Got a Little Story for Ya, Ags

As a writer, I do so love a good story and those who wield both the appropriate subject matter and the flair for its proper delivery.

One of the best absolute naturals in all above respects is Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff, who I describe to people as a marketer’s dream for good reason. Beyond his ease with media representatives, administrators and officials, and external visitors and general audiences, he’s also a master at breaking down the subject at hand and explaining why it matters. And in going the extra mile.

I offer a recent example — a follow-up email to Battalion reporter John Rangel, thanking him for a recent story:


I would like to congratulate you on the article in The Batt on the most distant galaxy. You nailed the science and gave a feeling for the excitement of the discovery. Great job!

By the way, there are some points to this discovery that you, as an engineering student, may enjoy. It is difficult to define what is distance in astronomy because the universe is expanding, and the grid by which we measure distances is also stretching at the same time. So for me the best way to understand distance is just what you did — give it in units of how much time it took for light to get here compared to the age of the universe. However, you will see some articles refer to the distance to this object as 30 billion light years or so. This is the way astronomers would measure it, but this distance is not intuitive. Imagine we are in our galaxy in the early universe and we are looking at this distant galaxy. It would be very close to us because the universe is so small. Imagine putting a 3-D grid on this early universe and put our galaxy at one corner and the distant galaxy at another corner. Now run the universe forward to today. The universe has stretched a lot (expanded, if you will). Our galaxy and the other one are still at those corners, but the grid has expanded by a factor of 9 now. That short distant that separated us and that galaxy has now stretched into about 30 billion light years — the co-moving distance we call it. So you will also hear astronomers quote distances that are greater than the age of the universe.

How can something be farther away than the age of the universe (in today’s time) and we can still see it? Well, the weird thing is that we will never see that galaxy when it is today age — 13.8 billion years old. We can only see it now, but as the universe evolves, the galaxy will actually disappear from our universe or perhaps more to the point — will disappear from our vision.

The other point is that although galaxies appear to be moving away from us and this appears as a Doppler shift, it is actually not a Doppler shift. It is space stretching. Nothing is actually moving. The motion looks like a velocity and a Doppler shift, but there is no kinetic energy involved. If there were, galaxies near the edge of the universe would have a ridiculous amount of energy because they are moving close to the speed of light.

Edwin Hubble, who discovered the expansion of the universe, was careful never to call this apparent expansion a velocity — he called it a cosmological redshift which is what astronomers should also call it, and if they don’t, well I will go kick their butts.

Anyway, sorry for the long email about your great article.

cheers, nick

I don’t know about John Rangel, but for this writer, the initial interview is typically a formative experience. I remember well my first trip to Dr. Suntzeff’s Texas A&M campus office — a veritable time capsule spanning the high points of astronomical history as well as his career, which includes 25 years at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. I was interviewing him for a piece on Albert Einstein’s cosmological constant — Einstein’s self-described “biggest blunder” which he predicted in 1917 as the proverbial glue holding together the theory of a never-changing universe that Edwin Hubble’s 1929 discovery of the universe’s expansion later debunked. (Incidentally, in a Kevin Bacon-esque six-degrees-of-separation constant, Hubble served as mentor to Allan Sandage, who in turn is the one who encouraged Dr. Suntzeff to focus on Type Ia supernovas — specifically their brightness — to measure precise distances, which is how Dr. Suntzeff came to help discover dark energy and roughly 75 percent of the universe. But that’s a whole ‘nother story!)

After posing a basic equation-type question to gauge my level of astrophysical knowledge (essentially negative infinity), Dr. Suntzeff took great pains to explain not only the equation and the basic physics behind it, but also each and every piece in his collection, in addition to the actual research I was there to discuss. And so began an educational relationship across subsequent visits and stories, typically supplemented with emailed anecdotes and other means of follow-up insight about astrophysics and oh, so much more that has always served to enlighten or entertain. (Ask him sometime about saving Alan Alda’s life while down in Chile or about being school mates with Robin Williams — yes, that Robin Williams — or about the time he made international headlines for discovering nothing! Yeah, I have hundreds of these, as does he.)

Bottom line, it all goes to prove my long-held theory that most professors first and foremost are born educators and — big surprise — people, too. Their areas of expertise are vitally important, but somehow lost amid all that focused excellence and relentless drive is their intrinsic motivation and passion for knowledge generation, big-picture dreams and doing what they love and want you to love, too. Or at the very least understand in some tangible way.

Trust me, it’s a great story well worth the time it takes to read. Even better if you get the chance to hear it in person.

Nick Suntzeff claims no one believes that he knew Robin Williams in high school and that the two hung out together, but this image from the Redwood High School 1969 Yearbook offers actual proof from the days long before fame for both or the invention of Photoshop! Redwood is located in Larkspur, California.

Nick Suntzeff claims no one believes that he knew Robin Williams in high school and that the two hung out together, but this image from the Redwood High School 1969 Yearbook offers actual proof from the days long before fame for both or the invention of Photoshop! Redwood is located in Larkspur, California.

1 thought on “Got a Little Story for Ya, Ags

  1. Pingback: History Worth Repeating | Texas A&M Science

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