With Starmus Earth: The Future of Our Home Planet around the corner, we sat down with David Eicher, the Astronomy Magazine editor-in-chief and one of the event’s speakers, to hear his thoughts on a diverse range of subjects – from the most pressing challenges facing our home planet to the mysteries of the universe and the possibility of life beyond Earth.

WeLiveSecurity: Did you observe the solar eclipse that occurred recently? What was it like for you?

David Eicher: I had a wonderful time observing the recent solar eclipse in Dallas, at Love Field Airport, with a big group of people including representatives from Celestron, the most prominent manufacturer of telescopes for the astronomy hobby. We set up at the Frontiers of Flight Museum at the airport and also partnered with The Weather Channel, the TV station in the United States that broadcasts continuous weather information. So I was off and on camera throughout the day with meteorologist Alexandra Wilson, and we discussed all sorts of things about the eclipse. The weather in Texas looked bleak on eclipse morning, but a short time before the eclipse started the clouds parted and we had a perfect view of the eclipse. We had 3 minutes 51 seconds of totality and it was a spectacular sight! 

Was it a special moment for an astronomer such as yourself?

It is always a very special moment to see a total eclipse. Although we’ve known about the precision of solar system orbits since the days of Johannes Kepler in the 17th century, it always amazes people to count down and see an eclipse start just when it is calculated to begin. Quite a few people who have never seen an eclipse become emotional when seeing their first one — some tear up! It is always special. I’ve seen 13 total eclipses, and it always strikes you with the majesty of the cosmos, and reminds us of how small we are down here on Earth. 

david-eicher

David J. Eicher (born August 7, 1961) is an American editor, writer, and popularizer of astronomy and space. He has been editor-in-chief of Astronomy magazine since 2002. He is author, co-author, or editor of 21 books on science and American history and is known for having founded a magazine on astronomical observing, Deep Sky Monthly, when he was a 15-year-old high school student.

You will be a part of the STARMUS festival in Bratislava. What are you most looking forward to?

I am always looking forward to Starmus, and our leader Garik [Garik Israelian – ed. note] always designs the festival so it is surprising and even more magnificent than the last one. I will be speaking on galaxies, hosting some of the main festival on stage, helping to organize and run the astrophoto school and the star party. So I will be busy with lots of stuff. But I think there’s nothing more special at Starmus than seeing dear old friends once again, and making new friends. The Starmus crowd is really composed of special, and magical people who love and value their knowledge of science, and the great celebration of being human through our wonderful music. 

This year’s festival theme is “The Future of Our Home Planet.” What is your perspective on this question and what is the biggest challenge our society is facing today?

This is of course a very critical time to always remember the question of the future of our home planet. We take Earth as a habitat and our life on Earth for granted. It is in now way guaranteed to be stable forever. We know that life on Earth will come to an end a billion years from now when the Sun boils the oceans off our planet through its increasing radiation. But global warming and climate change driven by carbon dioxide emissions — really a very simple and straightforward and obvious problem, not complicated to understand — threatens future generations of life on our planet in the immediate future. We must use Starmus and the expertise of climate scientists who will speak to us to curtail emissions and take better care of our planet before the situation is suddenly and irreversibly too late. 

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Can astronomy contribute to combating climate change or potentially solving other challenges we face today? If so, which ones?

Astronomy can definitely contribute to combating climate change. We must share the knowledge of what is happening to Earth, and too many people are uninformed, have agendas to avoid doing the right thing (like working for industries like oil and gas), or simply don’t care about what happens to life on the planet a hundred generations from now. Most people care only about their own present time in the cosmos and their own life experience. We need to share as much clear knowledge as we can with the world, with the public, with the media, from leading climate scientists like many who will be in Bratislava.

Only by constantly beating the drum can we raise awareness among all the peoples of the world to really push change forward. We can certainly use astronomy to raise awareness of other problems too. One that is a little more squarely on astronomy is light pollution. Two centuries ago everyone in the world had a dark night sky. Now most places are flooding photons skyward, ruining our view of the universe, and accomplishing nothing but wasting energy and making energy companies wealthy. 

Can you personally imagine permanently leaving Earth and living on another planet?

I would love to leave Earth and live on another planet, at least for a while, in a sense of grand adventure. But it is really incredibly difficult to ponder, unlike the sci-fi stories we love. The most earthlike worlds near us, Mars for example, are really very hostile places. Matt Damon may grow potatoes on Mars in the movies, but in reality it is a very cold, dry, and difficult environment, and even traveling to Mars is a very long and dangerous gambit, in terms of complexities of spaceflight, radiation exposure, and expense. So we have a long, long way to go as humans, in reality, until we are permanently or semi-permanently on other worlds. 

I can really imagine such a thing – one of my favorite movies is 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I think the journeys to other habitable planets and actually living on another world are a long, long way off. Even getting to another solar system outside our own would require a vast and almost unimaginable amount of energy, and would be an extremely long trip at best, on human timescales. But it would be a wonderful adventure!

What discovery, which is within reach or at least imaginable, do you think could cause a dramatic shift in the course humanity is currently taking?

I think the largest discovery in terms of shaking up our society on Earth will be the discovery of life on another world. We know through spectroscopy that chemistry is uniform throughout the universe, and we know that organics are common everywhere. The only sample of cometary material returned to Earth, by the Stardust mission, contained amino acids. We know that countless worlds exist in the cosmos. The Milky Way Galaxy contains something like 400 billion stars, nearly all with planetary systems, we believe, and the universe holds at least 100 billion galaxies. The idea that life or advanced life only exists here is crazy. And yet we don’t yet have the evidence that life exists elsewhere. When it arrives, it will be psychologically and philosophically earth-shaking to everyone who is alive. 

FURTHER READING: ‘A woman from Mars’: Life in the pursuit of space exploration

As a science communicator, do you think we are successful in communicating scientific findings today that are trustworthy or believable by the majority of the population?

I think we are at the best moment in history thus far in terms of communicating science to the public. More high-quality science is happening now than ever before, and we are communicating the results in great detail. But the Internet does offer vast numbers of low-quality sites, along with all sorts of nonsense on social media, and so we need to constantly beat the drum that people need to think about sources and find high-quality, credible sources of information. Many people take any source of info they read at the same level, and of course there’s lots of nonsense out there along with meaningful information. 

What do you think is currently the biggest mystery or challenge in the world of astronomy?

The biggest mystery in the world of astronomy is the nature of dark energy. In 1998 astronomers found that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, driven by an unseen force known as dark energy. We know that this force makes up about two-thirds of the matter/energy in the cosmos, and we don’t yet know what it’s made of. Would you like a guaranteed Nobel Prize? Solving the mystery of dark energy will get you one. 

What do we learn about humanity when we look into the distant reaches of space?

When we look into the distant reaches of space, we learn a vast amount about humanity. After all, we are, as Carl Sagan famously said, literally made of star stuff. The atoms in our bodies were literally produced either in the early days of the cosmos, in so-called Big Bang Nucleosynthesis, or mostly in the deaths of low-mass and high-mass stars. They are simply rearranged in our living bodies. So we are looking out into space to see our own origin story — where we came from, perhaps why we are here, and maybe even where we are going.

Some argue that it doesn’t make sense to explore the depths of space when we need to address serious problems here on Earth. What do you think are the greatest benefits of what we have already learned about the universe and space?

DE: The struggle between spending monies and effort on things right here on Earth and for exploration and understanding of the universe is an old one. On one hand, the exploration of space is an intellectual pursuit. If you don’t care at all about the nature of the universe you live in, or where you came from, or why you exist, and you simply want to have a good hamburger for lunch and be left alone, so be it. But the efforts and expense of exploring the cosmos have often paid off with enormous benefits in multiple ways, just as the early explorations of the globe via sailing ships also paid off in practical ways. Do you value having your cell phone? What it does for you in your everyday life? The space programs of NASA and other agencies have fueled all manner of technologies that also get used in everyday life. Without the Apollo program, you would have microchips the way we do now and your precious cell phone. And there are countless other examples of benefits that have come from scientific research. So it is really naïve to think of “either we explore the universe or make life better on Earth.” The two in fact are linked. 

Is the universe infinite?

This is a really good question, and the simple answer is that we don’t know!! 🙂 I mentioned dark energy before. We know that the size of the cosmos is at least 93 billion light-years — that’s the diameter of the visible universe we can observe. But in a complicated way, if dark energy is what we think it might be, then the universe might really be infinite. It sounds like science fiction, but it may be true. We just don’t know yet. Stay tuned! 

How does astronomy or astrophysics address the question of parallel universes?

Mathematics tells us that other universes could exist. In astrophysics we use the term multiverse a lot, short for multiple universes. But knowing that something is mathematically possible and actually observing it are two different things. By definition, we can observe things in our universe, but can’t see beyond it. So if other universes exist, we may never know. Some astronomers are toying with ideas that the evidence for other universes could somehow be imprinted in some way in our universe, and we could detect this, but this is a long way from certain. So there very well might be other universes, and the odds are leaning toward the notion that if there are, we may never know about them.

Thank you for your time.