video: RI’s NASA Astronomer + Author Kim Arcand Talks To GoLocal
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
1. Every kid loves looking at the stars. What made you take that childlike love and turn it into a career?
Growing up, I was the kid with the chemistry set, the microscope, and the stellarium as my favorite "toys." I loved science, or what I thought of as science: discovering something new, figuring out puzzles, contributing to people’s lives in some way. For my undergraduate work, I had focused on biology, specializing in parasitology, with the idea I would go on to be a doctor. But as I approached my senior year I had a change of heart. Fortunately, I had beefed up my resume with computer science skills and ended up winning a fellowship with the RI Public Health Partnership to work on public health communication. I enjoyed it immensely. When the job opening for NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory came my way, I realized what an opportunity it would be to go from micro (the size of a cell and smaller) to macro (galaxies and the Universe as a whole).
2. How was your path to a science career shaped by being a woman? Did it make you stand out more, or were the barriers more substantial based on your gender?
It can feel like you stand out sometimes, but working for the Chandra X-ray Observatory, I've had an amazing mentor. She worked in a government lab a couple decades before I started working and felt firsthand how it could be challenging to be the only woman in the room. She was sensitive to what that meant and made sure that I was working in a supportive environment (for example, pushing telework when I was raising my young children).
3. Your book is a "travel guide" to the universe, which tells me it's for a larger audience than the astronomy-minded. Who did you write this book for, and why?
Your Ticket to the Universe is meant for the curious, the explorers at heart, who want to learn something new, and have fun doing it. Written by two mothers of young kids (who have lots of questions!), this book is perfect for anyone who wants to learn about the cosmos along with their children. It's also a great read for adults who are curious about the Universe, but may have never picked up a book about astronomy before. With its dazzling images, "Your Ticket" will also appeal to the hard core space "junkie" who loves the best views the Universe has to offer.
There are so many things to explore in the Universe. Two of the biggest questions are what is dark matter and what is dark energy? These two things sound like they should be related, but other than having the word "dark" in their title and being stuff that totally stumps scientists, they are not. Dark matter is some sort of stuff that we can tell exists, but we can't see. We do see its gravitational effects, but it doesn't emit or absorb any light so we can't study it easily. Dark energy, on the other hand, seems to be some sort of unusual energy. Some people have called it anti-gravity because it appears to be pushing the Universe apart, but that might not be the best description of it. Whatever these mysterious things are, they account for about 96% of the Universe. That means everything else we do know about – all of the stars, galaxies, planets, us – only makes up about 4% of the Universe. In other words, we have only scratched the surface of understanding what makes up most of the Universe.
Also, the ongoing discoveries of planets outside our Solar System are extremely exciting. It seems like every week astronomers are announcing the discovery of a new planet or planetary system that is stranger than we ever expected to find. We're also getting closer and closer to finding a planet that resembles our own. Is there life out there beyond Earth? That would be the ultimate question to answer. We probably can't answer it just by finding a planet that looks like Earth somewhere, but it would at least prove that there are other places out there that could – in theory – support life the way our own has.
5. What's the craziest thing you're asked about space?
I've been asked about aliens and conspiracy theories (such as that we never landed on the Moon), but mostly the questions are about current events. There can be some fear with the unknown, and there's a lot to know still about the Universe. So when I get questions about meteoroids, rogue planets, the Mayan calendar, or other topics that might be hot in the media and popular culture, I take them seriously and try to help.
6. What do you tell students about growing to be a scientist in this day and age?
The world, the Universe, is theirs to discover! It's an exciting time to be a part of the scientific process. And, a career in science can be extremely rewarding, even if it's not a direct or "standard" path. I find people with more round-about careers have wonderful stories to tell and perspectives to share.
7. What's your favorite place in RI to look at the stars?
Anywhere with my family. But the best is probably my old stomping grounds in Scituate. It really does make a difference when you're farther out from the city and away from more populous suburbs and light pollution. There is a lovely observatory in North Scituate, Seagrave Observatory, run by the Skyscrapers amateur astronomy organization and they run public observing nights on Saturdays.
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