Astronomy as a Lens to Understand Yourself with Kevin Hainline 🔭
Jonny: So I’m here with Kevin and we’re in the Pyrenees and we found a really nice quiet spot away from all of the goings-on and the talks with a few flies and yeah I want to start the conversation off by asking you do you feel like you were curious as a kid and if so what were you curious about?
Kevin: So I grew up in Orange County California which is like this famous place that there was like a TV show about it and I’m an orange county is different than like when you talk to many people about like they’re grew up in like a rural part of the world or all part of America or something where they were just like you know go outside and look at the stars and be curious about that. And I was a hundred percent curious but it was like a suburban curiosity that was not like oh the natural world I go looking in forests and caves and stuff. Because you know you had houses and city around you. And so my curiosity I was thinking about this recently my curiosity has really been born out of out of like my childhood going to like libraries I just spent most of my childhood in libraries. And the libraries are this like when you’re a kid either for many kids it’s just the most boring place but for me it was like this like this is the world’s knowledge like condensed down you know for you but like a gold mine where it’s like you know some, some books you pick up and not interesting and you find something and like oh my gosh and next thing you know you’re reading about like how to solve a Rubik’s Cube or you’re reading about like what goes on on Mars you know as of when I was a child. And so this was like this incredible temple to just knowledge that like was also wonderful for my mom because she would just drop my brother and I out there for an afternoon so she could do errands and stuff I’m like I like I that that that like is a foundational place for my childhood curiosity. Because like I was indeed very curious about the natural world but like it was also it was spurred a lot by books. There’s was a book that I said of print now which is disappointing that’s called the Explorer book that was this like really foundational book for me as a child. Spiral-bound and it was put out by a press called klutz press in America which is a funny thing and the explorer book was essentially a science museum in a book. It came with a giant bar magnet inside there was a fernell magnifying lens that they taught you how to like cook slices of hotdog with the magnifying lens from the Sun. You just like focus it on there’s also a little spectrograph grading there’s a little bag of agar jelly that you can like make like little dishes of agar and then swipe your dog’s nose then your tongue and like see what bacteria grows like. It had a mirror that was bendable so you could like look at weird light stuff it was written in a very easy to understand way and like it’s just that sort of thing arming a child with tools to like play with magnets or like play with magnifying lenses or like as a person who works in astronomy where I separate light into its component wavelengths via spectrographs. To have like as a child that’s like piece of plastic that took light and then separated out and allowed you to look at things like it’s just these are the tools of curiosity and I think that the Explorer book was based on this Museum in San Francisco. One of the great science museums in the world called the Exploratorium and it is a temple to curiosity. Like I would hope that at some point for this podcast you go find someone who works there. Because unlike most science museums around the world the Exploratorium decided let’s arm our guests with tools like this book did and let them just play and explore. Like let’s say here’s a table that’s spinning and here are some disks and just put the disks on the table maybe get them rotating and see what happens essentially not saying okay this is a bunch of mozz under glass and here’s their you know Latin names and stuff. But instead here is like a shaft of air blowing up and some beach balls and like what happens if you put them in it or like here is a thing that simulates how sailboats work and lets you play because I think that curiosity is best explored through play and like and the exploratory book the silly book of my childhood like armed me through play and I was a child of play I still am a human being of play. And play just to try to understand things it’s not play to win a game it’s played to continue playing I was recently reading this book I should look who wrote it called finite and infinite game.
Jonny: By James Carse?
Kevin: Yeah and like the idea of like a finite game being one who has an ending and an infinite game being one where you just continue you play to continue playing. I think that’s like that is where like infinite play stems from curiosity and like so as a child I was just I was always found learning a new skill and exploring some new way of interacting with the world around me like so I was a hundred percent curious and it comes back to books really like because I didn’t have the forests that many kids did growing up in more rural areas or whatever. But I have all sorts of like I also was a kid curious about like perception and like I did magic tricks for my parents to the point where they just are so bored by like coins vanishing and cards appearing and stuff and like I learned how to juggle and I learn how to. And these are just things where like you know you see it you go how do humans do that and then you look at a book and you practice and fail a bunch and the next thing you know you’re saying mom, mom look mom pick a card look mom, mom and she picks the card and then you go mom this is your card and she’s like what I can’t remember which card you did like just my childhood was full of like this title style of curiosity. Born out of like kind of a showmanship and a desire to play.
Jonny: Wow and just listen to talk then I reminds me of this book there was a Dorling Kindersley Encyclopedia that I had when I was maybe kind of eight to twelve and I hadn’t thought about it for years. Like and that was actually something that sparked so many questions of things that were like interesting outside of what I was learning at school.
Kevin: Yeah those books are incredible like the range of those books and how they for a young mind just take something apart. I was thinking about this as well there was a book I had that was called it was called How Things Work. I think there’s another book that was called The Way Things work where they just like take and show you like do you want to not a jack hammer works? Boom, like do you want to know how this works here and like that exact thing where it’s just arrows pointing like I loved a book where you opened it up and it was text everywhere. Like it was just like dense with little things to read everywhere and arrows pointing places because that just indicated like you can just sit down and just like your mind this sponge can just soak that up. Just get it all in there you know whether or not you remember to forgot it. That’s not the point the point is that for a moment like someone like in these I always called them DK because I can’t remember. These books for just like you know for a moment these books just were like another world someone has like presented to you openly and giving like and it’s a wonderful gift that books give you like that.
Jonny: So how like what are the reasons that you think that kids who look I’m sure there’s a lot of people listening who’ve had similar experiences when they were children. Why do you think it is that people lose that like sponge-like quality why do they become less curious or less kind of willing to just play for the sake of play? Why do you think that happens to people?
Kevin: That is like a big question of our times I think so when you’re a kid you’re learning the rules of the world, you’re learning the ways that the world works. And that the problem is that I think play comes about when you realise that the rules of the world aren’t set in stone and so they’re pliable and can change and when you’re a kid you still believe that because like someone will say oh you can’t do this and then someone else will say well you can do this and you still and then eventually those like solidify and you kind of learn them and you think like oh I guess I know these things and you know how these things work or some version of it.
Like I love to ask people how we have why we have the seasons. A question that like most people think they know the reason and most people are completely wrong like and that’s because at some point when you’re a child you ask questions, how, how, how, why, why, why and then someone tells you and it just like solidifies a rule in your brain or you just like never get told but you kind of figure out like well I think probably this is what’s going on or maybe you see it in the book. And like I think we lose that sense of wonder by the way the reason we have the seasons I should just tell everyone it’s not because the earth is somehow closer to the Sun in the summer.
Otherwise Australia would also have summer when the north and northern hemisphere have summer it’s because the earth is tilted on its axis slightly when it’s tilted on its axis it means the northern hemisphere in the summer is like more directly pointed to the Sun. The Sun beats down directly on us and there’s longer days meaning the earth is hotter and in the winter the Sun is more out of an angle with shorter days which is cooler that’s all it is it’s just the earth is tilted on its axis and there’s more direct sunlight in the summer that’s easy. So but like I think that when you think you know how the world works when you think you know the rules of the world you stop wondering about the rules. And so our brain like not just the fact that like developmentally our brain like stops being able to process the information and take it all in like there’s just biological evidence for that.
It’s more just like you just hit a point where you just go like “ah” things are simple and I get it. And what I have taken to heart and what I think like a lot of people who are adult like child’s at heart adult play people like people who play as adults is they realise now the world’s way more complicated than that.
That every rule you have has 20 different ways to break it and like every everything you think is true is not like you know it’s the type of thing where like we’re sitting in this in this incredible little forest path and like there are people who would walk by a go this is just a rock but it’s not just a rock right you will put it up and there’s bugs and soil and like there’s an entire ecosystem under this rock right.
And that idea of like it’s just a rock versus no it’s something bigger that’s how the world actually is and I think it’s hard for people to think about that because it’s a lot to think about and our lives are already complicated enough. That it’s much easier to go it’s just a rock and boom and I think the curiosity is the idea that it’s actually like that everything is not just a rock like everything has an ecosystem around it.
Every single thing and that’s just a big concept that it’s sometimes you know it’s just hard to think about and like play comes into being like well let’s just see right like play is. Let’s just I don’t know maybe it isn’t true maybe there is no bugs under there now I kind of want to pick it up but I don’t want to disturb whatever bugs might be there but like play is let’s do that and then play is also something you do with other people and I think that that’s another aspect of curiosity is that you could be curious on your own I mean there are a famous scientist who Newton is this classic curious person who just was completely solo his entire life.
But I think that like play as an idea of armed curiosity as I was saying armed is the wrong word but like you know like manifested curiosity plays better with other people because then you will that up and another person can encourage you and I think that human encouragement of other people and human enthusiasm is the greatest communication gift because it makes us better people because we want to do things because other people are encouraging us as long as it’s good encouragement obviously.
And I think that sometimes we not only shut ourselves off to looking at new things and playing but also shut ourselves off from encouraging other people to do it as well because you just want to be like well I understand this and you understand this and boom. We should, you know that that’s very childish and we don’t need to look there because why we know what’s going to go on.
Jonny: There’s so much I want to say right now. What comes up is I’ve never thought about playing kind of with other people and I think what I find so interesting about that is you almost get to see the world through different lenses and through their lenses. And I think that what I loved about your talk and what I think I love about meeting people you have these enthusiasms in general whether it’s like playing guitar or photography is they almost have honed this new lens on the way that they see the world. So if it’s a musician they will hear music differently or if they’re a photographer they kind of appreciate light in a new way. And I would imagine for your stargazing workshops you were able to kind of impart lens.
Kevin: I hope that’s the hope.
Jonny: To some extent yeah and yeah that to me just feels kind of really beautiful.
Kevin: I firmly believe that Earth’s diversity in both animal and human is its greatest natural gift like the fact that it is so diverse in the life that exists on here and with humans like communication and sharing your life. Both like you know empathy the kind of like the big catch-all term for this but like essentially as you said like showing here’s the lens with which I view the world and like letting someone in on this like that’s the central task that we have as humans.
The central task this is why art exists, art literally exists because being a human is a very difficult thing and it’s complicated and messy and weird and sometimes you have to create something to show off the act of being a human or the act of existing at all. So that someone else might for a second go oh I get that yes or oh I don’t have that lived experience but now I kind of see where it comes from and like good art speaks to you because it shows you that. And good books right like this is why we dip into books we dip into books to do have that lens. And it’s a different version of play right like it’s a different version of play you are playing with the author here. The author is saying, one of my favorite books is this American book called the Sound and the fury by a guy named William Faulkner it’s a classic book of the Deep South.
And it’s a book that was written in a stream-of-consciousness style and it was the first time when I was in high school and read this book but I never read a book that tried to emulate human thought and it was the second chapter the book takes place around Harvard University.
This character Quentin Compson it’s the day that he commits suicide spoiler alert. The second chapter of a book from you know early nineteen hundred’s and he would suicide but it’s the day, he’s kind of going through this day and he’s obsessing about time and his family and like I had just never read that and I realized that the reason that this was written was to showcase like some way of thinking. That for me I’ve never been in the same exact situation is Quentin Compton but like I read it and thought like oh other people under think the same way that I do and like that that is why it’s like a book had never until then in my life like you know books are wonderful. Yeah I keep talking about books but like I’d read a lot of books and I thought up until this one moment of books are just a series of things that happen not a book is a way to express something that sometimes can only be given in a book like reading this I don’t think there’s any other way that this exact way of thinking and an idea and like that kind of. We all have a moments where we obsess and like we’re stressed and we’re trying to figure out something and our brain is just spinning and spinning and I’d never had a book that encompassed my own like neurotic mind in the same way and I think that like that is the thing we need to do as humans is give other people that opportunity to not feel alone or give other people opportunity to understand what it’s like to not be them. Because all we have is our own eyes and our own senses and for a moment when we can see that in other people it’s like such a, if we all did that there would be if we all humanised each other in that moment there’d be so much less strife in the world because often you can just assume someone as part of a faceless human-less other and that’s dangerous anyway getting off topic.
Jonny: Yeah I love that and it makes me think of I feel like when we go through kind of depression or difficult times in life that it often stems from this feeling of being disconnected I’m kind of that we are somehow like a separate self in this universe and we have to try and find out like what would we put here to do. I mean we need to find the meaning and it’s only in those moments when you feel you know completely connected to a book or nature or the world around us and this is actually what I felt when I was listening to your talk. The other day I think it reminded me of times that I’ve kind of looked up at the sky I looked up at the stars and felt almost kind of connected to you know the rest the rest of the universe is something which sounds very silly but that’s honestly how it feels.
Kevin: That’s the point like when I give these talks like so I just started a video series it’s called the Stars connect us if you go to the Stars connect to star comments my personal website because I think that is like a fundamental thing I want people to do when they look at the Stars is not just feel connected to the people around them or to feel connected to the stars.
But to feel connected to the fact that the people in their past looked at the same star as the people in the future will look at the same stars like the stars will outlive us and so the patterns that you that we see they are this fixed thing in nature that’s above us that like connect all humans who’ve ever lived.
Like the same patterns we’re under the same sky, I think it’s like a beautiful idea I’m glad to hear that it resonated with you because like it’s something that I say and say in like 50 million different ways over the course of a talk and like it’s inside of all of us not just because humans are made of stuff that at one point was forged in the Centers of stars.
Like not just the fact that our carbon could not be in our skin if it wasn’t for a star turning simple elements into carbon like that’s we’re not just from the stars and of the stars, but we are connected by our viewing and the light that falls on us from the stars and I think that’s like, it’s like you said silly a lot of people when they hear what I talk about my astronomer friends like really roll their eyes, because like you know like it’s very like, I can’t think of the term like some like it seems very ethereal.
Like oh you know like this is getting into spirituality and I think it’s fine I think we have a spiritual side and I want to help trigger that using a kind of you know like using astronomy as a way to like you know because we are all trying to figure out what’s going on and where we’re from and all these things and I think astronomy presents a pretty interesting story that helps you as a lens to understand yourself.
Jonny: Yeah and I feel like I mean for me listening to whether it’s physicists or biologist or astronomers taught they all seem to have this very like visceral sense of wonder. And I think it comes from kind of exactly as you are saying like this this knowledge that we are kind of born from the original atoms from the Big Bang and like we’re kind of expressions of that. And it feels to me like a very kind of a tangible I suppose spirituality which your rational mind can’t kind of dismiss because it’s like no that’s fact like that actually that actually happened that’s who we are.
Kevin: Yeah I think that the reason that we have wonder is like it’s to go back to that rock like if you lift up the rock and there was is teeming with life. Like a biologist would look at that and think the world needs to know this like it works in such an intricate way it’s like opening up a watch like a beautiful Swiss watch and seeing how it all works together and just being like I can’t be the only person who can see this right now this is an incredible idea. And that that wonder is just how that works together and like so when a biologist or scientist like or an astronomer like myself sees how the fact that the universe works in a similar clockwork way where things happen that leads to things that happen to lead to things. Like I can’t help but wonder right like and want to share that right.
Like what’s cool is that if you literally like the universe’s proof that if you literally just take hot light and let it cool off eventually people are formed. Like that is literally the universe is to make humans our ingredients are light cooling off in an universe and eventually the light becomes matter which becomes stars which becomes heavier elements which comes galaxies and planets and around those planets you just have like life spring up like. That is a clockwork mechanism that is far and more ingenious and amazing and I want to shout that from these Pyrenees mountain tops like it’s an incredible thing it makes me sound like a lunatic I tell you but like you know and whether or not you believe that’s just random occurrence or by god that’s not for me to say but still it feels miraculous no matter what the source of it flourish of it is and I think that biologists feel the same way about life. Like you know because like I kind of when I talk about this I stop at the like life part and evolution part because that gets too complicated for me. I could never do biology its way too hard.
But like biologists start with that idea of like simple simple organisms that begat like more complicated that begat more complicated to get us the most complicated weird messes and like that is also a wonder thing. So it’s not that it’s wonder like if you’re if you find yourself as an adult studying these things you have to have had some wonder otherwise I don’t know why you’re still doing it right. Like you have to have some wonder about it you know and like in your own weird niche like I work on black holes and I think that black holes are like an incredible weird thing in the universe and I just I want to shake everyone and tell them. Like this is the thing that exists in the universe similarly I’ve met people who study bats and that’s what they want to tell you about what a crazy creature you know like nocturnal and like has these crazy leathery wings kind of like a bird but not a bird. Like the universe is in weird and mysterious and scientists should be enthusiastic and filled with Wonder about it like.
Jonny: And it’s that enthusiasm which is contagious I think.
Kevin: It better be!
Jonny: Yeah I just remembered something that you mentioned in the talk and this yesterday that telescopes are like time machines as well and that for me was like just another kind of it was like a reframe of thinking about this I have this kind of like small kind of tiny telescope that I got my birthday. But I used to love kind of looking at the night sky and this idea of kind of yeah this idea of it being in time could you just talk to me a little bit about that.
Kevin: Yeah so I think people assume, the way that we look at each other the way that you can look at anything is that light is the propagator of knowledge light is our information service. And light takes time to get to us and we live in in world now where on my cell phone I can just like very easily like learn about news you know like from the world like New York Times just informed me that like the singer Aretha Franklin just passed away like today and like that happens like at the speed of light boom, boom boom. But like in the past you know if you wanted to get a message you’d write a letter and then give a letter carrier they’d take it to the service and then give it out, it would take a while right so like you watch you know these period dramas and you see these people writing these letters and then like weeks later eventually they get it. And that idea what that means is when you get that letter you’re not knowing what the person is doing right now you’re hearing what they’re did you know a week or two weeks ago right. So that happens with light as well when we see a person you see them as they are like a split-second earlier because light is a carrier that takes a finite amount of time.
Which means that like when you look up at the Sun and see the sunlight shining down that light has travelled across space is taken eight minutes. So you’re looking at the Sun as it was only eight minutes ago right which means if the Sun exploded randomly it won’t. We have like these eight blissful minutes before it actually propagated through space to finally tell us like. So that means that like if you if you start looking at farther and farther things light is taking longer a longer time to get to us and you’re not seeing it as it is right now you’re seeing it as it was. And like for eight minutes it’s not a big deal similarly like if I see you across this this microphone here I see you as you are essentially instantaneously and like eight minutes is pretty instantaneous in the history grand history of the universe. But once you start getting out there it starts getting pretty crazy last night we were we’re under the stars here and I was showing everyone the nearby Andromeda galaxy which is like essentially like a kind of like a sibling of the Milky Way galaxy. Siblings is a weird term to use there are two galaxies were kind of on a collision course with the Andromeda galaxy similar sizes both beautiful disk spirals and Andromeda is the farthest thing you can see your eyes and when you look at it you’re looking at it as it was a million years ago. It’s a million light years away so it’s a million year old light when people look at that with their eyes the farthest thing you can see with your eyes you’re looking at it as it was a million years ago and so like a telescope will allow you to like really peer in on that and see what does this galaxy look like a million years ago.
Now the thing is the galaxies don’t really evolve super significantly over a million years there’s some aspects of them that do but like, so that will essentially kind of look like what it should look like now stars live these like billions of your lifetimes but you can actually and this is what the telescope I’m working on I’m working on the James Webb Space Telescope if you have very large telescopes that can like capture very faint light that are like incredibly giant meteors to capture this very faint light from very far away you can start seeing things as they were a billion years ago two billion years ago my entire PhD thesis was about nine to twelve billion light years distance. So like nine early universe stuff and the telescope I’m working on will find some of the first galaxies the first stars hopefully that lit up the universe and like that that’s a time machine.
That means that when I look at it I’m seeing it as it was I have no idea what the galaxies doing right now, but I know what it did look like back then and similarly it’d be like if you were historian and you were like a person who wanted to study period dress from the 1700s you could go look at it in a book or maybe whatever if there’s some art. But like I imagine you could take a picture of that look imagine you could just take a picture right now of where we are and just get every single person who’s been walking through here through all of history you get all kinds of different styles of costume and dress and stuff and like that’s what we can do that was the reason when I was a kid reading every book about space and every book about dinosaurs I chose space and not dinosaurs like as my field of study because dinosaurs I’ll never see what they look like or walk around.
We’ll just have imprints or skeletons but I will see what galaxies look like as they evolve and with what we do when you do this you can’t look at how one individual galaxies evolved but you can look at it as a group. Similarly like if you took a bunch of pictures of people from the 1910s and 20s and 30s and 40s you could understand how you know period that styles of dress evolved and changed facial hair evolved and you know these sorts of things like as a group.
You go okay well this is kind of what they wore as a group and similarly you go okay here’s what galaxies were like back then and like we know that galaxies in the history of the universe like early on they were still forming they didn’t have a huge amount of stars they formed every year. But that grew over time and then at a certain point they were forming each galaxy was forming tens or hundreds of stars a year and then that shut off for like a certain point in the universe essentially universes just kind of stopped forming stars as vigorously. And that’s one of the big questions in astronomy is why isn’t the case and how do they build up and how do stars shut off in the first place and these are to do that you just need a bunch of galaxies across a large time scale and that’s what the telescope I’m working on hopefully will deliver is like this incredibly far away light.
So it’s the coolest thing to be able to actually look at what galaxies look like as they were. Now people always ask when they look up at the night sky like oh are these stars all dead am I looking at dead stars kind of like when I was joking about the Sun but the stars you see around us at night are in our neighborhood essentially.
So generally outside of a couple that are that you know are fairly close to death we know that most of them are probably still alive and still burning because you’re only seeing them as they were maybe a hundred or a couple thousand years ago. And it’s very unlikely that in a thousand year stretch the star will just randomly decide to blow up especially because we know how stars like you can kind of like how you can with a person. But even more so like you can look at a person and say like okay that person is fairly young or that person’s middle age just you know like and stars don’t have like freak occurrences where they explode they kind of isolated and live a life cycle just depending on how much stuff they have.
So the stars around you were still alive but they just as you were a long time ago but the galaxies now I have no idea what the galaxies are doing right now that I looked at for my thesis they’re just so far away that I would have to live billions of years to wait for that light to get to us now. And so like it’s essentially like having a pen pal I use this metaphor in the interview but a different version of it like having a pen pal and you only know what they were a long time ago. Like a pen pal from the past where you don’t know what they’re with what their life is like now and so these galaxies you know they just will tell us what life was like what the universe was like at a certain point in its history and then if you want to know what things are like now you have to look at more by galaxies. So you don’t know what the individual ones doing.
Jonny: Wow and for people looking up at the night sky and which you know everyone’s probably seen a few thousand times.
Kevin: Hopefully, that would be a great thing.
Jonny: But maybe not looked properly but briefly maybe not literally but briefly seen what are some like what are some ways to look at it or some questions to ask which kind of infuse some of this, this perspective that you have like you’re saying earlier like the rock is not just a rock and the night sky is not just the night sky. Well what are some ways to think about it that kind of you know elicit some of that sense of curiosity which you’ve clearly like imbued in every fiber of your being.
Kevin: So I think there’s many ways in many lenses with which you could look up at the night sky I think that like people often want to look up and just learn the constellations. And that is certainly one but like memorising constellations is kind of it’s like picking up a good book and then just like memorizing the chapter titles like that’s neat and it might tell you a story. But you know what I think people should do is choose a way in which they want to look at the stars.
Like go in with some like with a goal or like you know with like an intention because like you can go and look at the stars in one night then another see the same stars and think about them in an entirely different way and so when I give my star talks I try to do like five different ways because hopefully it’ll click with someone.
Because you can do it very scientifically and look up at the stars and like just look up and look at the different brightnesses and the different colors and that tells you a lot about the types of stars that they are. Ignoring the patterns just thinking about like stars as actual floating in space objects there’s a star in the southern sky and the some are called Antares it’s a red star and like that tells you about its temperature right. And that’s like a source of you know like of curiosity in terms of when you look up at them and you see different brightnesses and different colors you might want to ask why are the different colors, why are the different brightnesses are the different brightnesses because they’re just closer and farther are all stars the same brightness the answer is no.
Stars have different brightnesses and different colors because of how much stuff they have and the more massive a star is the brighter and more and blue it tends to be and also the short it’s lifetime. And the redder that a star is outside of when stars are late in their life they tend to be smaller redder they have longer lifetimes and so like stars have it really interesting evolution.
So that’s one way of looking at it very scientific I could understand that and there’s all sorts of books that teach you this exact weird cell a lifetime but another way and the way that I also I think clicks really well with a lot of people when I talk about it is that the stars are a set of patterns that as I was saying earlier every culture in the world has to looked at I can’t think of any like entirely underground cultures that never look at the Stars.
But like when those cultures look the Stars they saw patterns in them and they stop patterns and they applied stories and it’s really interesting to go and look at not just the Greek and Roman constellations that are the ones that are commonly used because Western culture took over everything. But like think about the culture that you’re from and go and see like well what or think about a culture that’s totally different and look at what they saw the sky as.
Like the Chinese astronomy took the sky and like separated into a gazillion different houses and I had a huge amount like, Chinese astronomers have record books that were so meticulous there’s a story I can’t remember the exact year it’s you know like thousand years ago Chinese astronomers record that there was like this thing they called it a guest star hosts like that was in the sky like a new star they will go out and the astronomers looked up and said well that star wasn’t there last night and we have really good records we know exactly it’s a pretty bright thing they just record it and after a month it goes away right. Same time in the American Southwest in the state I live up but northern a group of Native Americans record the same thing. There’s a wall where you can see this pattern of stars and one bright object that is like from recorded from around the same time they see the same thing and they also are confused, what is this right?
They didn’t have the same we haven’t found the same record keeping as Chinese astronomy does which is this incredibly like very thorough recounting of where stars were. And what it was now we now know because we could look at the Chinese record books to find exactly where it was. And we look in that spot what happened was they were just discovering that a star had exploded they had seen a supernova with their eyes it started life and died and exploded. And we can now go to that spot that they recorded and see the remnants of the star and you can trace it back in it’s exactly the year and like that as a story as a thing where people looked up at it like that happened world round like and there’s weird unique twists on it all over the place.
Like there’s groups in the South America in the southern hemisphere like in Australia the Aboriginal people of Australia, the Incan people they actually unlike many of the Western cultures who like looked at the Stars and made patterns with the Stars. They made patterns in the absences of stars and absences in the Milky Way. There’s an emu that’s recorded that is from where there are no stars is a big dust scrub thing and it’s like a total inversion of what Western cultures have done like where they just said okay here’s something let’s make a pattern with it.
Right I asked everyone last night to shout out the name that they gave the Big Dipper because in America we call it the Big Dipper. But it’s called The Plough, The Grocer vagan which is that the big wagon and that that is like a pattern in stars that just right now different cultures on the planet right now have this different name for this one little group of stars that’s incredibly bright. I think that is a really beautiful lens with which to look at the Stars is like a set of stories shared from the same source right. Like just like fairy tales like you can trace fairy tales back in that exact same way where it’s like some parable from the past that like different people have tried to you know apply their own weird version of it. Like the stars are a set of templates that we put our own hopes and fears and non understandings and stories on and it’s really fun to find the ones that cultures that never talked with each other because they were separated by vast distances had the same thing. Like the bear the great bear that must have been traced back to very early man who you know bears were an important part of their lifestyle as a thing that hunt or be you know afraid of. And so they just put that bear in the sky this is a bear being chased by her cubs across the sky or a bear being chased by hunters across the sky.
That’s like a cool thing so that’s a second way of viewing the stars right and then as I said before like just if you want to just not think about scientifically or think about story wise like in terms of perspective in terms of looking up at the stars and just receiving their light and thinking about the like the fact that the light is traveled such a great distance down under this planet. And is telling you about like who you are so you can go out and without any like any science or anything and just very spiritually just open up the act of laying out and pointing your body up towards the Stars your face and your eyes up towards the stars is so counter to everything we do in society right now. We’ve like built a society that is involved looking down at a computer or down at your phone or down at your other people or straight and never up and like so many people tell me like I really get a crick in the neck and that’s just because you don’t have a lot of practice just staring up and it’s like no the sky is very blue in the day so why would you. You know but like at night there’s like a show that happens and I love like last night just giving people opportunity you just saw so many shooting stars and people never see shooting stars they happen you know semi-regularly were near a meteor showers that was we had a little bit more than usual. But like that when people tell me they see satellites or like planes going overhead like it’s because they just never give themselves an opportunity. So those are like three different ways that I can you know kind of let people experience the stars scientifically through like culturally and then spiritually. And that’s one of the jillion you could look up at the stars because it’s this omnipresent thing that we generally you know you could do a thousand times and never really think about it never really let yourself think about it because you’re just too busy. Twitter’s pretty interesting and like why would you ever want to do that and it feels silly and it feels in our current world where we’ll just keep going and working and doing things and you guys should go out and be social and let everyone know you’re being social by posting about it on Instagram and got to get a beer and got it instead of just like stopping and being present in the moment it’s like a meditation right and like just giving yourself a meditative moment so like really stare up and learn you know just learn a couple stars learn a couple patterns and slowly you’ll build this and it’s like for me the stars are friends. Like to see them each night is like a comfort to see ah there they’re still in their same patterns shining down they’ll be there tomorrow. That’s a very comforting thing there’s not a lot of things that are so stable and solid in the world today and to have that is a very comforting thing.
Jonny: One thing that I’m I love this perspective of almost imagining that these kind of constellations in the sky are like a reflection of different cultures. And you can almost I guess you could probably interpret a lot about these different cultures by the stories that they told and I loved that I loved the example you gave about I’m seeing shapes in the absence yeah the stars were and I’ve just been reading about this idea of negative capability which is something John Keats talks about. And I think it’s so interesting how in Britain you know Western culture we don’t really have a word for kind of empty space where’s they do have words in Japan and China and things like that and I had to know to me that’s I’m going to look up by the night sky now with like a whole different set of questions like that’s so interesting.
Kevin: You should definitely if you’re if you listening to this don’t feel constrained by Western like astronomy in western constellations like I love when people tell me something looks like this or this is a consolation I’ve created or something like that like find patterns that are your own patterns like that that’s the cool thing about it is that like right now we just do that because astronomers needed a way to chunk the sky into chunks to tell people where to look for things. But like if you want to make your own constellations up by all means it’s a beautiful thing and if you want to just go and look between the stars you should do that as well right. It’s your sky to do with what you want right it’s like a gift that nature gives you right and there’s no way to ruin it because they’re too far away from it it’s wonderful.
Jonny: Coming full circle to your own story what are, or firstly what are kind of some of the things that you’re researching at the moment what are the questions that you’re looking out from the kind of work perspective and secondly more broadly what are the questions that you’re kind of asking yourself and like living your way into the answer more generally as well?
Kevin: Oh okay so I my research I kind of hinted at it earlier I’m a scientist who studies the way that galaxies have changed over time like I want to understand the life cycle and history of galaxies in the universe galaxies as a thing that is a big container of a hundred billion stars gravitationally bound.
Generally there are spiral ones and there’s ones that’s kind of like a big rugby ball of stars some weird orbit shape of stars. Those are the main two types of star of galaxies and they’ve and how do individual galaxies evolve and how do galaxies evolve on mass and things like if we look at far away and look at early galaxies they must have more pristine matter.
Because that matter hasn’t gone through life cycles of stars yet so they must be more simple more hydrogen more helium less of the complicated stuff and actually tracing that is one of the fundamental questions in astronomy that this telescope will have answered the James Webb Space Telescope but also things like the universe at one point was opaque and then eventually that first stars kind of blew the opaqueness and ionize the gas so that you can see through the universe when did that exactly happen and how did it happen and what caused that these are big questions and what I specifically work on and what I’ve worked on for many years is the fact that the Centers of big galaxies.
We think there is we have pretty good evidence for supermassive black holes at the Centers of every galaxy and those black holes act like an engine of light that can potentially ionize and excite gas.
Kind of like when I say excite I mean like the way that a neon light works where electricity kind of smacks a gas and causes it to glow in a very specific way. The light in the Centers of these galaxies the light from a big disk of material falling on to a black hole that disk can excite gas throughout the galaxy and what does that do if you have an incredibly powerful light source in the center of a galaxy to the content of gas in the galaxy.
And how does it feedback and how does it affect because maybe that’s one of the reasons why maybe galaxies stopped making stars at a certain point right this is a big question that I introduced earlier.
And there are many people try to look for this and this telescope will really help us answer that so these are the questions I look at right now what I’m doing for my research is I’m helping hone some tools that will help us figure out exactly how far away galaxies are which is a big complicated mess to do that. But I’m writing a lot of tools and software for a big survey that I’ve been working on that’s called Jade’s which stands for James Webb deep extragalactic survey that we’re going to do when the telescope launches will like do this very deep tiling of an area and like find incredibly far galaxies like you know the hundreds of thousands of them.
That we’ll be able to use to like trace the history of the universe in a very cool way but someone on our team needs to actually say for every little smudgy thing in our image how far away it is what type of galaxy it is. And I’m working on the subgroup that works on that and to get at your other question which is which I think in my own personal life what is it that I’m like what is it the that is my.
Jonny: What are you kind of exploring?
Kevin: Yeah what do I explore so I do these talks partially because it’s fun to go and meet new people and do this? But also like I think that in the world today we are starting to be really upset with science because now science has become this thing that like people think is like a delivery man of truth like oh this is science just tells you what truth is and if you don’t believe that like they’re going to get angry at you or something like that.
And I think that what I really try to do as a person he’s like it’s communicate science in a way that shows that it’s not like something when we’re trying to get the truth.
But instead it’s I mean this might be you know pretty on the nose for this for this podcast but like it’s something that just its inside of you to be curious it’s essentially just like a mechanism science is just a mechanism with which you can be curious.
Like curiosity is a big as you know as if this podcast is exploring a huge nebulous like idea and concept and science is like one way to take that negative concept and turn it into ways in which you could understand things you know I don’t think that there is many capital T true this because I think that it’s up to interpretation.
And when you get down to it science is messy and complicated and any person who says like ah this is exactly how it is. Like it’s actually as I said way more complicated you know even the big ideas of like oh okay well this is how a star works and so gravity works well actually if you get down to a quantum mechanically, like it’s more complicated.
But science is essentially like a set of tools that do that and it’s not a thing that’s like tells you like this this is true and this is not true therefore you should not believe this instead it just tells you like here’s how you can be critical in your thinking process how you can be critical curious person.
And that is so necessary in a world where we seem to want to believe what we want to believe like regardless of whether or not there’s any actual support for it. Like I think YouTube was like this wonderful thing but also a huge mistake in terms of allowing people to like come up with crazy that non-scientific things that like spread like wildfire and next thing you know everyone’s asking me about Flat Earth or like aliens building the pyramids which are things that like really like it makes me very sad.
My personal desire is I want I want to show people that like that that like you can be enthusiastic and excited about science and that can help you be a critical thinker and critical understanding of the world and that that and that when you when you’re looking at the world critically you understand how important it is that we live in a diverse and interesting and weird world and celebrate that. And I want to show people that you can be enthusiastic about science and about the universe and no one will criticize you for it and no one will think you’re silly. Like you can lift up that rock and look at those animal and like its okay and you should and you should be encouraged to I mean maybe not every rock. Because I’m you know ants need to live under the rocks but like you can just explore and be curious and it’s okay and not weird or silly as you said earlier like it’s natural. What I want is I want people to play I want people to play the infinite game like I want people to look at each other and say like well let’s just keep playing and exploring and being silly and seeing what this is like and how this is because that makes us humans it makes us understand that we’re humans it lenses the world so the that we see that we’re diverse and that diversity is wonderful an amazing out of nothing and like the way that you start is by finding some weird foot hole my foot hole I found is astronomy. And so when I go to these thing is partially to get a cool trip to the Pyrenees and get to meet cool people. But it’s also because it’s inside of me if I don’t share it feels like you know hiding your light under a bushel or whatever like that like it’s I would die if I couldn’t let everyone know like it’s just like you know this is a good way for me instead of just it going from person to person and shaking you’re a miracle you’re a miracle.
This is a miraculous life and you know and then also to you know I feel that that one of the greatest services we’re doing is we’re not we’re not a good steward of this earth this other miracle that we’re walking on and I want people to understand that they’re a miracle and they need to they need to celebrate the life and biodiversity around us. And we haven’t been doing that very well and so you know and I think that’s science and critical thinking and critical understanding like can help us grapple with big questions about like what is our species going to do going forward. And what is our role as a species is it to just make a lot of money no I don’t think that’s the case I think it’s to live in concert with each other in concert with the planet and that’s just very hard and I don’t know you know I think that like that enthusiasm is maybe my way of doing it and so my personal Drive is to just be as publicly enthusiastic as possible.
Jonny: I think that is a wonderful place to wrap this up and thank you for sharing all of these enthusiasm with the podcast and here in the Pyrenees. So where can where can people find you online or find out more about the research you’re doing or maybe even more importantly find out you know resources that they can learn more about this guy and kind of some of these things that you’ve been talking about.
Kevin: So you can find me my name is Kevin Hainline like the word main line but with an H H-A-I-N-L-I-N-E and Kevinhainline.com is like where you can you can see about some of the public stuff that I do and the and the speaking engagements. I do research at the University of Arizona in Tucson Arizona so you can find my research page or to find my papers and my research but that’s kind of cold. I would look up the James Webb Space Telescope there’s quite a few resources and I’m actually working with some animators to try and make new resources a little more accessible for James Webb. But they you know like they’ve got a wonderful Instagram page where you can see how it’s being built and some of the science is going to do, but also there’s videos and you know there’s documentaries about James Webb and it’s being built and stuff and it’s you know easily Google about James Webb Space Telescope Webb with two Bs but like the thing that I recommend the most book wise and to get back to how I started this. There’s a book the guy the artist an author who drew Curious George the famous book sketch a ray he drew this book called the Stars a new way to see them or he just took every constellation and redrew the lines between them to look like the thing it was supposed to represent in the Greek and Roman and I think that that book is such a beautiful it’s like this incredible beautiful work of art especially the hardcover version it’s not expensive you can go and buy them in a bookshop and like and buy the hardcover because it’s got the book jacket is a sky map on the back. But it’s like a great way for adults and children to like start learning the sky it’s also like written in a very accessible way.
It ramps up in complexity so that a person can have it as a very small child and also an adult can like read it go never thought about this like and like it’s that cute style that HA Ray had with Curious George but like aha it’s Curious George is good for the podcast.
But like HA Ray like loved astronomy and love and communicated in such a way like it’s the gift that I give so many people like especially when they have kids. Like it some point this is going to be the book that will like you know if you don’t want to teach them the Stars you just call up uncle Kevin and he will and this is the book we’ll use like I think that’s great and also if you can find if you have kids and can find on unlike you know a used bookstore or online or something be explored a book for from klutz press that was wonderful. I’m very sad that klutz doesn’t exist the same way because they were who taught me how to juggle and how to do magic tricks and stuff. They were essentially here’s all the tools you might need to learn cat’s cradle or learn how to do origami with dollar bills and stuff but like I think that that like these are some resources that I really recommend like you know finding books about space and stars and stuff there’s quite a few that exist out there. And like you know just go to a book store and ask the people there hey I would love a book about space about stars or about something I never thought about and just you know go to a library even better. And just like go to the Astronomy section and just pick something off that looks like it might be interesting and I guarantee you they’ll be something in there that blows your mind and that’s why you go to a library to begin with yeah.
Jonny: Perfect well thank you thank you so much it’s been an absolute pleasure and I’ll put all of the links the things that you mentioned caught in the show notes as well I think we’ll rap the show with that.
Kevin: Thank you.