Astrophysicist Katie Mack Is Cool With the End of the Universe

The cosmologist you follow on Twitter talks about planets being ripped apart and finding odd comfort in the end of all life.

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Dr Katherine J Mack
Future 50

Katie Mack doesn’t know how the universe is going to end, she just knows that it will, and that we won’t be around to see it. Pretty bleak stuff, but there isn’t really such a thing as a happy ending in astrophysics.

Mack has been at the forefront of all things space, physics, and, according to Wikipedia, Epoch of Reionization (whatever that is) on Twitter for a while now, mixing her boundless enthusiasm for the literally awesome mysteries of the universe with accessible language, funny jokes, and, crucially, some sci-fi references, too.

As far as guides to the crushing certainty of the end of all existence go, Mack is cheerfully eager to talk about the finer details in lectures and studies, but does contemplating a universal apocalypse take its toll? We caught up with her to discuss dying stars, spaceships, and the surprisingly therapeutic effects of thinking about the void.

See also: “The Biggest Questions About Our Universe Still Need Answering,” By Katie Mack

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So what is your actual job title at the moment?

Katie Mack: At the moment, my job title is assistant professor of physics at North Carolina State University. I’m also a member of the Leadership in Public Science Cluster, which is an initiative to promote interaction between science and the public.

When do you think was the first time you were like, “This is what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life?”

I was always interested in how things work. And as a kid, I was very much a tinkerer. I would take things apart and put them back together again. When I was around 10, I started to hear about stuff like black holes and the Big Bang. My mom took me to a couple of public talks by people like Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies. I saw this new way of thinking about the universe, and I wanted to know how the universe worked. I wanted to take that apart as well.

When I saw these talks by Stephen Hawking, I thought, “Okay, what’s his job? I want that job!” And I found out that he was a cosmologist, and so I decided I would be a cosmologist.

How did it come to be that you ended up as a very leading voice in terms of public, accessible science?

It’s been this gradual thing. I started doing writing of various kinds. When I was really young, I wrote fiction. I went through the moody teenage poetry stage. I wrote a lot of poems when I was a teenager. And then I would write really long emails and letters. Just any kind of writing I could do.

Then, when I was in college, I took a class about science writing, and I submitted a piece from that class to a science writing contest. I got an honorable mention. I saw that as a possibility for something I could keep doing. When Twitter came along, I saw one of my colleagues talking about his research on Twitter, and I thought, Well this could be a neat way to talk about science. It’s hard for me to not talk about something when I’m excited about it. Just this morning I saw a paper about a planet that has been disrupted through the death of its star and is being torn apart.

I was frantically texting my friend, “Oh my God! You have to see this paper! This planet’s being ripped apart by its star!” My friend is not an astrophysicist, but I just had to tell someone. Twitter’s a great outlet for that because if I get excited about something, I can tell Twitter and then Twitter can be excited about it. It’s a way for me to let out my enthusiasm about space and physics.

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) — a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration — was designed to capture images of a black hole.

It’s such an overwhelming concept. I think that it’s easy for people not to ignore but take a lot of things for granted in terms of cosmology, and in terms of the universe and how things work. And how massive things are.

Yeah. I think it’s easy to get jaded if you’re used to dealing with these things all day as facts and figures and numbers for your calculations. The way I saw this paper about the planet was that somebody had brought it up at the morning meeting. They said a little about it and moved on to something else. I was like, Wait a minute! There’s a planet being ripped apart! And none of them were fazed! Nobody had an existential crisis about this planet except me! I guess at some point you just get immune to that. I’m not, but I work on the end of the universe and I talk about that and people freak out. And I’m like, “No! It’s all good. Don’t worry about it!”

Do you find it scary or do you find it comforting sometimes with these, like you said, planets being torn apart and the universe will end? Or is it like anything? Like, some days something’s scary and other days it helps center you almost.

It is exactly that. It really does go both ways. There are moments where I look at the world and I think, this is so fragile. You know? Because the stuff that I study is these astonishing, destructive events. It’s real stuff that’s getting destroyed. That was a real planet that got ripped apart, and who knows if anything was living on it or not? But, we know what a planet is, and we know what a star is, and our star is gonna go through the same thing. Sometimes I look around, and I’m like, this is all so tenuous; we’re so vulnerable to these astonishing forces.

And then there are other times when it is kinda comforting. If you take a longer view, sometimes you can place things in a context where something might feel like a big deal right now, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not gonna be what matters about humanity or life. We’re going to move through the universe in some way and eventually our species will end, one way or another. I had a death in my family recently, and I was really upset about it. And I did have a moment where I stepped back and I thought, I’m very sad that this person is gone. But she had an impact on me and she had an impact on the people around her in her life.

We’re all gonna go one way or another. The whole planet’s gonna go one way or another. There is gonna be loss, but in the meantime, great things can happen. I think that’s the first time being a cosmologist helped me through grief.

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This feels dark out of context, but it’s nice that whatever we’re doing is, on a cosmic level, futile. But it’s kind of cool that we’re just doing it anyway.

And, however much we screw things up, we’re pretty contained. We’re gonna do some bad stuff, but the universe will be okay. The universe will end too, but it’s not gonna be our fault.

You were talking about writing fiction earlier. what do you watch and read at the moment when you’re not watching and reading stuff directly related to work?

At some point in the last couple of years, I realized I didn’t have time to read all of the things that I wanted to read. I decided I really needed escapism and some way of choosing what to read. So, at some point, I decided just to consume media that involves spaceships. I really enjoy The Expanse. I’m reading lots of science fiction novels that involve spaceships. If there’s a spaceship involved, it’s definitely gonna be escapist in a way that’s kinda useful for my brain right now.

So you’re not one of those people that gets annoyed at impossibilities related to space and physics?

I get annoyed at bad writing or at deep internal inconsistencies that distract me from the story. But if it’s fiction, sometimes it helps to tweak the physics to tell a story that’s very outside of your own experience. Right? I think that stories that have really good physics can be great in that they can tell stories in a very interesting way. But sometimes the story you want to tell is gonna mean transporters or creating something that’s very, very outside of what we could possibly experience. I don’t require all of my fiction to be strictly scientifically accurate.

Stars

My friend told me the other day that you are referenced in a Hozier song. Have you guys been in contact or was that truly a fun surprise?

No. We’ve been friends for a while. We got to know each other through Twitter and so sometimes he asks me questions about physics. I knew that the song was happening. I’ve been working on this book about the end of the universe, and I’ve been giving talks about the end of the universe. So, he told me maybe a year ago that he was putting me in the song. And it’s been awesome! I knew it was coming; it was still a massive event to get out my phone and listen to this song by one of my favorite musicians. And my name’s in it! That was really a big deal for me.

"As Mack explained, there will be darkness again." — Hozier

There are only a handful of mainstream astrophysicists that I could name off the top of my head. Do you ever get frustrated or think there’s some kind of patronism in this image of a girl talking about science; and that’s part of the appeal?

It depends on how it’s spoken about. I do understand that there’s value in role models that people can relate to, and I accept that. I accept that that’s part of my role in the science outreach I do is that I’m representing a demographic a lot of people don’t usually see when they think about a physicist. A lot of Hozier’s fans are young women. So now they’re being exposed to the work of a female astrophysicist. That’s pretty cool.

I guess the part where it gets annoying is anything where that’s seen as the point of me? Or where my science is not appreciated, or when I have to do extra work because people think that’s such a significant thing. One of the things that bothers me a lot is, occasionally, I’ll be asked to talk about some discovery, like gravitational waves. And I’ll be interviewed by some radio host, and I’ll answer all their questions about gravitational waves. And then at the end of the interview, they’ll say something like, “Oh, so what’s it like to be a woman in science?” And it just throws me completely because this is not what I’m here to talk about. It’s not that I don’t think that those are important questions; it’s just that I’m not an expert on sociology. My viewpoint on prejudice in science, that’s something I can talk about if I’m asked to talk about that.

But if I’m there to talk about physics, I want to just talk about physics. You don’t really change the stereotype about how men are the default scientists if every time there’s a woman talking about science, you have to make it also about being a woman in science.

If you had called me up and you said, “I have some questions about dark matter.” And then we talked about dark matter for 20 minutes and then at the end you threw in, “I have a daughter and she’s 13 and how do I get her excited…” That would freak me out! It would just totally change the dynamic. People don’t ask that question of men.

You’d think there’s enough to talk about when you’re discussing the end of the universe. It’s overwhelming.

There’s a lot going on. But it’s exciting, too! Because we don’t know what we’re gonna see. We don’t know how the story’s gonna end, but we know that we don’t have the whole picture yet. And we know where the gaps are in our knowledge. There’s a lot of really exciting work going on now to try and fill in those gaps and complete our picture of the universe. It will never be done, but we’ll try.


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