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Recode Decode at TED: Astrophysicist Erika Hamden says we understand only 4 percent of the universe

“If you want to discover a new thing about the universe, you have to look at the universe in a new way ... [and] in order to do that, you need to invent something.”

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Astrophysicist Erika Hamden.
Astrophysicist Erika Hamden.
Erika Hamden / CC BY-SA 4.0

On the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, Kara passed the mic to her executive producer Erica Anderson, who recently attended the 2019 TED Conference in Vancouver, Canada. On the new podcast, you’ll hear four interviews with TED Fellows, up-and-coming innovators in science and technology who give talks about their work on the conference’s first day.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of the third of those four interviews: In it, Erica talks to astrophysicist Erika Hamden, who has developed new telescopes and other technology for observing space. In the short term, that tech can help Hamden and her peers better understand the galaxies we know about, but in the long term, she has bigger goals.

“We know a lot about the universe,” she said. “But then if you’d break it down, we don’t know anything. We know that 4 percent of the universe is made up of regular matter like protons, electrons; the whole rest of it is like dark matter and dark energy, which is totally mysterious.”

You can hear all four interviews right now on Recode Decode, which you’ll find on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts. Or, just listen using the embedded audio player below.

Erica Anderson: Welcome to Recode Decode!

Erika Hamden: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

So really quickly, let’s start ... Your background is so cool. You dropped out of MIT before going to Harvard, before now building state-of-the-art technology that’s been used in telescopes ... So give me a quick nutshell on that.

I went to MIT in the fall of 2001. And I was really naive. I came from a family that like, we did everything together, and the transition to college was rough. I met these people who were going to go into business and I thought people were going to be there because they really love science.

And I know those people were there, but I didn’t find them. So I left. I took some time for myself to figure out what did I really want to do. And then I reapplied to college and I went to Harvard. And I tried as much as possible while I was there to make sure that I was doing things that made me happy every day. It wasn’t worth being unhappy because maybe one day there will be an end goal that would make me happy.

And so it was a hard choice to drop out of college, because I had identified so much as an achiever and being smart. And then I was an MIT dropout. So I had to realize that didn’t define me. And what mattered was enjoying my life and making sure that I was doing things because I wanted to do them.

Yeah, I mean, that’s an incredible story. So I wouldn’t say that being a dropout is a bad thing.

It was definitely the right call.

Yeah, yeah. Because you found your path, which is so cool. And I want to talk about it. So let’s start. What’s the idea that you presented ... What’s your big idea that you were talking about at TED this week?

So my big idea is that if you want to discover a new thing about the universe, you have to look at the universe in a new way. That you can do more observations with stuff that already exists. And that work is really important to kind of expand and classify the stuff that we already know.

But that if you want to make like a breakthrough discovery, you want to find out what’s the new, weird thing about our universe, you have to be creative. And a lot of people don’t associate science and scientists with creativity. But it actually takes a huge amount of creativity to think about, “Well, how can I see this thing in a different way no one has looked in for this particular stuff before in this way.” And typically I find that in order to do that, you need to invent something. Because astronomers are really good about using every technology available.

We’re trying to capture every single photon so people will always be pushing the limits, but that totally new technologies is usually how new discoveries get made. So like LIGO, it took 40 years.

What’s LIGO?

LIGO is the ... Now, I don’t know what the acronyms stand for.

That’s okay. That’s good. High level.

It’s basically a gravitational wave detector. It’s a totally different spectrum that we can explore the universe on. When two black holes merge, for example, or two neutron stars merge, they bend spacetime so much that it sends waves out through the universe.

Got it. So having a piece of technology that can detect that.

Previously, we could not detect waves in spacetime and now we can, and this whole new way of looking at the universe has opened up. So for my work on the detectors that I helped develop, they’re super sensitive in a wavelength range where we haven’t really had sensitive detectors ever.

The previous best detector was actually photographic plates. Film is pretty good in the UV, but you can’t send film to space. You can, but it’s really difficult. So the other detectors that we were using, they worked for what they were doing, but the sensitivity was just not great. It’s less than 10 percent. And the detectors that I’ve helped develop, you can get sensitivities. The ones that we put on the balloon telescope I built is 60 percent. So it’s a six times improvement and you haven’t changed anything else about the telescope where you get six times as much information.

Got it. Got it.

Inventing technologies is really like, we call it mission enabling. That now you can do things and make observations of stuff that was previously not detectable.

Yeah. And I think you’re being a little modest because I think you helped to really invent this new technology. I mean, it sounds like you’ve helped to invent it, but then, or invented it and then have overseen teams to kind of build it. What was it like? What is the problem you’re trying to solve? When you said, I think the idea of like asking new questions about the galaxy. What is the discovery that you think ... What was your inspiration for this?

Well, so I will say that for the technology, I’m part of a really great team of people that are based out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And so the woman that actually invented the very base ... There’s a base process that has to happen that’s called delta domain or super lattice domain and her name is Shouleh Nikzad. She’s worked at JPL for a long time. So she invented this technology and then has been developing it for like 20 years. And so I came in and assisted in making it even better, basically. But it’s definitely been a team effort.

And the machinery that we use is so expensive. There’s no way that one person could really do it, because you have to sort of have a team to get enough people to do all that stuff. But the work that I want to do ... So we look out in the universe and you can see galaxies. People are lazy, so they want to look at the thing that’s easiest to look at.

So if you just look, your eyes will be naturally be drawn to the bright stuff, the stars that are really bright, the galaxies that are really bright. And that’s the first thing that always gets explored because everything is dim in the universe. So you go for at least the brightest stuff.

But if you keep going to lower and lower brightness, you actually get a lot more interesting components. So we know galaxies exist because we can see them. And from simulations, we think that there’s these huge, influencing filaments and exploding bubbles that filaments flow in and bubbles coming out of the galaxy.

That’s a dynamic environment around the galaxy of hydrogen and other gas that’s kind of swirling around and coming in and out. And some of the hydrogen is originally from the Big Bang. It’s primordial, and other gases from mergers are just like a chaotic environment around the galaxy.

And we look at galaxies and we see some of them are these beautiful spirals that are gorgeous, others are totally messed up. They’ve had a bunch of mergers. There’s others that are just a perfect ring, like some wacky things out in the universe. And right now we can see them, but we can’t say like, “Well, this galaxy looks like this because of this reason.” The why behind it is not clear.

And so I think that in order to figure out that why, if you look at the environment around the galaxy and you can measure the amount of hydrogen that’s there and the other gas that’s there, you can say, “Well, this galaxy is a beautiful spiral, making lots of new stars because it has huge in-flowing filaments of hydrogen that are coming in and feeding the star formation. Whereas this other galaxy that’s just a red blob doesn’t have any of those filaments. Instead, it has a really hot halo of gas that can’t fall into the galaxy,” because of complicated physics that I won’t explain here.

But that you can say like, “Okay, well, this galaxy looks the way it does because of this stuff around it. And this other galaxy looks the way it does because of this totally different environment.” So that’s what I want to do in the short term.

And in the longer term, we don’t really ... We know a lot about the universe. But then if you’d break it down, we don’t know anything. We know that 4 percent of the universe is made up of regular matter like protons, electrons, the whole rest of it is like dark matter and dark energy, which is totally mysterious.

But even that few percent that’s made up of stuff that we understand, we don’t know where any of it is. Well, if you count how many galaxies we can see, the estimated mass for those galaxies, you add in things like planets and black holes that you can’t actually see, you add all that up and it doesn’t add up to the amount of mass that we know exists in regular matter. So there’s this problem where we don’t know where everything is.

And part of the solution is that probably it’s this really faint, very low-density hydrogen that’s outside the galaxy. So it’s emitting very, very faintly. But we just haven’t been able to take a census because our detectors haven’t been sensitive enough. So that’s one of the things I want to do.

So you’re obviously super passionate about the future of space exploration. It’s honestly not something I’ve thought a lot about. Which is crazy. It’s all you think about, what are the secrets in the galaxies that we need to understand? What is the modern ... What is the space race today about?

For galaxies?


We can’t really explain how our galaxy got here. And I think a lot of what drives astronomers and just people who are interested in space is being able to say like, “Why are we here? And how did we get here?”

Age-old question.

Yeah, and our galaxy is a pretty boring galaxy. Our star’s great, I love our star, but it’s just a pretty standard star. But we see all this other stuff, these galaxies that are super active. The one where they detected the black hole last week. That galaxy is wild compared to our galaxy. Which I guess is maybe why we’re here, because our galaxy is very boring. It’s better for life.

Oh, interesting. So boring equals safe.

Boring is good, yeah. But I think that’s really what drives people is like, “Well, how do we explain the situation that we’re in right now?” We have made a huge amount of progress in just understanding how galaxies have changed throughout time. We can look back through history at old galaxies that are really far away and we can see that they’re different.

And there’s some change through time of how many galaxies are making new stars and the sizes of them and so on. But we don’t have a full picture yet to say, “Oh, you start with this little baby galaxy and then give it 13 billion years and it becomes the Milky Way.”

So you want to create that picture. Next question, how do you execute this?

So there’s a lot ... It’s like a multi-pronged effort. So usually, when I feel like there’s a problem that I want to solve, my strategy is “do everything.” I think developing technology is super crucial, because that’s the basis that you can do new observations of. So I have been working on one type of detector and I’m starting to set up my lab to test a new kind of detector that is sort of an offshoot of the one I’ve been working on but it has even better noise properties. Just continuing to make better tools I think is essential.

And then working on new ideas for telescope concepts and space telescopes and advocacy about making sure that young astronomers can be the principal investigators of those future space telescopes. Right now I’m working on a proposal for space telescope to NASA small explorer program.

So that mission is totally theoretical. We’re just kind of figuring out, what’s the instrument, what’s the spacecraft going to be. That’s been a really interesting process for me as the PI. And there’s all this stuff that I think like, I wish someone had told me this two years ago or six months ago about who to contact at NASA centers or who to contact an aerospace company. And so I decided, like, “Well, this is annoying, there should just be like ... This information should just be out there.”

So how all good solutions start: “It’s extremely annoying.”

Annoying. I feel like Adam Sandler’s character in The Wedding Singer when his fiance shows up the next day and she’s like, “Oh, you are not a rockstar.” He’s like, “This is information I could have used yesterday.” I originally thought I’d just write a paper that’s like “How to build a space telescope” and just list all the things that I learned.

And then I’ve decided, instead, I’m going to turn it into a workshop and bring people and actually tell them like, “Okay. You start with a science question. What’s the thing you want to know about the universe, and then we’re going to figure out whether a space mission is the way to go.”

And I’ve gotten the NASA people that I’ve talked to really excited about it, and I’m working with a few other people. Typically I’ll go to meetings about space, astrophysics, and future missions, and I’m the youngest person in the room. And typically I’m one of the few women. And they’re talking about things that are going to get built in the 2030s. And a lot of the people that are in those rooms are not going to be working in the 2030s.

Interesting, yeah.

I hope they’re all going to be alive. They’re lovely people, and they’re so excellent at what they do. There has to be people coming up to take their places. And so that’s something that I hope I can do and at least help bring up the people behind me. And make sure that there’s new people in the pipeline, younger people, diverse people.

And I also just think that’ll make the science a lot more vibrant. When you get more people asking interesting questions, you’re going to get a lot of exciting results.

Absolutely. That’s something I want to ask you before we go to our last question, which is, coming up, were there female role models?

Oh, yeah. Well, so Shouleh Nikzad, the woman that I worked with at JPL, she has been such an inspiration for me. She’s just a super lovely, wonderful person. And she’s always been really supportive of my work. And all the people that I’ve worked with, I’ve had a lot of male mentors and they’ve been really great. So I feel like I’ve had a lot of personal, very careful attention, which I think is really important.

Great. Great. And I’m sure you are a role model for people coming up.

I try to be.

Yeah, no, it’s great. Well, giving a TED talk is definitely a good way to spread that. So this is the last question. What do you hope to accomplish with this idea, with these telescopes? What’s the big picture?

Well, when I was young, I knew that there were astronomers and astronauts, but I didn’t know that it could be a job that you build the telescope. I knew people went to [work with] telescopes, but then in college, I discovered like, “Oh, you can make it? That’s awesome.” And I’ve always liked to build stuff and use my hands. That’s why I like cooking, because you make a thing. And so I wanted to just broaden the world a little bit, that maybe people will realize, like, “Oh, I could build telescopes.”

The other thing I want to do is kind of tell people that it’s okay to try something and still fail spectacularly. I think about my experience at MIT and dropping out, that I failed in such a big way. And for an 18-year-old, it was the end of the world. But I’m here, I’m still doing exactly the work that I want to do. And I learned so much from that experience.

All the stuff that I talked about in my TED talk was, you know, the stuff with the detectors. It took years for us to figure out how to get the part that we were working on to work correctly. And every step of the way it’s like, “Oh, this didn’t work. Okay. Let’s try something else.” And then that works. But then something else fails, and the only way you learn is in that space in between the failures. And with the whole balloon payload, all of our stuff works. But we had this other failure that we hadn’t planned on.

This is when you sent the telescope up into orbit into the stratosphere.

Into the stratosphere. Yeah.

And the balloon was the thing that failed.

Yeah. So all of our stuff worked. The pointing system, which was done by our French collaborators. That was gorgeous. Everything worked, and then the balloon had a hole in it. I remember thinking, I didn’t even know to be worried about that. Yeah. I feel like, if you want to do something creative or just something new in the world you have to take a risk.

And society is so risk averse. I mean, I understand because the consequences of failing for a lot of people are they get fired. They lose their houses. People live on the edge all the time. So it’s hard to say, “Well, try this totally wacky thing and fail and whatever.” But I think talking more about it, maybe the people who have control and run a business, let your employees fail. Just see what happens, give them the opportunity. Because really, it’s that they’re trying, they’re wanting to do something new.

Failing in service of doing something new and better.

Yeah. And to take a risk and explore a little bit. And that it’s scary. And there’s a lot of times when I felt like, “God, I wish someone else had already done this so that I knew what to do.” The path would be there and it’s not. It’s hard to be going your own way.

But also I would imagine really rewarding and also like you said deeply creative in the field of science. Well, thank you so much, Erika for joining Recode Decode. It was a pleasure to have you here.

I’m so happy to be here.

Thank you and we will watch the advancements in your work with great intrigue. So thank you.

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