Shooting for the Stars with Professor Paul Crowther
Listening to Sheffield University Professor of Astrophysics Paul Crowther talk about solar flares, collapsing stars and supermassive black holes in the dark and warm surroundings of The Showroom Cinema, you half expect the ceiling to pull back, Planetarium-style, to reveal a tapestry of constellations and galaxies above your head.
In an ironically short-sighted move, the universe-spanning London attraction was closed five years ago, but today interest in cosmology is approaching light speed with the thrilling discovery of Earth-like planets, the big bang pop-sci of Brian Cox and physics wacky warehouse the Large Hadron Collidor joining our ongoing fascination with sci-fi in the movies and beyond.
With a wealth of experience researching and teaching on the birth, life and death of stars, we were thrilled when Paul agreed to hog the popcorn at a recent Showroom screening of parallel world melodrama Another Earth and join us for a chat afterards about space, films, space films and why communicating with earth-like planets in our intergalactic neighborhood might be a rather frustrating experience…
Exposed – So we’ve *just* watched Another Earth. A film about a prospective MIT student dealing with the repercussions of a terrible tragedy and the appearance of a doppleganger earth in the sky. We could talk all night about the problems with the science in the film, but I liked the way Another Earth seemed to treat space as a character. It was almost a refuge for the lead – the poster of the Eagle Nebula (below) on Rhoda’s wall feeling like her equivalent of a pin up. What did you think about the portrayal of space in the film?
Paul – I greatly enjoyed the film from a dramatic perspective, and there were some very nice `space’ touches, from Hubble’s 'Pillars of Creation' image, to a glorious wide screen view of Earth 2 just above the horizon, reminiscent of the Earthrise view from Apollo astronauts. There was also a lingering camera shot of the “Foundation Trilogy”, Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi classic. It was a shame that everything to do with science about the duplicate Earth was so blatantly ignored, though!
There was a news story about the discovery of Kepler 22-b earlier this month and you suggested these kind of discoveries are likely to become more frequent over the next year or so (in fact there was another candidate just yesterday). Are there decent odds on us discovering Another Earth anytime soon?
When I was a student, not so long ago, we didn’t know about any planets beyond our own Solar System. Now there are 700 confirmed planets around other stars. They're known as extra-solar planets or exoplanets and we can find them either by high contrast imaging, the tiny wobble the planet has upon the orbit of their star or transits as they pass in front of the star. Kepler 22b was discovered as one of the latter, and attracted lots of attention because it’s just a little bigger than the Earth and orbits its Sun-like star in nearly an Earth year. I expect the tally of confirmed exoplanets to exceed 1,000 sometime next year, so yes there is every expectation that a genuine Earth-like planet could be found this decade…
Could we actually communicate with planets this far away though? Aren’t we seeing them from many, many years ago?
That's right. Even though light travels incredibly fast, as we look out into the universe we’re looking back in time. We see our Moon as it looked just over a second ago, light takes 8 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth, and we see the nearest star beyond the Sun as it appeared 4 years ago. So, even though Kepler 22b is in our galactic neighbourhood, conversations would prove pretty frustrating in the unlikely event that life was ever discovered there. It would take 700 years for our message to reach Kepler 22b and a further 700 years for their reply to get back to us. A signal from a planet at the far reaches of our galaxy, the Milky Way, would take a whopping 100,000 years.
We were particularly keen to get your thoughts on Another Earth because of its subject matter, but what kind of movies do you like, Paul? Do they share any themes at all?
Well I love going to see films and The Showroom is my idea of the perfect cinema given its breadth of films on offer. My favourite genres are black comedies (The Ladykillers, Delicatessen), horror (The Shining, Seven) and sci-fi (Alien, The Matrix), although I have a soft spot for sentimental dramas (It’s a Wonderful Life, Truly Madly Deeply) too.
Could you tell us more about your work for the University? What’s a good day?
As an academic, my time at Sheffield University is divided between teaching undergraduate students, supervising postgraduate students, conducting research and administrative duties within the physics department. Only occasionally do I get to travel: either to present new scientific results at international meetings or working at remote observatories. Closer to home I also enjoy giving outreach talks to local primary and secondary schools, or to amateur societies. I get a buzz from the sense of discovery after completing a new piece of work, involving perhaps a newly identified star or black hole. Overall, though I get the most satisfaction from seeing each cohort of students graduate from the University each summer. Physics is a demanding subject, so it’s very rewarding to see all their hard work pay off!
I loved the animated footage of Jupiter(below) in Another Earth, which I’d never seen before. Seeing shapes move across the surface of the planet made it feel real in a way the photos didn’t. The Eagle Nebula photos are beautiful but we form a different type of connection with film. Would our trip to the moon have resonated so much if it’d only been seen as photos? Do film and space have a special link?
Films bring the astronomical objects to life, whether a timelapse of Jupiter rotating on its axis from the Voyager probes, solar flares from the Sun or stars orbiting the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. Space allows TV programmes and films to explore an infinite range of possibilities for alien panoramas, whether vaguely realistic (2001, A Space Odyssey, Sunshine) or not (Star Trek, Star Wars).
What was your first brush with space?
Long before the internet, Patrick Moore’s pocket book contained lots of facts about astronomy, plus some amazing photographs of planets, stars and galaxies. This, together with the 'Cosmos' TV series from Carl Sagan – the Brian Cox of the era – first inspired me about the subject.
The cinema experience is always the same in the sense that you sit in a seat and images play on a screen – but what’s on the screen is always different. Is there a similar setup with using a large telescope?
Historically, astronomers used to look through the eyepiece of a telescope, but now images are displayed on computer screens, so today many of the telescope instruments we use are closer to still cameras than films, with large telescopes providing `High Definition’ versions of images of planets or galaxies compared to smaller ‘scopes.
I mentioned Douglas Gordon’s (not Steve McQeeen’s as I suggested) film 24 Hour Psycho as an example of a movie demonstrating characteristics of a collapsing star. Both are slow burns and a star can take hundreds of years to collapse. But this isn't always the case is it?
It is true that most things to do with planets, stars and galaxies happen on incredibly long timescales. The Sun, for example, is about halfway though its 10 billion year life cycle, but some astronomical phenonena do happen very quickly. Massive stars have much shorter lives counted in millions of years but their deaths happen on timescales of seconds as their cores collapse to neutron stars or black holes and their envelopes explode as incredibly bright supernovae. Neutron stars possess masses similar to the Sun, yet are city-sized and are born spinning hundreds of times every second.
You were part of the recent Something Astronomical event at The Showroom, which was an evening devoted to space and space exploration. How was it?
It was a great evening. Nigel McEnaney from The Showroom came up with the format for the event and Simon Goodwin (also from Sheffield University) and I talked to a full house in the Showroom Café on stars, galaxies and planets. There is another evening planned in March involving dark matter and the Large Hadron Collider.
So while we wait for the next Something Astronomical are there other ways we can get involved in the subject here in Sheffield?
In the first instance I’d suggest simply looking up at the sky on a clear night, either with the naked eye or through binoculars. Identifying planets and stars used to involve star charts, but now there are plenty of apps for smartphones or tablet computers that make this easy. For more advanced observations I’d recommend going along to amateur societies such as the Sheffield Astronomical Society and to give a sense of the scale of the Universe there's a wonderful short film by Charles and Ray Eames called Powers of Ten (below). There are also plenty of excellent websites, whether to do with space, or the latest astronomy news.
Lastly Paul, a real test of your astrophysical skills – can you convince us space is better than dinosaurs?
Young kids love everything to do with space and dinosaurs! A common theme between paleontologists and astronomers is the study of the past, either on Earth or elsewhere in the Universe. Space has the advantage that from observing the past we can make sensible predictions about the future of our Sun. There are also real world uses too, such as early warning for communication satellites from `space weather’ or alerts for asteroids on potential collision course with Earth, as set out in the Deep Impact and Armageddon films.
Professor Paul Crowther's page on The University of Sheffield website is here. Paul's Twitter feed is highly recommended.
Another Earth is currently screening at The Showroom.
Something Astronomical will return in March and can be found on Facebook.
Interview by Rob Barker