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Astrophysics and Black Holes with Jeremy Schnittman

George Grombacher October 12, 2023

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Astrophysics and Black Holes with Jeremy Schnittman

LifeBlood: We talked about astrophysics and black holes, what these things are and what they do, how we study and learn about black holes, how to manage biases and assumptions, and what success in this field looks like,  with Jeremy David Schnittman, Research Astrophysicist with NASA, and black hole researcher.       

Listen to learn what makes for a great astrophysicist!

You can learn more about Jeremy at NASA.

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Our Guests

George Grombacher

Jeremy Schnittman

Jeremy Schnittman

Episode Transcript

george grombacher 0:00
Hey Jeremy David Schnittman is a research astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center where he’s focused on theoretical and computational models of black hole accretion flows. Array polar, polar, polar metri. Jeremy Dark Matter annihilation. He’s been described as a general purpose astrophysics theorist. Welcome, Jeremy.

Jeremy Schnittman 0:25
Hi. Great to be here. Thanks, George.

george grombacher 0:26
excited to have you on the show. Tell us a bit about your personal lives more about your work and why you do what you do.

Jeremy Schnittman 0:34
Sure, sure. So as you said that I am a theoretical astrophysicist. Usually, the first question is just what what I’m, what the heck is that? So a theoretical astrophysicist is somebody who uses physics to study astronomy to study this stuff in the sky. So not to make any comparisons. But really the first astrophysicist was Isaac Newton. Everybody knows the famous story. He saw an apple fall and kind of realized that’s how gravity works. So what what Newton was doing there was he was taking the laws of physics, as we understand on Earth by seeing how an apple falls and how gravity works. And then applies it to things in space. How does the moon go around this earth? How does the Earth go around the sun, which was, you know, just incredible. It was, it was an incredible breakthrough at the time to realize that we can understand the universe just by by staying, staying right here on Earth and doing doing experiments in the laboratory, et cetera. Of course, it’s, the more you can, the more you can measure and observe the stars and the galaxies and asteroids, all that stuff. It, it helps you but still, ultimately, you’re basing everything you understand and everything, you know, based on physics that we learn on Earth. So that’s what an astrophysicist is. Newton, Isaac Newton is an astrophysicist. A theoretical astrophysicist, which Isaac Newton was also to, for the most, for the most part, is somebody who does, again, mostly theoretical work does equations pencil paper, computer simulations, that sort of thing. As opposed to using a telescope. Right? I did, I maybe once used to telescope. So I don’t use the Hubble Space Telescope. I don’t use the James Webb Space Telescope. But I work with people who do so they use those telescopes, they get the data, they measure distances, temperatures, velocities, all the things that we need to know about what is going on in outer space, and then I try to understand why it’s going on. So I’m trying to figure out the kind of the why in what ifs of, of astrophysics and astronomy. And so that’s alright, so that’s what a theoretical astrophysicist is. And then, more specifically, I mostly work on questions about black holes in gravitational waves, X rays, accretion disks, that sort of thing. Those are all all, more or less have to do with black holes. Black holes is really my, my lane. And, I mean, they’re just really cool. fascinating things that I’m really blessed that I’m able to do that for a living.

george grombacher 3:50
Very cool. So you are trying to figure out the whys and the what ifs? How do you? Are you concerned that you’re that you’re never going to answer those questions? And how do you know that you’ve done a good job today?

Jeremy Schnittman 4:06
Yeah, right. I had a famous astrophysicist once said he had a great line. He said that a an observer is like an experimentalist. Our version of an experimentalist has to be right every time, right? They can’t, you know, make mistakes when they do measurements, but a theorist only has to be right once you have to make one prediction that comes true. And you basically make a name for yourself. So you know, over the course of about 20 years in the field so far, I’ve made a handful of I think, interesting predictions none of which have yet quite been proven, but I don’t think they’ve been proven wrong yet either. So it’ll you know, I’ll certainly know that I had had a good day and that I did a good job when one of those predict shins comes true. So I’ll give you a quick example of one that we we think might actually be proven either right or wrong very soon. It’s with, we made a prediction about 10 years ago about how x rays should look from black holes, right, you have gas that orbits around a black hole, it gets very hot, it shines off the X rays. Now, that’s been known for 50 years. The detail that we said is that the polarization kind of which way the light is angled, just like your polarized sunglasses kind of can help protect glare, from from light shining off of the road or from the water, whatever, X rays that are shining off of the gas from a black hole, are going to be kind of polarized in a certain way. So we made a prediction of how those, those x rays are going to be polarized. It’s a very difficult measurement to make, though, in fact, the just last year launched a new satellite from NASA, that can really for the first time measure that that polarization, that property of X rays from black holes, and they’ve now looked at a few black holes, that should be exhibiting this property. And now we just have to kind of sort through the data and understand whether or not the prediction is, is proven. So that that’s exciting that that’d be a good day.

george grombacher 6:36
Yeah. Fascinating. So we talked about Newton, the apple falls from the tree, he then observes His observable environment and makes assumptions about what then the whole space, and the galaxies in the universities are like, do you as as as you are doing your work? How worried? Are you? Or how thoughtful? Are you about your assumptions and assumptions of the past? And what you’re bringing with you and looking at new data?

Jeremy Schnittman 7:10
Yeah, that’s a good question. Because it’s, you know, in the hundreds of years, since Newton, it gets, you know, kind of getting harder and harder to really anchor those understands, we can’t make a we can’t make a black hole in the lab, at least not yet. So we have to rely a lot on our, our math, and our confidence that the math is right, so So this is something that really the next generation after Newton, which is, which is Einstein, Albert Einstein really pioneered this approach. And, you know, intellectually, he’s absolutely my my role model of how to how to go about these sorts of questions. So he starts off with kind of some basic physics intuition, like, nothing goes faster than the speed of light. And then he just starts asking questions like, in fact, my, my 10 year old son, when he was riding in the car with a bunch of his friends, you know, literally asked this question, you know, what happens when you’re in the Millennium Falcon, and you fire your, you know, your laser guns, and you’re going the speed of light? Like, don’t you crash into it? I was drove off the road. I was like, that’s such a good question. Let me tell you all about it. You know, because is this, this is essentially what Einstein was asking he, he started with this very simple assumption that, that you can’t go faster than the speed of light. And that light always goes exactly the speed of light. And then he kind of took it where it went, you know, well, what happens if this happens? And what happens if you do this? And then what happens if you have someone going the other way and shooting a laser the other way? And he got to the point where the only way to really answer these questions was through equations and math, because we couldn’t do experiments. But then in the 100 years, since Einstein made a lot of those predictions and derived a lot of those formulas, that by bit, we actually are able to test a lot of those things, we are able to test a lot of his predictions from relativity. And you know, it’s, it’s amazing. 100 years later, he’s still got a perfect record, you know, every single one of those predictions from relativity has come true. So, you know, if, if somebody’s equation predicts a, b, and c, and I can go out and measure a and b, and they’re right, then I’m fairly certain that C is going to be right, even if we can’t measure it. So that’s really the the faith that we’ve got built up in, in these equations. Because everywhere we look where they do apply, and we can measure them, they work A

george grombacher 10:01
fascinating, new, can we actually see black holes? Or are we making assumptions and inferences as to what they look like?

Jeremy Schnittman 10:10
Yeah, so a pure black hole is black, you really wouldn’t be able to see it would, you know really would be black? Fortunately, nothing else in the universe is black. So even if you had a black hole, there’s enough kind of background light behind it that you’d see a shadow. So you actually would you know, are you seeing the shadow? Are you seeing the light? I don’t know that that’s a little too esoteric. But you would see that something’s there. Just like I guess, in real life, do you see the shadow? Or do you see the light? I don’t know. But even more so we see a lot of times we see the gas, or stars or planets that are moving around the black hole. So we see very, very strong evidence that that, that there is something there, that there’s something that’s moving the gas or moving the stars around it, and often times moving the vet at prodigious speeds, which could really only be accomplished by something as powerful as a black hole.

george grombacher 11:17
Do you ever get stumped? Or are you always sort of stumped?

Jeremy Schnittman 11:22
Oh, my gosh, all the time. Computers, who? I, every time I have to install a new program or run a new app on my computer, I get stumped. Even though I spend literally all day in front of a computer doing writing computer programs doing computer simulations. It’s still you know, it’s hard, right? You know, the libraries aren’t in the right place, the directories aren’t working. This is the kind of thing that I struggle with every day.

george grombacher 11:58
Yeah, I appreciate that. In terms of, for lack of a better term, your professional work, when you’re looking at something, how often are you ideating with other astrophysicist, or other people? Yeah.

Jeremy Schnittman 12:17
A lot. I would say in the in the grand scheme of things like across the whole field, I’m definitely more towards the end of the solo practitioner. But even so most of my papers are in collaboration with at least a couple of other people. I do like to just talk ideas, bounce them off the walls, we today I’m at my home office, but when I’m in, in, in work at the Goddard Space Flight Center, you know, all the all the offices are open, and people just go up and down the halls, bouncing ideas off of the chalkboard, which is really, really a fruitful endeavor. So we have to we have to talk to each other or else. We’ve just been a vacuum. an unintentional vacuum.

george grombacher 13:14
How often do you literally just stare off into space? I know that you said that you don’t look through telescopes, but just give yourself kind of blank time to think about things?

Jeremy Schnittman 13:27
Yeah. Well, in terms of really spirit, staring off to the space for thinking about things, that’s a lot more than just trying to fall asleep at night. These are the ideas that are bouncing around my head. Even sometimes waking up in the middle of the night, I’ll be thinking about a physics problem. staring off into literal space. Also, whenever I get the chance, I mean, the last few mornings go out early in the morning, it’s still dark out. I see the crescent moon, you know, just above the horizon. It’s you know, it’s not my research, but it’s, it’s still a big part of my life. And it’s exciting. And it’s it’s always interesting and inspirational when you when you see those things in the sky.

george grombacher 14:16
For sure, do you think it just it’s we’re all different, and our perspectives are different. And we’ve got liberals and we’ve got conservatives, and there’s probably equivalents to that in in your world. So it is I was just curious. I guess my question is, how, how cooperative Are you? I know, we talked about ideating and sharing ideas with people but just in maybe the field in general. How cooperative are you with other people that are outside of your maybe laboratory?

Jeremy Schnittman 14:56
Yeah, we certainly have a lot of collaborations with other other institutions, a lot of universities, you know, we work for the government, but you know, very much is in an academic setting, then, but then within the academic world, as you probably know, they’re, you know, old rivalries and nemeses. And, you know, there’s the guy that, you know, Sid, my paper was wrong 50 years ago, and every time I see him at a conference, I’m gonna, you know, walk away. So there is a little bit of that kind of, you know, I would call childish behavior. But for the most part, that’s what what’s great about science is, especially in a place like, like astrophysics, where at least for now, it’s really not very politically charged. The there really is a pretty good consensus when something is right or something is wrong, or when something is still kind of up for grabs. And, and if two people disagree, on the maybe the interpretation of a certain observation or prediction, they may disagree on it now, but they will almost always agree that like, yes, if we could do this one other measurement that would solve the question, and that’s, that’s actually a really nice feeling, because that tells you that you’re not you’re not necessarily stuck in a in a lifetime argument, right? We’re just stuck in a certain temporary state of, of confusion. And we know basically what to do to get out of that state. So that’s, you know, I really appreciate that. Because that’s a luxury that, that really most people don’t have, you know, in terms of whatever moral or philosophical quandaries

george grombacher 16:46
What do you think makes for a good astrophysicist?

Jeremy Schnittman 16:52
Number one, curiosity. That’s something that I think everyone really starts off with. And it’s just a question of, whether it gets beaten out of them, or whether they can nurture it long enough to, you know, let it be, you know, survive any, any sort of cynicism that the world throws at it. So that’s one of the reasons why one of my favorite audiences is like elementary school, kids always go into third fourth graders every year, at our local school, I love talking to them about space, because they’re just, I mean, they just eat it up there. They’re so curious. And, and they really have so many good questions like the, you know, like the spaceship firing the laser, really, really good questions. And, you know, all of them, all of them could be astrophysicists. I mean, a little bit more practical advices you do need to know a fair bit of math, and, you know, take your physics classes and do well in school and all that, but I think all that you can kind of wing it, but it’s the curiosity that that’s the basis for everything.

george grombacher 18:08
It’s fascinating. I was wondering, I know that you’re a writer as well and you’re you’re you’re educating people and talking to your kids about it. So it’s a creativity plays a role in it. You talked about curiosity. Do you consider yourself to be a creative person?

Jeremy Schnittman 18:28
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I you know, outside of outside of my professional life, I also do a lot of woodworking. That’s a very different but, you know, equally satisfying creative endeavor. I liked you know, I like to make up my own plans and my own designs, it’s kind of work sometimes sometimes they need to be tweaked. So even though I never you know, I don’t actually work in a lab or work with instruments that’s a great way of expressing my creativity a little bit differently.

george grombacher 19:06
Yeah, I think that that’s really interesting. I think it makes sense that you would want to and find enjoyment and value in actually putting your hands on something and shaping something versus the other stuff that I have absolutely no idea what you really do during the day. I think it was kind of that you said that anybody could be an astrophysicist but I’m confident that I could not be Jeremy but that’s okay.

Jeremy Schnittman 19:33
Any third grader

george grombacher 19:35
Okay, there you go. What do you the things that you wish that or would encourage people to think about more or or or look more into?

Jeremy Schnittman 19:57
Well, yeah, I mean, any Anytime we read an article online, that you know, kind of interesting, you know, you clicked on it for whatever reason, oh, black hole that sounds kind of interesting. I encourage you to, to then do do another click, you know, either click on the link that’s in the article, just always just go one step further. Because there’s always an either another part to the story or another piece of the background. This is the great blessing but potential trap of Wikipedia, right. You know, we all talk about the Wikipedia rabbit hole, but that’s, you know, that’s science that’s you just you read one thing and it gets your interest your curiosity up about another thing so you go click on that other thing and then you go down that then you know, it takes you down this wonderful you know, wonderful rabbit hole let’s forget right the the real rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland is was a magical, magical rabbit hole, and we shouldn’t be afraid of them.

george grombacher 21:04
I like it. One more question. Jeremy. What are aliens like?

Jeremy Schnittman 21:11
So are you I’m not authorized to answer that.

george grombacher 21:16
Perfect. Well, Jerry, thank you so much for coming on. Where can people learn more about you? How can they engage with you and your work?

Jeremy Schnittman 21:24
I guess Google right. There’s only one Jeremy Shipman. All of my contact information is readily available for anyone who’s curious please, the crackpots can stay away. But if you if you are curious, you have questions about black holes. You know, send me an email. I hope I can respond.

george grombacher 21:46
Excellent. Well, if you enjoyed as much as I did show Jimmy your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who also appreciates good ideas. Look up Jeremy Shipman, it’s Jeremy je R E M y David S C. H nit TMAN. And educate yourself a little bit more about this fascinating field and the work that Jeremy is doing, because it is all very fascinating. And obviously, I don’t really think we scratched the surface but so much more to learn. And I really appreciate your time. Thanks again, Jeremy.

Jeremy Schnittman 22:20
Oh, my pleasure. Thanks,

george grombacher 22:21
George. Till next time, remember, do your part but doing your best

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