Katherine de Kleer: Planets, Moons, Asteroids & Life in Our Solar System | Lex Fridman Podcast #184 | Transcription

Transcription for the video titled "Katherine de Kleer: Planets, Moons, Asteroids & Life in Our Solar System | Lex Fridman Podcast #184".

1970-01-07T06:55:26.000Z

Note: This transcription is split and grouped by topics and subtopics. You can navigate through the Table of Contents on the left. It's interactive. All paragraphs are timed to the original video. Click on the time (e.g., 01:53) to jump to the specific portion of the video.


Introduction

Introduction (00:00)

The following is a conversation with Katherine DeClaire, a professor of planetary science and astronomy at Caltech. Her research is on the surface environments, atmospheres, and thermochemical histories of the planets and moons in our solar system. Quick mention of our sponsors, Fund, Rise, Blinkist, ExpressVPN, and Magic Spoon. Check them out in the description to support this podcast. As a side note, let me say that this conversation and a few others, quite big ones actually, that are coming up or filmed in a studio where I was trying to outsource some of the work. Like, all experiments, it was a learning experience for me. It had some positives and negatives. Ultimately, I decided to return back to doing it the way I was doing before, but hopefully with a team who can help me out and work with me in long term. The point is, I will always keep challenging myself, trying stuff out, learning, growing, and hopefully improving over time. My goal is to surround myself with people who love what they do, our amazing at it, and our obsessed with doing the best work of their lives. To me, there's nothing more energizing and fun than that. In fact, I'm currently hiring a few folks to work with me on very small projects. If this is something of interest to you, go to lexfreetment.com/hiring. That's where I will always post opportunities for working with me. This is the Lex Friedman podcast, and here is my conversation with Katherine DeClaire.


Overview Of Planetary Science

Pluto (01:27)

Why is Pluto not a planet anymore? Does this upset you or has justice finally been served? So I get asked this all the time. I think all planetary scientists get asked about Pluto, especially by kids who we just love for Pluto to still be a planet. But the reality is, when we first discovered Pluto, it was a unique object in the outer solar system, and we thought we were adding a planet to the inventory of planets that we had. And then over time, it became clear that Pluto was not a unique, large object in the outer solar system, that there were actually many of these. And as we started discovering more and more of them, we realized that the concept of Pluto being a planet didn't make sense. Unless maybe we added all the rest of them as planets. So you could have imagined actually a different direction that this could have gone, where all the other objects that were discovered in that belt, or at least all the ones, let's say above a certain size, became planets instead of Pluto being declassified. But we're now aware of many objects out there in the outer solar system, and what's called the Kuiper belt that are of the same size, or in some cases even larger than Pluto. So the declassification was really just a realization that it was not in the same category as the other planets in the solar system, and we basically needed to refine our definition in such a way that took into account that there's this belt of debris out there in the outer solar system of things with a range of sizes. Is there a hope for clear categorization of what is a planet and not? Or is it all just gray area? When you study planets, when you study moons, satellites, or those planets, is there lines that could be cleanly drawn, or is it just a giant mess? This is all like a fluid, not a mess, but it's like fluid of what is a planet, what is a moon of a planet, what is debris, what is asteroids, all that kind of. So there are technically clear definitions that were set down by the IAU, the International Astronomy Union. Is it size related? Like what are the parameters based on what? So the parameters are that it has to orbit the sun, which was essentially to rule out satellites. Of course, this was a not very forward thinking definition because it technically means that all extrasolar planets according to that definition are not planets. So it has to orbit the sun. It has to be large enough that its gravity has caused it to become spherical in shape, which also applies to satellites and also applies to Pluto. The third part of the definition is the thing that really rules out everything else, which is that it has to have cleared out its orbital path. And because Pluto orbits in a belt of material, it doesn't satisfy that stipulation. Why didn't it clear out the path? It's not big enough to knock everybody out of the way. And this actually is not the first time it has happened. So Ceres, when it was discovered, Ceres is the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, and it was originally considered a planet when it was first discovered. And it went through exactly the same story, history, where people actually realized that it was just one of many asteroids in the asteroid belt region, and then it got declassified to an asteroid, and now it's back to a dwarf planet. So there is a lot of reclassification. So to me, as somebody who studies solar system objects, I just personally don't care. My level of interest in something has nothing to do with what it's classified as. So my favorite objects in the solar system are all moons. And frequently, when I talk about them, I refer to them as planets, because to me, they are planets. They have volcanoes. They have geology. They have atmospheres. They're planet-like worlds. And so the distinction is not super meaningful to me, but it is important just for having a general framework for understanding and talking about things to have a precise definition. So you don't have a special romantic appreciation of a moon versus a planet versus an asteroid. It's just an object that flies out there and doesn't really matter what the categorization is. Because there's movies about asteroids and stuff. And then there's movies about the moon, whatever, it's a really good movie. There's something about moons that's almost like an outlier. You think of a moon as a thing that's the secret part. And the planet is the more vanilla regular part. None of that. You don't have any of that? No, I actually do. I really, satellites are the moons are my favorite things in the solar system. And I think part of what you're saying, I agree from maybe a slightly different perspective, which is from the perspective of exploration, we've spent a lot of time sending spacecraft missions to planets. We had a mission to Jupiter. We had a mission to Saturn. We have plenty of missions to Mars and missions to Venus. I think the exploration of the moons in the outer solar system is the next frontier of solar system exploration. The belt of debris just real quick that's out there.


Kuiper belt (06:35)

Is there something incredible to be discovered there? Again, we tend to focus on the planets and the moons, but it feels like there's probably a lot of stuff out there. And it probably, what is it? It's like a garbage collector from outside of the solar system. Doesn't it protect from other objects that are flying? It just feels like it's a cool... You know when you walk along the beach and look for stuff? It feels like that kind of place where you can find cool, weird things. I guess in our conversation today, when we think about tools and what science is studying, is there something to be studied out there? Or we just don't have maybe the tools yet? Or there's nothing to be found? There's absolutely a lot to be found. So the material that's out there is remnant material from the formation of our solar system. We don't think it comes from outside the solar system, at least not most of it. But there are so many fascinating objects out there. And I think what you've hit on is exactly right that we just don't have the tools to study them in detail. But we can look out there and we can see there are different species of ice on their surface that tells us about the chemical composition of the disk that formed our solar system. Some of these objects are way brighter than they should be, meaning they have some kind of geological activity. People have hypothesized that some of these objects have subsurface oceans. You could even stretch your imagination and say some of those oceans could be habitable. But we can't get very detailed information about them because they're so far away. And so I think if any of those objects were in the inner solar system, it would be studied intently and would be very interesting. So would you be able to design a probe in that very dense debris field, be able to hop from one place to another? Is that just outside the realm of how would you even design devices or sensors that go out there and take pictures and land? Do you have to land to truly understand a little piece of rock? Or can you understand it remotely? Fly up close and remotely observe. You can learn quite a lot from just to fly by. And that's all we're currently capable of doing in the outer solar system. The New Horizons mission is a recent example which flew by Pluto and then they had searched for another object that was out there in the Kuiper Belt. Any object that was basically somewhere that they could deflect their trajectory to actually fly by. And so they did fly by another object out there in the Kuiper Belt. And they take pictures and they do what they can do. And if you've seen the images from that mission of Pluto, you can see just how much detail we have compared to just the sort of reddish dot that we knew of before. So you do get an amazing amount of information actually from just essentially a high speed fly by. It always makes me sad to think about flybys that we might fly by a piece of rock, take a picture and think, oh, that looks pretty and cool and whatever. And that you could study certain like composition of the surface and so on. But it's actually teeming with life and we won't be able to see it at first. And it's sad because you know, like when you're in a deserted island, you wave your hands and the thing flies by and you're trying to get their attention. And they probably do the same in their own way. Bacteria probably, right? But and we miss it. I don't know. Some reason it makes me it's a it's the foam. Oh, it's fear missing out. It makes me sad that there might be life out there and we don't. We're not in touch with it. We're not talking. Yeah. Well, okay. I said pause Russian philosophical pause.


How to study planets and moons (10:32)

Okay. What are the tools available to us to study planets and their moons? Oh my goodness. That is such a big question. So among the field of astronomy, so planetary science broadly speaking, well, it falls kind of at the border of astronomy, geology, climate science, chemistry, and even biology. So it's kind of on the border of many things, but part of it falls under the heading of astronomy and among the things that you can study with telescopes like solar systems and planets. The solar system is really unique in that we can actually send spacecraft missions to the objects and study them in detail. And so I think that's that's the kind of type of tool that is that people are most aware of this most popularized, these amazing NASA missions that either you fly by the object, you orbit the object, you land on the object, potentially you can talk about digging into it, drilling, trying to detect tectonic tremors on its surface. The types of tools that I use are primarily telescopes. And so my background is in astrophysics. And so I actually got into solar system science from astronomy, not from a childhood fascination with spacecraft missions, which is actually what a lot of planetary scientists became planetary scientists because of childhood fascination with spacecraft missions, which is kind of interesting for me to talk to people and see that trajectory. I kind of came at it from the fascination with telescopes angle. Do you like telescopes, not rockets? Or at least when I was a kid, it was looking at the stars and playing with telescopes that really fascinated me. And that's how I got into this. But telescopes, it's amazing how much detail and how much information you can get from telescopes today, you can resolve individual cloud features and watch them kind of sheer out in the atmosphere of Titan. You can literally watch volcanoes on IO change from day to day as the lava flows expand. So and then, you know, with spectroscopy, you get compositional information on all these things. And it's when I started doing solar system astronomy, I was surprised by how much detail and how much information you can get even from Earth. And then as well as from orbit, like the Hubble Space Telescope for the James Webb. So with the telescope, you can, I mean, how much information can you get about volcanoes, about storms, about sort of weather, just so we kind of get a sense, like what a resolution we're talking about? Well, in terms of resolution, so at a, you know, on a given night, if I go and take a picture of IO and it's volcanoes, you can sometimes see at least a dozen different volcanoes. You can see the infrared emission coming off of them and resolve them, separate them from one another on the surface and actually watch how the heat coming off of them changes with time. And I think this time variability aspect is one of the big advantages we get from telescopes. So you send a spacecraft mission there and you get an incredible amount of information over a very short time period. But for some science questions, you need to observe something for 30 years, 40 years. Like let's say you want to look at the moon Titan, which has one of the most interesting atmospheres in the solar system. Its orbital period is 29, 30 years. And so if you want to look at how its atmospheric seasons work, you have to observe it over that long of a time period and you're not going to do that with the spacecraft. But you can do it with telescopes.


Volcanoes on Io - moon of Jupiter (14:15)

We just zoom in on certain things like let's talk about IO, which is the moon of Jupiter. Right. Okay. It's like epic. It's like volcanoes all over the place. It's from a distance, it's awesome. So can you tell me about this moon and you're sort of a scholar of many planets and moons, but that one kind of stood out to me. So why is that an interesting one? There's so many reasons, but IO is the most volcanically active object in the solar system. It has hundreds of active volcanoes on it. It has volcanic plumes that go hundreds of kilometers up above its surface. It puts out more volume of magma per volcano than volcanoes on Earth today. But I think to me, the reason that it's most interesting is as a laboratory for understanding planetary processes. So one of the broad goals of planetary science is to put together a sort of more general and coherent framework for how planets work in general. Our current framework, it started out very Earth-centric. We start to understand how Earth's volcanoes work. But then when you try to transport that to somewhere like IO that doesn't have an atmosphere, which makes it, or doesn't, has a very tenuous atmosphere, which makes a big difference for how the magma degas is. For something that's really small, for something that has a different heat source, for something that's embedded in another object's magnetic field. The kind of intuition we have from Earth doesn't apply. And so broadly, planetary science is trying to broaden that framework so that you have a kind of narrative that all you can understand how each planet became different from every other planet. And I'm already making a mistake. When I say planet, I mean planets and moons. Like I said, I see the moons as planets. But planets, yeah, I actually already noticed that you didn't introduce IO as a moon of Jupiter. You kind of ignored the fact that Jupiter exists. It's like, let's focus on this. Yeah. Okay, so, and you also didn't mention Europa, which I think is the, is that the most famous moon of Jupiter? Is that going against attention? Because it might have life? Exactly. Yeah. But to you, IO is also beautiful. What's the difference between volcanoes on IO versus Earth? You said atmosphere makes a difference. What? Yeah. The heat source plays a big role. So many of the moons in the outer solar system are heated from gravitationally by tidal heating. And I'm happy to describe what that is or. Oh, yeah, please. Let's title. Yes. So tidal heating is, it's, if you want to understand and contextualize planets and moons, you have to understand their heat sources. So for Earth, we have radioactive decay in our interior as well as residual heat of formation. But for satellites, tidal heating plays a really significant role. And in particular in driving geological activity on satellites and potentially making those subsurface oceans in places like Europa and Enceladus habitable. And so the way that that works is if you have multiple moons and their orbital periods are integer multiples of one another, that means that they're always encountering each other at the same point in the orbit. So if they were on just random orbits, they'd be encountering each other at random places and the gravitational effect between the two moons would be canceling out over time. But because they're always meeting each other at the same point in the orbit, those gravitational interactions add up coherently. And so that tweaks them into eccentric orbits. So eccentric orbit or elliptical orbit, it just means non circular. So a deviation from a circular orbit. And that means that, you know, for Iowa or Europa, it's some points in their orbit. They're closer to Jupiter and in some points in their orbit, they're farther away. And so when they're closer, they're stretched out in a sense, but literally just not very stretched out like a couple hundred meters, something like that. And then when they're farthest away, they're less stretched out. So you actually have the shape of the object deforming over the course of the orbit. And these orbits are like just a couple of days. And so that in the case of I/O, that is literally sufficient friction in its mantle to melt the rock of its mantle. And that's what generates the magma. That's the source of the... Yeah. Okay. So Europa is... I thought there was like ice and oceans underneath kind of thing. Otherwise, Europa not getting a friction. It is. It's just a little bit farther away from Jupiter. And then Ganymede is also in the orbital resonance. So it's a three-object orbital resonance in the Jupiter system. But we have these sorts of orbital resonances all over the solar system and also in exoplanets. So for Europa, basically because it's farther from Jupiter, the effect is not as extreme, but you do still have heat generated in its interior in this way. And that could be driving hydrothermal activity at the base of its ocean, which obviously would be a really valuable thing for life. Cool. So it's like heating up the ocean a little bit. Heat up the ocean a little bit. And specifically in these hydrothermal vents where we see really interesting life evolve in the bottom of Earth's oceans. That's cool. Okay. So what's I/O? What else? So we know the source is this friction, but there's no atmosphere. I'm trying to get a sense of what it's like if you and I were to visit I/O. Like what would that look like? What would it feel like? Is this the entire thing covered in basically volcanoes? So it's interesting because there's very little atmosphere. The surface is actually really cold, very far below freezing on the surface when you're away from a volcano, but the volcanoes themselves are over 1000 degrees or the magma when it comes out is over 1000 degrees. But it does come to the surface of the magma? It does. Yep. In particular places. Whoa, that probably looks beautiful. So it's frozen, not ice. Like what is rock? It's really cold rock. And then you just have this like what is that? What would that look like with no atmosphere? Would that be smoke? What does it look like? It's just magma, like just red, yellow, like liquidy things? It's black. It's black and red I guess. Like think of the type of magma that you see in Hawaii. So different types of magma flow in different ways for example. So in somewhere like I/O the magma is really hot and so it will flow out in sheets because it has really low viscosity. And I think the lava flows that we've been having in Hawaii over the past couple of years are probably a decent analogy although I/O's magma's lavas are even more fluid and faster moving. Like what how fat? If you by the way, through the telescope, are you tracking at what time scale? Like every frame is how far apart? If you're looking through a telescope. Are we talking about seconds or we're talking about days, months? When you kind of track, try to get a picture of what the surface might look like. What's the frequency? So it depends a little bit on what you want to do. Ideally every night. But you could take a frame every second and see how things are changing. The problem with that is that for things to change on a one second time scale, you actually see something change that fast. You have to have super high resolution. The spatial resolution we have is a couple hundred kilometers. And so things are not changing on those scales over one second unless you have something really crazy happening. So if you get a telescope closer to I/O or a camera closer to I/O, would you be able to understand something, is that something of interest to you? Would you be able to understand something deeper about these volcanic eruptions and how magma flows and just the rate of the magma or is it basically enough to have the kilometer resolution? No way. We want to go there. You want to go to I/O. I mean, I don't want to go there personally, but I want to send a spacecraft mission there absolutely. Why are you scared? Why am I scared? Oh, you mean you don't? I don't want to go there as a human. As a human. I want to send a robot there to look at it though. This is, again, everybody's discriminating against robots. It's just not, but it's fine. But it's not hospitable to humans in any way, right? So it's very cold and very hot. It's very cold. The atmosphere is composed of sulfur dioxide. So you could breathe it. There's no pressure. I mean, it's kind of all the same things you talk about. One talks about Mars only worse. The atmosphere is still a thousand times less dense than Mars is. And the radiation environment is terrible because you're embedded deep within Jupiter's magnetic field. And Jupiter's magnetic field is full of charged particles that have all come out of I/O's volcanoes actually. So Jupiter's magnetic field strips all this material out of I/O's atmosphere. And that populates its entire magnetosphere. And then that material comes back around and hits I/O and spreads throughout the system, actually. It's like I/O is the massive polluter of the Jupiter system. OK, cool. So what is studying I/O teach you about volcanoes on Earth or vice versa? In the difference of the two, what insights can you mine out? That might be interesting in some way. Yeah, we try to port the tools that we use to study Earth volcanism to I/O and it works to some extent. But it is challenging because the situations are so different. And the compositions are really different when you talk about outgassing, you know, Earth volcanoes, outgassed primarily water and carbon dioxide. And then sulfur dioxide is the third most abundant gas. And on I/O, the water and carbon dioxide are not there. Either it didn't form with them or it lost them, we don't know. And so the chemistry of how the magma outgassed this is completely different. But the kind of one, to me, most interesting analogy to Earth is that so I/O, as I've said, has these really low viscosity magmas. The lava spreads really quickly across its surface that can put out massive volumes of magma in relatively short periods of time. And that sort of volcanism is not happening anywhere else in the solar system today. But literally every terrestrial planet and the moon had this, what we call, very effusive volcanism early in their history. Okay, so this is almost like a little glimpse into the early history of Earth. Yeah. So what are the chances that a volcano on Earth destroys all of human civilization? Maybe I wanted to sneak in that question. Yeah, a volcano on Earth. Do you think about that kind of stuff when you just study volcanoes elsewhere? Because isn't it kind of humbling to see something so powerful and so hot, so unpleasant for humans? And then you realize we're sitting on many of them here. Right. And Yellowstone as a classic example, I don't know what the chances are of that happening. My intuition would be that the chances of that are lower than the chances of us getting wiped out by some other means, that in the time that maybe it'll happen eventually, that there'll be one of these massive volcanoes on Earth, but we'll probably be gone by then by some other means. Not to sound bleak, but... It's very comfy. Okay, so can we talk about Europa?


Is there life in the oceans of Europa? (26:46)

Is there... So maybe can you talk about the intuition, the hope that people have about life being in Europa? Maybe also, what are the things we know about it? What are the things to you there? Interesting about that particular moon of Jupiter? Sure. Yeah, Europa is, from many perspectives, one of the really interesting places in the solar system among the solar system moons. So there are a few... There's a lot of interest in looking for or understanding the potential for life to evolve in the subsurface oceans. I think it's fairly widely accepted that the chances of life evolving on the surfaces of really anything in the solar system is very low. The radiation environment is too harsh. And there's just not liquids on the surface of most of these things, and it's canonically accepted that liquids are required for life. And so the subsurface oceans, in addition to maybe Titan's atmosphere, the subsurface oceans of the icy satellites are one of the most plausible places in the solar system for life to evolve. Europa and Celidus are interesting because for many of the big satellites, so Ganymede and Callisto also satellites of Jupiter, also are thought to have subsurface oceans. But they are... So they have these ice shells, and then there's an ocean underneath the ice shell. But on those moons around Ganymede, we think that there's another ice shell underneath, and then there's rock. And the reason that that is a problem for life is that your ocean is probably just pure water because it's trapped between two big shells of ice. So Europa doesn't have this ice shell at the bottom of the ocean, we think. And so the water and rock are in direct interaction, and so that means that you can basically dissolve a lot of material out of the rock, you potentially have this hydrothermal activity that's injecting energy and nutrients for life to survive. And so this rock water interface is considered really important for the potential habitability. As a small aside, you kind of said that this canonically assume that light water is required for life, is it possible to have life in a volcano? I remember people were... Like a National Geographic program or something kind of hypothesized in that you can really have life anywhere. So as long as there's a source of heat, a source of energy, do you think it's possible to have life in a volcano? Like no water? I think anything's possible. I think it's so water, it doesn't have to be water. That's sort of... You can tell as you identified, I phrased that really carefully, it's canonically accepted that because we recognize that, you know, scientists recognize that we have no idea what broad range of life could be out there and all we really have is our biases of life as we know it. But for life as we know it, it's very helpful to have or even necessary to have some kind of liquid and preferably a polar solvent that can actually dissolve molecules, something like water. So the case of liquid methane on Titan is less ideal from that perspective. But you know, liquid magma, if it stays liquid long enough for life to evolve, you have a heat source, you have a liquid, you have nutrients in theory that checks your three classic astrobiology boxes. That'd be fascinating. Let me be fascinating if it's possible to detect it easily. How would we detect if there is life on Europa? Is it possible to do in a non-contact way from a distance to telescopes and so on? Or do we need to send robots and do some drilling? I think realistically you need to do the drilling. So Europa also has these long tectonic features on its surface where it's thought that there's potential for water from the ocean to be somehow making its way up onto the surface. And you could imagine some out there scenario where there's bacteria in the ocean, it's somehow working its way up through the ice shell, it's spilling out on the surface, it's being killed by the radiation, but your instrument could detect some spectroscopic signature of that dead bacterium. But that's many ifs and assumptions. That's a hope because then you don't have to do that much drilling, you can collect from the surface. Right, or even I'm thinking even remotely. Oh, remotely. Yeah, that's sad that there's a single cell civilization living underneath all that I try to get up. Try to get up. So Enceladus gives you a slightly better chance of that because Enceladus is a moon of Saturn and it's broadly similar to Europa in some ways. It's an icy satellite, it has a subsurface ocean that's probably in touch with the rocky interior, but it has these massive geysers at its south pole where it's spewing out material that appears to be originating all the way from the ocean. And so in that case, you could potentially fly through that plume and scoop up that material and hope that at the velocities you'd be scooping it up, you're not destroying any signature of the life you're looking for. But let's say that you have some ingenuity and can come up with a way to do that. It potentially gives you a more direct opportunity at least to try to measure those bacteria directly. Can you tell me a little more on how do you pronounce it? Celas? Enceladus. Enceladus? Can you tell me a little bit more about Enceladus? Like we've been talking about way too much about Jupiter. Saturn doesn't get enough love. Saturn doesn't get as much love. So what's Enceladus? Is that the most exciting moon of Saturn? Just on your perspective, it's very exciting from an astrobiology perspective. I think Enceladus and Titan are the two most unique and interesting moons of Saturn. They definitely both get the most attention also from the life perspective. So what's more likely Titan or Enceladus for life? If you were to bet all your money in terms of like investing, which to investigate, what are the differences between the two? They're interesting to you. Yeah, so the potential for life in each of those two places is very different. So Titan is the one place in the solar system where you might imagine, again, all of this is so speculative, but you might imagine life evolving in the atmosphere. So from a biology perspective, Titan is interesting because it forms complex organic molecules in its atmosphere. It has a dense atmosphere. It's actually denser than Earth. It's the only moon that has an atmosphere denser than Earth. That's cool. It's got tons of methane in it. What happens is that methane gets irradiated. It breaks up and it reforms with other things in the atmosphere. It makes these complex organic molecules and it's effectively doing prebiotic chemistry in the atmosphere. While still being freezing cold? Yes. Okay. What would that be like? Would that be pleasant for humans to hang out there? It's just really cold? There's nowhere in the solar system that would be pleasant for humans. It would be cold. You couldn't breathe the air. What colonization wise, if there's an atmosphere, isn't that a big plus? There's still a ton of radiation. Okay. So Titan, that's a really nice feature that life could be in the atmosphere because then it might be remotely observable or certainly is more accessible if you visit. Okay. So what about Enceladus? So that would be still in the ocean. Right. Enceladus has the advantage, like I said, of spewing material out of its south pole so you could collect it. But it has the disadvantage of the fact that we don't actually really understand how its ocean could stay globally liquid over the age of the solar system. And so there are some models that say that it's going through this cyclical evolution where the ocean freezes completely and thaws completely and the orbit sort of oscillates in and out of these eccentricities. And in that case, the potential for life ever occurring there in the first place is a lot lower because if you only have an ocean for 100 million years, is that enough time? And it also means that might be mass extinction events if it does occur. Right. And it just freezes. Again, very sad, man. This is very depressing. All that like slaughter of life elsewhere.


How unlikely is life on Earth? (36:07)

How unlikely do you think life is on earth? So when you look, when you study other planets and you study the contents of other planets, does that give you a perspective on the origin of life on earth? Which again is full of mystery in itself. Not the evolution, but the origin. The first springing to life. Like from nothing to life. From the basic ingredients to life. I guess another way of asking it is how unique are we? Yeah. It's a great question and it's one that just scientifically we don't have an answer to. We don't even know how many times life evolved on earth if it was only once or if it happened independently a thousand times in different places. We don't know whether it's happened anywhere else in the universe, although it feels absurd to believe that we are the only life that evolves in the entire universe. But it's conceivable. We just have just no real information. We don't understand really how life came about in the first place on earth. I mean, so if you look at the Drake equation that tries to estimate how many alien civilizations are out there, planets have a big part to play in that equation. If you were to bet money in terms of the odds of origins of life on earth, I mean this all has to do with how special and unique is earth. What you land in terms of the number of civilizations has to do with how unique their rare earth hypothesis is how rare a special is earth, how rare and special is the solar system. If you had to bet all your money on a completely unscientific question, well, no, actually it's actually rigorously scientific, we just don't know a lot of things in that equation. There's a lot of mysteries about that. It's slowly becoming better and better understood in terms of exoplanets, in terms of how many solar systems are out there, where there's planets, there are earth-like planets, it's getting better and better understood. What's your sense from that perspective of how many alien civilizations are out there? Zero or one plus? You're right that the equation is being better understood, but you're really only talking about the first three parameters in the equation or something. How many stars are there? How many planets per star? And then we're just barely scratching the surface of what fraction of those planets might be habitable. The rest of the terms in the equation are like how likely is life to evolve given habitable conditions? How likely is it to survive all these things? There are all these huge unknowns. Actually, I remember when I first saw that equation, I think it was my first year of college and I thought this is ridiculous. This is a common sense that didn't need to give a name. And it's not just a bunch of unknowns, it's like putting our ignorance together in one equation. But I've actually now I understand this equation. It's not something we ever necessarily have the answer to. It just gives us a framework for having the exact conversation we're having right now. And I think that's how it was intended in the first place when it was put into writing, was to give people a language to communicate about the factors that go into the potential for aliens to be out there and for us to find them. I would put money on their being aliens. I would not put money on us having definitive evidence of them in my lifetime. Well, definitive is a funny word. My sense is this is the saddest part for me. Because my sense in terms of intelligent alien civilizations, I feel like we're so self-obsessed that we literally would not be able to detect them even when they're in front of us. Like trees could be aliens, but just their intelligence could be realized on a scale, on a time scale or a physical scale that we're not appreciating. Like trees could be way more intelligent than us. I don't know. It's just a dumb example. Could be rocks. Or it could be things like, this I love this, this is a Dawkins memes. It could be the ideas we have. Where do ideas come from? Where do thoughts come from? Maybe thoughts are the aliens. Or maybe thoughts is the actual mechanisms of communication in physics. We think of thoughts as something that springs up from neurons firing. Where the hell they come from? And now, what about consciousness? Maybe consciousness is the communication. It sounds like ridiculous, but we're so self-centered on this space-time communication in physical space using written language, like spoken with audio. On a time scale, this very specific physical scale is very specific. So I tend to think that bacteria will probably recognize, like moving organisms will probably recognize, but when that forms itself into intelligence, most likely will be robots of some kind, because we won't be meeting the origins, we'll be meeting the creations of those intelligences. We just would not be able to appreciate it, and that's the saddest thing to me. We're too dumb to see aliens. We kind of think, look at the progress of science. We've accomplished so much. The sad thing, it could be that we're just like in the first .001% of understanding anything. It's humbling. I hope that's true. Because I feel like we're very ignorant as a species, and I hope that our current level of knowledge only represents the .001% of what we will someday achieve. That actually feels optimistic to me. Well, I feel like that's easier for us to comprehend in the space of biology, and not as easy to comprehend in the space of physics, for example, because we have a sense that if you talk to theoretical physicists, they have a sense that we understand the basic laws that form the nature of reality, of our universe. So there's much more physical, much more confident. Biologists are like, this is a squishy mess. We're doing our best. But it would be fascinating to see if physicists themselves would also be humbled by their being, what the hell is dark matter and dark energy? Not just the origin, not just the big bang, but everything that happens since the big bang. A lot of things that happen since the big bang, we have no ideas about it except basic models of physics. Right. What happened before the big bang? Yeah, what happened before. What's happening inside the black hole? Supermassive black hole? Nobody knows how it started. And they seem to be in the middle of all galaxies. So that could be a portal for aliens to communicate through... All right, back to planets. What's your favorite outside of Earth? What's your favorite planet or moon? Maybe outside of the ones. Well, first, have we talked about it already? And then if we did mention it, what's the one outside of that? Oh gosh, I have to come up with another favorite that's not Io. Io is the favorite. Oh, absolutely. Why is Io the favorite? I mean, basically everything I've already said, it's just such an amazing and unique object. But on, I guess, a personal note, it's probably the object that made me become a planetary scientist. It's the first thing in the solar system that really deeply captured my interest. And when I started my PhD, I wanted to be an astrophysicist working on things like galaxy evolution. And sort of slowly, I had done some projects in the solar system, but Io is the thing that like really caught me in doing solar system science. Okay, let's leave moons aside. What's your favorite planet? It sounds like you like moons better than planets. So it's... That's accurate. But the planets are fascinating. I think, you know, I find the planets in the solar system really fascinating. What I like about the moons is that they, there's so much less that is known. There's still a lot more discovery space and the questions that we can ask are still the bigger questions. Gotcha. So I end... maybe I'm being unfair to the planets because we're still trying to understand things like, was there ever life on Mars? And that is a huge question and one that we've sent numerous robots to Mars to try to answer. So maybe I'm being unfair to the planets, but there is certainly quite a bit more information that we have about the planets than the moons. But I mean, Venus is a fascinating object. So I like the objects that lie at the extremes. I think that if we can make a sort of theory or like I've been saying, framework for understanding planets and moons that can incorporate even the most extreme ones, then, you know, those are the things that really test your theory and test your understanding. And so they've always really fascinated me. Not so much the nice habitable places like Earth, but these extreme places like Venus that have sulfuric acid clouds and just incredibly hot and dense surfaces. And Venus, of course, I love volcanism for some reason. And Venus probably has volcanic activity, definitely has in their recent past, maybe has ongoing today. What do you make of the news?


Life on Venus (46:36)

Maybe you can update it in terms of life being discovered in the atmosphere of Venus. Is that sorry? Okay. You have opinion, I can't really tell you have opinions. Was that fake news? I got excited. I saw that. What's the what's the final? Is there a life on Venus? So the detection that was reported was the detection of the molecule phosphine. And they said that they tried every other mechanism they could think of to produce phosphine and they none of no mechanism worked. And then they said, well, we know that life produces phosphine. And so that was sort of the train of logic. And I don't personally believe that phosphine was detected in the first place. Okay. So I mean, this is just one study, but I as a Lehman skeptical a little bit about tools that sense the contents of an atmosphere like contents of an atmosphere from remotely and making conclusive statements about life. Oh, yeah. Well, that connection that you just made the contents of the atmosphere to the life is a tricky one. And yeah, I know that that claim received a lot of criticism for the lines of logic that went from detection to to claim of life, even the detection itself though, doesn't meet the sort of historical scientific standards of a detection. It was a very tenuous detection and only one line of the species was detected and a lot of really complicated data analysis methods had to be applied to even make that weak detection. Yeah. So it could be noise. It could be polluted data. It could be all those things. And so it doesn't have it doesn't meet the level of rigor that you would hope. But of course, I mean, we're doing our best. And it's clear that the human species are hopeful to find life. Clearly. Yes. Everyone is so excited about that possibility.


Mars (48:50)

All right. Let's let me ask you about Mars. So there's a guy named Elon Musk. And he seems to want to take something called Dogecoin there. First of the month, I'm just kidding about the Dogecoin. I even know what the heck is up with that whole, I think humor has power in the 21st century in a way to spread ideas in the most positive way. So I love that kind of humor because it makes people smile, but it also kind of sneeze. It's like a Trojan horse for cool ideas. You open with humor and you like the humor is the appetizer and then the main meal is the science and the engineering. Anyway. Do you think it's possible to colonize Mars or other planets in the solar system, but we're especially looking to Mars? Is there something about planets that make them very harsh to humans? There's something in particular you think about and maybe in a high like big picture perspective, do you have a hope we do in fact become a multi planetary species? I do think that if our species survives long enough and we don't wipe ourselves out or get wiped out by some other means that we will eventually be able to colonize other planets, I do not expect that to happen in my lifetime. I mean, tourists may go to Mars tourists, people who commit years of their life to going to Mars as a tourist may go to Mars. I don't think that we will colonize it. Is there a sense why it's just too harsh of an environment to I guess too costly to build something habitable there for a large population? I think that we need to do a lot of work in learning how to use the resources that are on the planet already to do the things we need. So if you're talking about someone going there for a few months. So I'll back up a little bit. There are many things that make Mars not hospitable temperature. You can't breathe air. You need a pressure suit. Even if you're on the surface, the radiation environment is even in all of those things, the radiation environment is too harsh for the human body. All of those things seem like they could eventually have technological solutions. The challenge, the real significant challenge to me seems to be the creation of a self-sustaining civilization there. You can bring pressure suits, you can bring oxygen to breathe, but those are all in limited supply. If we're going to colonize it, we need to find ways to make use of the resources that are there to do things like produce food, produce the air the humans need to keep breathing. In order to make it self-sustaining, there's a tremendous amount of work that has to be done. People are working on these problems, but I think that's going to be a major obstacle in going from visiting where we can bring everything we need to survive in the short term to actually colonizing. Yeah. I find that whole project of the human species quite inspiring, these huge moonshot projects. I was reading something in terms of the source of food that may be the most effective on Mars is you could farm insects. That's the easiest thing to farm. So we'll be eating cockroaches before living on Mars, because that's the easiest thing to actually as a source of protein. So growing a source of protein is the easiest thing is insects. I just imagine this giant for people who are afraid of insects. This is not a blessing. Maybe you're not supposed to even think of it that way. It'll be like a cockroach milkshake or something like that. Right. I wonder, have people been working on the genetic engineering of insects to make them? Radiation friendly. Right. Or pressure resistant or whatever makes it work. Working possibly go wrong when cockroaches make them radiation resistant. They're already like survived everything. I took an allergy test in Austin so the allergy levels are super high there. One of the things, apparently, I'm not allergic to any insects except cockroaches. It's hilarious. So maybe, well, I'm going to use that. You know how people use an excuse that I'm allergic to cats to not have cats? I'm going to use that as an excuse to not go to Mars as one of the first batch of people. I was going to ask, if you had the opportunity, would you go? Yeah, I'm joking about the cockroach thing. I would definitely go. I love challenges. I love things. I love doing things where the possibility of death is not insignificant because it makes me appreciate it more. Being on death makes me appreciate life. When the meditation on death is forced on you because of how difficult the task is, I enjoy those kinds of things. Most people don't. It seems like. But I love the idea of difficult journeys. For no purpose whatsoever, except exploration, going into the unknown, seeing what the limits of the human mind and the human body are. It's like, what the hell else is this whole journey that we're on for? But it could be because I grew up in the Soviet Union. There's a kind of love for space. The space race, the Cold War created. I don't know if still it permeates American culture as much, but especially with the dad as a scientist, I think I've loved the idea of humans striving out towards the stars. Like from the engineering perspective, it's been really exciting. I don't know if people love that as much in America anymore. I think Elon is bringing that back a little bit, that excitement about rockets and going out there. That's hopeful. For me, I always love that idea.


What is interesting about Earth as a planet? (55:37)

From an alien scientist perspective, if you were to look back on Earth, is there something interesting you could say about Earth? Like how would you summarize Earth? Like H.H.H.H.A.K. is a guide to the galaxy. If you had to write a paper on Earth, or like a letter, like a one pager summarizing the contents of the surface in the atmosphere, is there something interesting? Do you ever take that kind of perspective on it? I know you like volcanism, so volcanoes that will probably be in the report. I was going to say that's where I was going to go first. There are a few things to say about the atmosphere, but in terms of the volcanoes, one of the really interesting puzzles to me in planetary sciences, so we can look out there and we've been talking about surfaces and volcanoes and atmospheres and things like that. But that is just this tiny little veneer on the outside of the planet, and most of the planet is completely inaccessible to telescopes or to spacecraft missions. You can drill a meter into the surface, but that's still really the veneer. One of the cool puzzles is looking at what's going on on the surface and trying to figure out what's happening underneath, or just any kind of indirect means that you have to study the interior because you can't dig into it directly, even on Earth. You can't dig deep into Earth. So from that perspective, looking at Earth, one thing that you would be able to tell from orbit, given enough time, is that Earth has tectonic plates. So you would see that volcanoes follow the edges. If you trace where all the volcanoes are on Earth, they follow these lines that trace the edges of the plates, and similarly, you would see things like the Hawaiian string of volcanoes that you could infer, just like we did as people actually living on Earth, that the plates are moving over some plume that's coming up through the mantle. And so you could use that to say, if the aliens could look at where the volcanoes are half-ending on Earth and say something about the fact that Earth has plate tectonics, which makes it really unique in the solar system. So the other plants don't have plate tectonics. It's the only one that has plate tectonics. Yeah. What about Io and the friction and all that? That's not plate tectonics. What's the difference between... Oh, is plate tectonics like another layer of solid rock that moves around and there's cracks? Yeah. So Earth has plates of solid rock sitting on top of a partially molten layer, and those plates are kind of shifting around. When Io, it doesn't have that, and the volcanism is what we call heat-pipe volcanism. It's the magma just punches a hole through the crust and comes out on the surface. I mean, that's a simplification, but that's effectively what's happening. Through the freezing cold crust. Yes. Very cold, very rigid crust. Yeah. How does that look like, by the way? I don't think we've mentioned. So the gas that's expelled, like if we were to look at it, is it beautiful? Is it like boring? Like the gas? Like the whole thing, like the magma punching through the icy... Oh my gosh. Yes, I'm sure it would be beautiful. And the pictures we've seen of it are beautiful. You have... So the magma will come out of the lava, will come out of these fissures, and you have these curtains of lava that are maybe even a kilometer high. So if you looked at videos, I don't know how many volcano videos you've looked at on Earth, but you sometimes see a tiny, tiny version of this in Iceland. You see just these sheets of magma coming out of a fissure when you have this really low viscosity magma sort of water-like coming out at these sheets. And the plumes that come out, because there's no atmosphere, all the plume molecules are just... Or plume particles, where they end up is just a function of the direction that they left the vent. So they're all following ballistic trajectories. And you end up with these umbrella plumes. You don't get these sort of complicated plumes that you have on Earth that are occurring because of how that material is interacting with the atmosphere that's there. You just have these huge umbrellas. And it's been hypothesized actually that... So the atmosphere is made of sulfur dioxide, and that you could have these kind of ash particles from the volcano, and the sulfur dioxide would condense onto these particles, and you'd have sulfur dioxide snow coming out of these volcanic plumes. And that's not much light though, right? So you wouldn't be able to... It would not make a good Instagram photo, because you have to... Would you see the snow? Sure. There's light. It depends. Oh, okay. So you could still... Okay. It depends what angle you're looking at it, where the sun is, all the things like that. You know, the sunlight is much weaker, but it's still there. It's still there. And how big is I/O in terms of gravity? Is it smaller? Is it a pretty small moon? It's quite a bit smaller than Earth anyway. A smaller than Earth, okay. Okay, cool. So they flood up for a little bit. So the flow is... Wow, they... Yeah, no, you're right. That would be gorgeous. What else about Earth is interesting besides volcanic... So play tech times. I didn't realize that that was the unique element of a planet in the solar system. Because that... I wonder what... I mean, we experience as human beings it's quite painful because of earthquakes and all those kinds of things, but I wonder if there's nice features to it. Yeah, so coming back to habitability again, things like tectonics and plate tectonics are thought to play an important role in the surface being habitable. And that's because you have a way of recycling material. So if you have a stagnant surface, everything... You use up all the free oxygen, everything reacts until you no longer have reactants that life can extract energy from. And so if nothing's changing on your surface, you kind of reach this stagnation point. But something like plate tectonics, recycles material, you bring up new fresh material from the interior, you bring down material that's up on the surface, and that can kind of refresh your nutrient supply in a sense or the sort of raw materials that the surface has to work with. So from a kind of astrobiologist perspective looking at earth, you would see that recycling of material because of the plate tectonics. You would also see how much oxygen is an earth's atmosphere. And between those two things, you would identify earth as a reasonable candidate for a habitable environment. In addition to, of course, the pleasant temperature and liquid water. But the abundance of oxygen and the plate tectonics both play a role as well. And also see tiny dot satellites flying around. Well, sure. Yes. I wonder if they would be able to... I really think about that. Like if aliens were to visit, would they really see humans as the thing they should be focusing on? I think it would take a while. Right? Because it's so obvious that that should... Because there's like so much incredible... In terms of biomass, humans are a tiny tiny tiny fraction. There's like ants. They would probably detect ants, right? Or they probably would focus on the water and the fish. Because there's like a lot of what... I was surprised to learn that there's more species on land than there is in the sea. There's 90... I think 90 to 95 percent of the species are on land. Or on land? Not in the sea. Not in the sea. I thought like there's so much going on in the sea, but no. The variety that the branches created by evolution, apparently it's probably a good answer from evolutionary biology perspective. The wild land created so much diversity, but it did. So like the sea... There's so much not known about the sea, about the oceans, but it's not diversity friendly. What can I say? I need to improve diversity. Do you think the aliens would come? I mean the first thing they would see is, I suppose, are cities. Assuming that they had some idea of what a natural world looked like, they would see cities and say these don't belong. Which of these many species created these? Yeah, I mean if I were to guess it would... It's a good question. I don't know if you do this when you look at the telescope, whether you look at geometric shapes. If it's... Because to me like hard corners, what do we think is engineered? Things that are like have kind of straight lines and corners and so on. They would probably detect those in terms of buildings that stand out to them. Because that goes against the basic natural physics of the world. But I don't know if the electricity and lights and so on. It could be. I honestly could be the playtectonics. It could be like the volcanoes. That would be okay. That's the source of heat and then they would focus. They might literally, I mean depending on how alien life forms are, they might notice the microorganisms before they notice the big, like notice the ant before the elephant. Because like there's a lot more of them depending what they're measuring. We think like size matters, but maybe with their tools of measurement, they would look for quantity versus size. Like why focus on the big thing? Focus on the thing that there's a lot of. And when they see humans, depending on their measurement devices, they might see... We're made up of billions of organisms. The fact that we're very human-centered. We think that we're one organism, but that may not be the case. They might see, in fact, they might also see like a human city as one organism. Like what is this thing that like clearly this organism gets aroused at night because the lights go on? And then it like sleeps during the day. I don't know. Like what perspective do you take on the city?


Weather patterns (01:06:15)

Is there something interesting about Earth or other planets in terms of weather patterns? So we talked a lot about volcanic patterns. Is there something else about weather that's interesting like storms or variations in temperature? All those kinds of things? Yeah. So there's sort of every planet and moon has the kind of interesting and unique weather pattern. Those weather patterns are really... We don't have a good understanding of them. We don't even have a good understanding of the global circulation patterns of many of these atmospheres, why the storm systems occur. So the composition and occurrence of storms and clouds and these objects is another one of these kind of windows into the interior that I was talking about with surfaces. One of these ways that we can get perspective and what the composition is of the interior and how the circulation is working. So circulation will bring some species up from deeper in the atmosphere of the planet to some altitude that's a little bit colder and that species will condense out and form a cloud at that altitude. And we can detect in some cases what those clouds are composed of. And looking at where those occur can tell you how the circulation cells are, whether the atmospheric circulation is coming up at the equator and going down at the poles or whether you have multiple cells in the atmosphere. And Jupiter's atmosphere is just insane. There's so much going on. You look at these pictures and there's all these vortices and anti-vortices and you have these different bands that are moving in opposite directions that may be giving you information about the deep in the atmosphere, physically deep properties of Jupiter's interior and circulation. What are these vortices? What's the basic material of the storms? It's condensed molecules from the atmosphere. So ammonia ice particles in the case of Jupiter, it's methane ice in the case of let's say Uranus and Neptune and other species, you can construct a chemical model for which species can condense where. And so you see a cloud at a certain altitude within the atmosphere and you can make a guess at what that cloud is made of and sometimes measure it directly and different species make different colors as well. Cool. Ice storms. Okay. I mean the climate of Uranus has always been fascinating to me because it orbits on its side and it has a 42 year orbital period. And so with Earth, our seasons are because our equator is tipped just a little bit to the plane that we orbit in. So sometimes the sunlight is a little bit above the equator and sometimes it's a little bit below the equator. But on Uranus, it's like for 10 years the sunlight is directly on the North Pole and then it's directly on the equator and then it's directly on the South Pole. And it's actually kind of amazing that the atmosphere doesn't look crazier than it does. But understanding how, taking again like one of these extreme examples, if we can understand why that atmosphere behaves in the way it does, it's kind of a test of our understanding of how how atmosphere is. So like heats up one side of the planet for 10 years and then freezes it the next like and that you're saying should probably lead to some chaos and it doesn't. The fact that it doesn't tells you something about the atmosphere. So atmospheres have a property that surfaces don't have which is that they can redistribute heat a lot more effectively. Right. So they're a stabilizing like self-regulating aspect to them that they're able to deal with extreme conditions. So predicting how that complex system unrolls is very difficult as we know about predicting the weather on Earth even. Oh my goodness. Even with a little variation we have on Earth. You know people have tried to put together global circulation models. You know we've done this for Earth. People have tried to do these for other planets as well and it is a really hard problem. So Titan for example, like I said, it's one of the best studied atmospheres in the solar system and people have tried to make these global circulation models and actually predict what's going to happen moving into sort of the next season of Titan and those predictions have ended up being wrong. And so then you know I don't know it's always exciting when a prediction is wrong because it means that there's something more to learn like your theory wasn't sufficient. And then you get to go back and learn something by how you have to modify the theory to make it fit. I'm excited by the possibility of one day there would be for various moons and planets there would be like news programs reporting the weather with the fake confidence of like as if you can predict the weather. We talked quite a bit about planets and moons.


Asteroids (01:11:25)

Can we talk a little bit about asteroids? For sure. What's an asteroid and what kind of asteroids are there? So the asteroids let's talk about just the restricted to the main asteroid belt which is the region. It's a region of debris basically between Mars and Jupiter. And the these sort of belts of debris throughout the solar system, the outer solar system, you know the Kuiper belt that we talked about the asteroid belt as well as certain other populations where they accumulate because they're gravitationally more favored. Our remnant objects from the origin of the solar system and so one of the reasons that we are so interested in them aside from potentially the fact that they could come hit earth. But scientifically it's it gives us a window into understanding the composition of the material from which earth and the other planets formed and how that material was kind of redistributed over the the history of the solar system. So the asteroids one could classify them in two different ways. Some of them are ancient objects so they accreted out of the sort of disk of material that the whole solar system formed out of and have kind of remained ever since more or less the same. They've probably collided with each other and we see the all these collisional fragments and you can actually look and based on their orbits say you know like these 50 objects originated as the same object. You can see them kind of dynamically moving apart after some big collision. And so some of them are these ancient objects maybe that have undergone collisions and then there's this other category of object that is the one that I personally find really interesting which is remnants of objects that could have been planets. So early on a bunch of potential planets accreted that we call planetesimals and they formed and they formed with a lot of energy and they had enough time to actually differentiate. So some of these objects differentiated into cores and mantles and crusts and then they were subsequently disrupted in these massive collisions and they now we have these fragments. We think fragments floating around the asteroid belt that are like bits of mantle, bits of core, bits of crust basically. So like puzzle pieces you might be able to stitch together or I guess it's all mixed up so you can't stitch together the original planet candidates or is that possible to try to see if they kind of. I mean there's too many there's too many objects in there to. I think that there are cases where people have have kind of looked at objects and by looking at their orbits they say these objects should have originated together but they have very different compositions. And so then you can hypothesize maybe they were different fragments of differentiated objects. But one of the really cool things about this is we've been talking about getting clues into the interiors of planets. We've never seen a planetary core or deep mantle directly. Some mantle material comes up on our surface and then we can see it but in bulk we haven't seen these things directly and these asteroids potentially give us a chance to look at what our own core and mantle is like or at least would be like if it had been also floating through space for a few billion years and getting irradiated and all that. But it's a cool potential window or like analogy into the interior of our own planet. How do you begin studying some of these asteroids? What if you were to put together a study like what are the interesting questions to ask that are a little bit more specific? Do you find a favorite asteroid that could be tracked and try to track it through telescopes or do you have to land on those things to study? So when it comes to the asteroids there are so many of them and the big questions are answered. So some questions can be answered by zooming in in detail an individual object but mostly you're trying to do a statistical study so you want to look at thousands of objects even hundreds of thousands of objects and figure out what their composition is and look at how many big asteroids there are of this composition versus how many small asteroids of this other composition have put together these statistical properties of the asteroid belt and those properties can be directly compared with the results of simulations for the formation of the solar system. What do we know about the surfaces of asteroids or the contents of the insides of asteroids and what are still open questions? So I would say that we don't know a whole lot about their compositions. Most of them are small and so you can't study them in such detail with telescopes as you could, you know, a planet or moon and at the same time because there are so many of them you could send a spacecraft to a few but you can't really like get a statistical survey with spacecraft and so a lot of what has been done comes down to sort of classification. You look at how bright they are, you look at whether they're red or blue, simply, you know, whether their spectrum is sloped towards long wavelengths or short wavelengths. There are certain if you point a spectrograph at their surfaces there are certain features you can see so you can tell that some of them have silicates on them. But these are the sort of, they're pretty basic questions. We're still trying to classify them based on fairly basic information in kind of combination with our general understanding of the material the solar system formed from and so you're sort of, you're coming in with prior knowledge which is that you more or less know what the materials are the solar system formed from and then you're trying to classify them into these categories. There's still a huge amount of room for understanding them better and for understanding how their surfaces are changing in the space environment. Is it hard to land on an asteroid? Is this a dumb question? It feels like it would be quite difficult to actually operate a spacecraft in such a dense field of debris. Oh, the asteroid belt, there's a ton of material there but it's actually not that dense. It is mostly open space. So mentally do picture like mostly open space with some rocks. The problem is some of them are not thought to be solid. So some of these asteroids, especially these core mantle fragments you can think of as sort of solid like a planet but some of them are just kind of aggregates of material we call them rubble piles and so there's not necessarily... It might look like a rock but do a lot of them have kind of clouds around them like a dust cloud thing or like do you know what you're stepping on when you try to land on it? What are we supposed to be visualizing here? This is like very few have water, right? There's some water in the outer part of the asteroid belt but they're not quite like comets. In the sense of having clouds around them there are some crazy asteroids that do become active like comets. That's the whole other category of thing that we don't understand. But there are surfaces, I mean we have visited some, you can find pictures of spacecraft taken of them and we've actually scooped that material off of the surface of some of these objects. We're bringing it back to analyze it in the lab and there's a mission that's launching next year to land on one of these supposedly core fragment objects to try to figure out what the heck it is and what's going on with it. But the surfaces, you can picture a solid surface with some little grains of sand or pebbles on it and occasional boulders, maybe some fine dusty regions, dust kind of collecting in certain places. Is there, do you worry about this? Is there any chance that one of these fellas destroys all of human civilization by an asteroid colliding with something, changing its trajectory and heading its way towards Earth?


Will an asteroid hit Earth soon? (01:20:27)

That is definitely possible and it doesn't even have to necessarily collidiously and change its trajectory. We're not tracking all of them. We can't track all of them yet. You know there's still a lot of them. People are tracking a lot of them and we are doing our best to track more of them. There are a lot of them out there and it would be potentially catastrophic if one of them impacted Earth. Are you aware of this apophis object? There's an asteroid near Earth objects called apophis that people thought had a decent probability of hitting Earth in 2029 and then potentially again in 2036. They did a lot of studies. It's not actually going to hit Earth but it is going to come very close. It's going to be visible in the sky and a relatively dark, I mean not even that dark. Probably not visible from Los Angeles but and it's going to come a tenth of the way between the Earth and the moon. It's going to come closer apparently than some geosynchronous communication satellites. Oh wow. So that is a close call but people have studied it and apparently are very confident it's not actually going to hit us but it wasn't. I'm going to have to look into this because I'm very sure. I'm very sure what's going to happen if an asteroid actually hits Earth that the scientific community and government will confidently say that we have nothing to worry about is going to be a close call. And then last minute they'll be like there was a miscalculation. They're not lying. It's just like the space of possibilities because it's very difficult to track these kinds of things and there's a lot of complexities involved in this. There's a lot of uncertainties. Something tells me that human civilization will end with we'll see it coming and then last minute there'll be an oops. We'll see it coming and we'll be like no it's just it's just threatening but no problem no problem and last minute we'll be like oops that was a miscalculation and then it's all over in a matter of like a week. Or just very positive and optimistic today. Is there any chance that Bruce Willis can save us in the sense that from what you know about asteroids is there's something that you can catch them early enough to change volcanic eruptions right? Sort of drill put a nuclear weapon inside and break up the asteroid or change its trajectory. There is potential for that if you catch it early enough in advance. I think in theory if you knew five years in advance. Depending on the object and how close to how much you would need to deflect it. You could deflect it a little bit. I don't know that it would be sufficient in all cases and this is definitely not my specific area of expertise but my understanding is that there is something you could do. But it also how you would carry that out depends a lot on the properties of the asteroid. If it's a solid object versus a rubble pile so let's say you planted some bomb in the middle of it and it blew up but it was just kind of a pile of material anyway and then that material comes back together and then you kind of just have the same thing. Presumably its trajectory would be altered but it's it's like a termator too when it's like the thing that just like you shoot it in splashes and then it comes back together. It would be very useless. That's fascinating and but what's fascinating I've gotten a lot of hope from watching SpaceX rockets that land. There's so much it's like oh wow from my AI perspective from a robotics perspective that wow we can do a hell of an amazing job with control. But then we have an understanding about surfaces here on earth we can map a lot of things. I wonder if we can do that some kind of detail of being able to have that same level of precision in landing on surfaces with as wide of our of our variety as asteroids have. So be able to understand the exact properties of the surface and be able to encode that into whatever rocket that lands sufficiently to I presume humans unlike the unlike the movies humans would likely get in the way. Like it should all be done by robots and like land, drill, place the explosive that should all be done through control through robots and then you should be able to dynamically adjust to the surface. The flip side of that for a robotics person, I don't know if you've seen these it's been very heartbreaking. Somebody I know well Russ Tedrick at MIT led the DARPA Robotics Challenge team for the humanoid robot challenge for DARPA. I don't know if you've seen videos of robots on two feet falling but you're talking about millions you know several years of work with some of the most brilliant roboticists in the world millions of dollars and the final things I'll highlight video on YouTube for robots falling but they had a lot of trouble with uneven surfaces that's basically what you have to do with the challenge involves your most autonomous with some partial human communication but that human communication is broken up like you don't get a you get a noisy channel so you can humans can which is very similar to what it would be like and humans remotely operating a thing on an asteroid and so with that robots really struggle there's some hilarious painful videos of like a robot not able to like open the door and then it tries to open the door without like misses the handle and in doing so like falls. I mean it's painful to watch so like that there's that and then there's SpaceX so I have hope from SpaceX and then I have less hope from by Peter Robotics but it's fun to kind of imagine and I think the planetary side of it comes into play and understanding the surfaces of these asteroids more and more that you know forget sort of destruction of the human civilization it'd be cool to have like spacecraft just landing on all these asteroids to study them at scale and being able to figure out dynamically what you know whether it's a rubble pile or whether it's um a solid objects deck do you see that kind of future of science maybe 100 200 300 years from now where there's just robots expanding out through the solar system like sensors essentially some of it taking pictures from a distance some of them landing just exploring giving us data because it feels like we're working with very little data right now. Sure I I do see exploration going that way I think the way that NASA is currently or historically it's been doing missions is putting together these these really large missions that do a lot of things and are extremely well tested and have a very low rate of failure but now that these sort of CubeSat technologies are becoming easier to build easier to launch they're they're very cheap and you know NASA is getting involved in this as well there's there's a lot of interest in these missions that are relatively small relatively cheap and just do one thing so you can really optimize it to just do this one thing and maybe you could build a hundred of them and send them to different asteroids and they would just collect this one piece of information from each asteroid it's a different more distributed way of doing science I guess and there's a ton of potential there I agree. Let me ask you about objects or one particular object from outside our solar system we don't get to study many of these right they don't we don't get stuff that just flies in out of nowhere from outside the solar system and flies through apparently there's been two recently in the past few years one of them is amo amo'a what are your thoughts about amo amo'a so fun to say could it could it be space junk from a distant alien civilization or is it just a weird shaped comet i like the way that's phrased um so amo amo'a is is a fascinating object just the


Special Topics And Recommendations

Oumuamua (01:29:10)

fact that we have started discovering things that are coming in from outside our solar system is amazing and can can start to study them and now that we have seen some we can design now kind of thinking in advance the next time we see one we will be much more ready for it we will know which telescope we want to point at it we will have explored whether we could even launch a fast turnaround mission to actually like get to it before it leaves the solar system um in terms of amo amo'a yeah it's for an object in our solar system it's really unusual in two particular ways one is the dimensions that we don't see natural things in our solar system that are kind of long and skinny we see the things we see in our solar system don't deviate from spherical by that much um and then that it showed these strange properties of accelerating as it was leaving the solar system which was not understood at first so in terms of the alien space junk you know as a scientist i cannot rule out that possibility i have no evidence to the contrary um however so you're saying there's a chance i cannot i cannot as a scientist honestly say that i can rule out that it's alien space junk however i i see the kind of alien explanation as following this uh the segens extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence if you are going to actually claim that something is aliens um you need to carefully evaluate one needs to carefully evaluate the other options and see whether it could just be something that we know exists that makes sense in the case of amo amo'a there are explanations that fit well within our our understanding of how things work so there are a couple there are two hypotheses for what it could be made of they're both both basically just ice shards in one case it's a nitrogen ice shard that came off of something like pluto in another solar system uh that pluto got hit with something and broke up into pieces and one of those pieces came through our solar system okay in the other scenario it's a bit of a failed solar system so our solar system formed out of a collapsing molecular cloud uh sometimes those molecular clouds are not massive enough and they sort of collapse into bits but they don't actually form a solar system but you end up with these kind of chunks of hydrogen ice apparently and so one of those chunks of hydrogen ice could have got ejected and passed through our solar system so both cases explain these properties in about the same way so those ices will sublimate once they've passed the sun and so as they're moving away from the sun you have the hydrogen or nitrogen ice sublimating off the sunward part of it and so that is responsible for the acceleration the shape also because you have all this ice sublimating off the surface if you take something the analogy that um works pretty well here is for a bar of soap your bar of soap starts out sort of close to spherical at least from a physicist perspective and as you use it over time you eventually end up with this long thin shard because it's been just by sort of weathering as we would call it um and so in the same way if you just sublimate material off of one of these ice shards it ends up long and thin and it ends up accelerating out of the solar system and so given that these properties can be reasonably well explained that way um you know we should be extremely skeptical about attributing things to aliens see the reason i like to think that it's aliens is because it puts a lot of priority on us not being lazy and we need to catch this thing next time it comes around i like the idea that there's objects not like it's almost saddens me they they come out of the darkness really fast and just fly by and go and leave it just seems like a wasted opportunity not to study them it's like uh it's the easiest way to do space travel outside of the solar system it's having the things come to us right i like that way of putting it and like it would be nice to just land on it like and first of all really importantly detect it early yes and then land on it like with a really nice like spacecraft and study the hell out of it and you know it's yeah it's uh if there's a chance it's aliens alien life it just feels like such a cheap way an expensive way to get information about alien life or something interesting that's out there and i'm not sure if a nice shard from another planetary system will be interesting but it very well could be it could be totally new sets of materials it could be tell us about composition of of of planets we don't quite understand and it's just nice one especially in the case of a mo mo i guess it was pretty close to earth it would have been nice to uh to uh you know let's say good do don't go there they come to us i don't know that's what makes me uh that's what makes me quite a sad it's a missed opportunity well yeah and whether whether you think it's aliens or not it's it's a missed opportunity but you know we weren't prepared and we will be prepared for the next ones and as so there's been a movement in astronomy more towards what's called time domain astronomy so kind of monitoring the whole sky all the time at all wavelengths that's kind of the goal and so we expect to detect many more of these in the future even though these were the first two we saw our potential to detect them is only increasing with time and so there will be more opportunities and you know based on these two we now can actually sit and think about what we'll do when the next one shows up i also what it made me realize i know i didn't really think through this but it made me realize if there is alien civilizations out there the thing we're most likely to see first would be space junk my uh stupid uh understanding of it and second would be really dumb kind of uh you could think of maybe like relay nodes or something objects that you need to have a whole lot of for particular purposes of like space travel and so on like uh speed limit signs or something i don't know whatever we have on earth a lot of that's dumb it's not alien aliens in themselves it's like artifacts that are useful to the engineering in the systems that are engineered by alien civilizations so like it would we would see a lot of stuff in terms of setting in terms of looking for alien life and trying to communicate with it maybe we should be looking not for like smart creatures or systems to communicate with maybe we should be looking for artifacts or even as dumb as like space junk it just uh kind of reframed my perspective of like what are we looking for science because there there could be a lot of stuff that doesn't have intelligence but gives us really strong signs that there's somewhere is life or intelligent life and um yeah that made me kind of i know it might be dumb to say but reframed the kind of thing that we should be looking for yeah it's so the the benefit of looking for intelligent life is that we perhaps have a better chance of recognizing it um yeah we couldn't necessarily recognize what an alien stop sign look like um that's true and maybe you know the the theorists or the people who sort of model and try to understand solar system objects are are pretty good at coming up with models for anything i mean it maybe a moo moo was a stop sign but we're clever enough that we could come up with some physical explanations for it and then you know we all want to go with the simplest possible we all want to believe the sort of most skeptical possible explanation and so we missed it because we're too good at coming up with alternate explanations for things and it's such an outwire such a rare phenomenon that we can't we can't study you know a hundred or a thousand of these objects we have we had just one and so the science almost destroys uh the possibility of something special being there it's like a Johnny I've this designer of apple i don't know if you know who that is he's the lead designer he's the person who designed the iPhone and all the major things and he talked about he's brilliant one of my favorite humans on earth and one of the best designers in the history of earth he talked about like when he had this origins of an idea like in his baby stages he would not tell Steve Jobs because Steve would usually like trample all over it he would say this is dumb idea and so I sometimes think of the scientific community in that sense because the the weapon of the scientific method is so strong at its best that it sometimes crushes the out of the box outlier evidence you know we don't get a lot of that evidence because we don't have um we're not lucky enough to have a lot of evidence so we have to deal with just special cases and special cases could present an inkling of something much bigger but the scientific method user tramples all over and it's hard to know what to do with that because the scientific method works but at the same time every once in a while it's like a balance you have to do 99 percent of the time you have to do like scientific rigor but every once in a while this is not you saying me saying smoke some weed and sit back and think I wonder you know it's the Joe Rogan thing it's entirely possible that it's alien space junk anyway yeah I think so I completely agree and I think that most scientists do speculate about these things it's just at what point do you act on those things so you're right that the scientific method has inherent skepticism and for the most part that's a good thing because it means that we're not just believing crazy things all the time but it's an interesting point that requiring that high level of rigor occasionally means that you will miss something that is truly interesting because you needed to verify it three times and it wasn't verifiable I also think like when you communicate with the general public I think there's power in that 1% speculation of just demonstrating authenticity as a human being is a curious human being I think too often the I think this is changing but I saw I've been quite disappointed my colleagues throughout 2020 with the with the coronavirus there's too much speaking from authority as opposed to speaking from curiosity there's some of the most incredible signs has been done in 2020 especially on the virology biology side and the kind of being talked down to by scientists is always really disappointing to me as opposed to inspiring like the things we there's a lot of uncertainty about the coronavirus but we know a lot of stuff and we speak from scientists from various disciplines speak from data in the face of that uncertainty and we're curious we don't know what the hell is going on we don't know if this virus is going to evolve evolve mutate we don't know if this virus or the next one might you know might destroy all human civilization you can't speak with certain in fact I you know I was on a survey paper about masks something I don't talk much about because I don't like politics but we don't know if masks work but there's a lot of evidence to show that they work for this particular virus the transmission of the virus is fascinating actually the the biomechanics as a way viruses spread is fascinating if it wasn't destructive it would be beautiful and we don't know but it's it's inspiring to to apply the scientific message that to the best of our ability but also to show that you don't always know everything and to perhaps not about the virus as much but other things speculate what if you know what what if it's the worst case and the best case and because that's ultimately what we are descendants of apes that are just curious about the world around us yeah I I'll just add to that not on the topic of masks but on the topic of curiosity that's um I mean I think that's astronomy and planetary sciences a field are a little are unique because for better and for worse they don't directly impact humanity um so you know we're not studying virology to to prevent transmission of um you know illness amongst humans we're not characterizing volcanoes on earth that could destroy cities we and it really is a more curious and in my opinion playful scientific field than many um yeah so for better and worse we can kind of afford to pursue some of the speculation more because human lives are not in danger if we speculate a little bit too freely and get something wrong yeah definitely in the space of AI I am worried that we're sometimes too eager speaking for myself to uh like flip the switch to on just to see like what happens maybe sometimes we want to be a little bit careful about that because uh bad things might happen is there books or movies in your life long ago or recently that um that were inspiring kind of impact


Book recommendations (01:44:20)

on you that you would recommend yeah absolutely uh so many that just don't know where to start with it um so I I love reading I read obsessively I've been reading fiction and a little bit of nonfiction but mostly fiction obsessively since I was a child and just never stopped um so I have some favorite books none of them are are easy reading so I definitely I mean I recommend them for somebody who likes an intellectual challenge in the books that they read um so maybe I should go chronologically I have at least three I'm not going to go through 50 here but yeah I'd love to also like uh maybe ideas that you took away from as you mentioned yeah yeah why they were so compelling to me um one of the first books that really captured my fascination was Nabokov's book Pale Fire oh well um are you familiar with it? so I read it actually for a class it's one of the few books I've ever read for a class that I actually really liked and the book is it's in some sense a puzzle he's a brilliant writer of course but the book is like it's formatted like a poem so there's an introduction a very long poem and footnotes and you get partway through it before realizing that the whole thing is actually a novel unless you sort of read up on it going in but but the whole thing is a novel and there's a story that slowly reveals itself over the course of all of this um and kind of reveals this just fascinating character basically and how how his mind works in this story the idea of a novel also being a kind of intellectual puzzle and something that slowly reveals itself over the course of reading was really fascinating to me and I have since found a lot more writers like that um you know contemporary example that comes to mind is Kazuo Ishiguro who's pretty much all of his books are like slow reveals over the course of the book and like nothing much happens in the books but you keep reading them because you just want to know like what the reality is that he's slowly revealing to you the kind of discovery-oriented reading maybe what's the second one perhaps my favorite writer is Reneer Maria Rilke wow um are you familiar with him you're hitting the one I mean I know in the book of well but I've never read pale fire but Rilke I've never I know it's a very difficult read I know that much yeah right all of these are our difficult reads I think I just I read for in part for an intellectual challenge but Rilke so he wrote one thing that might be characterizable as a novel but he wrote a lot of poetry I mean he wrote this series of poems called the Dweino Eliges that were very impactful for me personally just emotionally which actually it kind of ties in with astronomy in that there's there's a sense you know in which we're all going through our lives alone and there's just this sense of kind of profound loneliness in the existence of every individual human and I think I was drawn to astronomy in part because the sort of vast spaces the kind of loneliness and desolateness of of space made the sort of internal loneliness feel okay in a sense it like gave companionship and I that's how I feel about Rilke's poetry he turns the kind of desolation and loneliness of human existence into something joyful and almost meaningful yeah there's something about melancholy I don't know about Rilke in general but like contemplating the the melancholy nature of our of the human condition that makes it okay I got down to from an engineering perspective think that there is so much loneliness we haven't explored within ourselves yet and that's my hope is to build AI systems that help us explore our own loneliness I think that's kind of what love is and friendship is is somebody who in a very small way helps us explore our own loneliness like they listen we connect like two lonely creatures connect for a time and it's like oh like acknowledge that we exist together like for a brief time but in a somewhat shallow way I think relative to how much it's possible to truly connect this to consciousnesses so AI might be able to help on that on that front so what's the third one actually you know I hadn't realized until this moment but it's yet another one of these kind of slow reveal books it's a contemporary Russian I think Russian American writer named Olga Gruschen GRUSHIN and she wrote this just phenomenal book called the dream life of Sukunov that I read this year maybe it was last year for the first time and it's just a really beautiful this one you could call a character study I think of a Russian father coming to terms with himself and his own past as he potentially slowly loses his mind slow reveal slow reveal of a well that that's apparent from the beginning I hope I don't think it's a spoiler decline into madness spoiler alert so all of these are really heavy I don't know I just I don't have anything lighter to recommend if she grows the light version of this okay oh well heavy has a certain kind of beauty to it in itself is there advice you would give to a young person today that looks up to the stars and wonders what the heck they want to do with their life so career science life in general you've for now chosen a certain kind of path of curiosity what what insights you draw from that that you can give us advice to others


Advice For Young Aspirants

Advice for young people (01:50:58)

I think for somebody I would not presume to speak to giving people advice on life and humanity overall but for somebody thinking of being a scientist so there are a couple of things one sort of practical thing which is career wise I hadn't appreciated this going into science but you need to so the questions you're working on and the techniques you use are both of very high importance maybe equal importance for being happy in your career if there are questions you're interested in but the techniques that you need to use to do them are tedious for you then your job is going to be miserable even if the questions are inspiring so you have to find but if the techniques that you use are things that excite you then your job is fun every day so for me I'm fascinated by the solar system and I love telescopes and I love doing data analysis playing with data from telescopes coming up with new ways to use telescopes and so that's where I have found that mesh but if I was interested in you know the dynamical evolution of the solar system how the orbits of things evolve then I would need to do a different type of work that I would just not find as appealing and so it just wouldn't be a good fit and so it sort of is seems like an unromantic thing to have to think about the techniques being the thing you want to work on also but it really makes a profound difference for I think your happiness and your scientific career I think that's really profound it's like the thing the menial tasks if you enjoy those that's really good sign that that's the right path for you I think David Foster Wallace said that Keita life is to be on horrible so basically everything should be exciting I don't think that's feasible but you should find an area where everything is exciting I mean depending on the day but you can find the joy in everything not just the big exciting quote-unquote things that everyone thinks is exciting but the details the the repetitive stuff the menial stuff the stuff that takes years the stuff that involves a lot of failure and all those kinds of things you find that enjoyable that's that's actually really profound to focus on that because people talk about like dreams and passion and goals and so on the big thing but that's not actually what takes you there it takes you there's every single day putting in the hours and that's what actually makes up life is the boring bits and if the boring bits aren't boring and that's an exciting life let me uh because when you were talking so romantically and passionately about IO I remember the poem by Robert Frost so let me ask you uh let me read the poem and ask what your opinion is it's called fire and ice oh yeah I could almost recite this from memory some say the world will end in fire some say in ice from what I've tasted of desire hold with those who favor fire but if I had to perish twice I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ice is also great and what's the vice so let me ask if you had to only choose one would you choose the world to end in fire in volcanic eruptions in heat and uh magma or in ice frozen over fire ice fire excellent choice the sort of I've always been a fan of chaos and uh the idea of things just slowly getting cold and stopping and dying is just so depressing to me so much more depressing than things blowing up or you know burning and they're getting covered by a lava flow somehow the like activity of it endows it with more like meaning to me maybe I've some I've just now had this vision of you you know in action films where you're walking away without looking back and there's explosions behind you and you just got and you put on like shades and then it goes to credits so um captain this is awesome I think your work is really inspiring the the kind of things we'll discover about planets in the next few decades it's super cool and I hope I know you said there's probably not life in one of them but there might be and I hope we discover just that and perhaps even on IO within the volcanic eruptions there's a there's a little creature hanging on that will one day discover thank you so much for wasting all your valuable time with me today it was really it was really awesome yeah likewise thank you for having me here thanks for listening to this conversation with Catherine de Cleere and thank you to fund rise blinkest express VPN and magic spoon check them out in the description to support this podcast and now let me leave you with some words from Carl Sagan untighten the molecules that have been raining down like modder from heaven for the last four billion years might still be there largely unaltered deep frozen awaiting for the chemists from earth thank you for listening and hope to see you next time


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