Flagstaff Throws A Science Party

The Flagstaff Festival of Science gets underway this week. Ira Flatow talks with two festival participants about some of the highlights: Astronaut John Grunsfeld previews a talk on the Hubble Telescope and archeoastronomer Bryan Bates tells what the Mayans knew about 2012.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We are here this week to help kick off the Flagstaff Festival of Science. What makes Flagstaff's festival so special? I wager our next guests are going to tell us about that. John Grunsfeld is a physicist and former astronaut. He's also the deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and he's the keynote speaker for the Flagstaff Festival of Science. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. JOHN GRUNSFELD: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Bryan Bates is a professor of environmental studies at Coconino Community College in Flagstaff, Arizona. He's also on the board of directors for the Flagstaff Festival of Science. Thanks for being with us here today.

BRYAN BATES: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: I know you're going to be giving the keynote speech tonight, John. Are you going to give us any hints what you might be talking about or want to keep it under wraps? We'll let you - have to come to the festival to hear what he's going to talk about...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: ...today. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: But tell us - you've been on the shuttle. You've flown the space shuttle five times, right, if I counted? A lot of repair missions to the Hubble.

GRUNSFELD: That's right. I've been incredibly fortunate that I've been able to fly into space five times. For me, it was a lifelong ambition. I had a close friend who I understand is a friend of yours, Jeff Hoffman, who's at MIT. We were both at MIT at the time when he was selected as an astronaut. I thought, well, if he can do it, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRUNSFELD: But it really actually is a trend that I think is very important, which is moving away from sending, you know, the test pilots up who serve a very important function, to sending scientists and engineers and people who do scientific research into space.

FLATOW: You say you - I'm going to quote you. You said in space you get in touch with your quantum self.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I was a human cosmic ray detector. Whoa. What does that mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRUNSFELD: Well, I was on my third mission on spaceship Discovery. It was a mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. So we were relatively high altitude, about 600 kilometers above the Earth, 350 miles. And I woke up in the middle of the night. And we sleep with eyeshades and earplugs in, and so our eyes were really dark-adapted. And if you're out here in Flagstaff with dark-adapted eyes, you can see the beautiful skies at night. But this was inside the space shuttle - so no windows, eyeshades on.

And there was a light show going on. And being a physicist, I quickly realized that we must be flying through an area of the Earth's magnetic field where cosmic rays are kind of concentrated. It's called the South Atlantic Anomaly. And we were being bombarded by high-energy cosmic rays. These are atomic nuclei, atoms that have been stripped of all their electrons, traveling at virtually the speed of light. And I could see a sea of little white flashes representing all the protons that are zipping around, mostly from the sun, and occasionally a brighter flash. That would be a carbon or an oxygen traveling at virtually the speed of light. And our eyes are sensitive to that.

We spend, you know, enormous sums of money to build specialized cosmic ray detectors. There's one on the International Space Station right now called the antimatter magnetic spectrometer. But our human bodies are detectors themselves. It was fascinating.

FLATOW: You've got to be able to count pretty fast, though.

GRUNSFELD: Oh, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: A little faster than is possible. Bryan Bates, I don't want to give away the ending of your talk about Mayan civilization. But does the world end next year in...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: ...2012?

BATES: Oh, absolutely, Ira.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BATES: Haven't you been reading the tabloids?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Why - well, tell us about this conspiracy about the Mayans predicting the end of the world in 2012.

BATES: I don't think it's a conspiracy. I think it's a scientifically illiterate society that is believing a lot of junk.

FLATOW: Really?

BATES: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BATES: Fundamentally, the Mayans created an incredible mechanism by which to count. They're one of two early civilizations that created the concept of zero, and they also went on to build a vigesimal. How many of you can spell that? A vigesimal.

FLATOW: It's not something you shop around or buy on TV or something?

BATES: No, no...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BATES: ...it's not. That's science junk.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BATES: So it's a base 20 counting system. Well, they used this base 20 counting system then and created a calendar that reflects astronomical patterns, some of the things that Dr. Grunsfeld has seen in outer space but based upon Venus, based upon the movement of the sun from equinox - which, by the way, today is the equinox - and to the southern end and then back again. So, actually, it was their zenith passage. But based on all these patterns, then they used their number system, they used their astronomy, they used their power of observation to build a system by which they could tell time. And that that time never begins. It never ends. It is cycles of time. It is not the end of time.

FLATOW: Aha. So that puts that to rest.

BATES: Let me share one thing real quickly. There's a stela, which is a limestone pillar that is hand-carved, and they would mark on these certain events and certain numbers. There is one in Machinoc(ph), in Macanxoc in Coba, which I think is in Guatemala. It goes to an octillion years, 41 octillion years.

FLATOW: And why would they be so interested in the future like that?

BATES: They were transcending the Big Bang.

FLATOW: Yeah.

BATES: I really don't know. I hate to admit it, but I don't know how do you even conceive of a number that size and yet it's there.

FLATOW: And they could count that high. How long would it take you to get...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: ...to count that?

BATES: I would have to talk to a physicist to answer that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Does this fascinate you, John?

Dr. JOHN GRUNSFELD: Actually it does. And when I was an undergraduate, I was fascinated by the field of archeoastronomy, studying what ancient people knew about astronomy, and it's in part because I believe that as long as humans have had consciousness - and I know last week you were talking about an, you know, early humanoid - you know, did those humanoids look up at the sky and wonder, you know, what's the extent of the universe? Does it begin? Does it end? And the things they have observed were very important to them for the counting of time, for crop timing.

Astronomy is, you know, one of the most ancient types of thought, and we're still on that pursuit. We're still asking those fundamental questions about where did we come from, where we are going, how did we get here?

FLATOW: Let me ask our audience. If you have question you'd like to ask, don't forget the microphones are here. Please step up to them. Time is a fascinating thing in all cultures, isn't it?

BATES: Absolutely.

FLATOW: I mean, would you say most of these things we find that are left over are in some way connected to time or keeping track of time or direction or destiny, something like that?

BATES: What I can share with you, Ira, is that every culture that has seriously been looked at by archeologists, folks that have a background in archeoastronomy or now what is called cultural astronomy, in every culture that we've looked, we have found evidence that humans have been watching the movement of the skies since the beginnings of civilization.

One of the things that I think is very fascinating - and this comes from Dr. Tony Aveni at Colgate University - is that Alexander the Great was going to attack Egypt. However, his astronomers came to him and said, hey, wait a minute. Mars is in the wrong place. You can't attack now. And based upon their observation of the movement of the planets and based upon their interpretation of that information, Alexander the Great decided not to attack Egypt, but instead went to India.

FLATOW: And he took advice from...

BATES: He took advice from scientists.

FLATOW: ...from astronomers. We don't hear a lot of that these days either.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BATES: No. Unfortunately we don't, which I think is a great topic for a future radio show.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Yeah.

BATES: Shall we?

FLATOW: Talk about it when we can. OK. Let's talk about archeoastronomy a bit. Different cultures basically put things - we see these petroglyphs and things, that's what...

BATES: Mm-hmm. That's true.

FLATOW: What were the purpose of these things that are up there?

BATES: I think that there is a wonderful role for science in the development of civilizations, and part of that is how do I begin to know when I should plant my beans, my squash, my corn such that it will bear fruit before the first frost of the year? So part of this a transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies. Now keep in mind, this is going on over 10,000 years. This isn't something that you wake up on one day and you start doing the next. No, it's a long-term process. So I think that there's a real survival process that's involved.

When do I anticipate rain? When do I anticipate changes in the seasonal weather patterns? But beyond that, it's also about when do I anticipate that the sun will stand still? And what can I do in order to tell what I perceive as the gods to bring the sun back? What do I do in order to celebrate the length of days and how it changes?

For example, the Hopi are now beginning - as of today, they've begun their Mamrawt(ph) ceremony, which is actually a woman's ceremony. But if you go to the textbooks, if you go to the library, you will never find it there because all the ethnographers were males, and how many women are going to tell males from Chicago - how many Hopi women will tell males from Chicago about their rites of puberty rites and their transitions from girlhood into womanhood? And yet, that's what the Hopis are celebrating during this next week.

FLATOW: Very interesting. Let's go to the audience for a question. You were first. Go ahead.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. Ira, my friend just want to CERN and took a tour yesterday, and he knew I was coming here so he asked me to ask you a question, but I think it's better directed at John, given what you said about your third space trip. Firstly, given the evidence that came out yesterday that seems to say there's something that does travel faster than the speed of light, is - what is your opinion of, perhaps, Einstein's theory, how has that shifted? But my friend asked me to say...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AUDIENCE MEMBER: ...what should he have asked on the tour at CERN that he didn't ask?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You know, John, you want to comment on that - that first bit of data that's in?

GRUNSFELD: Well, the, you know, any time there's something that radically challenges a theory that has been supported for many years by many different types of evidence, you know, you have to be a little bit skeptical. I think, you know, the more remarkable thing is that we have tested Einstein's theory of gravity over scales from, you know, the very small, the micro, and in environments, you know, tiny, little experiments with tiny, little masses, to the whole scale of the universe, and we see things that are unusual.

And, you know, when you look at our understanding of the universe in general, either from particle experiments, smashing atoms together to replicate the conditions of the Big Bang, or look at the expansion of the universe, you know, we get very satisfied that we're understanding everything. But lest we get too comfortable, let me point out that just in the last 10 or so years, when we've added up all of our understanding, we still have dark energy, dark matter, details of gravity that we don't understand. And it turns out, when you add all that up, you know, in a pie chart or something like that, it adds up to about 96 percent of everything in the universe. So we still really only understand a very little bit, so I'm sure there's lots of surprises out there.

And that's what I always ask when I go to new facilities that are ramping up in energy and intensity like the large collider at CERN is, you know, what do you think will be the next great discovery?

FLATOW: That's interesting. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. You know, as Carl Sagan used to say, great claims require great amounts of evidence, and this being the first, a little bit of evidence. There are a lot of people out there will replicate this to see if there was something wrong with the experiment or is - was Einstein wrong. Yes, and now we'll go over here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Do you believe on life - other - on other planets?

FLATOW: These simple questions today are getting harder. The hardest answers, aren't they?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BATES: Yeah, but these are questions that are coming from emerging scientists, and I love to have kids in the audience because they always ask the questions that we really need to begin to look at. That's why I'm going to let John answer it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRUNSFELD: Well, I think it's a great question that overlaps both of our disciplines up here because, you know, people have always wondered about that and they've drawn petroglyphs about it and - or at least we think so, and talked about it, and it's a very personal question. Again, it's a scientific question. You know, has anybody ever, you know, landed in a large spaceship in a populated area, walked out, you know, other than the movies and said, you know, I'm from, you know, some distant star system, and no, they haven't. And so we have to, you know, kind of use our own imagination.

If you look at our universe of 20 years ago or so, we knew about nine planets in the whole universe. That's it. And then, of course, we demoted Pluto, so we're down to eight.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BATES: No, we haven't.

GRUNSFELD: But just in the last - well, it's a dwarf planet. But just in the last - according to some, not here in Flagstaff.

BATES: In Flagstaff, it's a real planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRUNSFELD: And it has lots of moons. Hubble Space Telescope has been observing Pluto and we keep finding moons of Pluto, but...

BATES: Wonderful.

GRUNSFELD: ...but we now know about over 600 planets. The Kepler experiment has another 1,200 candidates, so it looks like planets are everywhere. We think that Earth-like planets are probably very common, Earth-sized planets anyway, and what we don't know is that - is there another place like Earth? But the odds are so monumental. We have 200 billion stars in our own galaxy. There's about 200 billion galaxies in the universe. So the odds are that there's lots of Earths out there in habitable zones, with liquid water and continents and volcanism.

And so still the question there is are we alone in the universe? And I'll talk a little bit about that tonight. But let me just ask the audience - live audience here in Flagstaff, how many people think that there must be other life out there?

FLATOW: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GRUNSFELD: So it's at least more than half of the audience.

FLATOW: At least more than half of the audience. Did you want to sum up, Bryan?

BATES: Very quickly. I was teaching chemistry at Coconino Community College this morning, and we're going through the periodic table, which, of course, is the repeating patterns of the elements. If we go from the assumption - and, of course, CERN now is challenging our assumptions, which is what science is all about - if we look at the nature of matter, if that's consistent throughout the universe, then what would prevent those molecules from forming into other living creatures? They may not be in our structure. They may not have the life history that we've had on this planet. Maybe they have something very different, but it's beyond my comprehension to have such an incredible universe and only have one planet that has life on it.

GRUNSFELD: So let me add one last thing, which is the young lady actually wants to know that answer to that question presumably; how will we answer it? Other than somebody coming and visiting us, which is relatively unlikely. And the answer is astronomy. We're actually on the verge of being able to characterize a planet around a nearby star such that we could detect life.

And the next step is going to be with the James Webb Space Telescope. It will be able to observe the atmospheres of planets around nearby stars - this is launching in 2018 - and determine whether there's liquid oceans and ozone in the atmosphere, which is a sign of oxygen, CO2, methane, an organic molecule. So we'll be able to characterize it probably not enough to tell if anybody is at home, but I think the next generation of telescope beyond James Webb Space Telescope would have the capability to actually see if anybody is home.

FLATOW: If we fund them.

GRUNSFELD: If we fund them.

FLATOW: If we fund them. All right. Thank you very much, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us. John Grunsfeld is a physicist, a former astronaut. He is also deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, where they look at all those Hubble pictures, and he's the keynote speaker for the Flagstaff Festival of Science, which is beginning this weekend. Bryan Bates is a professor of environmental studies at Coconino Community College in Flagstaff. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

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