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Space the Nation: Katie Mack, the mansplainer slayer, on getting science right

Contributed by
Oct 23, 2018

You may know her as @AstroKatie, slayer of mansplainers. She is Katie Mack, a theoretical astrophysicist who has developed an online following based on her enthusiasm for outer space and her passion for making science a part of the public discourse.

We talked with her about the perils and joys of being a smart lady online, how pop culture gets science wrong, and why she dedicated her career to understanding how the cosmos works.

What was your pathway into astrophysics? Were you interested in science fiction or science?

It was all of the above. My mom is really into science fiction — she got these science fiction magazines that I devoured, and I was always into Star Trek and Star Wars. I loved space. I loved the idea of time travel and space — and just everything, all of that.

So, not so much a specific character or work but you just loved space. 

Definitely.

But a lot of people who love space don't go into astrophysics.

Well, I always was obsessed with understanding how things worked. When I was a little kid, I would do things like take apart the remote control and try and put it back together again. That just naturally led to wanting to understand all of the big questions, how physics works, how black holes work. I got into astrophysics really more through physics than through astronomy. A lot of people in my field, they would go out and stargaze and they fell in love with the night sky; I grew up in Los Angeles so the night sky wasn't really a thing.

I would read Stephen Hawking and my mom would take me to talks by physicists like Hawking or Paul Davies — I just ate that up, I just loved that and I wanted to understand it. I loved thinking about the really mind-bendy stuff — the idea that time goes slower when you're moving faster and how does that work and what does it mean when you go into a black hole, like all of those things were really fascinating to me.

As an actual astrophysicist, do you get annoyed with unrealistic aspects of science fiction?

I've never been somebody who gets really really upset with inaccuracies. For example, there's an episode of Star Trek: Voyager where they need to “punch a hole in the event horizon to achieve the singularity” and that's not a thing, you can't do that.

But the thing that started to bother me a lot more later on was how scientists were depicted and how the process of science was depicted. That is almost never done right. Usually, they’re just perpetuating the kind of stereotypes that make it harder for people to get into science. As I kid, I thought being a scientist meant you worked in a little windowless office with a chalkboard and I would just write equations on my chalkboard all day and I would just sit around and think and I wouldn't talk to anybody.

Now, as a shy, thoughtful kid, I thought that sounded great. As I grew up, that idea became a little less appealing but also I found that’s just not science works. People don't work alone in their office not talking to anybody. You really have to engage with other people and other people's work in order to make any kind of progress. And it’s not all just one kind of person doing the science, even in theoretical physics — we’re not all Einstein lookalikes. There's a lot more ways to be a scientist and there are a lot more different kinds of people who do science

Can you think of a fictional portrayal of science that gets it right?

An amazing depiction of how scientists really are was the movie Contagion. There’s one place where for dramatic purposes they really cut corners but in general, in terms of the way that the scientists work and talk to each other — it’s just done really well. There's this one scene where one of the scientists is trying to figure out where this virus comes from, and she's looking at a 3D computer model of a protein while talking to somebody about it. They leave the room and then she's just kind of staring at it and like you can see her thinking about it and being obsessed with this problem. She's not driven by a quest for glory or money or any of that kind of thing, she just wants to understand this thing, she wants to figure it out. It just felt very, very authentic.

I know you have opinions about things we think of as science fiction but really aren't, like jetpacks.

The jetpack thread! Yeah, jetpacks totally exist and they're terrible. They're absolutely awful, extremely expensive and super super dangerous and nobody should wear them at all.

Flying cars are also a terrible idea. It's bad enough trying to drive like normal cars on normal roads so if you add another dimension to that it's' just going to be a total disaster in every possible way.

What’s a science fiction story that gets the science of space right?

Alastair Reynolds writes a bunch of space opera books where he doesn't break relativity. Everybody travels slower than the speed of light and you just deal with these massive time delays. The thing that he puts in there so that he can have continuous stories is he tweaks biology so people can live for thousands and thousands of years. That way they can have a continuous civilization where a thousand years might pass before they can meet up again.

It’s hard to do the relativity and space travel aspects right because we want to think that we can explore the galaxy personally, that we can cover these vast distances. But we know based on the laws of physics, we have to make some choices. We could do a generation ship so that maybe our descendants can see some other star system but if we do figure out how to travel in what feels to you like a short amount of time, you will never speak to anybody you left behind because they're all dead.

Speaking of people being dead, I know you think a lot about climate change. I personally think it's ironic that we have an insatiable hunger apocalyptic fiction but people don't seem to be paying attention to…

The actual apocalypse. Climate change is such a hard thing to talk about because we as humans are built to ignore big problems. As someone in academia, I’m very aware of what deadlines can and can’t do. Just try getting a student to start on a project 50 years before it's due! Even if you know that it's going to take that long, we put things off. And although we're obviously seeing some of the big effects now, it's hard to communicate the science of it and to make it clear to people that this is really definitely happening and we definitely know why.

I think people have trouble accepting the level of certainty that we have about it. It’s not sort of super intuitive how the little things that we little humans can do will really affect the entire atmosphere of this planet. The numbers are hard to conceptualize, and a lot of the things that we're doing in the world that contribute to climate change are things that are really built into our culture.

Throw in the fact that there are powerful organizations that really don't want us to change those things because they're making a lot of money off of them… that ends up just being a very very very difficult problem

What’s the best way to convince people who are skeptics?

Well, it’s very hard to just tell someone, “This is a thing,” and have that change their mind. In general with science communication, just presenting facts, just throwing facts in people's faces does not change their minds.

Some people think that’s how it works, you just tell people the science and then magically people suddenly understand and care. You really have to get to the caring part and that's not done just by presenting data. That's not how people function.

When you want to communicate something to someone, you have to know why you're communicating, are you trying to get them to do something and why are you doing that and is that really in their interest and how do you make it clear…there are all sorts of questions you have to ask other than just, “Is this a true thing that I'm trying to communicate?”

So what strategies do you use in talking about climate change?

I've been talking a lot lately about the impacts that climate change is going to have on future generations. I’ve been criticized a little bit about that because obviously, it's also having impacts on us right now. But I think everybody wants their kids to grow up in a world that's not awful, that's something that everybody can relate to, that we really can connect to.

It's hard to not just be deeply depressed about climate change and I try real hard not to give in to just being super super sad but it -- it is a sad thing. We're losing things and we're losing things permanently and I don't know how much more we're going to lose. That’s a sad thing, and I think it's O.K. to be sad about it, I don't think we should give in to utter nihilism. But I'm sad about it.

I’m going to try to get somewhere happier.

O.K.

You're a famous woman on Twitter and you're a scientist famous woman on Twitter so you must get a lot of shit, but -

I thought -- I thought this was going to be a happy topic.

Well, I wanted to know why you keep yourself out there. What’s the benefit?

There’s a lot! I’ve definitely found that people are fundamentally curious and people want to connect to people who have different experiences from their own. So if you have some unique perspective that you can share, that's something that a lot of people will really value. A lot of times when I meet new people, just out in the world, and I say I’m an astrophysicist, they’ll say, “Oh, I have this question about space!” There's so many people who just want to know more -- and everybody has some unique perspective or experience that can be interesting to other people. One of the really valuable things about social media is that the more people share their own perspectives, the more rich all our lives get. You never know who's going to be interested in what you have to say.

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