Curiosity Podcast Transcript: What Space Can Teach Us About Our World

Astronomy isn't just about looking up at the sky. In this podcast, the Adler Planetarium's Michelle Nichols delves deep into the lessons that astronomy can teach us about our own world and gives an update on when (and why) we're hoping to finish the "race to Mars." Plus: the surprising relationship many scientists have with religion.

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Curiosity Podcast Transcript

Cody Gough:

I'm curious, what would you say is the value proposition of astronomy?

Michelle Nichols:

Astronomy and space science answers the ultimate, with a capital U, questions. Where did we come from? Then you can extrapolate outwards and really get a sense of our place in this vast universe.

Cody Gough:

Hi, I'm Cody Gough from Curiosity.com. Today we're gonna learn why astronomy matters. Every week we explore what we don't know because curiosity makes you smarter. This is the Curiosity podcast. You might have heard astronomer Michelle Nichols on a special episode of our podcast when she helped us understand why the solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, was such a big deal, but what you didn't hear was the rest of our conversation where we talked about so much more. Today, we get into the core values of astronomy and the international space community. To set up our conversation, here's a quick refresher on what scientists are doing on Mars.

Michelle Nichols:

Mars has been really popular because of NASA "following the water". We've seen evidence that a liquid water, ocean and lakes and rivers and such, used to exist on Mars in the distant past. The next question is, did life ever exist on Mars?

Cody Gough:

Now, enjoy the rest of our conversation on Mars and more.

Do you think the "race to Mars" is more motivated by looking at the history or looking at colonizing it? Are we looking forward or backwards?

Michelle Nichols:

It depends on who you ask. The scientists would say, "Do as much as you can. Learn as much as you can." But, just like we've gone to the moon, our logical next step is Mars, but it's gonna take a lot of effort and a lot of money and a lot of perseverance. A sustained effort over a long period of time. It's gonna require longer space missions than we've ever done before. So, there are many, many, many, many hurdles to have to get past before we can ever think about sending people there to stick around for a while.

Cody Gough:

Sure. I feel like anytime a project kinda gets the kibosh from the budget perspective, maybe from NASA or some other organization, the international community kinda looks around and says, "We can help you out, or we can help you out." What is the global space exploration community like? Is it really that tight? I feel like in the '60s it was the whole U.S. versus Russia thing but ever since then I feel like it's been a bit more the International Space Station and a lot more collaboration. How has that changed?

Michelle Nichols:

The International Space Station is a fantastic example of collaboration between countries because for most of the U.S. space program currently, there is no money that exchanges hands. With one exception, but there's no money that changes hands. Any other country that gets involved in one of our space craft or the International Space Station or what have you, they contribute something. They contribute a thing, an instrument, a module, a rocket, something and so everybody kinda puts their pieces together and low and behold, we have a space craft. I know that that ... I'm being kinda facetious. It's a lot more complicated than that, but when you have 13, 15, 16 countries all working together to create the International Space Station, where it's got the internal volume of a 747 plane, it's enormous and the only place they ever fit any of it together was in space, the first time.

They didn't put all the pieces together like a big Tinker Toy set here on Earth and then take them up one by one. They build them in various places. Some of the stuff already existed. Like, Russia's modules were supposed to have been for the Mir 2 space station that they were going to build and they were going to put up. Well, the didn't. Those are the pieces that they contributed for the International Space Station, plus a lot of other stuff. Other countries have other modules. The European Space Agency, the Japanese so they're all working together and getting along and actually moving forward. For the Curiosity Rover, Spain contributed a weather sensor, kind of a sophisticated weather sensor that was on the rover. Excuse me. So, the international community definitely gets along in space. It's not all perfect and roses and there is [inaudible 00:04:54] along the way, it happens, but it proves it can be done.

Cody Gough:

When it comes to that level of collaboration, I'm reminded of Star Trek: The Next Generation or something where it's kind of a utopia future and everybody kind of works together a little bit. Why is the space community there and no one else in the world seems to be there?

Michelle Nichols:

It's a great question. I don't have the answer to that. It's kind of frustrating, proves it can be done. I think everyone is learning as we go on that space is expensive and it's so much more efficient to have countries work together than to all try to send up our own individual bits and pieces, like it'd be kinda dumb for us to have our space station and a Russian space station and if others want to send them up ... Yeah. If we all work together and I'm talking utopia, pie in the sky sort of thing, but it shows that it actually can work.

Cody Gough:

Sure. So, the space community is the proof of concept for the rest of humanity I suppose.

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah.

Cody Gough:

So then, I'm curious, what would you say is the value proposition for humanity of astronomy?

Michelle Nichols:

In other words, what is the value of looking up, looking out and going exploring?

Cody Gough:

Yeah, what's the value of all that we are learning about space and the universe?

Michelle Nichols:

Astronomy and space science answers the ultimate, with a capital U, questions. Where did we come from? Why are ... Well, I don't want to use the word why. Science doesn't answer thew ord why, religion answers the word why. Science answers all the others: who, what, where, how.

Cody Gough:

Sure.

Michelle Nichols:

Astronomy and space science shows that we are a part of this vast universe. So many times, if you're driving down the street, if you're listening tho this in a car, you're thinking, "All right. I need to get from point A to point B. I'm going to work. I'm going home. I gotta go to the grocery store, gotta pick the kids up." And it's really easy to forget that we are living on the skim of a planet, very outside crust part, and we're just covered by a thin atmosphere, and you go outside that atmosphere. Basically you go a hundred miles up, pretty much, you're in space. Actually, if you go 62 miles up you're in space, but what we strive to do is figure out where did life come from on Earth? Where did it come from? Some place else and it came here? Did it start here? If so, how? We also, we look into the past. Where did the universe ... how did the universe evolve? Where is it going? How is it going to evolve into the future? Astronomy is a really interesting science that the farther out in space you look, the farther back in time you're looking because stuff is just that far away, and it has taken millions of billions of years for the light to actually get to us.

So the thing that you're looking at through your telescope, in the really distant universe if you look at a picture, that thing might not actually be there anymore. So, that's sort of trippy when you think about it. So, astronomy also rolls into it lots of other sciences, geology. You can have geology of Earth. You can have geology of Mars, geology of Venus. You can have geology of anything rocky in the solar system. Biology, life here on Earth. The possibility of life on Mars. What could it look like? What sort of form could it have taken? Chemistry, the chemistry of big, giant gas clouds out there in space. The chemistry of water interacting with rocks on Mars. There's so much of astronomy uses, borrows, steels from all these other sciences where you can look at it here on Earth, but then you can extrapolate outwards and look at other things elsewhere and learn a lot more about them that way. And, really get a sense of our place in this vast universe.

Cody Gough:

It covers so many disciplines, like you just talked about, but an astronomer is just one human being. I presume can possibly be an expert in biology and chemistry and geology and all these other studies. So, when you gather data and you gather information from your telescopes and from other planets and things, do you then work with other scientific organizations to kind of help understand that data and information.

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, yeah, that's happening more and more that if you put out a scientific paper in a biology journal, some of that information could be really relevant to those astrobiologists who are investigating the possibility of life on other worlds. Or, learning about volcanoes on Earth. There could be some really relevant stuff to the volcanoes on Mars or what have you. So, there are definitely scientists cross disciplined who are working to learn like, oh, you have this bit over here, I could use that in my bit over here. So, yeah, that definitely happens.

Cody Gough:

Okay. You mentioned earlier too, the scale of everything and we're just these tiny beings on this tiny crust of this tiny planet and this tiny universe and the whole galaxy and everything. I've been to the Adler and I've seen some of these giant walls of just stars and then you've got that pale blue dot. You look at and, I'm sure you're familiar with it, the effect where you're in space and you see the Earth for the first time. There's an effect that affects astronauts, that I'll remember later that kind of once you've seen the whole planet, it gives you a totally different perspective on everything. Everything seems much less significant and just totally changes the perspective.

Yeah, I got nothing. Ashley, can you help me out here?

Ashley Hamer:

Sure. You're thinking of the overview effect. There's a colorful quote from Apollo 14 pilot, Edgar Mitchell about that. He said, "From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, "Look at that you son of a ..." well, you get the picture.

Cody Gough:

When I walk in to a planetarium and I see how small and how insignificant we are, it's kind of mind blowing. Kinda freaks you out a little bit. Do you get people that visit that are just, they just can't handle it?

Michelle Nichols:

I think there's some folks who, they don't want to feel insignificant and what I tell them is, "Yes, we may be on this small corner of a small world in an obscure solar system, near the edge of a galaxy in some not highly populated part of the universe, but look at what we've been able to figure out. Think about" ... if you think of a picture of a galaxy in your mind, maybe you've seen a picture of the Whirlpool Galaxy and if you haven't, I suggest looking it up. "Just look up Whirlpool Galaxy. It's a neat looking place and you can actually conjure that in your head. Look at what we've been able to figure out from this little corner. Most of the universe we can't get too. We cannot travel there. The distances are way to vast. Warp speed doesn't exist yet." Sorry Star Trek fans, I am a Star Trek fan myself and we don't have warp speed yet and we won't for a long time. But, the human mind is able and capable of taking us to these places and having us learn about these places, even though we can't go there.

The only other place humans have been in the universe is the moon. So, our spacecraft have been to other places in the solar system, our spacecraft and our telescopes get information from other places in the universe. Basically, the light that comes to us is a vast amount of the information that we get. Then we can learn everything, almost, by the light that comes to us, by gravitational waves and that whole emerging science. So there's so much left that we need to learn. We haven't answered all the questions yet. So, that insignificant feeling, for me, at least starts to go away at that point. Once I go, "Oh yeah. We've done pretty well. We've done pretty well from this little spot."

Cody Gough:

That makes sense. I was actually surprised earlier when you mentioned religion. You mentioned kind of that sciences answers the what and the how a little bit and then you said that religion maybe has a role in the why. I assumed, just walking into any kind of scientific environment, that religion's just not part of the conversation, it's not something people are going to consider, anything like that.

Michelle Nichols:

Nope.

Cody Gough:

That there are astronomers that can be religious?

Michelle Nichols:

Absolutely.

Cody Gough:

Okay.

Michelle Nichols:

And, one of my colleagues at the Adler is very much involved in that topic. You've also got astronomers who work for the Vatican Observatory. May not have even realized that Vatican has an observatory. Actually, they have two. One's in Arizona, one's outside of Rome.

Cody Gough:

Oh.

Michelle Nichols:

So, they've got a fantastic meteorite collection. The gentleman who's in charge of the Vatican Observatory is an American Jesuit Brother. His name is Brother Guy Consolmango and he's an astronomer. He's so cool, if anyone has ever read any of his books or you've heard him speak, he is one of my favorite people. So, something that people just don't realize is yes, scientists can be religious, some of them very much so and there are a lot of folks who have no problem reconciling the science side and the religious side. There isn't really that much conflict. There have been studies that have come out that have asked scientists if they consider themselves to be religious and it's something like, I may be getting this wrong and my data might be a few years old, but I seem to recall it was something like 60% or 70%.

Cody Gough:

Wow!

Michelle Nichols:

Something like that, but even if it was over 10%, even if I'm getting that wrong by a factor of a few, it's definitely over zero.

Ashley Hamer:

That's what I'm here for. In 2009, the Pew Research Center surveyed a bunch of American scientists and found that 51% of them believe in some form of deity or a higher power. That's a lot lower than the 95% of the general public who call themselves believers, but it's nothing to shake a stick at.

Michelle Nichols:

So, yeah, it's not that big of a deal. I think the non-scientific community thinks that there is a big war going on.

Cody Gough:

Maybe a grudge.

Michelle Nichols:

No.

Ashley Hamer:

Another Pew study, this on in 2105, found that 59% of the U.S. adults think science and religion are at odds.

Michelle Nichols:

I mean, there are some people who are definitely outspoken in their beliefs or non-beliefs, which is totally their jam. If they want to do that, but they don't necessarily speak for the entire scientific community when they do that.

Cody Gough:

Wow! That's super interesting. You mentioned you're into Star Trek too. Have you found that a lot of your colleagues are pretty into science fiction or do they just see something that's a term that's totally misused and they say, "All right. I can't get into this."

Michelle Nichols:

No. I definitely have colleagues who you have to ask them, do you fall on the Star Trek side or the Star Wars side? I think we've got both. So, yeah, it's a thing. Which is why when we have our REEL, R-E-E-L science nights or we show a movie and we talk about the science related to the movie afterwards, I mean we've done Star Trek IV, we've done Star Trek II, we've done various other movies and it's just a lot of fun to see my colleagues really get into the kind of campiness of some of the movies, not necessarily Star Trek, and really get into the science fiction side. Because then you can put the scientist hat away for a little while and just kind of relax with it, and just kind of go with it.

Cody Gough:

Yeah, that makes sense. I wanted to ask too, as an educator, you see a lot of kids run through. I feel like when I was little, it was kind of a cliché, people would say, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" Everybody would say an astronaut. Given that it's been so many years since the moon landing and some major events like that, have you seen that change at all or do you still see a big interest from a lot of people?

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, still see a big interest. If I ask folks, "How many of you, if you got the chance to go to space, would?" Of course, that's a different question as would you want to be an astronaut, as in a career or a part of your career. So, I've gotten the question a lot of times, do I lament the fact that people can't name names of astronauts right now. That, if you name an astronaut, you're probably still thinking Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, the folks from the '60s and early '70s, which is okay because there were only a handful of them then. Only 12 human beings have ever walked on the moon. So those pools of people are small.

We've had several hundred people go into space. It's a career. It's an actual job and I think it's perfectly fine if we can't name a particular name. Can you name the name of, I don't know, I'm gonna make this up, the first female bus driver in the United States? I don't know. I'm sure it was somebody. There's probably some record somewhere, but there's so many female bus drivers it's a thing. It's a job, everybody can do it. So, I we start to think of it like that, it's okay that we can't name those names, but people still find space fascinating and some of them would like to experience it themselves. Some would want to keep their feet firmly planted on planet Earth and that's totally okay too.

Cody Gough:

Sure.

Ashley Hamer:

It is okay that people can't name a lot of astronauts but I'm gonna name some of my favorites anyway. May Jemison was the first African American woman in space and currently leads the 100 Year Starship, a NASA and DARPA initiative to make interstellar travel happen within the next century. Mark and Scott Kelly are identical twin astronauts who just participated in a NASA study to examine how a year in space affects the human body. Scott went to space and Mark stayed home. Hope there isn't any sibling rivalry. Peggy Whitson was the first female commander of the International Space Station. The oldest woman in space, at 56, and the longest serving American in space, with a record at the time of this recording of 640 days. And, Chris Hadfield, who doesn't love Chris Hadfield? He was the first Canadian commander of the ISS and the first Canadian to walk in space, but you probably know him as the astronaut who plays David Bowie on guitar in microgravity.

Cody Gough:

You've met astronauts I'm guessing.

Michelle Nichols:

Yep.

Cody Gough:

What are they like? My assumption is, because you've got to have a very strong psyche and NASA does all these psychological tests to make sure that you're not gonna snap or go crazy or have a temper tantrum or anything like that. So are they all very stoic or kinda bland or is the ...

Michelle Nichols:

No. They're and interesting bunch. The folks that I've met have all been very nice, very passionate about what they do, very passionate about sharing it with people, sharing their experiences about what they saw or did when they went up into space. Some of them are really funny.

Ashley Hamer:

Astronauts actually have good personalities by design. In addition to passing a bunch of physical and psychological exams, you have to face an interview panel who decides whether or not you're the kind of person they'd like to spend six months with in some pretty cramped quarters. In that scenario, it pays to be friendly and quick with a joke.

Michelle Nichols:

I had lunch with Buzz Aldrin a few years ago and just, I could listen to him talk forever about his passion for thinking beyond the moon, for example. Like, yeah, we've the moon, been there done that, moving on. He called it, during that lunch session, he called it an off ramp, but if the final destination is an asteroid or Mars, sure we can go to the moon. It's an off ramp, but think farther.

Cody Gough:

Leave it to a guy who's been to space to say, "Nah, the moon isn't far enough."

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, the man who's actually walked on the moon [crosstalk 00:21:55] is the second person to walk on the moon, who's picture is actually most of the pictures from the Apollo 11 mission. Most of the pictures are actually of Buzz because Neil was the one carrying the camera.

Cody Gough:

Yeah, wow. [crosstalk 00:21:55] Wow.

Michelle Nichols:

So, when you see pictures of the astronauts, a lot of times, they're Buzz. So, these folks they're self-confident, of course. They're in good shape, of course, you have to be, to be able to do their job, but they're not super human. They're not other worldly. They're normal people who just do a somewhat abnormal job.

Cody Gough:

Wow.

Michelle Nichols:

In my opinion.

Cody Gough:

What do you wish more people knew about your field?

Michelle Nichols:

Boy that's an interesting question. I guess, the planetarium specifically, no we don't have our eyeballs up to telescopes all day long and all night long.

Cody Gough:

Do you get any questions regularly and you say, "No."

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, we sometimes get the question, "So, did you guys take a picture of the moon last night?" "No. No, we don't take pictures of the moon every night." But, I guess the one thing that I wish more people would think about is just go outside, just glance up in the sky. It's nighttime, glance up, see what you can see. Maybe that next step for you, if you want to learn what's up there, maybe get that phone app where you point it at the sky and like tell you what you're looking at. There's a lot of them out there. There's no one, really great one, they're all really good. So, pick out an app. Point it at the sky. What's that bright thing that you're looking at? Maybe if we're bringing a telescope to your neighborhood, come on out and see us. Chat for a while. Stick around.

We see that happen a lot where we're take a telescope out for an hour and a half and people will stick around with us for 45 minutes to an hour. Just chatting, look through the telescope, chatting some more, chatting with each other, chatting amongst themselves. This little community builds up around the telescope and for that hour, hour and a half or so and then it disperses and then we see it form again at a different location, at a different time, and a different date, then it disperses. So, I think just remembering the sky is above us, and just glancing up there every now and then and maybe, like I said, take that next step maybe to learn a little bit, and then maybe a little more.

Cody Gough:

Then once every handful of years, you get a community of several tens of thousands of people popping up to watch an eclipse.

Michelle Nichols:

Exactly. That's exactly what we hope for. We want people to look up, to get eyeballs to the eyepiece and really start to value the sky above us because it's the one resource we all share. We all have the sky above us. We don't all have access to the same resources, but we've all got a sky. So, definitely look up, check out what's there. Come to the Adler Planetarium, we can teach you some more. Come see us if we've got a telescope out and maybe go see a solar eclipse at some point, or a lunar eclipse.

Cody Gough:

Sure. My last couple questions are about the state of privatization with space exploration and space travel. First of all, what's the deal with lower Earth orbit and why are so many private companies getting into this lower Earth orbit thing?

Michelle Nichols:

It's because NASA has basically said, low Earth orbit, which is essentially, think of it as where the space station is, that essentially is low Earth orbit. NASA has basically said, "Okay, we've been there. We've done that and we're gonna turn lower Earth orbit over to the private companies. We're gonna think farther. We're gonna go to Mars. We're gonna go to an asteroid at some point. Gonna go back to the moon at some point." So, having these private companies have access to all this technology that previously only a governmental agency likeness had access too, so here all you private companies.

There's probably oodles of things that you'll want to do with low Earth orbit like set up an inflatable hotel habitat, it's one of them Bigelo Aerospace is thinking about something along those lines, sometime in the future possibly. Or, space tourism. Go up into low Earth orbit and hang out for a little while. Or, there might be a whole lot of other things that we're just not even thinking of. This gives those private companies the opportunity, the access to the technology, and the launch facilities and all that to be able to think about that. The only issue right now is, that currently these companies, a lot of them, they're getting money from NASA to be able to develop their various technologies and their various ways of doing things. So, at what point are the companies gonna be able to pull back from that NASA funding to be able to do things themselves. So, they need to figure out what the long term goal is and what the long term goal is to be able to pay for it.

Cody Gough:

I could just see the future of hotel chains. You look at the job applications. All right, we got concierge, we've to maid room service, we've got the restaurant and we've got astronaut. Wait, what? Or space pilot or space shuttle engineer or something. But what is lower Earth ... I mean, what's the ... Can you see all of Earth from it? I mean ...

Michelle Nichols:

Not all at the same time, no. So, think of low Earth orbit as maybe 150-200 miles up to maybe well, it kinda depends who's drawing the line. I've seen some people draw the line at 1,000 miles up. I've seen even some people draw the line at 15,000 miles up. There's no hard and fast line. Like, here on this side of the line you are in low Earth orbit. On this side of the line you are in medium Earth orbit, or whatever. I'm making that up. So, it's where a lot of our science spacecraft fly, a lot of our telescopes. It is stuff that orbits the Earth in an hour and a half, couple hours.

Cody Gough:

Oh, that fast?

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, yeah. So, that is like the International Space Station, that is in low Earth orbit. It's about 200 or so miles up right now.

Cody Gough:

Wow.

Michelle Nichols:

Where the space shuttle used to fly.

Ashley Hamer:

You might think that because the ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, that's how often we can launch rockets up there. Not so. That's because the Earth is turning too, so every time the ISS comes full circle, it passes over a different point on our planet. There's a lot more that goes into the so-called launch window for an ISS mission, but that orbit mismatch is one reason that when a rocket launch is called off for weather or some other issue, NASA has to wait a few days before they can try again.

Michelle Nichols:

Then you've got geostationary orbit, which is the satellites that are 25-ish thousand miles away and so they are orbiting the Earth at the same rate the Earth turns. So, they happen to then always look like they're parked over a certain spot on Earth, but in fact, they're actually orbiting with Earth so they're orbiting slower and so they are able to view the Earth constantly. View one spot constantly. So, our weather satellites and such.

Cody Gough:

That sounds like a lot of math.

Michelle Nichols:

It is. It is a lot of math. That's the fun part. Depending on if you like math or not.

Cody Gough:

Absolutely. At this point we're going to do what we call a Curiosity challenge. So, I want to ask if you were to go to a site in the National Park system to check out the stars. Where would you say would be the best place to do that?

Michelle Nichols:

I'd say anywhere in the National Park system. It doesn't have any lights nearby, so I won't necessarily single out a "best" place, which is just like, for the eclipse, there's no "best" place to see the eclipse. Wherever it's clear where you are, if you're in the path of totality, that's the best place. But, if I were to personally identify some place that I would like to go to see the stars, it would be Rocky Mountain National Park because my husband and I have been there a couple times and we have yet to see the sky there. Because when we go, which is like August, September time frame, at least the couple times we've gone, it's clear in the morning, starts to get cloudy in the afternoon. It clouds up in the early afternoon, early evening. Then at some point in the middle of the night, it clears up and I don't know when that happens. So, I would love to see the sky from there, but I have yet to actually see the sky from there.

Cody Gough:

Well, I've got one more option for you. Have you ever heard of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico?

Michelle Nichols:

Yes. Yes.

Cody Gough:

Oh, all right then. Well, you've heard of that then.

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, it's a famous archio-astronomy location. Yes.

Cody Gough:

It certainly is. See, I knew you were gonna know about this. In fact, this is what I had in mind for one of the best spots. I learned about Chaco Canyon from Curiosity.com, you can also find it on the Curiosity app and it has its own astronomical observatory.

Michelle Nichols:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cody Gough:

I'm not sure how much about the history you know about it, but it's a 10 mile gorge slashed into the Earth in the northwest corner of modern day New Mexico. It's got really harsh weather, super hot summers, super cold winters, and there's evidence of nomadic civilizations dating back to 2900 B.C. But, the Chacoan people or Chacoan people, lead more than 120 miles of road. It is very advanced and all these things and they precisely aligned their buildings to astronomical landmarks, like the celestial meridian, along with the solar and lunar azimuth. Which is the paths in the sky that the sun and moon follow respectively. Those alignments are important to astronomers because they make it easier to keep track of where things are in the sky. So, that's a place where it has actually been certified by ... it's designated as an international dark sky park, which I did not know this. There's an International Dark Sky Association.

Michelle Nichols:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cody Gough:

And that's an organization that basically designates places dark zones.

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah. So, they are actively working to identify places on Earth that are currently dark and should stay dark. So, promoting good lighting practices in those ares, especially places that maybe there's currently some flexibility with maybe new lighting. So, encouraging lighting that is pointed downward and maybe not too incredibly bright. So, trying to avoid light wastage, where you've got so much light going upward into the sky. That light is completely wasted. Think of how much energy and money is wasted with all that light going up.

Cody Gough:

Oh, that's interesting.

Michelle Nichols:

Think of it this way. Yeah. In Chicago, especially, hey, you go up to the, sorry, I'm still gonna call it the Sears Tower, sorry.

Cody Gough:

Willis Tower.

Michelle Nichols:

Yep. So, go up to the Willis Tower, Sears Tower, whatever you want to call it and you see all the streets at night just arrayed out in front of you and all those orange lights, all those sodium vapor lights. That means all that light is going upward, not downward. So, yeah it looks cool from space, but it means we can't see the sky very well. So the International Dark Sky Association is helping to preserve dark sky locations as they currently are and working with communities to help identify ways that they can get better lighting, where it's more usable on the ground. Because, ultimately, yeah, we want to be able to see. We want to be safe. We want all these things to happen where we are on the ground. We don't need all that light going up into the sky. So, you can go on their website and investigate where those various dark sky parks are, because they're scattered. I think there's some all over the world. It's an interesting topic.

Cody Gough:

Do you know how long light pollution lasts? Let's say Chicago turns out all its lights right now. How many years will it be until we can see stars again?

Michelle Nichols:

So, if let's say Chicago suffers a major power outage and it's 10 o'clock at night. It's after sunset, the lights go out. We see the sky instantly. Light pollution is purely due to the lights that are currently going up into the sky, but you turn all those lights off, you can see the sky. It's happened where parts of the country, that have experienced big power outages. People going outside, they go, "Wait. What's that thing up in the sky?" and it's the Milky Way, which they've never actually seen before. There are definitely stories of that happening in the past few decades. So, yeah. Turning off all the lights, that's not the solution either. Of course, we don't want that, but making the light so it's usable here on the ground. Making it so it's an amount that is the correct amount for what we need.

Cody Gough:

Efficient.

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, efficient and the correct color for being able to see colors of things on the ground. So, there are a whole lot of things to work toward. Lots of folks working on this topic right now.

Cody Gough:

That is mind blowing to me.

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah, the other planetarium is all about good use of lighting and appropriate, proper use of lighting. So, we want to encourage folks to explore this topic for themselves and really investigate what might be good for their community.

Cody Gough:

Yeah, wow. That was supposed to be my information for you, you blew my mind with the light. So, I asked you to just tell me some interesting factoid that has nothing to do with your field or your research.

Michelle Nichols:

Yep. All right. I love cooking. I love Italian food. So, part of my heritage is Italian. So, can you name up to three, and I'm sure there's more, but there's three main food types that would not exist if it was not for foods that were found in North or Central or South America?

Cody Gough:

Wow, this is a really good trivia question. I also have a lot of Italian heritage. I've eaten more lasagna in my life than most people ever will, and it's always delicious.

Michelle Nichols:

Yep, my mom is a great cook. So, yeah.

Cody Gough:

So, I'm just gonna take wild guesses.

Michelle Nichols:

Go for it.

Cody Gough:

Maybe, mozzarella cheese?

Michelle Nichols:

Nope.

Cody Gough:

No?

Michelle Nichols:

Nope. Well mozzarella, the Italian mozzarella is actually bufula mozzarella, so it's water buffalo mozzarella.

Cody Gough:

You really know your Italian cooking.

Michelle Nichols:

I do. I do. I love Italian cooking.

Cody Gough:

Do you know as much about everything as you do Italian cooking and space?

Michelle Nichols:

No, no. Although, I do like to say I'm a font of useless knowledge. So, I can play Trivial Pursuit pretty well.

Cody Gough:

I bet. Yes, next time I go to bar trivia, you're coming along.

Michelle Nichols:

Or, a least the greed wedge with the science, if the green one is still science. I don't even know. I'm thinking of the genius edition from the '80s, so they may have changed the colors for all I know.

Cody Gough:

Yeah, I haven't played that game in a minute. All right, so mozzarella is wrong. Boy, maybe eggplant?

Michelle Nichols:

Boy, that'd be an interesting one. I know that eggplant is used a lot in Middle Eastern cooking, in Italian, Mediterranean cooking.

Cody Gough:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michelle Nichols:

No, I don't know where eggplant came from. I suspect it might be a Middle Eastern plant, maybe?

Ashley Hamer:

Eggplant is believed to have been domesticated somewhere in Southeast Asia, possibly in India, China or Thailand. Historians believe eggplant was brought to the Middle East, Africa, and the West by traders along the Silk Road beginning around the 6th century A.D.

Michelle Nichols:

All right. I'm sure there are probably people screaming at their radios.

Ashley Hamer:

Screaming at me. They're screaming at me right now.

Michelle Nichols:

Like, how could you forget tomatoes? Tomatoes came from those continents.

Ashley Hamer:

From the Americas.

Michelle Nichols:

From the Americas. There were people already here using that stuff. So, tomatoes.

Ashley Hamer:

So, tomatoes came from the Americas.

Michelle Nichols:

Yup. Corn. So, polenta would not exist if it wasn't for foods that were from the Americas. And, potatoes, I think. If I just got that wrong, definitely write into Cody and let him know, but potatoes to make gnocchi.

Ashley Hamer:

Right on the money, Michelle. The first potatoes were cultivated in Peru by the Incas. They didn't come to Europe until the 16th century.

Cody Gough:

Where did you learn this?

Michelle Nichols:

Oh, just sort of one of those strange places where you pick up information and it just sort of seeps in to your brain and then you have no idea where you actually learned it.

Cody Gough:

Well, that is fascinating because tomato I associate with every Italian food.

Michelle Nichols:

Exactly.

Cody Gough:

You don't get Italian food, even in Italy, I've bee to Italy and there's tomatoes on everything.

Michelle Nichols:

Yeah. Depends on where you go, if they use more tomato, less tomato, more butter, more olive oil. Butter in the Northern Italy regions. Olive oil in the Southern Italy regions. More pasta, more rice in some areas versus others. It's a fascinating country of little countries.

Cody Gough:

Sure.

Michelle Nichols:

Because they used to be little countries, so yeah, it's a fascinating place. Someday I want to go there.

Cody Gough:

Well, you definitely stumped me and I have to thank you for taking so much time. I know you went really in depth into lots of things, but this was just really [inaudible 00:39:25]. Space is freaking awesome.

Michelle Nichols:

I agree. Thank you.

Cody Gough:

I've heard. I've heard that somewhere, I'm not sure where. Thank you so much for joining me.

Michelle Nichols:

Thanks for having me.

Cody Gough:

Before I say goodbye this week, I've got an extra credit question for you. Should be easy if you've been speeding enough time on the Curiosity app this month. All right. So, let's say you've got a party starting in five minutes, but all of your drinks are room temperature. Quick, don't panic. Here's this weeks question. What two common items can fully chill your drinks before the party begins. The answer after this.

Hey, want to see the Curiosity podcast live? Well you can, because we'll be doing a live episode of the Curiosity podcast in Chicago on Tuesday, October 3rd as part of the Chicago podcast festival. You can R.S.V.P. for the event on our Facebook page, but keep an eye on it because we'll be posting details about ticket information as soon as they become available. Keep an eye out for more info and stop by and say, "Hi." If you can't make it out, well, that's okay. You can still learn something new every day when you download the Curiosity app for your Android or iOS device. Such as, today's extra credit answer. You can chill room temperature drinks in as little as five minutes with two common items: ice and salt. Yeah, you heard me right. Turns out salt actually lowers the freezing point of water. I'm not gonna get into all the chemistry but just dump some ice and salt and water into a cooler or sink and you've got a slushy solution that can drop your drink into the mid 30s. You can learn more about the chemistry behind this on Curiosity.com. Oh, and while you're there, you can find links to subscribe to the Curiosity podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Sound Cloud and everywhere else podcasts are found. We read every rating and review, so please leave us one so people can see what you think. You can also email us at podcast@curiosity.com. Special thanks to Ashley Hamer for her phenomenal fast facts and thank you for listening. Extra special thanks with a cherry on top if you've told your friends about our show. For the Curiosity podcast, I'm Cody Gough.

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Written by Curiosity Staff August 22, 2017