Just a Speck in the Cosmos with Govert Schilling

Chances are that you've likely read some of Govert's work at some point in time or, well, space.

An internationally acclaimed astronomy writer, Govert has authored over 50 books on a vast spectrum of astronomical subjects. He's written hundreds of articles for numerous publications and given several TED talks relating to our cosmos. He's even had an asteroid named after him - the 10986 Govert

And so, who better to ask about our own perceived place in the Universe - a Universe that we barely understand? 

Govert has amassed quite the career in cultivating, organizing, compiling and sharing some of the most tremendous breakthroughs that we've collectively experienced as a human species, and so it had been a real privilege to be able to pick his mind about how we see ourselves, how we see the Universe and, ultimately, how we move see the future of discovery.

Q. You’ve covered almost every topic there is to cover about our cosmos. From the moons and rings of Saturn to exoplanets and eclipses, you’ve constructed a remarkable treasure trove of literary exploration into space. In the time you’ve spent looking outwards, I’m curious to know, has there been any look inwards into your own curiosity that revealed something big about yourself?

A. If there’s one thing I have discovered about myself, it is how truly insignificant I am. 

It’s a somewhat sobering thought: in space, our Earth is little more than a minute speck of dust, orbiting an inconspicuous star on the outskirts of one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. Meanwhile, we’ve only emerged on the cosmic scene very recently: if we compare the 14-billion-year history of our Universe with a 14-volume encyclopedia, Homo Sapiens only appears somewhere on the very last page of volume 14. 

For many people, this cosmic insignificance of our species — and, consequently, of ourselves — is a rather depressing thought, and during my work as an astronomy writer I also had to find a way to come to terms with it. 

Here’s what I’ve come to realize: we may be hard to find in space and time, but we are very much an integral part of a wonderful whole. The atoms in our bodies were forged in the interiors of stars, and we can’t separate our existence from the 14 billion years of cosmic history that went before. Given our inextricable link to the Universe, it seems inappropriate to feel depressed or threatened by the wonderful cosmos that we are part of. 

Meanwhile, the Universe teaches us a lesson in humility: we are very temporary residents of a small, remote outpost that we should cherish and take care of. As seen from space, there are no borders on this planet of ours — not between countries, not between peoples, not between cultures, races or religions. This insight can help me to give meaning to my life in the here and now, no matter how insignificant I am on a cosmic scale.

Vacuum chamber at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, used for testing parts of  the WFIRST telescope. Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Q. We wouldn’t have the kind of understandings that we have today without technology — whether that consists of telescopes granting us increasingly-advanced optical insights or devices being able to detect the most distant of celestial occurrences — where do you see things going in the near future? Is there a pattern that can be observed amongst our own methods of space exploration?

A. The exploration of our solar system will surely continue to yield exciting new results. However, it’s only one solar system among countless others, and interstellar spacecraft will be a remote dream for a long time to come. 

My feeling is that the progress of the science of astronomy will eventually owe more to the development of better telescopes and detectors, both on the ground and in Earth orbit. 

Then again, it’s a frustrating thought that scientific progress is usually driven by technological capabilities: in many fields of astrophysics, we won’t be able to make revolutionary discoveries for the simple fact that we don’t (yet) have the necessary technology to do so.

If there’s a pattern in our methods of the exploration of the Universe, it probably is that science is very much technology-driven.

Joseph Weber working on a gravitational wave detector. Photo courtesy University of Maryland Library

Q. There’s a lot of emotion that’s tied into space exploration (like you once referenced, Joe Weber and Dick Garwin almost trading punches at a conference in 1974 regarding new discoveries relating to gravitational waves). What do you think accounts for this intrinsic passion that we have to not only make such discoveries but to stand by them, relentlessly?

A. Obviously, science is a human endeavor, and scientists can be just as emotional as ‘normal’ people, especially about their own views and theories. 

However, it strikes me that emotions can run especially high in fields of science that relate to the Big Questions: where do we come from, what is our place in the greater Universe, and what is our ultimate fate. 

For instance, paleoanthropology is known as a very emotional scientific field — much more so than, say, crystallography. Likewise, astronomy is about the most fundamental properties of Nature, and as such, hypotheses and theories can easily become as important to individual researchers as religious beliefs. 

The Homestar Flux - $249.00 

Q. There’s a lot on the horizon of 2020 and 2030 to be excited for.. The James Webb telescope, the Wife Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the European Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA). Which one of these, or others beyond these three, has you most excited and why?

A. I very much look forward to the new generation of large optical/infrared telescopes on the ground, in particular the European 39-meter Extremely Large Telescope that is under construction in northern Chile. 

Together with space telescopes like Webb, these new instruments will hopefully provide us with answers about the existence of life beyond Earth. Of course, LISA will open up a new window on the Universe, but it may take quite some time before these new gravitational-wave results will yield a truly new perspective on our Universe. 

As for cosmology, I hope to live to see the solution of the nagging problem of dark matter, dark energy, and the origin of the Universe. But that may well come from theory, as opposed to new observational facilities.

An artist’s conception of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Q. What do you think it is that we’re looking for, above all else, out in the dark waters of space?

A. Eventually, all of science is a search for understanding and meaning. 

In astronomy in particular, we feel a strong urge to know who we are, what we are, where we are and how we fit into the wider scheme of things — that’s why the search for extraterrestrial life and for the origin of the Universe are so intriguing, not only to the general public, but also to scientists. 

Basically, we’re looking for the same things that mankind has been looking for ever since we started to think about ourselves. For many centuries, the questions we are asking remained in the domain of religion. Today, we try to answer them through science, but our motivation to search for answers hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries.

Q. If you could describe what you think dark matter to be, in one concise sentence?

A. I’m currently writing a book about dark matter, to be published in the fall of 2021 by Harvard University Press. My secret personal feeling is that the whole concept might well be a dead alley. But of course I hope to be proven wrong by a breakthrough discovery!

Q. What do you think our universe is shaped like (high-density? low-density? Ever-expanding? Eventually-contracting?)

A. So far, everything appears to indicate an ever-expanding Universe. Which is not to say that there won’t be room for some form of cyclic history. Even an ever-expanding spacetime could possibly spawn a new Big Bang.

Q. Time to leave Earth — we have one chance to put together all resources in an attempt to make the unthinkable journey to Earth 2.0 and it’s your decision as to which star system we explore. Where do you, as Govert, roll the dice?

A. Let’s journey to the exciting Trappist-1 system, at a distance of just 40 light-years. Partly because it has multiple Earth-like (and potentially habitable) planets, so there’s a choice of new worlds to settle; partly because I’d love to be able to stay in touch, one way or the other, with our good old Earth (which, in my personal view, we should never give up anyway).

Follow Govert on Twitter (@Astro_Govert) or tune into one of his most fascinating TED talks here

Or check out any of his recent English-translated books: Ripples in Spacetime, Galaxies, Constellations