tv QA Scientists Janna Levin and Jessica Whiteside on Black Holes and Life on... CSPAN June 12, 2022 8:00pm-8:59pm EDT
working round-the-clock connected. we are doing our part so it's easier to do yours. >> sparklight supports c-span as a public service along with these television providers, giving you a front-row seat to democracy. ♪ >> at its heart is sagittarius a star. the super make it -- supermarkets of -- supermassive black hole that resides there. a focus of intense studies for
decades. observations orbiting around the presence of an object that is very massive, 4 million times the mass of our son. until now, we did not have the direct picture confirming the star was a black hole. today, the event horizon telescope is delighted to share with you the first direct image of the gentle giant in the center of our galaxy, sagittarius a star. [applause] susan: that was the event in washington, d.c. that revealed the first images of sagittarius a star. you have made a study of black holes. what was your reaction? janna: it is pretty thrilling.
we are in orbit around the black hole as surely as we are in orbit around the sun. it's part of our reality, part of the universe we live in. our entire solar system together. it was something moving but also the entire globe paused together to look at this image. susan: we heard about characteristics. janna: the black hole is supermassive, meaning we know black holes that are 10 times the mass of the sun. this blackhole is 4 million times the mass of the sun. it is not for morley -- 4 million times the width of the
sun. it's about less than 20 times the width of the sun. it is small but heavy. it's 26,000 light-years away. imagine taking something and pushing it 26,000 light-years away. we liken it to the size of a piece of fruit on the moon. it is very heavy. susan: it has been studied for decades. janna: we don't just want the thrill, and i think that's a human element we have to acknowledge, it's really important to help so share discovery but we do want to make new discoveries. the black is very heavy. we knew its mass.
you had studied stars orbiting nothingness. you couldn't take a picture of it. i think what we are going to get with further study will be the spin of the blackhole which is really crucial and fascinating and maybe a measure of the magnetic field because black holes are intrinsically dark because of the material around them and that material is luminous because of electromagnetic field. what we got is a confirmation of technology, that the blackhole is there, that the shadow was cast by the bright light around it and we go forward from here. susan: nasa has released a
they are taking lightwave and light has different frequencies, our eyes perceive short wavelength or high-frequency light as blue. what it is doing is taking like our eyes can see at all. this is an x-ray satellite. they are taking x-rays. it's highlight our eyes can't receive -- perceive. it's taking the frequencies and translating them to the frequencies of sound. technically the blackhole is not making that. what we are listening to this a different way of perceiving high energy x-ray light. there are black holes that actually make sounds. the nobel prize a few years ago again has been a century for
blackhole discoveries. there was an experiment prior to this image we are discussing today that measured the collision of two black holes. it's, like a mallet on the drum of space itself. it can travel basically unimpeded for one billion years. in the case of that discovery it was a billion and a half years. we recorded it with a sophisticated instrument and that is close. if you were floating near those black holes, the ringing of space timecode conceivably ring your your mechanism and it happens that the collision happens in the human auditory range.
black holes can make sounds. susan: i want to back up a little bit and have people understand the basics. you have written a couple of popular science books. the blackhole survival guide. janna: spoiler alert, it doesn't end well. susan: what is the best way to understand what a blackhole is? janna: a blackhole is really something that can form in many ways. it's a warp in space time that becomes so strong not even light can escape. that's what we mean about a blackhole.
take an example of a star collapsing. a star, when it runs out of fuel will collapse under its own weight. if it's heavy enough, but will not be able to resist the catastrophic gravitational collapse. when the star becomes dense enough, it has deformed the space around it so strongly that light is taking a curved path. essentially the star goes dark. the light cannot escape. we call that region the event horizon. however, the star can not sit at the event horizon that i can race outward at the speed of light. the star is forced to collapse. it leaves the event horizon behind like an archaeological
record. the star is gone. if you are a space traveler and you come near this region, almost imagine space time as a waterfall at that point. you would feel nothing, see nothing. a blackhole is actually a place in space that is completely empty. susan: scientists have any understanding of how they function in the cosmos? janna: more and more. in 1916 when einstein published his theory of relativity, he received the letter from a friend who enlisted as an infix researcher on the russian front and wrote down the first mathematical expression of a blackhole. he thinks nature will protect us
from the formation. he does not believe they will occur in nature. it's people like oppenheimer, because of his work on the atom bomb, realizes it's the same physics. he begins to understand stars are going to make black holes, that nature found a way. this is in the late 1930's. it's not until the 1960's that people take it seriously. since that time, they fell in and out of fashion. they were considered exotic, people began to except they existed but thought they were not that important. i think we understand now that about 1% of the stars in our galaxy will make black holes. if we have 300 billion stars,
that's a lot of black holes. they are small. much smaller than the one at the center of our galaxy which is supermassive, and b have no idea where those come from. every galaxy in the universe. we think they play a significant role in sculpting the galaxy. the size, influencing the gas and dust that leads to star formation, we are in orbit around them. they are the symptoms of our galaxy. we've come to understand black holes aren't an oddity, they are influential. susan: they are dynamic and continue to change. janna: one of the beauties of
the universe is when we look into space, we are seeing into time. the further away something is, the longer the light has taken to get to us and the more we are seeing deeper into the past. it's possible a distant galaxy looking at our blackhole sees an extremely energetic blackhole that's extremely active. it has since quieted down. we live 26,000 light-years away. not billions of years ago. it is quiet right now. when we look into space, we see very active black holes. right now, our blackhole is quiet but not completely static.
one of the reasons the first blackhole that was ever imaged was not our own, it was in a nearby galaxy, was because that blackhole is very quiet. it's big, far away, and not doing much. taking a picture is easier. over one night of observing, it might change enough that it's like taking a picture of someone running around. as quiet as it is, it is still active challenge to take a picture. susan: i wanted to have you add more detail to the creating of an image of the star because it was quite a tale over many years. first of all, how long did scientists know of the existence
of a blackhole at the center of our galaxy? janna: the real evidence for it was suspicion. it came from people who were awarded the nobel prize, by looking at stars orbiting the center of our milky way, they were seeing stars over a. of 16 years complete and orbit. it's very diligent, patient. what they realized is you don't need to use sophisticated calculations, you can estimate what must be orbiting, the size and heft. they concluded that it must be a blackhole. there was extremely heavy and small. that evidence was conclusive.
we suspected this before they concluded the observation. the reason you make observations is because you have a hunch. you don't just go out and look at anything. you go for gold. as a personal aside. ever since we were kids at m.i.t., he has been talking about this. it goes way back. people knew it was there but wanted to prove it. susan: he needed to put together a consortium of observers across the globe. tell me how that project came together. janna: it was a 20 year project.
the idea -- i said the blackhole is heavy but small. you're pushing a 26,000 light-years away. from our eyes in perspective, it's the size of a piece of fruit on the moon. or if like reading the date on a corder in san francisco from new york city. to resolve something so tiny, you needed a telescope the size of the entire earth. that made -- that might have made people quit. but instead, what the project did is they made a telescope the size of the earth by combining telescopes around the globe and by using sophisticated computational techniques so while the earth turns, it could observe the blackhole with a
bunch of telescopes around the globe and then merge that data together as though it was a single snapshot. one i the size of the earth. that was a deep challenge. it took 20 years to iron out the difficulties to understand which instruments needed to be included to make that possible. how to augmented by bringing new telescopes online. the galaxy can be very bright if you look in the wrong light range. so they had to try and find, to look at light where it was transparent. the galaxy would be more transparent to that kind of light. it's a remarkable achievement. susan: to the opaqueness of the
milky way add to the challenge? janna: absolutely. if you look at the milky way, there is a lot of gas and dust that absorbs light and reinvents it. if you want to see past that in the sky -- you have to imagine you are in the plane of the galaxy. we can't jump up out of the galaxy and look down on it. we have to look to the plane of the galaxy and makes it much more challenging. the gas and dust tends to absorb and recommit like in a certain frequency and energy band. if you try and shift your energy lower, they are looking at infrared radio where our eyes are no good, and the gas and dust is more transparent if you shift out of the range. it's like putting on infrared goggles.
in this case they went even lower than that. it allows for transparency to look through the galaxy. susan: are there observatories you want to come online and join the project? janna: i hope so. next generation is a project to build new instruments because a lot of what it did was use existing instruments. lots of astronomers want to look at lots of things so they have to fight for time. there is limited access, they can freeze all other astronomy out. maybe the night they get the telescope the weather is bad, or there is problems. i think the next generation will
be to bring new instruments online that belong to the event horizon telescope and we will very much augment the resolution , see fine details that we want to hone in on and there is discussion of going to space. susan: the james webb telescope is scheduled to come online in the next couple of months. janna: i don't think -- it's unclear. it's not -- it's conceivable. the james webb space telescope -- it's conceivable it will be enlisted as a secondary instrument to also look at the blackhole. it, itself cannot provide the resolution. you would need the spread all over the place.
it's not quite the right lens for what you are trying to look at but it could be enlisted as an instrument of support. i think going to space would involve that she would be a complex project and would involve coordinating space instruments. susan: you describe the past few decades has a big time for the understanding of black holes. why are so many people interested and excited? what do they contribute to our understanding? janna: we are talking about them as the collapse of stars, but there is a sense in which black holes seem to be fundamental, more profoundly fundamental. meaning, when we look at the quantum level, we hone in and see the inverse appears to be
native fundamental particles like electrons, and we can hone in even further. blackhole share something in common with those fundamental particles, and that is utterly mysterious. they are flawless. meaning if i take a blackhole, and i throw mount everest onto it. i try to make it deformed and identifiable, i can recognize it. it will not tolerate that imperfection. it will shed it off and settle down to be a perfect, flawless, in some sense on identifiable blackhole. in that sense, they are fundamental to the universe in a way i think we are struggling to understand. susan: it enhances our knowledge of gravity, gravitational forces. some of the reading i was doing
suggested if we are living in the digital age, we may live in the age of harnessing gravity differently. what could that look like? janna: it's a lovely question. black holes tell us something fundamental about gravity where in some sense they are the terrain. if you are and explore intellectually, and you want to understand the fundamental laws of physics, you study black holes. because they provide this terrain that reveals things about the fundamental laws of physics we can't grasp in any other terrain. by stumbling around on this frontier, it gives you a clue that you try and piece together gravity fundamentally. one of the things that has come out of this program is they
reveal something at the quantum level. could we harness that energy? we can dream. [laughter] i think what we have to understand is the blackhole harnesses that energy and that is why we can see black holes several billion years ago on the distant edges of the universe as precisely because black holes have figured out -- they have sculpted the universe in which we live. that is what led to the evolution of human beings on the planet. susan: i would like to close with understanding your motivation a little better. you started out studying
philosophy. how did you gravitate to science? janna: when i was in philosophy, i was drawn to the big question. what are we doing here, what does it mean? how are we connected to the cosmos? we were discussing what some long lost philosopher intended to mean. i found that incredibly frustrating. when i was introduced to physics and mathematics, nobody asking -- when he taught us relatively -- relativity, it belongs to everyone who wants to learn it, it is there, and nobody who learns it is saying what did einstein mean? it's a gift. i found that transparent --
transcendent and powerful. it's true for someone in bangladesh and another galaxy. i found that very meaningful. susan: we're are just about out of time. i want to offer two more resources of yours. your latest book is a blackhole survival guide, spoiler alert, not such a great ending. there is a fun video on youtube to recommend to people that they want to learn more and that is explaining black holes to people of different ages. it's a better introduction, maybe have a conversation of people who want to learn about them. q and a conversation continues next in a conversation with dr.
jessica whiteside on the exploits of the mars roser -- rover perseverance. >> 300 meters off the surface of mars. we are conducting the sky train maneuver. maneuver has started. 20 meters off the surface. >> we are getting signals. >> touchdown confirmed. [applause] susan: that is nasa video of the perseverance rover landing on mars. dr. jessica whiteside has been watching the rover very
carefully and is excited about some of the news it has been making and is here to explain what happening and its significance. this rover is titled the perseverance and one of the big moments is they began a climb and rocks sampling mission. jessica: when we look at mars, we see a red ball. it looks like it's cold and barren, and pockmarked with craters, but actually, it was a watery world, had an ocean, it had legs, rivers and ponds. what perseverance has done is approached one of these lakes and has been desperately staring at the delta, it's a biological
target, that is because deltas on earth are some of the most abundant areas for life itself. they are time machines, transferring us back, when mars was this watery world, possibly life existed there and the delta is critical, that's the main point perseverance is there, delta is so critical. we know deltas are a hot biodiversity spot. there are a million times more bacteria and soil than there are stars in our sky. if you remember from high school, the ancient egyptians were capitalizing on the nile delta, it's so fertile, beaming with life.
these delta's where there is a fast moving river. it's a 25 mile across craters, about the size of lake tahoe. the fast-moving water hits the stillwater and dumps everything into that. it's important that life will allow for more blooming, more abundance of life. it is scouring the landscape as is moving into that lake. it's picking up the nutrients along the way, picking up life that might be on the land, and it is bringing importantly sediments like silt and clay that it dumps for the production of life, and the preservation because that rapidly berries into the lake like a layer cake, if you made a cake if it was
there underneath the clay. that is why this is a key landing. it looks like a mound of red rocks and dirt. if you know how to read the rocks and perseverance does, with cameras and different types of equipment, it's basically a swiss army knife running on wheels. cameras, spectrometers, lasers they can vaporize rocks and map organic and chemical constituents. that is why the delta is so critical. susan: in addition to pictures, what can perseverance some back to earth for scientists to study. jessica: perseverance has been sending back data on chemistry so we can get information in a grain of salt. a lot of data being sent back.
that's not to say chemical data is indicative of life but it tells you something about the landscape, tells you about what that water was like. susan: it's also collecting rock samples, and these have a limited capacity. how are decisions made along the way? jessica: to collect or not collect. it's going to do reconnaissance and collect samples on its way back, and use all of those multitude of equipment on the swiss army knife so the laser vaporizing lasers, the mapping of any kind of chemical or organic matter, all of the cameras to deduce the key areas
that have the best likelihood of preserving life. leaving them for a future rover to collect. susan: why so long? jessica: that is because it takes -- the samples are not due back for another decade because this is the first chapter in a trilogy of events that need to get samples back. the next two chapters come about. those involve another rover, a dune buggy, it will collect the very samples perseverance has been leaving behind. it will leave about 41 in total. each is about the size of your
little pinky, the total payload is about the size of a loaf of bread. there will then be another rocker that goes out to collect -- rocket that will meet up with the defense rover and drop off the samples to that rocket, catching that in its belly in space, then they will be brought back to earth and sent into the desert in utah, landing in parachutes and then across the world into various laboratories. all of this excitement and technological to bring this back
to earth where it can be disseminated into various labs. susan: one of the tools on the swiss army knife is an onboard helicopter, the first time any rover had that. i have seen interviews where you are excited about what this helicopter is able to do. it's name is ingenuity. what does it do and why are you so excited about it? jessica: ingenuity is another demonstration about the technological miracle we have come to expect from nasa. this is a david and goliath moment. after 44 days of being sheltered it basically was born like a calf coming out of a cow, crawled its way out, stayed on the surface for a while and had
its first test flight which was not only successful on the first flight, it has continued to fly. continue to exceed expectations. to think about the helicopter itself, it's about the size of a cantaloupe. it has light copter blades, about the size of a piece of toilet tissue. to expand the 99% less dense atmosphere as mars. mars has a very thin atmosphere. earth's atmosphere is 99 times thicker than mars, the blades are rotating 10 times faster
than any helicopter on earth, the equivalence of an airplane flying two times higher than mount everest. double what it normally flies in the atmosphere. the atmosphere is so thin, there is nothing for it to grasp. there are all kinds of other technological adaptations to allow this to fly. to even keep it flying you have to take into account it would be something like on earth if you are writing your bicycle but put your backpack on the front handlebars. it's not just the atmosphere itself.
it has to go through freezing nights. even during the daytime, the temperature difference on mars is substantial, it lacks an atmosphere. if you are -- your head would be freezing so it had to be able to account for that as it takes flight and goes vertical into the air. it's an amazing feat that this thing took off. potentially it's a sidekick, navigator. a lot of dismissal this could possibly take flight. we have been flying on earth are 100 years, and here we will take flight on a planet that is nothing like earth and has that very thin wispy atmosphere.
perseverance, it's absolutely amazing. it's also amazing because it paves the way for further opportunities in terms of bringing copters on. the intergalactic areas, other planetary bodies, there is another mission that's already planned for saturn's big moon of titan that has hydrocarbon lakes , there will be another copter that goes out there and possibly copters that go out that are also swiss army knives that are able to collect samples from areas rovers can get to. i am excited about ingenuity, for its potential to be a life hunter robotic instruments that is deployed on planets looking
for bio signatures of life. what i'm excited about is it paves the way for notches going across the terrain which is what rovers are doing but going up to services that might be actually harboring active life on mars, and that's an area that is very steep, on clips that are called slow glinting years, where you have vertical streaming, sometimes looks a little black, orbiting satellites with the reflectiveness coming back into space suggesting it is something we know here on earth happens in terms of the -- that is why i'm very excited about ingenuity where the potential is yet another, but this time even more
capable in terms of some areas where rovers would not be able to get and where we might not want to send a human because of planetary protection that is contaminating any potential life on mars with earth life. susan: i hope this works. i want to have people listen to another one of the tools in the toolkit and that's the microphone. [video clip] susan: some of the news reports suggest one thing scientists learn from the wind study is why the planet books read to us.
-- red to us. jessica: that's right. it looks red because it is stained with a certain type of iron oxide, the same principle if you ever left your bike outside or rollerskates. it's oxidized, insoluble in water. rusty. that wind is basically, the weather on mars is controlled by the wind. unlike on earth it's controlled by water because we have a vertical system where water is coming up and then the cycle starts again. on mars, the weather is captured by the wind so you heard that, another one of the amazing breakthroughs that perseverance house, those two microphones, those rovers that have seen,
touched, tasted and smelled mars in whatever way one would see, touch taste and smell mars. what we see as red is being blown by dust. there are these fantastic dust storms that happen on mars. one of these took out the rover in 2018. you can hear what mars sounds like. susan: give people a sense of how large the vehicle is if they were to see it with their own eyes. jessica: it's about the size of an suv, the first rover was
about the size of a microwave oven. then there was spirit and opportunity in the search for life, follow the water. curiosity headed out and found agent water in the gail crater. they found something interesting in the greater which was organic compounds that were really tantalizing. here we have perseverance, the wheels have gotten much thicker with a better tread. perseverance was a most curiosity but has much more sophisticated instruments and
very importantly -- susan: what is its lifespan? jessica: the mission is to roam around for two years. they have outlived and exceeded expectations. susan: is the united states and nasa the only country exploring mars? jessica: no. in terms of the joint initiative between the united states, nasa and the european space agency, there is also currently a rover that china sent. susan: can you help people understand why the study of mars itself is valuable to humankind? jessica: fantastic question. ever since galileo look through a telescope and so on mars, it
has fascinated the public. it's fascinated people in terms of if there is life outside of earth. it's not just a philosophical or existential question, are we alone in the atmosphere, there are important implications. if life is the same age on both planets, there are implications that life came on mars, that earthlings are martians, and vice versa. if there was life on mars 3.7 billion years ago when it was a blue world with all of that water, there was life on earth the same time possibly life on mars came from earth. the way that would work, we know from our own landscape that
there are several instances where martian meteorites have smashed into our planet leaving evidence behind, actual rocks, there could be transfer of rocks. it's all very fascinating, there are endless questions in terms of what it means for life on mars, life on earth at the same time, and that interplanetary confluence of fertilization between the planets. susan: you are at the university of southampton in the u.k.. >> going on at your university? why did you decide to go there academically and what kind of work are you and your colleagues doing with this information? jessica: i decided to go there while on a ship which is the american ship for the international ocean discovery
program that basically goes out across the world's oceans, answering questions in terms of how various parts of the ocean formed in terms of climate change and habitability in the ocean. i was there to understand the formation of the western boundary current. this is the boundary current that allows for ice formation in the north atlantic that created the iceberg that sank the titanic. one of the scientists was from the university of southampton. there was an opportunity to go and establish an organic geochemistry laboratory to look at limits of habitability after mass extinction events where extreme climate episodes wiped out various parts of life and the planet and in some cases globally.
it's the sequelae of the reestablishment of life that my work was focusing on. the twist of that now is we are interested in astro biological pursuits, so we are interested in mass extinction events, and also how we can tag the chemical molecular life on other planets. it is said diamond last forever, but molecules last forever. we're trying to build up a suite of these biomarkers, these bio signatures to look at life on other planets like on mars. right now we are canvassing various places on earth that are similar to some of these areas that might harbor life, hyper surly -- hyper saline, high ph
links and trying to get as robust signatures as we can in order to test future sample returns. susan: i read a q&a about you and you told the story you got interested in science at the age of 15. can you tell me what prompted the direction of your career? jessica: i was very fortunate to have grown up in various states around the u.s. and my dad was an amateur geologist. keen on understanding how mountains forms. it wasn't just how rocks were laid down like this. it was a whole narrative involved in what these rocks meant. i grew up in the back of the station wagon reading various books, i thought i would be the next joseph campbell. i was interested in world mythology.
securely goes on creation or the origin of life. when my dad explained to me the first fossils i had seen, it was such an epiphany committee that there was a field that explained the tangible existence, a story. this idea of sedimentary time machines where you can look at a rock and get transported 200 million years ago. be able to infer all of the events that culminated in that particular rock. it was such a beautiful thing that there was something that had a physical existence that backed up mythology and i never looked back from their other to say my work has gotten increasingly smaller, looking at big land arms, and then
molecules. susan: you have the opportunity to attend stem school in arkansas as a teenager. so much debate about stem schools. what would you say about the experience? jessica: it was a life-changing experience for me. i was in the third graduating year and it was tremendous. we had residential mentors who would drive us to various facilities but it was all about paving your way, so if you had an idea, they help facilitate, catalyze that. i was able to work on two different projects, one at the university of arkansas medical service, one in north little rock. i was transported there daily to work in the chemistry lab. not only did i work in the chemistry lab, i was able to
associate with graduate students, professors, i was able to blow my own glassware. it was a tremendous experience, one of those projects with trying to understand low level microwave radiation and this was an observation of driving all of those 26 different stakes in the back of the station wagon and noticing there tended to be life underneath power lines out of the car window. i was able to test that in small experiments, and another one looking at titanium dioxide. the messages written out of airlines is titanium dioxide. breaking down hydrocarbons, using it to speed up something
equivalent to photosynthesis but to break down waste products and water. for me it was a fantastic experience, it gave me the confidence. i was a twin sister, the younger twin sister, and someone who grew up with 24 foster siblings, and i was shy and quiet and came out a different person. i am all for stem schools. it paved the way for my future career. susan: now to one of the thousands of scientists around the world studying the work of the mars rover. thank you so much for bringing us up to date. there will be more we are watching back on earth. thanks for your time. jessica: thank you. ♪
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