From chocolate ice cream to NASA

Julia Brodsky
Feb 27 · 15 min read

Julia Brodsky’s interview for Summer Camp Marabou

Julia Brodsky is the founder and lead instructor of an online space science school for children, Art of Inquiry LLC. She is a former astronaut crew instructor, private school teacher and mom of three kids.

Please tell us a little about yourself. Where did you study, where did you work and how did you end up in America?

I’m from St.Petersburg, Russia. In eighth grade I was very bored in school, so my friends and I often skipped it. Usually we would go somewhere far away from school — to the Hermitage museum, say, or walk along the waterfront. But on especially rainy days we would go either to the children’s library or stay home: listen to music, read, talk about life and sometimes solve funny mathematical puzzles from “Quantum” magazine. One day there was an invitation to an entrance exam to a math correspondence school for middle school students at Moscow University. We solved about half of those, and the University started sending us problems. Nobody helped us, we just sat home on a couch and tried to play with the problems, it was very exciting. However, by the end of the school year it turned out that I was going to be kicked out of school for truancy. But, during one of my walks, I found my future school, quite accidentally — there was a cinema “Spartacus”, whose cafeteria was known for delicious chocolate ice cream.

This is a good criterion for choosing a school.

Well, yes. It was a magnet math and science school number 239, it had a sign on it: “They do not teach us to count here.” I stepped in, and I really liked it — everyone was so polite, talked about smart things, and I realized that I want to go to this school, that there is a humane attitude toward students. Together with my friends, we registered for the entrance exam and surprisingly, passed it. I was always fond of teaching, so I joined a cohort specializing in teaching science and math. While the other classes were doing computers, we were taught child psychology and the stages of teaching. After school, I was admitted to State Polytechnic University’s (Polytech) Department of Space Studies. In my second year, I applied for a summer internship at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. I was very lucky: David Black, the director of the institute, was actively searching for planets outside the solar system. It sounds familiar now, but at that time all of that was very new, and it became clear to everyone that the Solar System is not unique, that there are many planets in space and it makes sense to look for life there. After Polytech, I worked for a year at Rice University, studying black holes. But I still wanted to work with people, so I got a job at NASA, at the Johnson Center — at that time they just started building the International Space Station.

It was somewhere in the early 2000s, wasn’t it?

No, it was 1996, it was a brand new station, it was built on principles a bit different from the Mir station. Besides, some parts were built in Russia, some were built in America, and then these pieces and systems had to dock and work together. We were preparing first expeditions to the ISS. A new module was put into orbit, about which nobody knew anything; nobody lived in it, nobody tried it, especially from the side of America. It was necessary to use engineering diagrams to learn about those modules and systems, call the developers, go to Zvezdny, reach out to Russian engineers and study how it is all arranged. But what I liked most was to train astronauts. First, you teach simple things (like “Don’t press the red button”), and then you start inventing more and more complicated scenarios of what can go wrong.

But to teach astronauts which button not to press, you have to understand that you can’t press it?

Yes, you should have figured it out first.

What problems, for example, did you invent for them?

You should have invented the most cunning scenarios, and it is desirable that they contain not only technical breakdowns, but also critical events and psychological conflicts, all at once. We had a wonderful SSTF — Space Station Training Facility — there. It’s almost like a flight control center (FCC), but it doesn’t use real data, it uses the made-up data uploaded by instructors. We’d go to the programmers and ask, “Guys, we need this, this and this to break at the same time” and tell them what minute of flight this should break down. The crew sat in the simulator of the station, and in different countries in their control centers at that time sat Russian, Canadian, Japanese, and American flight controllers. Only we, the instructors, knew where something would break, and they all, as one team, tried to decide what to do in such a terrible situation. For example, they have a fire, they extinguish everything in an emergency, a part of the equipment burns down, and we say: “You know, your ship which should have brought the vital cargo, didn’t arrive, because Kazakhstan and Russia have some political issues. You need to figure out what to do now!” Or: “Board engineer, your tooth is going to get terribly sore today at the very moment when you have to start the procedure of going into space. You have to go into space because… and your partner can’t use your space suit. You can’t think clearly, you have a fever, you decide what to do.” We had this astronaut who said, “Well, this is nonsense. What are you talking about? There’s no way it’s all gonna fall apart like that simultaneously!”

We’d say to him, “Why do you not go on orbit first and scold us from there.” He flew and two days later wrote to the entire instructor department: “Guys, I take off my hat! I was wrong! It’s all like that, and even more fun.” And so we would make up various emergency situations and throw them at the dispatchers and the crew. It was very entertaining. Solving complex problems in a confusing, unpredictable world was very nontrivial training for both us and the astronauts. The main thing that we tried to convey is life does not always go according to plan, and we have to be ready for it.

But it is necessary to be a specialist in everything, that is, not only in physics, but also in biology and psychology …

Yes, so we had different specialists. In my case, I was in charge of the navigation system. There were doctors, specialists in space medicine, and engineers, and psychologists, and whoever you want.

So, do you plan to send the children to space?

No need to launch the kids into space right away, no, it is not the most important thing. The main thing is what we taught astronauts: they will encounter a new, unexplored world in which they must be able to orient themselves using all their knowledge and skills. In previous centuries, adults could prepare children for adult life, give them specific skills and abilities (a son lived like a father, like a grandfather and like a great-grandfather), but now the world is changing with incredible speed, and a lot of skills that children will need in 5–10 years, today adults simply do not have themselves. We don’t even know what to expect. All we can do is to prepare children to realize that the world is complicated, the world is changing rapidly, and we have to be ready for it.

This seems to me to be the right approach. In general, I think we need to chase neural connections, the ability to navigate, work in a group, and understand that many things will go wrong as you plan.

In a sense, the human brain thinks linearly. Here is the event A: it means the event B will happen. And our brain is simply not ready to think about the fact that ten different things will happen, which will appear not in a step, but in two-three-four steps later. It’s good to show this — and also feedback loops — to children in the form of computer simulations; this is what is now called systemic thinking. This is rarely taught to children, although it can be done within the framework of ecology, psychology, sociology, engineering, and economics — anything at all, any complex science.

And this is what you do with children?

Yes, in many ways. Astrobiology, as you know, deals with other worlds, and in this sense it can help children to look at the world from the perspective of an extraterrestrial, to see that we live in an unusual and interesting place. It also gives children a perspective of where they are on the scale of the Universe in time and space. Astrobiology tries to understand how life on Earth originated, whether it can originate on other planets, and if so, how to look for it, etc. It deals with technical advances, artificial intelligence, and genetic transformations — because humanity has not yet lived in a world where there is such a thing. Besides, there are practically no authorities in this science: as these are new worlds, nobody will tell you how everything should be. Me and the children, we are all pioneers. It helps children and adults work together.

It sounds very cool overall. What are you planning to teach at Marabou?

I was planning two courses, one for younger kids and one for older kids. The junior course starts with a few basic things that we just can’t do without. What is time? What is space? What is matter? Then I will invite the children to look at the Solar system and talk about where you can potentially find life in it. By the way, it’s advisable to define the solar system first. For example, a non-trivial question for children: where does it end? Let us discuss how the Earth was formed, where did water come from, how dangerous is radioactivity (and is it dangerous in general?). I am very fond of non-intuitive questions, they make us think. Here, let’s say, I ask: “Does the Earth rotate around the Sun?” Everybody knows the answer. The next question is, “What about the Sun? Is the Sun standing still?” That’s when the children answer me: “It does,” and then some smarty ones say, “It does, but it twitches a little!” I’m trying to find simple questions, the answer to which is not completely obvious, and that makes people think. And it makes them wonder. I try to base my course on surprise.

I’m embarrassed to admit, I’ve never thought about whether the galaxy is moving anywhere, for example, and I’m surprised now, too. Well, I’ve got two arts degrees, could be your client. But in general, I think a lot of adults would benefit from such a course.

Well, maybe we’ll do a course for adults someday, too! In the meantime, in the summer we’ll take a look at our solar system and decide where the students want to go — why, from their point of view, it’s most likely to find life there. By the way, the Earth is unique in that we can live on the surface. We have a magnetosphere, an atmosphere, and it keeps the deadly rays of the sun out. But that doesn’t mean there’s no life on other planets that don’t have this type of protection.

In fact, even on our planet, lots of life exists underground — microbes, for example. And there are also deep-water oceans… Ice-covered oceans, apparently, are on the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn. That’s what the kids and I are going to talk about. And then they will plan their flight, which is not trivial either, because there are so many things to take into account. The children will organize themselves into teams, assign roles, build a prototype rocket, draw schemes… And do not forget other important things. Say, quite often students try to send astronauts into space without a toilet.

Come on, the rudder is attached, and that’s enough, you can fly.

We have to remember the extent the Earth supports our life. Air, light, heat — we take it for granted, but it will have to be taken into account during space flight. Children will have to estimate, due to the mass of the planet, how much fuel to take to get home, but also to take off, taking into account local gravity, etc. There are maps of the planets, we will look at them and choose the landing site. Evaluate risks — for example, there are places on Mercury where volcanic fumes come out. We will need to decide if we want to be near them to explore them, or if we want to be far away from them because they can be toxic. So the kids will build a planetary base layout and a flight plan and present them to others at the end of the course.

So, what about the older ones?

The older ones will have a more theoretical course. What’s astrobiology, what it’s studying, what questions it’s facing. Imagine you’re an astrobiologist and you tell your boss that you’re going off to find life on other planets. You get a grant, you fly to another planet and you see something. How do you decide if it’s life or not? It’s a philosophical question in general, but it has, like all philosophical questions in today’s civilization, quite a practical application. How would you define life?

Oh. Well, let’s say that the important factor of life is reproducibility…

Well, computer viruses reproduce themselves in this way, at a remarkable speed. So me and my kids are going to look at different characteristics of life and try to figure out if they’re determinants of life. We’ll talk further about how complex things are organized from the simple units. It happens everywhere, not just in biology — I will be showing them things from both physics and chemistry. From very simple blocks you can build systems with very complicated behavior. I think it’s an interesting topic, which is rather neglected in a regular school. Then we will see (since the only life known to us is life on Earth), what actually happened on Earth? And there were all kinds of life on Earth. Because originally there was no oxygen, and the planet rotated around the axis with a different speed, and the Sun was colder and the atmosphere was different. In general, life has changed a lot, and by the way, more than once.

Speaking of dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs came much later, dinosaurs — they are almost like us!

They lived in conditions very close to ours, but something went wrong!

You know, speaking of dinosaurs, we are talking about mass extinctions, of which there were several. By the way, we are living right now in the process of the sixth: over the past thirty or forty years, a huge number of insects have died out — and they are, as you understand, part of the food chain, so it affects both amphibians and birds… Maybe we are already dinosaurs, too, but just do not know it. The planet has been through this many times and it doesn’t care about us personally, it has seen it many times before. Life will surely stay and then it will evolve again. It just won’t be us anymore. So we’re talking to the kids about what to do next? Fly where? How do we save ourselves? What do we change on Earth? What’s to change about ourselves?

And of course, we will address the critical question of the danger that people create in orbit. There is little talk about it, but we are littering up space around the Earth so fast that we can trap ourselves on the planet forever. There is a bunch of old satellite and spacecraft debris flying around in space — if I’m not mistaken, NASA is now tracking five hundred thousand objects. So when you put a spacecraft into orbit, you have to maneuver between all those space debris flying at crazy speed, and every year it gets harder and harder. And there are also irresponsible countries that blow up their satellites, like China in 2007. Then there is a domino effect: one satellite is exploded, each of its pieces is mortally dangerous to all other spacecrafts, those, in turn, also explode and fly in all directions, and we litter the whole space in the minimum amount of time. It’s called Kessler’s syndrome, and it says that we’re very close to locking ourselves out of space forever if we don’t figure out how to clean up space.

So the fact that several planets with living conditions were discovered near Centauri Proxima, like on the early Earth, won’t help us?

If we get stuck on Earth, we certainly won’t. And by the way, if you and I were allowed to visit an early Earth now, we wouldn’t like it. Firstly, we would suffocate without oxygen; secondly, there were completely different radioactivity levels and chemistry of the oceans, no vegetation on land… Besides, the question about the flight to other planets is ethically loaded. And medically, too. Let’s say you flew to another planet. You can pick up any disease there if there’s really life there and bring it home. But then there’s the opposite problem. For example, an Israeli spacecraft dropped tardigrades on the Moon. Those are small, very robust invertebrates, living everywhere from the Himalayas to the deep sea. They can also exist in outer space… In short, they crashed a ship on the Moon. Is it good to populate the moon with tardigrades? What if there’s a life there that can be changed somehow? Nothing is likely to happen this time, but it’s clearly not the last time.

Of course. Not so long ago they discovered a tribe that survived right in the earliest stages of civilization, ran to investigate it, quickly infected them all with something, and the tribe died out in two years.

A similar question is with genetics. We can get into the human genome and insert the frost-resistance gene, for example, to help adapt to colder planets. Or, if we fantasize, we can take the genes of the photosynthesizing salamander, which eats food only two weeks a year, and make a photosynthesizing person — very convenient, less food to carry for the flight, less rocket volume. But then what? How will it affect all other genes, philosophy and psychology of this photosynthesizing person? We are at a great crossroads, and the further we go, “it gets weirder and weirder”, as Alice in Wonderland said. And now we are bringing children into this world, and it would be good if they thought about it at least a little bit. Because they’re going to have to deal with these issues.

We seem to like to think about all this too, but you have it just so systematically — not only from the point of view of human biology, but much further and deeper.

You see, as Alexander Markov writes, at one time an Australopithecus sat on a rock, scratched the back of his head and thought: “How cool I am! There is nobody cooler than me! I am the pinnacle of evolution!” And it was pure truth. But still, he was an intermediate link — and we’re not much different from an Australopithecus in this sense.

In general, a Neanderthal would make us in many ways, I’m sure. Humanity, in my opinion, is a little overrated.

Yes. It’s useful to discuss with the children that we are also an object of evolution. And to demonstrate the problems with the idea of anthropocentrism. I’m telling the kids that Voyager sent a letter to aliens in the ’70s, a golden record. It’s hard to imagine much naivety. A disc that should be played on the player, on which they scratched pictures with instructions! The aliens were supposed to see in the same spectrum as we do, understand our semiotic system… Is that how you would create a message for aliens? By the way, there’s a Breakthrough Message initiative: whoever comes up with a way to do it gets a million dollars.

And I think we need to focus not only on what we produce outside, but also on how it affects us. Once at school I was given homework to tell about the “main result of scientific activity” and “fundamental scientific method” of some scientists. And at that time our close friend, Professor of Physics of ITMO Sergey Anatolyevich Chivilikhin, was sitting in our kitchen (he is now, unfortunately, seriously ill). I asked: “Sergey! What is the main result of your scientific activity?” He pondered that for a few minutes and said: “The main result of my scientific activity is myself. When I think about physics, I restructure my thinking. I learn to ask better questions and I reflect on my next steps.” So in the process of doing science, or any focused thinking in general, we grow our minds — and this is probably the most important thing. That’s when I asked him: “What’s your main scientific method?” And Sergey answered: “My main scientific method is a cheerful readiness for mistakes”. This “cheerful readiness for mistake” is what I would like to teach the children. Because without it, our life will be difficult, as there will be many mistakes. There is a saying: Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow.

When I was little, we had a magnet on the fridge: Always make new mistakes.

That’s so true! And another thing: when Nobel laureate in physics Isidor Rabi was asked how he became a scientist, he claimed that his mother made him a scientist. When he was coming home from school as a child, other children were asked, “What have you learned today?” and his mother would ask him, “What good question did you ask today?” So, returning to the original theme of our conversation, one of my goals in “Marabou” is to show children that the world is more complicated than they think, to teach them to recognize complexity and its emergence, to think in terms of interconnections. And my other goal is to support their questions and teach them to respect the role of mistakes. And if I manage to convey this in any way, at least in a basic way, I will consider my goal achieved.

Julia Brodsky

Written by

Science educator, mom, poet. Founder of Art of Inquiry, www.artofinquiry.net, teaching astrobiology, space exploration and physics to middle school students.

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