What’s your advice for young people who want to pursue a career in astronomy or astrophysics?
Perseverance! You have to apply yourself to the mathematics, physics, and computer science at this point. No science happens without hard work and the investment of time and energy.