Michael Faison is the director of Yale University's Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium in New Haven. He is also an astronomer, researcher and lecturer at Yale. He has extensively studied astrology as it pertains to astronomy, as well as archaeoastronomy and radio astronomy.
Recently, he was kind enough to take the time to talk to us about astrology vs. astronomy, life elsewhere in the universe, mysteries of deep space and the International Year of Astronomy, as well as other questions of the deep space.
Damned Connecticut: One of your most popular lectures is entitled "Astronomy, Astrology and Pseudoscience" -- what led you to coming up with that lecture?
Michael Faison: I teach astronomy, mostly at the college level, and besides just teaching kids how the universe works and how we're learning about stars and galaxies and planets and sort of the list of all the things we've discovered, I also want them to understand how science works, so I go through the process of science and I try to teach them about the history of science so there's context to how we know what we know about the universe, and how it's always changing. And often, when I'm talking about the process of science, as a counter-example, I bring up pseudoscience, and so I talk about how you can tell the difference between science and pseudoscience, and some of the examples I talk about include astrology, which is a classic pseudoscience, some of the alternative medicine that seems to work on placebo effects, things like cold reading . . . .
So I talk about these things that a lot of the people in the skeptic movement talk about because I feel that doing science education is part of improving science literacy, which is part of, for one thing, stopping some of the pseudoscience that's running amok out there. I wouldn't say that astrology is running amok so much any more. Astrology has gotten, well, I wouldn't say 'beaten down,' but it's not as big an issue sort of socially right now as some other things.
But anyway, I talk about astrology, I talk about the historical connection between astrology and astronomy in my classes -- I even teach a course in the spring at Yale on archeoastronomy. Of course, for a long period of time, astronomy was practiced for the purpose of astrology, so if you knew where the planets were in the past or where they would be in the future, you could essentially predict the future, if you believe in astrology. So a lot of the ancient Mesopotamian astronomers and Greek astronomers who were trying to build models where the planets moved, one of their motivations was to practice astrology.
I started giving this lecture after I had done a lecture on astrology and the historical connection to astronomy in my classes. I was in Chicago in 2000-2001, I was teaching at Northwestern University and working at the Adler Planetarium, and I came up with the idea to teach a class on astrology at the planetarium, and in particular, why it's not a science -- whatever else it may be, why it is not a science, how it is different from other sciences. And I started doing a lot of research because I really wanted to know what I was talking about. I read a lot of books on astrology, I went out and met a lot of astrologers, started going to the Chicago area astrologers' meetings, I sat in on some real interesting talks -- I had to zip up my mouth to not say anything, but I did some real interesting observing there -- and then I gave my class at the Adler Planetarium.
It was interesting because it had been advertised widely, just like many of the general interest classes that they offer there, and about half the audience turned out to be astrologers when I gave my class. I gave this class, which is about a two-hour lecture and some interactive hands-on stuff, and afterward, the astrologers were really impressed that I, as an astronomer, knew so much about astrology, and most of them ended up agreeing with me that, "Yes, what we practice is not science in the same way astronomy or cosmology or astrophysics is a science." I kind of felt that it could've went a little further -- ". . . so therefore, we shouldn't say it is." You know. But we didn't quite make that leap. Nevertheless, I felt as though I had gotten my point across.
So I turned that class into a public lecture that I have given many times in various contexts. I give it about once a semester in my classes; I'm teaching a survey astronomy course. I've given it in public many times. Sometimes I've given it up at the Leitner Planetarium where I work at Yale. We have public lectures periodically, so I've given it a few times there.
Eventually, I'd like to turn the talk and some other information into a short planetarium show about astrology and the historical connection to astronomy, a planetarium show we can play here at the Leitner Planetarium in New Haven, and also distribute to other planetariums who might want to run it. It's a long-term idea that I have that I'd like to work on in the next couple of years.
Damned Connecticut: I seem to remember when I saw you speak you said something like -- and please correct me on the numbers -- 3,000 professional astronomers versus 10,000 professional astrologers?
Michael Faison: The last time I looked it up, the membership of the American Astronomical Society -- which you know, is not everybody who is a professional astronomer, while some members are not professional astronomers, but it's a good metric -- their membership is about 2,500 or so. And the number of professional astrologers is about 10,000. So yeah, we're outnumbered!
Of course, the area of entry to professional astrology is much lower than for professional astronomy. If you make your living at astronomy, it takes quite a lot of preparation, schooling and so forth.
Damned Connecticut: Aside from the schooling, do you think there's something else about why astrology is so widely embraced, not just in this country but around the world?
Michael Faison: Well, it's just like a lot of other pseudosciences. It has a lot of the things that people like about trying to explain the universe, and none of the things that you don't like. People like to think there's a connection between humans and the rest of the universe; we have sort of an anthrocentric view of the universe, especially an egocentric view of the universe, so we like to believe that "Well, where the planets are affects me."
Then there's all the jargon and the trappings of science. A lot of the terminology astrology uses comes from historical astronomy. Quite a bit of it isn't stuff that astronomers use any more. Although it's interesting that some of the terminology has entered our vocabulary. Words like "aspect" -- the entomology is "star position" as in "astro." "Disaster" means means "bad star" in Greek. Astrology certainly has a strong cultural component that I like to talk about when I give my lectures.
There are several things. For one thing, people like think of themselves as having a personal connection to the universe. We, as a species, tend to look for patterns, and we lock onto the coincidental hits and we ignore the misses. The way that astrology is practiced by the vast majority of people is that they look at their sun sign horoscope and these things are written very vaguely, so they kind of look at it, and if it jives really well with how they think they are or what they're experiencing, they're like, "Wow, that's amazing! Astrology works." And if it doesn't, they just blow it off. They just don't pay any attention to it, so there's no checking of how many hits or how many misses, or what are the chances that these things would line up based on chance.
In the more complicated version of natal chart astrology, if you go to see a professional astrologer, they'll probably cast a natal chart for you which has the positions of the stars and the planets at the latitude and longitude at the time you were born. It's kind of like doing palm reading or tea leaves: there's a lot of complexity there, so they can throw things out, and people, they want the astrologer to turn out to be right, they want to have a positive outcome from the experience, so they tend to latch on to hits and ignore the misses. And the astrologer, either knowingly or unknowingly, will employ cold reading. They'll shy away from things that don't seem to be hits and lock into things that do hit and are what the client likes, and then they will keep moving in that directions, just like a palm reader will, or someone who's a spirit medium will lock onto these things and stick with them, and avoid things that don't seem to be hits. They may or may not know they are doing that. Some of these astrologers -- actually most astrologers, I'm sure -- are earnest and sincere in believing the interpretation they are giving is accurate. They might not be aware of what they're doing.
Michael Faison: I was an amateur astronomer growing up, so I had a telescope and I lived in rural Alabama where the skies are quite dark. So I got a book on the constellations, I went and learned the constellations and looked at Saturn, looked at the moon, watched Halley's Comet swing through in 1986 and was pretty disappointed, but found other things that were pretty cool. So I was interested in astronomy, but I wanted to go to college and study physics. I got really interested in sort of the fundamental laws of how the universe works. And I wanted to do something fairly practical -- I thought I would do something in optics or something involving electrical engineering or computer engineering or something really practical.
I went to a liberal arts school and majored in physics, and while I was there, there was a radio astronomer who did research on pulsars, and he took a group of students down to the radio telescope in Arecibo in Puerto Rico. I went with him, and really had a great time doing radio astronomy research and figuring out how pulsars worked, these rotating neutron stars that pulse radiation. I did a senior research project and really enjoyed that, and realized, "Hey, astronomy is a kind of physics. I can do astronomy and it counts as a type of physics." So I decided to go to grad school and learn a little more about this, and thought I'll keep doing it as long as I enjoy doing it and can make a living at it and . . . so far, so good! I enjoy it and I make an okay living, so I'm still going strong.
Although in the past two years, I've moved much more into education than research, mainly because we opened this new planetarium at Yale, so almost all of the time I'm not teaching, I'm working on outreach programs, new shows and various things for the planetarium.
Damned Connecticut: Speaking of the Leitner, I recently brought my family there -- my sons had a great time, it's a great facility. So far how has it been for you?
Michael Faison: I've been at Yale for five years. I came here to teach in the astronomy department and I had a research program going when I first got here, and also to run the observatory. Right as I came to Yale, we opened a new observatory on campus, which we hadn't had for quite a while. It's really important, I think, for every college to have an on-campus observatory where students can put their hands on a telescope and look through it and see things with their own eyes rather than just see computer slides during a lecture. It's also real important for outreach for an astronomy department to have a public night where people can bring their kids up and look through telescopes, and experience some of this wonder.
Astronomy is really unique among the sciences in that there's so much public enthusiasm for it. There are a lot of amateur astronomers out there, some of whom are doing interesting research in their own right. It's amazing really, the technology that amateurs have access to these days so that they can do their own research. You know, there aren't that many amateur particle physicists or amateur chemists out there doing the same kind of research amateur astronomers are doing. It's great that people are so interested in astronomy. They beat a path to our door to learn more about astronomy, so it's very important for us to take advantage of that.
Anyway, I came here in 2004 to run the campus observatory. Over time, we renovated the building the observatory was in, put in a lecture hall, put in exhibits about astronomy. The donor who gave us the money to build the observatory expressed interest in building a planetarium, so in 2006 we started doing research on what kind of planetarium we could afford, and what would be best for our programs and our education activities. We pitched to the donor the design we came up with and he was interested, so construction started in 2008, and we opened the new planetarium in 2009.
It's been really fantastic. We've expanded our programs a lot. When we just had the observatory, we would be open twice a month for observing, but if the skies were cloudy, we would cancel. Now that we have the planetarium, we always have shows on Tuesday nights whether it's clear or not. If it's clear, we also open up the observatory for public viewing through the telescopes. Where as before we might have had a public event once a month or every other month depending on the weather, now we have a public event every Tuesday night regularly, which is really great.
We've also expanded into school visits. We used to have occasional school visits to the observatory and we did have a portable, inflatable planetarium called a "starlab" -- it's this big dome that you blow up with a fan, kids pile into it and you can project stars on the inside of the dome. We used to take that to schools to do demonstrations, or we could set it up at the observatory as well. But now that we have this nice, digital planetarium theater, we bring in school groups during the day, pretty much every day during the week in the spring, and every other week in the fall. We have a new staff member who runs all those programs, and we're coordinating with the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven to sort of mooch off their education staff to help with scheduling visits and bringing kids up. They've had school buses coming up there for tours for years and years, so we've siphoned off a little spring of yellow school buses to come to the observatory and planetarium shows.
We're planning on doing more coordinated shows in the future with the Peabody Museum. We were thinking what would be the natural connection between the planetarium or astronomy and the Peabody Museum, which is famous for the dinosaur exhibits there, and we were thinking about doing a program on the extinction of the dinosaurs. We'd have a show about meteorites and asteroids and things hitting the Earth, and talk about the impact 65 million years ago, and then the kids would go down to the Peabody Museum and the kids would see the dead dinosaurs, the ones that were killed off by the meteorite. We're working on a program based on that.
So that's basically the latest we've done with the planetarium. It's made a huge difference in the kinds of outreach activities that we can have here. We're still fairly staff limited. I mean, we have some of my time and our half-time K-12 educator, but we'd like to be open more often to the public. We're thinking about starting to do Sunday afternoon matinees for people, in addition to the Tuesday night shows. We're just trying to get volunteers trained, and there is a lot of students interested in doing presentations to the public, so we're trying to get them trained on how to present shows. Hopefully, in the near future, we'll do that. We'll have more public events.
Damned Connecticut: Now I know this is the International Year of Astronomy, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo's turning his telescope to the heavens, which is obviously a landmark moment in astronomy. What other landmark moments do you anticipate in the next few years as we keep looking deeper and deeper into space?
Michael Faison: This International Year of Astronomy has been a big coordinated international effort. The thing about Galileo's use of the telescope is that it opened a whole new world when you could gather the light and focus it so you could see faint things and magnify images, which is essentially the same as going there. If you magnify the moon by a factor of 10, you've basically traveled 90 percent of the distance to the moon. That's what it would look like if you traveled that 90 percent.
So the year of astronomy is really quite an interesting international effort. When you go and look at their website, it dawns on you how much is going on all over the world. It's not just NASA, it's not just U.S. schools and universities.
But in terms of upcoming milestones, one of the things about these big shifts is that it's hard to predict when it's going to happen or what is going to be the thing that changes things. I think now, if you look at the big questions in astronomy, there are questions like, "Are we alone in the universe?" Which is a question that we're starting to answer in bits and pieces as we find planets around other stars and look for what are the possibilities of how life could get started and evolve on other planets. "What are the necessary chemical conditions and astronomical condtions?" "What kind of stars could possibly facilitate the beginnings of life, and where should we look for signs of life?" And, "What would those signs look like?" Now we know of hundreds of planets around other stars that we didn't know about 10 or 15 years ago, so those are tremendous, important questions.
Another big area of questions is how did the universe begin? "Where is it going?" "What's going to happen to the universe?" Big cosmological questions. Again, we're just starting to understand that. There were big mysteries, oh about 20 years ago or so, of how the universe was changing. There were some things that didn't make sense, and now, within the past five to ten years, "Well, it didn't make sense before because we didn't take into account this dark energy, this repulsive force that making the universe expand faster and faster." No one really knows what this dark energy is -- people have theories. But now that we know it's there, we don't have to scratch our heads as to what is going on. That's a big step, and so people are working on trying to explain what that dark energy is, and also the dark matter that holds galaxy clusters together.
It's actually fascinating, that question: What is the dark matter? It might be answered by particle physics because it might be possible that the dark matter are tiny little particles that are very difficult to detect, but this new large collider in Switzerland, the Large Hadron Collider may actually detect these particles of dark matter in the not-too-distant future and we'll finally understand what that stuff is.
So I think those are the big questions that we're just on the cusp of starting to answer. Now, the thing is, whenever we have a time like this when we're just about to answer a big question, other equally big questions come up, so it's hard to predict what those new questions are going to be.
Damned Connecticut: You were just talking about extraterrestrial life in space and looking for it. I think, based on what we've seen about the formation of life, and with the billions of stars and the hundreds of planets out there, it's not really a question of if, but when, and where, and what kind of life we find out there.
Michael Faison: Oh sure. If you look at the statistics, the chances that we're alone in the universe are incredibly small. Incredibly small.
If you ask most astronomers if they believe in aliens, the answer will be yes, or a qualified yes because most astronomers like me believe it's likely that there's life elsewhere in the universe but the chances of us communicating with intelligent life are much, much smaller because of the vast distances between planets that would probably have intelligent life that could communicate using radio telescopes or whatever type of communication.
So if you ask an astronomer, "Do you believe in UFOs?" Well, there are things that are flying that are unidentified, but do I believe that UFOs are aliens? Almost certainly not. Do I believe that there are aliens somewhere else in the universe? Almost certainly yes.
Although if you look at the statistics of intelligent life in our galaxy -- our galaxy is an island of hundreds of billions of gravitationally bound stars, and there are almost certainly millions, or tens of millions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy and probably a lot of those have microbial life or some kind of simple life on them. But if you push it and say, "Well, what are the chances of intelligent life that's evolved around these stars?" Well, it took a long time for intelligent life to evolve on the Earth, and we only have a sample size of one to think about what are the chances of it happening on another planet. If you're pessimistic, then it could be we're the only intelligent civilization in our galaxy so there might not be anyone to talk to. If you're more optimistic, like Carl Sagan was, there might be a million of them.
Of course, then you have the question of, "If there is a million intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, we should have detected one of them by now with a radio telescope, so where are they?" Of course, this is only talking about our galaxy, and then there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the known universe, and then that's only in the visible universe. The actual universe is much, much bigger than we can see within our horizon of light-travel time.
So with hundreds of billions of galaxies out there, it's very, very likely that many of them have intelligent life of some form. Although who knows if we will be able to communicate with them because the closest galaxy is two million light years away, so we have to come up with some method of physics that we don't know about now that will allow us to communicate faster than light, and we don't know how to do that.
Damned Connecticut: What would you actually look for in terms of signs of life in other places? Radio signals or something?
Michael Faison: For simple life, it's pretty simple. You would look at the atmosphere of a planet. You could do this remotely, and in fact, we tried this on the Earth. When the Galileo spacecraft swung by the Earth on its way to Jupiter, the scientists pointed Galileo at the Earth and looked at the chemical composition of the atmosphere and said, "Hey, there's probably life on the Earth!" Because you look at the ratio of oxygen and methane and water vapor -- life leaves a certain signature in the atmosphere of a planet. Now we already know that there's life on the Earth, so it's good that Galileo detected it, but now we can look at other planets, and we're just starting to do this. I expect that within the next ten years, maybe five years, we'll be able to see the light from the atmosphere of a planet and look for the chemical signatures of life around other planets.
So I'm pretty sure within a decade, or two decades, we will find microbial life on another planet. We'll just look for chemical signals in the spectrum of the light coming from another planet. Intelligent life then, you'd look for some kind of signal. This is a really complicated subject. I mean, how do you find the sign of intelligence in some kind of signal?
The movie and novel Contact that Carl Sagan wrote sort of talks about one way you might do it. You could encode it in a mathematical signal because all species regardless of their culture will use the same kind of simple mathematics. But then, things move into culture very, very quickly, and that's dependent on your history, how you interact with other people.
The people who work on SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, one of the games they play is that they will actually write out messages that they think will be easily decoded as intelligent, and they'll send them off to their friends who are also SETI people, and they can almost never interpret each others' messages, so it's very difficult to communicate through mathematics with other human beings, let alone other intelligences.
There are things we can do, there are way to find signals that would be impossible for them to be a natural signal. If only the aliens are thinking like we are! Then we'll be able to pick it up. But it's tough. It's hard to say what would an alien civilization think of as an intelligent signal.
Damned Connecticut: Would they classify us as intelligent considering I have a hard time classifying us as intelligent?
Michael Faison: Yeah, sure! Right. I guess maybe artificial versus natural, in terms of intelligence.
Damned Connecticut: We were talking about deep space earlier -- I saw recently how they saw a cluster of galaxies that's 10.2 billion light years away, and then the story about the 13 billion-year-old gamma ray burst. What are the significance of those kinds of discoveries? How do they affect what we know about deep space?
Michael Faison: That's a good question. These really, really distant things, what they tell us about the universe is what the universe was like a long time ago because these events and these objects are very far away so it's taken a long time for the light to travel. We don't see these things as they are now, we see them as they were 10 billion or 13 billion years ago.
It's interesting. When we look further and further away, the universe looks different. When you look at galaxies and stars five billion light years away, and 10 billion light year away, and 13 billion light years away, they look really different then galaxies do now. So it's a very important way that astronomers make models of how galaxies and the universe change over time. Galaxy evolution.
For example, the gamma ray burst. These gamma ray bursts are thought to be real massive stars exploding in a very, very energetic explosive event. You don't really see these nearby. You don't see these things going off in our galaxy. There may have been some in the past. I've heard suggestions that some of the mass extinctions on the Earth might've happened because there was a nearby gamma ray burst that basically would've fried one half of the Earth.
Anyway, they're not going off now, so what was different back then? Why were there these massive stars that could explode in these violent ways? Well, we have some ideas about how that happens. So it's really important for people who model the early universe to understand how the universe has changed over time.
Damned Connecticut: I assume we'll keep looking further and further, so what do you think might be beyond the edge of the known universe? What type of discoveries do you expect as we look further?
Michael Faison: Yeah, well, we're almost at the edge -- and I say edge -- of the known universe. We have a limitation, again, since light has a finite travel speed. Light always travels at 300,000 kilometers per second. We can't see beyond a horizon ... it's not at a distance of 13.7 billion year -- it's actually about 15 billion light years because the universe has been expanding since the light has been traveling to us. But there is a limit as to how far away we can look just because the age of the universe is finite. There is almost certainly a universe beyond that, and some cosmologists think that the universe might be infinite, so there's an infinity beyond the horizon. As time passes, the horizon gets a little bigger -- it's getting bigger by a billion light years every billion years. In my lifetime, it's not going to change very much.
But we're actually on the verge of being able to map the entire visible universe, which is quite another big achievement. You were talking about Galileo before -- when the replacement for the Hubble space telescope goes up in a few years, the James Webb telescope, it's going to be much bigger than Hubble with four times the area, so it's going to be able to see much, much further, and it's actually going to be able to map every galaxy in the known universe. So it's going to be like some point in the past when explorers had mapped every coastline of every continent on the Earth and there's just no more coastline to explore -- that's pretty much where we're going to be in a few decades.
That's where it is, unless we find a new way to study the universe with some new form of radiation or light or something we didn't know about. Or if we find some way to explore other universes. Who knows if that's even possible. We'll never see beyond that horizon until it expands even more.
I don't know. I haven't really decided whether or not if I like the infinite universe or the finite universe -- what's beyond the horizon. If the universe is infinite, that has certain philosophical implications that are disturbing. There's no evidence one way or another to say if it's infinite or finite, but we can't see beyond it at this point.
Damned Connecticut: It's truly hard to wrap your mind around that idea of infinity, or if something like the universe is finite, doesn't there have to be something beyond that?
Michael Faison: If the universe if finite, what could happen is that the universe would warp around and close on itself. So it would be analogous to the surface of the Earth. The surface of the Earth is a finite area because it curves around in a third dimension and closes on itself. So you could map out every area on the surface of the Earth and keep walking in any direction and never reach an edge, but there's still a finite surface area. So it could be that the universe warps around to fourth spatial dimension so that it has finite volume, but if you went off walking in any direction, you'd never reach an edge -- you'd eventually come back to where you started. And that's possible.
If that's true, then the universe is still really, really, really big because the little patch of the known universe, of the universe we can see out to the 13 billion-light-year horizon is perfectly flat -- as if you went out to a soccer field and tried to measure the curvature of the Earth, you couldn't see it. The Earth looks really flat on small scales. But if you went to a really big scale, it curves around on itself. Our little patch of the universe looks perfectly flat, so that means that the universe is perfectly flat and just goes on for infinity, or it curves back in on itself on some really big scale.
Damned Connecticut: You were talking a little while ago about amateur astronomy -- when I saw you speak, you talked a little about Hanny's Voorwerp and the Galaxy Zoo, and I know that other objects, like comets and storms on planets have also been discovered by amateur astronomers. How important are they to the overall process?
Michael Faison: They're very important in certain fields. Now if all amateurs decided to stop working in astronomy, astronomy research would still continue, but there's some specialties and areas where amateurs make really important contributions. For example, studying variable stars. There's so many thousands of variable stars that professional astronomers, even if we spent all our time looking at them, we couldn't study them as much as they need to be studied. So there are thousands of amateurs, in fact, many of them are coordinated by the American Association of Variable Star Observers [AAVSO], which tells amateurs who are interested in doing this research which starts to go look at, how to measure the brightness, how to submit observations and so forth. Then professional astronomers will actually use their database to study variable stars without having to go make the observations themselves.
Another important area is in asteroid research. There are thousands of asteroids that need to be studied. We need to know what their positions are so that we can map their orbits so we can understand how the asteroids behave, which ones might hit the Earth in the future, etc. And there's just too many for professional astronomers to look at. So there are many amateur astronomers with nice telescopes and digital cameras who study asteroid movements. That's really important.
Another area is look for new comets. Another area is looking for supernovae, stars that exploding in other galaxies. So there are these areas where things change in the sky -- moving asteroids, variable stars in other galaxies and things like that -- where amateurs make a big contribution. If we lost that data, lost that work that they're doing, there'd be a detriment to research. There have been a lot of important discoveries in how these things work that have been made by amateurs.
Damned Connecticut: Finally, any special events coming up at the Leitner?
Michael Faison: We have some talks about the International Year of Astronomy. On November 19 at the Peabody Museum, David Rabinowitz, is lecturing. He's one of the scientists who discovered the new dwarf planet Ares which led to the demotion of Pluto as a planet. So he's giving a talk about weird things in the solar system.
Then I'm giving a talk about the winter solstice at the Leitner on December 15, and then again the next week on December 22, which is part of our regular Tuesday night shows. Every planetarium everywhere in the U.S. has to have some kind of Christmas show, so this is our version of that.
We have our website you can check -- yale.edu/iya -- lists the events we're having especially for the International Year of Astronomy. And then, there's our own website, leitnerobservatory.org, and we try to keep that up-to-date.
-- Thanks again to Michael for taking the time to talk to us!