Episode 54: What’s the Big Deal With the James Webb Space Telescope?

A crop of the deep field JWST image showing many galaxies and stars.

Image: A crop of the image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, “known as Webb’s First Deep Field.” (Source: NASA)

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Charles 0:23
Hello and welcome to Assigned Scientist at Bachelor’s. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.

Tessa 0:28
And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.

Charles 0:30
And today it’s just the two of us to talk about why all of the space people on my Twitter feed have been absolutely losing their minds. It’s exciting times. Tessa, you are one of these space people.

Tessa 0:46
I am.

Charles 0:47
So why are you all losing your minds?

Tessa 0:51
Okay, so there are a couple of different reasons for why everyone’s freaking out over James Webb. Although I should note before we go further, that the name James Webb, for the Space Telescope, is still kind of controversial. But just Space Alliance, which is a group that is run by friend of the pod, Lucien welcome, which put out a great documentary about his involvement in the Lavender Scare, just not great. In a better world, we’d have a much better name for the telescope. And people should be aware of that. With all that said, the reason people are so excited about this particular space telescope is that first off people, it’s, it’s been under development for a very long time, it turned out to be much more expensive and much more complicated as a project than people thought. And in fact, there was a lot of criticism during its development cycle over the last 15 years, because it ended up eating up a lot of money that could have gone to other astrophysics projects. So now we’re all really keen to at least get our money’s worth out of it.

But beyond that, it has capabilities that are quite beyond anything that’s come before it, partially in the wavelengths of light that it looks at, it mostly looks at infrared, to near infrared. So stuff that is just beyond the range of what we as humans can see going into the infrared, which we usually think of as heat radiation, which is going to be really useful, partially because we haven’t had a lot of coverage in that part of the spectrum. So there are a lot of cooler dimmer objects that may have gone unnoticed, or at least under studied. And also, for cosmological reasons, it will allow the telescope to see further and because of how speed of light works, see further back in time than any telescope has before, because those objects are so far away, so dim, and the Universe has been expanding for so long that the light has been redshifted. Again, for cosmological reasons that a infrared telescope is going to be the ideal instrument to sort of look at the very earliest light emitting objects in our universe.

Charles 2:58
So so just the very basic level, people are very excited because a telescope that has been in the works for a long time is now out there, doing its thing.

Tessa 3:11
Yep. And it’s doing its thing very well.

Charles 3:13
Well, that’s, that’s good to hear. So what distinguishes one telescope from another? For those of us who work in the opposite range of scoping, basically talking about microscopes…

Tessa 3:30
Telescopes have a couple like, specifications to them that allow you to distinguish them from one or another. The first one is basically what wavelengths of light do they look at. I mean, obviously, there’s visible light when we’re you and I, and I’m most familiar with. But if you remember, from high school physics, the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes visible light goes all the way from like gamma rays, which are very, very short wavelength light, very energetic, all the way up to microwaves and radio waves, which are very, very long wavelengths of light. And by looking at the sky, with instruments that are sensitive to different wavelengths, you can get a more complete picture of what’s out there, because there are objects that don’t make very much save visible light. So you and I looking at the sky won’t be able to see them, but they may emit a whole lot of, say, x rays, or infrared rays, or microwaves. And therefore, using telescopes that can see those wavelengths, we’d be able to see them and see them in a lot more detail than we’d ever be able to do just looking with our normal eyes looking at visible light. So that’s part of it.

The other part of it has to do with essentially how much light gathering power telescopes have. People think about it in terms of magnification, and there is an element of that but a lot of it is basically telescopes, more than making faraway things look closer. The biggest thing they do is make dim objects look brighter, and the larger the light gathering surface you which in the case of James Webb is this massive multi segmented mirror, the brighter you can make dim objects. And along with that, the sharper the resolution you can make of those objects. If you actually go and like, download some of the images that were released last week, they are not super magnified, at least not initially, what made them special, especially the one of the Stevens Cortez, which is a group of galaxies that are sort of interacting with each other was the fact that the picture had absolutely incredible resolution, it was 150 million pixels in total. So you could just keep zooming in and zooming in and zooming in. And that’s where the actual magnification happens. And by having that higher resolution, you can see higher detail, you know, and understand more about what you’re looking at.

Charles 5:59
I think, probably most people who aren’t space nerds in a professional capacity, their experience of telescopes is maybe limited to like the telescope that you can get, and just set up outside your house. And like, there’s the moon, there’s a planet, there’s the stars, so those things are visible on the visible light spectrum, the range…?

Tessa 6:27
So essentially, that’s red, you know, basically ROYGBIV, red, orange, yellow, indigo, green, blue, violet, that’s the stuff we can see. But like I said, there is whole floss of electromagnetic radiation out there that we can’t see. And the way you set up a telescope to actually see those things, because our eyes obviously can’t, is that you install what’s called a charge coupling device, which is basically just a grid of photo receptive cells. The one in the camera in your smartphone, for example, has a very relatively low resolution CCD, and it’s same idea. So basically, digital cameras, just like very, very high resolution ones, and that these CCDs can be modified to be sensitive to certain wavelengths of light, beyond just what our eyes can see.

And that’s basically what the foundation of all astronomy and non visual wavelengths is, before they were CCDs, you could do some stuff, just using photographic plates, certain chemical treatments would make the plates sensitive to different wavelengths beyond what our eye could see. But it was kind of hit or miss. So I guess it was, you know, digital photography is really what made multi wavelength astronomy possible.

Charles 7:51
Hmm. So the James Webb Space Telescope, which we agree is a bad name and shouldn’t be named.

Tessa 7:57

Charles 7:58
What sets it apart then, partially, is that it has these receptors for a broad range of wavelengths of light?

Tessa 8:08
Yes, that and specifically those that correlate with infrared?

Charles 8:12
Is there a lot of… is there… So is there just a lot of infrared hanging out in space?

Tessa 8:19
Yeah. While there had been infrared telescopes before and even few in and even some in orbit, the Spitzer Space Telescope, for example, James Webb is by far the largest and highest resolution. Now, in order to create that resolution. It hasn’t been easy part of what made James Webb so expensive is that it CCD has to be cryogenically cooled, I think using liquid helium, because otherwise the waste heat of the telescopes onboard systems themselves would interfere with the CCDs imaging capabilities. So, you know, that’s part of the difficulty because I mean, anything that emits heat could potentially be detected by the sun. It’s also why it has a massive sunshade to shield it from the sun’s heat.

Charles 9:05
Well, could we actually – talking about the sunshade, could we talk about if you’re looking at the image of the telescope itself, the just why it looks the way that it does. Looking at a picture of the James Webb Space Telescope, it has a very distinctive appearance. Yes, got like, the Dorito shaped silver base and then the beehive reflective surface and then that has a plaque backing. What is… what am I looking at?

Tessa 9:39
So you have the beehive, which is the segmented mirror that I mentioned earlier. It’s so big that they had to basically launch into space folded up and then it unfolded itself. This sort of diamond shape behind all of that, that looks kind of like a little bit like an accordion is the sunshade.

Charles 9:55
Okay. And it also says that it has a bus?

Tessa 9:59
Buses… just the term for like, where all the instrumentation and like thrusters and stuff go. Like, it’s just like a general thing that most satellites have.

Charles 10:08
And that thing’s up in space now.

Tessa 10:10
It is, it is. And so I was talking about resolution earlier. The other thing that people are very excited about, I’m excited about is that, when, you know, I mentioned earlier that these images have incredibly high resolution, you know, millions of pixels, so you can just zoom in and zoom in and zoom in. That’s not just true for images, too. It can also take spectra, which we’ve talked about before, you know, it’s basically sending light through a prism, essentially. And then, by seeing what individual wavelengths of light have been absorbed, or increased, you can see you can say something about sort of the matter that that light has passed through, if light has passed through, say, a cloud of oxygen, you know, there will be certain wavelengths of light, very specific wavelengths just to due to how to just due to how quantum physics works, that will be absorbed, and you can by splitting this light into its rainbow of colors, you can see literally these black bands in the rainbow, where that light has been absorbed. And obviously, you can do this to find out a lot about sight atmospheres of planets.

And one of the things that was released last week was not an image, it was just the spectral lines of a planet, around another star, in this case, a Jupiter sized planet that was orbiting very close to it’s hot, you know, it’s post sun, unlikely to have life on it, they picked it mostly because it’s so close, that it would be very easy to catch light that had flown through the planet’s atmosphere. And the reason I got very excited is that looking at the spectra, which usually is just plotted out in terms of how much light has been absorbed, it was super easy to see that this planet had a lot of water vapor in its atmosphere. And you could literally just look at this, you know, spectral plot and see it. And that’s doesn’t sound like much, but that’s actually pretty incredible. In the past, we haven’t been able to see the spectra of light, you know that Sam was going through a planet’s atmosphere in that high resolution before. So we’d get very sort of muddy jumbled data, you know, the plots would be very unclear, there’d be a lot of uncertainty in in them. And you’d have to do a lot of data processing and analysis in order to say with any certainty Oh, yeah, there’s water vapor in this atmosphere. In fact, one of my committee members, Mike Line, like, basically made his career developing software packages to do that, amongst other things.

Charles 12:39
Well, how can you tell that there’s water vapor specifically?

Tessa 12:42
So this is actually what we do is that literally here on Earth, we set up a tank full of whatever acid is we’re interested in, we shine a light through it, and then we see what spectral lines have been absorbed. You can also do it through like, calculating stuff based off of quantum mechanics, but a lot of it is just empirically tested. And since light is like the same throughout the universe, and gases, so far, as we know, are behave the same throughout the university, no oxygen will absorb the same light here on earth as it does. And on a planet, hundreds of light years away, we can generally…

Charles 13:15
I mean, as far as you know.

Tessa 13:17
As far as we know, yeah. You know, beyond that, we assume that, you know, if we see the same sort of absorption of particular wavelengths of light in the spectrum than that we, you know, saw here on Earth, we can say, oh, yeah, that’s probably water vapor there that’s in the atmosphere absorbing that particular wavelength of light. And yeah, you know, with James Webb, the resolution was so clear, you could just look at it and say, oh, yeah, you know, we’re seeing the same absorption features we see here on earth, when you shine light through water vapor, instead of having to do all this very complicated data analysis to figure out the same thing.

Charles 13:55
Is some part of this also, like the the resolution of spectra is part of that also just increases in computer technology in general?

Tessa 14:07
Yeah, I mean, we do have a lot better electronics and a lot better data processing than we did before, which also helps the resolution. I’m not a computer science person, but I’m sure our algorithms are probably more sophisticated than they used to be to, in terms of figuring out okay, what’s actual, you know, of the photons that have, you know, the particles of light that have hit our detector, which are the ones are from the thing we’re actually interested in looking at, and which ones are just from, like, light reflecting off an asteroid somewhere in our solar system, or some other stray bit of light that we aren’t interested in.

But a lot of it’s just we have a really big mirror in space, and that helps a lot. And in part that’s because without having the Earth’s atmosphere in the way, which can sort of muddle and distort light as it goes through the atmosphere and in the case of many infrared wavelengths, is absorbed entirely. Like I said, water vapor in particular is really good at absorbing infrared light And so it’s very hard to do some observations of the sky in those band of infrared, because all the light coming from stars and planets or whatever, it’s completely absorbed by our own atmosphere. So yeah, that’s really the big breakthrough is just we’ve got a really big mirror that is really good for collecting a lot of light, where it won’t be filtered or distorted by the Earth’s atmosphere.

Charles 15:23
So the, the picture that kept getting spread around, there was like the one specific picture that everybody kept sharing. What is that specifically?

Tessa 15:33
So the image that everybody really passed around a lot is what’s called a deep field image, which is basically just you point your telescope at a spot in the sky, in this case, a very small spot, you know, it’s about the same area as a grain of rice held at arm’s length, if you were to look towards it, and just look at it for a while and collect a lot of light, and then see what you can see. And the idea is that by doing so, by looking at sort of these dim parts of the sky, you will be able to see further back, because there won’t be like closer stars that are kind of out shining all the really far away dim stuff. We’ve done images like that before Hubble Space Telescope did a whole bunch of them very famously like back in the 2000s. But we’ve never done it at such high resolution and in this particular wavelength of light before. And like I said earlier, the farther away an object is due to just again, like cosmological phenomenon, having to do with like the speed at which the universe is expanding, the dimmer and the more shifted into the red and infrared, its light will be.

So the reason people have been freaking out is that if you compare the images from the Hubble Space Telescope, that’s the same spot in the sky, they’re kind of dim, they’re kind of murky, you can’t see a whole lot. But if you look at the images from the James Webb, you see a whole lot more, you know, many more points of light, which are all individual galaxies, and the galaxies that we could see before we can see now in much higher detail than we ever could before. And that’s why everyone’s really excited. I mean, these are the faintest objects anyone has ever seen.

Charles 17:13
Yeah. It is a little bit. I’m looking at it now. And it’s like, I understand that this is incredible. But here’s my thing. We don’t know that there are insects in any of those. We don’t see a downside. That you know, and we also don’t know that there are cats out there either.

Yeah, I would like to think there are. But you know, we unfortunately, do not have quite high enough resolution for cat detection yet.

That’s the check – when you get that call me.

Tessa 17:46
Oh, you’ll be the first to know, I assure you.

Charles 17:48
Thank you so much. This is gonna, this is gonna maybe be a silly question. But I feel like probably at least one other person has had this question and been like, I can’t, I can’t say that out loud. Because people will make fun of me. So this Webb’s deep field image is what are the is it? Because here’s my thing, sometimes you’ll look at a space image. And then if you look in the fine print in the caption, it’ll be like, this is a artistic rendering of what yeah, you know,

Tessa 18:25
no, no, that’s actually a really? That’s a really good question. Because a lot of times, yeah, they’re just artistic renders, this is not an artistic render, this is an actual image. Now, I will say there has been some amount of processing. Because James Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, the light that it detected has been sort of like, converted into wavelengths that we could see. Because otherwise, it would just be like a black screen, we wouldn’t see anything. So you know, there is a little bit of artistry involved in kind of choosing which of the wavelengths it observed correlate to what visible wavelengths, and I’m sure, like in the process of polishing, they probably cleaned up the image a little bit, you know, remove some of that noise I talked about earlier. But beyond that, you know, this is the real deal. This is actually what’s out there. You know, if you had an eyepiece on the James Webb Space Telescope that would convert its infrared light into visible light. This is more or less what you would see.

Charles 19:29
Okay, so looking at this image, what are the… Okay, there are some different shapes that I’m saying there are things that look like Christmas tree stars.

Tessa 19:39

Charles 19:39
Which I assume are stars.

Tessa 19:42
Those are actual stars. Yeah, that happened to be close by and sort of in the way.

Charles 19:47
So, there are some things that are kind of shaped like amoeba.

Tessa 19:51
Yeah, those are pretty much – other than the like Christmas ornament looking things. Everything else in here is a galaxy of some flavor or another.

Charles 19:58
Okay, great. So the amoeba, the dinoflagellates.

Tessa 20:02
Yes. Looks like a little curved there actually is due to the distortion due to other galaxies of their light due to how relative the theory of relativity works. But essentially very massive objects can actually distort light that is passing near them in such a way that it ends up being kind of curved like this. Have you ever seen the movie Interstellar? That’s why the black hole has that kind of Halo thing around it. But yeah, but they’re pretty much everything except the Christmas Ornament looking fellows are galaxies.

Charles 20:36
So the swirly white one is a galaxy, the sort of orange one.

Tessa 20:42
Yeah, and galaxies come in a lot of shapes. The swirly ones are spiral galaxies, sort of blobby ones are just called elliptical galaxies. Ones that are kind of smeared out, that haven’t been kind of curved by gravity are called rather unimaginably irregular galaxies or erratic galaxies. But yeah, they’re all just different types of galaxy.

Charles 21:04
So what okay, why are there so many galaxies out there?

Tessa 21:09
There’s just a lot of galaxies in the universe, as it turns out, like just an absurdly large number of them.

Charles 21:15
But why? I mean, we don’t need them.

Tessa 21:18
Yeah, yeah. I don’t know, redundancy, I guess?

Charles 21:22
Sure. I do want to take it back. I would never say that we don’t need a species on Earth. So similarly, I think that there is great value in simply existing. But is there something about the nature of space, that’s like, let’s get some galaxies in here.

Tessa 21:38
So I will say that cosmology is not my area of expertise. But my understanding is that, essentially, right after the universe originated, we think, in the Big Bang, and you had this sort of enormous ball of superheated gas expanding into everywhere, there were sort of minut variations in the density of that gas. And as time went, got, as time went on, and the universe got bigger and cooler, those minute variations, sort of like the ones that were a little bit denser, you know, had a little bit more gas in them than other parts of the universe pulled a little bit more on the surrounding gas, just because they had a little bit more gravity. And so that pulled more gas to them increase their mass, which then caused them to pull strong more strongly with gravity. And that pulled even more gas, and you have this basically positive feedback loop. So And over time, you know, eventually, you got these just enormous clouds of gas, which is where the first stars and ultimately the first galaxies are born. So basically, the reason we have a lot of galaxies is because of wrinkles and the Big Bang, essentially.

Charles 22:45
Wow. So you said that we can see things further back in time than we’ve ever been able to see before. Do these things in space change on a? Are there differences and observations that we can make now of space phenomena that are different from how they would have been observed like 100 years ago?

Tessa 23:08
Yeah, I mean, we could see obviously, much higher resolution, but we can also like, watch them over time much more. Effectively?

Charles 23:16
Well, I’m asking in general, if this is a if, if things in space look different to us over time?

Tessa 23:22
In some cases, we can. It’s mostly stuff that’s closer by just because it’s higher resolution. And it light has to spend less time getting to us. But you know, you can watch stars sort of slingshot around the massive black hole in the center of our galaxy, you can see the shockwave from a supernova compressing the gas cloud that’s around it and causing it to heat up over the course of say, years. In some cases, we’ve even seen very large planets orbiting English stars over the course of years. And you know, there are actually images movies out there of you know, them just circling around. So in some cases, yes, you can see things unfold through time.

Charles 24:04
Well, will the higher resolution offered by this new telescope, then enable that study of change over time? Even more?

Tessa 24:12
Yes, because we’ll be able to see more detail. And you know, usually finer detail is more likely to change over time.

Charles 24:19
Are there any other reasons that we haven’t touched on on why people are losing their minds?

Tessa 24:23
Those are the big ones right now, as there’s more data coming in. People probably get really excited because again, James Webb may be able to see sort of like the first light emitting objects and the history of our universe looking back in time. So like, to the point when the Big Bang where things just really finally cooled down enough that you could have stars form, which we’ve never been able to see before we hypothesize that they’re there because I mean, stars are here now. But, you know, to actually see them and be able to study them would be really cool. I was talking about spectral lines earlier, too. Now, as I mentioned, the on it that web looked at first was, you know, a Jupiter sized planet very, very close to its star, you know, and a surface temperature of over 1000 degrees in the future, they are planning on aiming it however, at planets that are much closer to Earth, in terms of their size, their surface temperature, etc. A big one is going to be looking at the TRAPPIST one system, which has like seven or eight planets that we know of in it, and it will hopefully be able to observe the atmospheres of most if not all of them and have a much better idea of what those planets are made out of. So that’s going to be really exciting. And we’re also going to just see a lot of really high resolution images in a wavelength. We haven’t seen a lot of the universe and so I’m sure there’ll be a lot of things we can’t even predict yet.

Charles 25:46
Are there likely to be a lot of things that get disproven?

Tessa 25:51
Maybe – it’s hard to say what will because a lot of it is, you know, we’ve never had access to this sort of data before. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some stuff that we just didn’t see coming that oh, you know, we assumed, for example, that the first stars would be just really, really massive, because there’d be so much hydrogen gas floating around. And they probably wouldn’t last very long. But we don’t know that for sure. You know, that may turn out to be completely incorrect as an assumption, we I suspect, when we’re talking about planets and their atmospheres, you know, we will probably find out a lot we’ve been assuming that some of the planets in the TRAPPIST one system, for example, or kind of more, like you say, Neptune, you know, sort of these sort of icy, gassy, large balls, but it may turn out that they’re actually made up of material that’s much closer to Earth, sort of like rock and metal.

Charles 26:43
So with, there’s only, there’s only one, James Webb Space Telescope. And from what I know about Twitter, there are many, yes, space people.

Tessa 26:58
There’s a lot of competition.

Charles 27:01
Speak on that.

Tessa 27:02
So yeah, I don’t know the details, because I don’t do observational astronomy. But yeah, there I know, for a fact one of the reasons that while James Webb is going to look at Earth like planets, it’s not going to look at a whole lot of them, maybe only a dozen or so. And that’s important, because in order to get like the really sort of very high resolution, clean spectral lines, that we’d need to actually say anything interesting about what those planets are made of, you have to point the telescope at the planet for a relatively long period of time. And because there’s so much demand for people, you know, trying to find the earliest stars, or trying to observe, you know, giant clouds of gas, in our own galaxy, that really stand out a lot infrared are people looking at galaxies forming and colliding in the early Universe, you know, that’s why there’s only gonna be about a dozen of those planets, observes, because, you know, you can’t give it all to the exoplanet people. There are other astronomers who have legitimate uses for the telescope. And they’d also like to point it at other things.

I don’t know how lucky you have to be in order to get to have your proposal picked. Because basically what you in order to like apply for telescope time, you have to basically submit a proposal saying, Okay, this is the object we’d like to look at. Here’s why, you know, it’s scientifically valid and interesting. And therefore, you should give us the observation time on the telescope to look at the thing. And here’s what we’re hoping to find and the questions we’re hoping to answer. But I imagine, yeah, you’ve got a lot of competition.

Charles 28:33
Do astronomers like get really petty and mad at each other when they’re in competition for the same stuff?

Tessa 28:39
I honestly don’t know. I don’t think so because it’s usually anonymized. So you don’t necessarily know directly who you’re competing with. And also, if you wait long enough, usually you will get a shot at whatever you’re looking at, what they do get very petty about and thankfully for James Webb, this isn’t a problem. But here on earth, when you’re looking at, you know, like something that Kitt Peak, or on the Canary Islands, or Mauna Kea, or you know, any of the big telescopes here on Earth, they get very petty about cloudy weather, like enormously petty, because, you know, you’ve only got one shot at this. And if it’s clouded over, you’re out of luck.

Charles 29:17
I can see that.

Tessa 29:22
I will say that, I am very excited to see what comes out because some of that data may be really useful for the stuff that I’m working on from my own research. With that said, the thing that gets me really excited, though, are the telescopes that are planned to follow on James Webb. The current one doesn’t exactly have a name yet. But it’s going to be specifically designed with looking at exoplanets in mind, whereas James Webb like looks at a bunch of different things in like early stars or galaxies colliding or whatever. This plan telescope is going to be specialized towards being able to analyze the atmosphere and composition of exoplanets. And that’s probably going to be launching in about another 10 years or so. Hmm. And that one I’m really excited for because that we should get a lot of really cool results out of that.

Charles 30:10
I, I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been in kind of a nihilistic funk recently. So you saying this is going to happen in about 10 years? All I can think is like, good luck with that.

Tessa 30:23
Well, yeah, I mean, there are a lot of assumptions based on that. But you know, I’m feeling a little optimistic today. So that’s good.

Charles 30:31
We’re supposed to be good. We’re getting some cloudy weather this week, which I’m excited about because unlike an astronomer, I enjoy cloudy days.

Tessa 30:42
I mean, here in Phoenix. I do too. And since all my stuff is theoretical, I don’t have to worry about cloudy weather. Yeah. Well, one exception I got when I proposed to my wife. So you know, gosh, 12 years ago. Now, I guess. I decided I was going to propose to Alex. And, you know, since we’re both huge nerds, as I’m sure you know, the way Yeah, Shocking, I know, the way I was going to do it was that we had gone out to my parents farm in Virginia for the early part of the summer, and may in June. And we’re staying there. And I had heard that, you know, that month, the position of Saturn’s rings, because they slowly changed position Villa to the earth over time, it was going to be at a place in the sky where it would be particularly good viewing through a telescope. And I was like, oh, so I’ll borrow a friend’s telescope. And you know, or look through a telescope and see Saturn’s lovely rings on an on proposed shore, and it’ll be under the stars, and it’ll be super romantic.

I knew what day I was gonna do it, it’s gonna be the last weekend in May. And her parents were gonna fly up for it. So they knew ahead of time that it was happening. And she had a general idea that it was happening too, because we talked about like picking out rings and stuff. But she didn’t know the circumstances. And I had, you know, everything set up, it was going to be that Friday night, the next night, we were going to go out to dinner at a really nice restaurant, and it’s gonna be really cool. And so we’re sitting down to dinner that Friday night, and it is cloudy out. And I am slowly melting down. There is a an online tool called the clear sky clock, which will tell you based off of weather data, like when the sky is supposed to be clear at your location. It’s developed for astronomers specifically for that purpose. And so I’m like, running back and forth to my computer from the, you know, to the dinner table, checking on about that every 10 minutes to see Oh, my God, our conditions going to improve or not, what am I going to do? So we go outside, we set up the telescope, it’s still cloudy, it’s a patchy, cloudy, but it’s still cloudy, we, you know, I kill some time with her like chasing after fireflies as you do. And then just when I’m about to completely lose it. And this is probably about 11 at night, a patch of sky opens up just where I need it to be. And so we point we get very excited, we point the telescope at Saturn, look through it, and we don’t see any rings. And I should know, just because it takes me a while to get it pointed, by the way, because just because I’m gonna have a degree in astronomy doesn’t mean I actually know how to point the telescope.

But you know, we finally get it in view, and we can’t see any rings. And I’m like, well, dang all this work. What am I going to do? And I figured, okay, either the telescope doesn’t have high enough resolution, or maybe, you know, we caught the rings at the wrong time and there edge on when viewed from Earth. So you can’t really see anything. But then I was like, Wait, universe is never gonna give me a better opening than this. So I turned to her and said, Well, I’m sorry, we can’t see Saturn’s rings. But I do have a ring I can show you. So that’s how I proposed to my wife. And then after we had that exchange, and she said yes, even before I could finish asking the question, we pointed at the moon and discovered that actually, the problem was the telescope was out of focus. Because just because I have a degree in astronomy doesn’t mean I know how to put this telescope. And so we pointed it back at Saturn, got it in focus, and then we can see the rings. So yes, that is the story of how my posing to my wife was almost completely ruined by overcast skies.

Charles 34:20
Well, this is why you just never make plans.

Tessa 34:24
I mean, there’s that.

Charles 34:27
And you’re still married today.

Tessa 34:30
Yep. And then when she reciprocated proposed to me, I guess it would have been two years later. We did it inside but she timed it. And she actually got me up at 530 in the morning for this for when the Sagittarius A star, which is like sort of the center of the galaxy was directly overhead.

Charles 34:49
Terrible. Why was there a reciprocal proposal? And why was it staggered so much?

Tessa 34:55
Because when I proposed to her it was like right before I actually came to terms as being trans, and two years later, you know, I was well on the road to transitioning. And she’s like, Well, you’re a girl. You need your own engagement ring. And so she got me one. It was…

Charles 35:13
Terrible. I hate romance.

Tessa 35:16
Yeah, I know. It’s disgusting.

Charles 35:20
But maybe some dorks in the audience will appreciate it. No, I’m very happy that you’re happily married, but not for not for ole Charles.

Tessa 35:32
It’s not for everyone.

Charles 35:38
While we’ve been talking, I thought of another episode ending question that we can add to the roster. So is thinking about, it seems like this new telescope is not necessarily a huge deal in the astrobiology specific area, because the resolution is extremely high. But as stated, It’s not high enough to see if anybody has insects.

Tessa 36:01
Yes. Unless there are unusually large insects.

Charles 36:05
Well, they wouldn’t be insects anyway, if we’re depending on your philosophy of classification, because contemporary mainstream biological classification systems rely on phylogenetic information. So anything that evolved outside of Earth couldn’t be an insect, even if it was morphologically identical. That’s a separate conversation, but insect like organisms, I suppose. So if thinking about it, would you rather encounter sentient or non sentient alien life?

Tessa 36:45
You know, that’s a good question. Um, non sentient would probably be easier to work with and easier to study. On the other hand, the romantic and me would love to meet sentient life, something I could talk to, or at least attempt to relate to.

Charles 37:00
Yeah, but you’d like to quote unquote, meet them. But yeah, meet them.

Tessa 37:06
No. Take them on, you know, out to a nice date. Maybe see how things go.

Charles 37:11
I know how it is with you lesbians.

Tessa 37:15

Charles 37:16
Alien love romances.

Tessa 37:17
Yep. No, it is it is a stereotype.

Charles 37:21
Is it?

Tessa 37:23
Well, I mean, again, the popularity of the Mass Effect trilogy certainly suggests it is.

Charles 37:27
I guess that’s true. And well, Locked Tomb is not about aliens, but it could be.

Tessa 37:32
It could be – also Becky Chambers books.

Charles 37:36
And Becky Chambers. Yes. Those are very good. Speaking of Becky Chambers, actually, I was thinking about To Be Taught If Fortunate, which is they have found non Earth life, but not life. That is sentient? Yep. Well, I actually I haven’t finished To Be Taught If Fortunate. So I don’t know.

Tessa 37:57
They don’t as far as I remember.

Charles 37:58
Okay. And I think just the ethics of dealing with sentient alien life is like, we can’t even sort out bioethics on Earth.

Tessa 38:09
Oh, yeah. The I was at a study conference last month. And yeah, there was a lot of discussion about goodness, we can barely handle this amongst ourselves, how are we going to do it with a completely different species?

Charles 38:21
This is what I’m saying. But then, of course, potentially, the ethics of non sentient life is equally naughty and complex, because first of all, how do you determine if something is sentient or not?

Tessa 38:36
Well, yeah, and actually, one of the things that came out of that conference was that we actually probably need to stop thinking about intelligence, at least with regards to SETI and start thinking about looking for technology. Because how do you even begin to find intelligence?

Charles 38:50
I don’t know. Because this is the thing. I don’t live the lifestyle of like an earthworm. And if I encountered an organism that was very much like an earthworm, I did not have a sensory experience of the world that was really comparable to mine in a way that I could like, communicate with, I would probably assume that they were non sentient. But on the other hand, if I had the opportunity to choose between being an earthworm and being a human person, I think the earthworm is the better choice. In many ways. Yeah, you’re not.

There’s, like it’s, it’s, we tend to conflate, I think, really, what I’m getting at is that we tend to conflate complexity with intelligence. And this goes back to even like outside even, you know, the purview of thinking about extraterrestrial, thinking about you know, the the legacy of colonialism and European imperialism and the ways that Europeans a lot of times would encounter people who had lifestyles that they considered like barbarically simple and they were like, well, obviously, these are less complex. These people aren’t human in the way that we’re people. Their lives are not as complicated as ours in a way that we recognize. And it’s like, it’s maybe you’re wrong. And so what is that, but like… earthworm people.

Tessa 40:20
Right, exactly. That’s a fair point.

Charles 40:23
So, yeah, I guess my final statement is everything is complex and difficult all the time. But there’s, you got to keep living, because the only other option is to not be alive. That’s kind of a strict binary.

Tessa 40:40
Yeah, yeah. It’s not super popular, at least amongst organisms that are currently in line.

Charles 40:47
Yep. As noted earlier in the episode, I’ve been in a weird mood recently. So if you want to find me online, don’t – just go to our podcast Twitter, which is @ASABpod Twitter or on our website, where we post show notes and transcripts for every episode asabpodcast.com.

Tessa 41:13
And you can find me on Twitter @spacermase, although I have been spending a little bit less time on there just because it’s nonsense, or mental health. Yeah, mental health, or at my website, tessafisher.com

Charles 41:28
If you liked the show, please tell other people about the show. Word of mouth is pretty much the number one way the podcast grow. Thank you, Nicole Petrovich, friend of the show and previous guests for our intro music and if you are trans in science in any capacity and you would like to be on the show, we have a guest interest form that you can fill out that is linked on our website asabpodcast.com.

Tessa 41:51
We’d love to have you.

Charles 41:52
We would love to have you.

Tessa 41:53
And until next time, keep on science-ing.

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