Lowell Observatory FAQ: Where is God?

A conversation with Dr. Jeff Hall, Director

That Frequently Asked Question, ‘Where is God?’, is one of many the staff hears at the Lowell Observatory, especially during astronomy nights.  In this wide-ranging conversation with Lowell’s Director, Dr. Jeff Hall, we talk about everything from that to Venus and Mars, space debris, the connection between music and astronomy, and much, much more.

The Lowell Observatory is a time machine, from its study of the origins of the universe, to a future of life on other planets, to the hurdles we may be putting up with so many spacecraft in the sky.  To learn more and support the observatory, go to Lowell.edu.

And here’s a story about the total solar eclipse discussed in this episode.


Transcript

Intro with music: Welcome to the StoriesHere Podcast

Dr. Jeff Hall, Director, Lowell Observatory:

I had several people come up to me literally in tears. They were so overwhelmed, particularly if they’ve never seen a total eclipse before. It’s a pretty amazing experience. And I think it’s that absolute wonder and awe of what we see when we look into the cosmos.

Wayne Parker, Host, StoriesHere Podcast

That’s Dr. Jeff Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory, talking about the 2017 total solar eclipse which he hosted on a live program with the Science Channel that was viewed by 1.6 million people. That group was gathered in Madras, Oregon on a high school football field and it was reported that after the eclipse passed, they cheered, “Do it again.”

Wayne Parker:

This is Wayne Parker, host of the StoriesHere Podcast. And on that day, I was about 100 miles to the west in Corvallis, Oregon and experienced totality about three minutes before it reached to Jeff’s Science Channel group. So at 10:18 that morning of August 21st, 2017, we stood in a public park and watched as the sun was totally blocked by the moon plunging our world into darkness. Streetlights came on, and it was truly one of those feelings were words can’t do justice.

In addition to things like explaining eclipses on television, as the director of Lowell Observatory, Jeff helps lead a center that Time magazine named one of the world’s 100 most important places. Are you surprised that this place outside Flagstaff, Arizona, is on a list of the world’s most important places along the Great Wall of China and the Roman Colosseum?

There are many more surprises in today’s StoriesHere episode. Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Wayne Parker, our adviser is museum expert Alice Parman, and original music is by George Davidson.

And did you know the Planet Pluto was discovered at Lowell? More on that to come. It’s also a major education center and has been called America’s observatory. So in their education role, I asked next about any visitor comments that Jeff particularly remembers.

Jeff Hall:

An email will land in my inbox from a mom somewhere and saying literally, you changed my kid’s life because of the experience they had here and the high opening of views they got and the exposure they got to astronomy and science. And knowing that we have positively impacted a young life and maybe inspired a scientist of the next generation, that’s amazingly satisfying and definitely part of why we do what we do.

Wayne Parker:

And how do you look at that bridge between the research and the outreach, because you have a big staff there, you have all these research going on and historically, Lowell is known for real breakthroughs, the discovery of Pluto, really crucial background in understanding the Big Bang. And yet, you do a great conjunction at Christmas last year. There were 75,000 people live paying attention to that and over two million views on YouTube. Jeff, what’s the source of all that interest in astronomy and how do you capitalize on it in that way?

Jeff Hall:

Well, the connection goes all the way back to our founder, Percival Lowell, who believed very firmly that astronomical discovery should not just be confined to academia but should be shared broadly with public. And in fact, the way he often put it was that any member of the public should be able to experience the excitement of discovery in a way that makes them feel like co-discoverers. Like they are discovering this and becoming aware of it in tandem with the researchers. And we carry that through the present day and we don’t …

Jeff Hall:

Sometimes we talk about ourselves as having a dual mission of research and outreach, but I’ve increasingly started to not like that way of putting it because it creates silos. Really what we do is communicate about the nature of the universe and we communicate that to professional audiences, through the peer review journals and scientific conferences and proceedings. We communicate that to the public at a more accessible but no less rigorous incredible level. And it’s all part of unified mission of communicating the excitement and wonder and awe of the universe to everybody.

Jeff Hall:

And it was tremendous to have 75,000 people tuned in for the conjunction. I think the reason that kind of caught lighting in a bottle was the media, of course, hyped it tremendously and a number of the leading media feeds picked up on our stream and advertise it. So we were front and center on some of the most visited websites in the world. And I think that drew a lot of people to our live stream.

Jeff Hall:

One of the other ones that really generated a lot of views, I think we had … Oh, I don’t know, maybe 10,000 tuned in a couple of years ago was the transit of Mercury across the face of the sun. And the comments that came in during that one were saying, “Wow, this is the best stream out there because this is real working, professional astronomers talking about real science and the science of transits and the science of planets and exoplanets.”

Jeff Hall:

So that’s what we try to do is fused the excellence of our research and the results and credibility from a world class group of faculty members and postdocs and students with this communication to the public in an accurate and totally scientifically credible way.

Wayne Parker:

And that’s built on this base of some natural curiosity that many people have about the skies, and about the stars. And especially certain phenomena, in 2017, I was able to be in the path of the total solar eclipse, and it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. And I couldn’t really describe it. I couldn’t put it into words but it was astonishing, and I think that’s what a lot of people experienced they have when they look into the stars and when they learn things about what’s in the sky, right?

Jeff Hall:

It is hard to describe. We did an event in Madras, Oregon for the 2017 eclipse, right on the center line and we had about 3,500 people at our event. We rented basically a football field at the local high school. And indeed, I and one of our astronomers were narrating the eclipse. The Science Channel actually came up and covered it. And so we were doing a play by play but after totality ended, I was kind of wandering around the in-field of the football field and just saying hi and thanking people for coming to our event.

Jeff Hall:

And I had several people come up to me literally in tears. They were so overwhelmed particularly if they’ve never seen a total eclipse before. It’s a pretty amazing experience. And I think it’s that absolute wonder and awe of what we see when we look into the cosmos that excites people and stokes this interest. When New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015, that iconic picture of the heart on Pluto was above the fold of practically every newspaper on the planet. And NASA’s website got whatever plus a billion hits.

 

These kinds of things unify humanity. They’re not about any particular nation or any particular race. They speak to every human being, and I think it’s that sense of exploration and the unknown and awe that makes astronomy such an attractive and interesting and inspiring subject for all of us.

Wayne Parker:

So I’m curious about where this started for you. You have a PhD. You went to Johns Hopkins and Penn State, astronomy and astrophysics and now, you’ve come to this position. Was there in a time in your life when you were young in which you said where you felt that inspiration hit?

Jeff Hall:

Well, it probably grew on me throughout later elementary, middle and high school. I was always interested in numerous different areas of science whether that was physiology or entomology, microbiology, whatever. But yeah, I did end up getting a small telescope in middle school and some really good reference books that I poured through.

 

By the time I got to college, I entered college as a physics major very much anticipating that astronomy was the direction I was going to go. So yeah, it goes way back.

Wayne Parker:

If we go back to that elementary school time and we talk to Jeff in elementary school and we tell him that at this stage of his life, you’re going to be doing this in this position. How surprised would he have been on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the most surprised?

Jeff Hall:

Well, probably 10. I would never … Growing up in Southside, Virginia, I would never have imagined myself ending up living in Arizona which is a very different place from Virginia. I love living here, but no. I was certainly at that age even aware of Lowell Observatory reading Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Of course, he mentions Percival Lowell and Lowell’s studies of Mars. There was even a picture from the Clark Telescope which is right up the hill from my office here.

Jeff Hall:

I was aware of the observatory and its contributions of discovering Pluto and Percival, but no, it never would have remotely crossed my mind that I would end up working here.

Wayne Parker:

So you just mentioned Carl Sagan and so, I’ve seen reference to Percival Lowell was sort of Carl Sagan before Carl Sagan. Is that how you think about it?

Jeff Hall:

Yeah, he has been called the Carl Sagan of his day and that he was a tremendous popularizer of astronomy. Many of the leading science fiction writers of the 20th century such as Edgar Rice Burroughs or H.G. Wells drew inspiration from Lowell. Although a number of his ideas were controversial such as life and intelligent constructions on Mars, he certainly brought attention to the field and popularized it and set an interesting precedent by founding an observatory.

This observatory today, I mean, we are a nonprofit research institution, 501(c)(3). But our origin is we’re not a national observatory. We don’t trace to that kind of origin. We were created essentially by an individual’s inspiration and philanthropy and dedication of resources to something he believed in very deeply. And that’s quite a legacy, I think, that Percival leaves to the world.

Wayne Parker:

And he has three, as I understand, craters named after him on three different planets and an asteroid named after him. It was all of these and yet, he is also famously known for being wrong, as you say, about there being Martians and maybe originated a little bit that term that’s so common in our culture now. Is there some lesson in that and that you can be famously wrong and still make a big contribution?

Jeff Hall:

Yeah. And virtually, every scientist is wrong to a level and that science is always uncertain. Results are rarely ironclad. I mean, there’s a great example is even Isaac Newton was in restricted sense of Newtonian mechanics wrong and that there are areas of planetary motion that can’t be explained purely by Newtonian mechanics. You need Einstein’s general relativity to do it and that builds on what Newton developed.

Jeff Hall:

Now, Lowell’s ideas about canals and intelligent life on Mars were entirely wrong. But the rovers and various missions exploring Mars had made it pretty clear that there was once substantial water on Mars. There may still be these briny seeps that we’re finding. And these latest missions may well turn up evidence of past life on Mars. There may be life elsewhere in the solar system. Interestingly, the icy moons of the outer solar system seemed to be emerging as likely areas where there might be subterranean oceans and possibly life could exist.

Jeff Hall:

Lowell was significantly wrong about his particular ideas of life on Mars, but the general idea of life elsewhere in the universe probably points in the right direction. He was right about the existence of bodies in the solar system past Neptune. Pluto was not exactly what he was looking for. His Planet X he ambition was a considerably more massive object than Pluto, but he was right about the general idea that there was much more in the solar system than the eight classical planets and various small bodies known at that time.

Jeff Hall:

And then finally, we are most famous for the discovery of Pluto perhaps, as well as, Percival’s theories of life on Mars. But in 1912, he also directed then staff scientist Vesto Slipher, to do observations of these odd things called spiral nebulae at that time. They didn’t know what they were, of course, now we understand they are other galaxies. And Slipher with The Clark Telescope right up the hill here on the campus made the very first observations of cosmological red shifts that led to the Big Bang theory and the idea of the expansion of the universe.

Jeff Hall:

Lowell put in motion a number of things that had profound impacts on our understanding of the solar system and the universe. And so, in that sense, he did science and astronomical discovery a great deal of good in addition to his popularizing.

Wayne Parker:

I have so many questions on those things that you just said. Let’s start with Pluto, and it was discovered there and it was named by a young woman, an 11-year-old. How in the world did that happen?

Jeff Hall:

Well, I mean, suggestions poured in from around the world as to what the planet should be called. And the staff at that time and the trustee decided Pluto made a huge amount of sense since it was in line with the naming scheme of the other planets for the gods of antiquity. Pluto was the god of the underworld. And so for a very cold, distant object creeping through the dark depths of the outer solar system, that seemed appropriate.

Jeff Hall:

And then, of course, it starts with PL, which happens to be Percival Lowell’s initials. It made the most sense and they went with that when they decided to announce the name of the planet.

Wayne Parker:

I read that that 11-year-old’s name was Venetia Burney. I wonder what the rest of her life, and this was 1930. I wonder what the rest of her life would be like if you’re in a cocktail party and said what are you known for, and said, “Well, I named Pluto.”

Jeff Hall:

Actually, one story I like about that is Clyde Tombaugh, who was also quite young. He came to Lowell as a fledgling 22-year-old out of Kansas and was put to work on the Pluto search. And very quickly, relatively speaking, found Pluto on these pair of plates that he took in late January of 1930. And in analyzing the plates and studying them and looking for things that were moving, he noticed this thing moving. And at that time, Vesto Slipher, who had done the red shift observations, was the director of the observatory.

Jeff Hall:

And Clyde lived and worked at the other end of the hall here in the Cipher building and he came down the hall, and right into this very office I’m sitting in right now and said, “Dr. Slipher, I have found your planet X.” And I get goosebumps whenever I tell that story because imagine what Clyde must have felt as this early 20-something having made that kind of a discovery, and a discovery that was going to make Lowell Observatory world famous forever.

Jeff Hall:

Yeah, it’s heavy stuff when you make a really cool discovery like that.

Wayne Parker:

So what Clyde did is some combination of diligence, and also I presumed, really good timing and a little bit of the roll of a dice?

Jeff Hall:

A little bit of all that. Clyde certainly, diligence, persistence, meticulous attention to detail searching these hundreds of pairs of photographic plates by eye and looking for what turned out to be this very faint object. Pluto is about 14th magnitude in the astronomer’s crazy brightness scale where by the time you’re down to 14th magnitude, you’re just in a sea of stars. And so picking that out took tremendous attention to detail. And I have great admiration for Clyde’s persistence and care.

Jeff Hall:

Certainly, there was a bit of luck. Percival spent years calculating where he would expect a trans-Neptunian planet to be based on what appeared to be perturbations that you wouldn’t expect in the motions of Uranus and Neptune. Pluto, it turned out it was discovered within about two degrees of where Lowell predicted it would be purely serendipitous.

Jeff Hall:

As it turns out, Pluto is not nearly massive enough to have significant enough gravitational influence to affect the motions of other planets. It turned out that was just some inaccuracies in measurement. But nevertheless, it turned out very close to where he predicted it would be. And sometimes those amazing seeming coincidences happen in science.

Jeff Hall:

They’re low probability events. But that’s how probability works. You look at enough events and do enough things, every now and then something really weird is going to happen and it’s not magic. It’s not voodoo or anything. It’s just how the probability of events works. And in this case, it led to the discovery of a planet.

Wayne Parker:

Did I read correctly that that diameter of Pluto was about half the width of the United States?

Jeff Hall:

Yeah, something like that. It’s quite small.

Wayne Parker:

You have said Pluto is your favorite planet. And yet in 2006, a group took a vote and said it was no longer a planet. What were your emotions when you first heard that?

Jeff Hall:

First of all, the famous “demotion” of Pluto by the IAU ultimately was good for Lowell. We must have spent, I don’t know, two or three days solid after that announcement with press from all over the world. And we took a nuanced approached to it. Obviously, it stirred up a lot of emotions. It’s sort of, “Oh, it’s a planet. Oh, it’s not a planet.” The way we framed our initial argument was, “Look, regardless of what you call it, it’s a fascinating world.” We have a little spaceship on the way there right now. One of astronomers is one of the mission leaders and Pluto, regardless of what you call it, is going to have a lot to tell us about the origin and history and evolution of our solar system and about its distant past.

Jeff Hall:

We stayed out of the fray at that time because there was no way to get into it without either sounding like whiners or just whatever. Now, more recently, as we’ve gone to Pluto now. We flew by in 2015, and saw what an amazing world it is with its diverse surface, evidence of active geologic processes. This isn’t one of those dead crater rocks that you sometimes see. There’s active stuff going on which you can clearly see from the smooth terrain in Sputnik Planitia.

Jeff Hall:

It’s got five moons. It’s got an atmosphere. And my feeling now is it is very reasonable to call Pluto a planet, and it’s not just Lowell Observatory Pluto macho kind of thing. There’s probably quite a few other objects in the solar system that would be worthy of being called planets if you use a sensible definition. We think, first of all, the current IAU definition of a planet has some indefensible and non-scientific components to it, and also the message that we sent …

Jeff Hall:

I talked earlier in the podcast here about inspiring young minds and encouraging the scientists of the next generation. The worldwide message that we sent to all those kids was that the way we do science is by vote, and that’s not how you do science. You do science on the basis of data and defensible arguments, not by at the last the day of conference with only 10% of the attendees left and take a vote.

At some point on your podcast, you’ll have to get our astronomer, Gerard van Belle on here because he was at that conference and he has a wonderful talk about how that all went down.

Wayne Parker:

Well, that all makes sense in terms of an organizational response. Do you remember at the moment that you heard the news what your gut response was?

Jeff Hall:

I don’t so much … I was so busy talking on the phone and trying to inject a little bit of just measured response and not just fly off the handle. I mean, I don’t remember sitting around in the evening in a blue funk or anything. It’s not like that.

Wayne Parker:

Well, one of the things I remember in the study of Pluto is just the information that was conveyed about how far away it is just to still be in the solar system, to be three billion miles away, five light hours. It took nine years for the space craft to get there.

Jeff Hall:

Right. That’s a really, really fast spacecraft too. That’s probably the fastest thing we’ve ever launched because the strategy that Alan Stern and Jim took was build the lightest possible thing you can that will still do the job and have all the necessary instrument payloads and put it on top of the biggest fattest rocket we’ve got and load it up with extra boosters and just fling it out there as fast as you possibly can, and it still took nine years.

Jeff Hall:

And then the risk or the challenge of orchestrating the flyby with the light travel time of four to five hours, everything has got to be preloaded and ready to go and the little ship has just got to do its thing on autopilot as it goes by at 32,000 miles an hour, however fast it was going. So, it was quite a technical achievement that we all can be very proud of.

Wayne Parker:

I think it helped all of the rest of us get a sense of scope because that’s just the solar system, just our solar system.

Jeff Hall:

Yeah. Our solar system is this teensy little speck in the context of the entire galaxy. And even the distances to the nearest stars are hundreds of thousands of times the full extent of the solar system. It’s a big place out there.

Wayne Parker:

Your world is so front and center in the public eye now. And I’m going to ask in a minute about how that’s changed over your career but I was thinking recently about seeing the fact that the images of a drone flying at Mars and then a Saturday Night Live skit about Mars. What do you think when you see the popularization of, well, astronomy in general but let’s talk particularly about Mars right now?

Jeff Hall:

Well, I think it’s great. It spurs interests in the field. It’s inspiring. So much of the news these days, of course, is just abysmal to read and listen to whether it’s the pandemic or worldwide strife in whatever country it happens to be. And I felt sort of that same kind of rush when Perseverance landed and they got through that harebrained seven-minute descent sequence.

Jeff Hall:

I felt the same kind of rush that I felt on July 14, 2015 when the images came in from Pluto and you knew that New Horizons was cruising past this planet three and a half billion miles away. It uplifts us and inspires us and shows us the very best things, the very coolest things that humanity can do. And that’s an important message, and it’s why astronomy is exciting and I think relevant in our lives.

Jeff Hall:

And that relevance translates to public interests and support for the whole enterprise. All of these missions Perseverance, New Horizons, they’re federally funded. They come from taxpayer dollars through NASA or through the National Science Foundation. It’s imperative for scientists to engage very genuinely in returning the results and the excitement of those missions to the public, who ultimately fund them and make them possible.

Wayne Parker:

I had a couple of questions we hinted about beyond the solar system. And the observatory was instrumental in the early understanding of the Big Bang Theory. And my sort of personal question about that is it’s said that we are all just stardust and that’s kind of hard for some of us to wrap our minds around. To what extent is that true and what does that mean to you personally?

Jeff Hall:

No, it’s very true. And in fact, the “we are stardust” theme is the central theme that we are weaving into our next mega project here at the observatory, which is our new astronomy discovery center. This a new, much larger visitor center than the one we currently have, much more state-of-the-art with some really neat marquee components that we think will be one of the premier astronomy destinations in the world. If fact, that’s kind of our vision, is to be the premier astronomy education destination in the world.

Jeff Hall:

And this idea of we are stardust and the idea that the atoms that comprise you, the matter and the energy, can be traced all the way back to the Big Bang. We have iron in our blood and that iron was forged in the thermonuclear processes in the core of a long dead star, perhaps billions of years ago and then blown out into the galaxy and eventually it forms into us, self-aware collections of atoms looking out and kind of contemplating our very own origins. And so that deep connectedness to the universe is another layer in how astronomy is so important and so relevant, I think, in all of our lives.

Jeff Hall:

Before we shut down for the virus we had weekly meeting astronomer nights. I would go over for those regularly. And there are always some questions that always come up every single night. First, is it a planet that everybody wants to know whether Pluto is a planet or not, and of course, this is the place to ask that. But people always want to know, where did the universe come from? What does the expansion of the universe really mean and frequently, where is God in all of this, whatever God is?

Jeff Hall:

And it’s a fascinating thing to talk about, talk about the boundary between evidence-based thinking and faith-based thinking and trying to appreciate the universe in those two different ways. It’s fun to talk about uncertainty in science and the basic principles, for example, of quantum mechanics and the difference between things that we don’t know about the universe and things that we can’t know because of limitations to our ability to measure things precisely or to perceive things. And I think getting across the message that the universe is an incredibly weird place, a place that operates on principles that are more probabilistic than deterministic at a microscopic level, it really stretches people’s perceptions.

Jeff Hall:

And that’s what we’re trying to get to, communicate that it is okay to be uncertain about stuff and not to know stuff. It’s okay to change your mind if the data indicate something doesn’t work the way that you thought it did. And imagine how more effectively we might have responded to COVID-19 initially with a very thorough data-driven, evidence-driven approach or how better our overall public discourse would be if we were all willing to step back and look at evidence and think about it and change our minds when the evidence demanded that we do so.

Jeff Hall:

So, this is exactly what we’re trying to get across in our stories and it traces right back to this concept that we are actually part of the universe that created us. And it’s a very neat story to tell and one that resonates with a lot of people.

Wayne Parker:

Part of that certainty, when you talk about that, I think about Vera Rubin who was one of the early people there at the observatory and one of the early females, and that she had a role in the discovery of dark matter which seems to me like kind of a placeholder because we don’t know exactly.

Jeff Hall:

I mean, dark matter, there’s some examples and we don’t know what it is. We detect its presence indirectly. And yes, Vera was right at the forefront of that and really should have gotten the Nobel Prize. I do think she was a member of our advisory for quite some time. An advancing illness prevented her from continuing but I remember having some … She was a helpful and thoughtful voice on the board for many years.

Jeff Hall:

So, yeah, and we were constantly discovering things about the universe that we don’t expect and it could be some of these pretty big things like, “Wow, all the galaxies appear to be rushing away from us,” which we first discovered in 1912. “Wow, the motions of stars and galaxies are really not doing what we expect,” so there’s got to be some sort of hidden gravitational influence which is what Vera was instrumental in developing.

Jeff Hall:

But it can also be much more seemingly mundane things, just like I do, observing sun-like stars year in and year out and see what they do. And unlike the sun which shows a pretty steady 11-year sunspot cycle, you see other stars do really strange things that you don’t expect and that create a lot of interesting risks for the theorists to model how those processes happened.

Jeff Hall:

This happens day in, day out, day in, day out in astronomy and we’re constantly adjusting what we think about the universe, changing our minds. You see this playing out in a different arena this year with the whole pandemic. There’s constantly changing guidance and a lot of the knee-jerk reaction you see on social media is, “Ah, these stupid scientists have changed their minds again.”

Jeff Hall:

Yes, that’s exactly what you do as we learn more and more about the virus and how it works. A responsible scientist changes his or her mind and issues guidance based on where the data are leading. And it’s always going to be so in science, and V.M. Slipher and Vera Rubin and many others have been a huge part of that.

Wayne Parker:

And this is Wayne Parker with the StoriesHere Podcast. I’m talking to Dr. Jeff Hall, who’s the director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Jeff, the theme that I take from your comments, a lot of it centers around curiosity. And I’ve read that you believe in academic freedom. Are those things connected?

Jeff Hall:

Absolutely, yeah. When we hire an astronomer on our staff, they get a scientific blank check. We don’t say, “Okay, this year, the observatory is focusing on this.” We let people explore whatever they want. And that allows people to do things that might not bear fruit immediately. It might take a while for a result to come out. It allows people to try maybe even slightly crazy things. I mean, you could argue that that goes right back to our beginning. Percival hypothesizing about life on Mars. He was wrong in the specifics but in the broader sense of inspiring thinking about life elsewhere in the universe, well, that starts to bear fruit over many decades as the technology becomes available to understand what’s going on under the surfaces of icy moons in the outer solar system or to detect and begin to understand the characteristics of planets around other stars is something that technology has only advanced to let us do in the past 25 years or so.

Jeff Hall:

Yeah, this complete freedom of inquiry is deeply programmed into how we handle things here at Lowell and one of our basic principles for doing science.

Wayne Parker:

So, you’re building on that basic principle and the technology keeps getting better in order to advance the knowledge that we all have and share. There seemed to be two things that might be stumbling blocks to that and you’re involved in both of them. And one would be the night sky situation that Flagstaff pioneered and the other is you’re a member of the American Astronomical Society’s standing committee on light pollution, space debris and radio interference. And so could you comment about those two things because it seems like those are defensive things? You’re trying to keep our civilization from getting in the way of the progress that we otherwise would make.

Jeff Hall:

Right. And again, we can say how many hours have we got left in the show because this is a big topic. But the steady degradation of the night sky through light pollution is an increasing issue for ground-based astronomy. Many of the great historic observatories for example in California were founded in the early part of the 20th century. So you have Lick, Mount Wilson, Palomar, awesome venerable facilities. And now, they’re all right next to these giant metro areas and the skies are increasingly compromised.

Jeff Hall:

You can say the same thing for the many facilities in Southern Arizona, the national observatory at Kitt Peak, in Mount Hopkins, Mount Graham as the Phoenix metro and to a lesser extent Tucson have grown.

Jeff Hall:

We are at a watershed era in preservation and protection of the night sky, and there’s two things that are causing that. The first is from the ground the conversion worldwide from legacy gas discharge systems, lighting systems such as high pressure sodium which is the de facto standard around much of the world to LED. And there are compelling reasons to use LEDs for outdoor lighting but as typically implemented, they will substantially increase the sky glow over a city.

Jeff Hall:

Lumen-for-lumen of white LED will create 1.5 to 2 times the sky glow of a high-pressure sodium lumens just because of the way the spectrum is distributed. Now, there are kinds of LEDs that mitigate that. There are the more yellowish ember LEDs that are more similar to high pressure sodium or the now obsolete low-pressure sodium. You also can use a lot less light with LEDs because they’re directional. You can eliminate light trespass but a lot of communities don’t do that.

Jeff Hall:

And so we are seeing a significant increase in sky glow worldwide, particularly acute obviously where it’s populated but the Eastern United States, Europe, heavily populated areas in China, Japan, it’s becoming a growing problem. And it’s not just for astronomy but there are ecological impacts. There are human health impacts to disruption of the natural cycle of light and dark. The medical community is paying a lot of attention. So, there’s that, this sort of the watershed in the LED revolution.

Jeff Hall:

And now, right now, we’re at another watershed in space with the advent of large constellations, as they’re called, of satellites. And one of the earliest or first constellations to go up is SpaceX Starlink. There are others in the works. These are broadband internet communication satellites potentially you could use low earth orbits for many other applications.

Jeff Hall:

And so what we’re seeing is where prior to the launch of Starlink, there were a few thousand active satellites, a few thousand dead satellites, some tens of thousands of pieces of space junk that are being tracked. But a handful of thousands of satellites and in fact, only about 200 when you see a satellite going by at night, there’s only about 200 of those that you can see with the unaided eye. Hubble Space Telescope, ISS are two well-known examples.

Jeff Hall:

Starlink alone is launching about that many, and has filed for many more. And then Amazon and OneWeb, other countries may well launch their own constellations. So, what really got astronomer’s attention was the brightness of the Starlink’s and the fact that there was the potential for many tens of thousands, even maybe over a hundred thousand once all the constellations were built out. So, this is a watershed moment in space for preservation of the night sky as well.

Jeff Hall:

I will say that SpaceX and Amazon and OneWeb have been extremely receptive and proactive in working with astronomy, working with our committee, with other astronomers to redesign their satellites to lower the brightness. They cannot eliminate the impact, not by a long shot. It does appear they will be able to make them faint enough that when they’re on station, they won’t be visible to the unaided eye. They’ll probably be seventh to ninth magnitude, maybe seventh to ninth magnitude which is too faint to just look up and see. But to a research telescope, it’s really bright.

Jeff Hall:

And it’s going to be an impact on ground-based possibly space-based astronomy as well as it gets crowded up there that we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with going forward and we’re working on it regularly. In fact, right after this podcast, I’ve got another call with a colleague about this very thing.

Wayne Parker:

This is Wayne Parker of the StoriesHere Podcast with amazing conversation today with Dr. Jeff Hall who’s the director of the Lowell Observatory, which is in Flagstaff, Arizona. His involvement extends to so many other things.

Wayne Parker:

You’re doing so much observation of the sky, but we’re not the first peoples to do that. The ancients did that for millennia. What have you learned from them?

Jeff Hall:

Astronomy is probably the oldest science. Our earliest ancestors looked up the sky and wondered what was going on. And this ultimately led to the birth, for example, of astrology and modern astronomers kind of poo-poo astrology of these days because I think we understand it’s not a correct way to interpret the motions of the objects. But as we talked about earlier in the podcast, we learned what’s right frequently by being completely wrong.

Jeff Hall:

And obviously, the motions of the sun throughout the year, the motions of planets in the sky, the appearance and the rising and setting of certain stars were tied to certain times of year, which meant the start of the growing season or the flooding season or the resurgence of crops. People’s lives quite understandably appeared inextricably tied in to the motions in the heavens. And so naturally, it was very natural to try and understand this and ascribe direct causal influence with the motions of the objects in the sky to what’s going on here on earth.

Jeff Hall:

Now today, our understanding has advanced considerably but we’ve built this understanding incrementally over the years, and it’s the willingness of these meticulous observers who cataloged the motions of stars and named them and observed them come and go, when supernova came in when, and trying to understand what was going on.

Jeff Hall:

These were the scientists of their day using the best information and best tools they had available to try to understand what was going one. And there were substantially wrong about a lot of it but then you also had so many brilliant deductions that when you get to Aristophanes and Euclid and all of these people who built the foundations of what we understand today.

Jeff Hall:

The ancient science is sort of an inspiration. They’re a reminder that it’s okay to pursue something you don’t understand. It’s okay to be wrong. If you form a hypothesis and it’s completely wrong, that’s not a failure. I think that’s a really important message to send to kids. It’s okay to experiment and find out it’s wrong. A result of wrong is often as valuable as the result of right because it tells us something about the world.

Jeff Hall:

So, yeah, we love talking about cultural astronomy and how both western astronomers as well as various different cultures from the local Native Americans to the Babylonians to everyone who’s interpreted the sky in different ways, they have good stories to tell.

Wayne Parker:

This is Wayne Parker having so much fun today, host of the StoriesHere Podcast, talking to Dr. Jeff Hall who’s the director of the Lowell Observatory. You’re an accomplished organist and you were previously on the board of Flagstaff Symphony. Is there a connection between music and astronomy?

Jeff Hall:

I think pretty deep, and again, that could be another very long conversation. But yeah, if I hadn’t gone into astronomy, I probably would have pursued a career as a concert organist. I’m decidedly and frustratingly rusty at this point. It would take a fair amount to bring back some of the stuff I used to be able to play. But just the nature of music and the propagation of sound is tightly tied to physics. And of course then, there is all the interesting physiology of how your brain processes sound emotionally and how it responds to music and tonal centers or music without tonal centers.

Jeff Hall:

And then there’s also just, I see a lot of connections between some of the music of the greatest composers like particularly Bach.

Jeff Hall:

It speaks to around origins. Bach’s contrapuntal music, he wrote so much in the genre of canons and fugues. These are pieces that are about themselves. And this is what we’re doing when we study astronomy. Ultimately, we’re trying to understand ourselves and I just see a really deep connection in how we understand ourselves through science as well as through art and in particular, the organization of sound. It’s always been a very fun pursuit for me and an interesting diversion from my day job.

Wayne Parker:

I so appreciate your time today.

Jeff Hall:

Yes, my pleasure.

Wayne Parker

Thank your for listening today.  Please share this episode with others, and contact us if you have any questions or suggestions.  My email is parker@storieshere.com.