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Telescope Building with Dr. Gerard van Belle

George Grombacher March 16, 2023

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Telescope Building with Dr. Gerard van Belle

LifeBlood: We talked about telescope building, looking into space from Earth, looking at the Earth from space, having the right tool for the job, recognizing our biases, satellites and weather balloons, and whether or not there’s life out there, with Dr. Gerard van Belle, Astronomer at the Lowell Observatory.   

Listen to learn if we’re more likely to go to the moon or Mars in the near future!

You can learn more about Gerard at Lowell.Edu, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Our Guests

George Grombacher

Gerard van Belle

Dr. Gerard van Belle

Episode Transcript

george grombacher 0:02
Well, Michael, this is George G. And the time is right welcome. Today’s guest starring a powerful Gerard van Belle. Dr. Van Bella, you’re ready to do this? I am. All right, let’s go. Dr. Gerard is an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory, he is building telescopes, making discoveries with them. Gerard excited to have you on, tell us a little about your personal life smart about your work, why you do what you do? Why do I do what I do? That’s, you know, that’s always the question that I get from my wife. But, you know,

Dr. Gerard van Belle 0:33
I am motivated professionally by the idea that there are interesting things to find out in the universe. And specifically, the I think the question of our time is, will we find life elsewhere in the universe? And I think that that an answer to that is kind of civilization altering. It has not just implications for physics and biology, but very deep implications for philosophy. And so that’s one of the interesting things that I’m pursuing and towards, to do that we need bigger and bigger telescopes that are higher and higher resolution and greater and greater sensitivity. So we got to see faint things, and we have to pick them out of the clutter of the background in the sky. And so I work on cutting edge telescope technology.

Are we going to cure? Yes, yeah, I, so part of this is motivated by my expectation that there is a lot of life in the universe, I think we’re going to find a lot of simple life in the universe, we’re gonna find a lot of algae.

But I actually am skeptical

it whether or not we’re gonna find a lot of little green men, you know, you know, the usual thing that you see in Star Trek and Star Wars and that kind of thing.

If you look at the geological record of the earth, you know, almost immediately after it was possible for the Earth to host life, life sprang up here on the earth. And then for a very long stretch of time, it was just very simple, single cellular life. And it’s only very recently in geologic timescales, that we’ve gotten anything complicated. So I think that there’s some magic involved or, you know, not necessarily magic, per se, but something complicated involved in jumping from, you know, algae to, you know, multicellular life, multicellular life, with differentiation, and then intelligence, you know, these are all interesting steps along the way. So, I think we’ll find a lot of algae, and that’s actually really cool by itself. Yeah, for sure. So when when, when you are considering a something new, a change in what you’re working on? Do you have a bit of just a million different ideas? Is it hard to come up with, with, with, with with with new ideas?

Unknown Speaker 2:55
It can be? So it can be for two reasons, there there is

Unknown Speaker 3:01
a challenge in kind of keeping your finger to the pulse of what are the relevant scientific questions? And where’s the state of the art in that regard? And what are the things that people are trying to answer? And then on top of that, and I kind of as an astronomer, I fit in a little funny space, where not only do I work in that side of the fence, I do a lot of work somewhat unusually on the other side of the fence, where I then also think about, well, what’s the tools we need to build that. And so I have a lot of engineering expertise and engineering interests that many of my colleagues don’t focus on as much. And so I, you know, you have to keep up on what are the new tools and tricks and techniques that are starting to become available, because you, in the end, you get this toolbox of pieces that you have to then assemble into something useful, like building something out of Legos, and, you know, you have these new ideas that are associated with, you know, how to collect light, or how to move light around inside of a telescope, or how to detect that light. You know, these are all things that are having, you know, with the rapid advances of technology that are out there, it’s very interesting to try and keep up with that. And then you know, from that, then assemble a thing that can give you a new insight on some of the science questions.

Unknown Speaker 4:23
It’s absolutely fascinating. I love the idea of and the reality of the you have to have the right tool for the job. You could certainly get a lot done with a hammer, it’s probably the most used tool or a screwdriver, but there exist the most unique tools for one job and you’re looking at your tool chest and recognizing a need for something that does not exist and you have the theoretical and proven ability to then create that new tool that must be

Unknown Speaker 4:54
that must be interesting. It’s It’s really exciting. It’s always fun, and especially with how rap

Unknown Speaker 5:00
At least things are moving. My, my favorite quote about a hammer is, you know, if all you have is a hammer, then everything is a nail. But I, I do probably stand rightfully accused a bit of thinking a little that way from the standpoint of,

Unknown Speaker 5:15
I have a particular technique that I have used throughout my career called interferometry. And so, you know, this big, long fancy, where it all really boils down to in the case of how I implemented it, is, it’s the technique of building a very, very large telescope, larger than you could possibly afford, for a single telescope, build that telescope out of small, affordable telescopes, that you then link together and synthesize that bigger telescope. And so that’s my hammer, that’s what I’ve been using throughout my career is that technique of getting to, you know, telescopes that are effectively the size of a football field, or bigger,

Unknown Speaker 5:58
when you couldn’t actually afford to, you know, actually buy that much glass and make a telescope that large and afford the structure that would then be surrounding it, and it’d be just a mess. And so that’s the the hammer that I’ve been using, and doing pretty well with that, as far as getting to the levels of spatial resolution, the ability to pick out fine detail on the sky, that really no other nobody else can touch because everybody else is using much more conventional telescopes that are made of a single piece of glass.

Unknown Speaker 6:30
Well, it certainly does, it certainly makes sense. That, that,

Unknown Speaker 6:35
that if you have a superior tool, that you’ll be able to see things better than other people. So as as you are aware that you have a preferred method, a preferred tool technique,

Unknown Speaker 6:50
how how do you then break through that bias, if I don’t know if that’s the right term or not. So it actually is a good choice of word here in the sense that when I work with my colleagues, you know, astronomers that are familiar with much more conventional tools of you know, a telescope, it’s like, it’s like having a camera that just has a very, very big lens on it. And then you have a detector on the back end, you know, just like you have with your phone you have on your phone, you have a camera that has a lens and a little bit of silicone behind that lens that can detect the light. And you’re done. And I’m dealing with something that’s a little more complicated, you’ve basically peeled things apart, and you have multiple lenses, and you have mirrors that then bring all that light to a point that you then detect it. And it’s, it’s a bit more of a kind of Rube Goldberg device at times. And so.

Unknown Speaker 7:48
So you do have to

Unknown Speaker 7:51
market it to your colleagues and get them to be comfortable with ideas.

Unknown Speaker 7:58
A very effective technique that I use in this marketing of the idea. And you know, there’s one of the things that’s interesting to me about science that I really enjoy, is that it it is very entrepreneurial, and it is very much there are elements of salesmanship in there and marketing and that kind of thing. And you have to be ready to pitch your idea because you have to almost always sell ideas to a jury of your peers before you get money to do what you want to do. And so I try to employ various techniques in that marketing. So one of the most effective things that that I have found is start with ideas that they understand, or at least they think they understand, sometimes they actually don’t understand them, but they think they do. And you begin from that basis. And you can then kind of very gently like the frog in a pot of boiling water, bring them up to speed on them, what your technology and what your idea is. And so one of the things that that I will do in trying to explain how these telescopes work to my colleagues is I’ll start with a picture, literally a picture on the screen of a telescope that they use, you know, kind of a cartoon schematic of that. And I will actually start to very gently piece by piece literally deconstruct it in so that it becomes the thing that that I’m building. And and that’s a very powerful technique I’ve found in trying to get them comfortable with the ideas of how these very novel approaches to the technology are implemented and how that they can get them to work for themselves. Yeah, I think that that makes a lot of sense. It’s interesting.

Unknown Speaker 9:42
What do you think about avoiding or perfect being the enemy of good because you could probably keep making your mousetrap better and better and better and better, but at some point you need to use the thing. The that is a extremely important concept in building these things because you can all

Unknown Speaker 10:00
He’s polished the cannon ball. And one of the best lessons I got from a fellow that worked in the machine shop when I was a grad student

Unknown Speaker 10:11
with when I was at Johns Hopkins, you know, he basically said, you know, for any engineering solution, there’s almost always going to be 10 answers. And, you know, your job is just to pick one and make it work. And, and a lot of times, it, you know, there may be pros and cons of the various 10 answers and that kind of thing. But in many cases, there’s not actually that much that discerns them from each other. And you just gotta go with one and, you know, decide to start fishing and stop cutting bait.

Unknown Speaker 10:44
How’s the bench up and coming astronomers?

Unknown Speaker 10:48
It’s good. It’s

Unknown Speaker 10:51
one of the things that is a real challenge in my job is hiring people. And I’m sure that’s a challenge in anybody’s job is, you know, how do you get people, good people to work with you. And part of that has been

Unknown Speaker 11:06
a job, a need for me to figure out how to evaluate that effectively. And so one of the things that I have finally started to get good at looking for. And this stems out of hiring, I hire a lot of undergraduate interns from NAU just down the street here from us here at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

Unknown Speaker 11:32
I hire hire a lot of interns who are great, they’re really great. And that’s because I’ve been learning to look what to look for what I need on their resumes. And a lot of that will be things like, I need to look for coding skills. And

Unknown Speaker 11:47
a lot of it is things that they mentioned in passing in cover letters and things that never even make it on to the actual resume. And

Unknown Speaker 11:58
it’ll be things like, oh, you know, I’m rebuilding a car engine at home, and I’m like, oh, bingo, you know, they know how to work with their hands. And they actually are interested in doing that on their own time even. And, you know, those are the sorts of people that at least for the work that I do I need. And so kind of figuring out how to look for that stuff in a resume or a cover letter, or in a follow up interview, I think is very important to getting the team that you need. So then you can build the thing you want.

Unknown Speaker 12:28
Chet GPT artificial intelligence, how is that? How is that touching your world, if at all? So this is an interesting question. So I’m working on a proposal right now to build a telescope that I want to put into space. And

Unknown Speaker 12:46
it is a it is an instrument that has so much capability that this sort of science it can do is actually well outside my wheelhouse. It has so much new stuff it can do that. I’m not even sure what I can do with it, because it’s so sensitive. And it’s has so much resolution and all this sort of thing. And so

Unknown Speaker 13:10
I’ve been trying to figure out ideas on applications for this sort of thing. And so, for example, I want to look at distant galaxies with this. And I’ve really not done a lot of work on distant galaxies. I’ve done most of my work on nearby stars and nearby planets and that kind of thing. And so I’ve actually over the last just the last week, been trying out chat GBT and I’m like, you know, typing it in, you know, tell me about reverberation mapping of active galactic nuclei. And, you know, it just dives right in. And it has interesting answers. I take them very skeptically. But and, you know, they’re, they’re interesting, they’re completely unsourced. So I have no idea where the information came from. But I can then at least turn around and go follow up on that with looking at actual sources that are in the literature and refereed journals, and I can find out the names of the people associated with these ideas. And so it’s kind of a good, quick and dirty way of getting at certain bits of knowledge, which I really have to go follow up on. But it’s at least a good Kickstart to these things. And I think it’s important to do the follow up work because it’s famously states with authority things that sometimes actually aren’t true. And so you, you have to follow up on these things. But it’s, it’s been, I think, pretty effective on doing approximation of things and doing quick looks at things.

Unknown Speaker 14:40
Do you see? Well, I think it’s fascinating. You just put a handful of words together that probably the majority people listening with had never heard of before and shark infested that chap. GPT be like, oh, yeah, sure. Here, here you go. Here’s here’s kind of what what what, what I think about that

Unknown Speaker 14:57
is it will art it

Unknown Speaker 15:00
heard that artificial intelligence can help in the medical process of being able to read a in X ray or an EKG or something like that, do you see it being able to look at at with the images being captured by the telescope.

Unknown Speaker 15:16
So that’s actually a really good example of starting from, you know, things like medical imaging, because one of the things that medical imaging has benefited from over the years is image evaluation and data reduction techniques from astronomy. So when you go in, and you get an MRI, or there was a CAT scan, or that kind of thing, a lot of those imaging techniques have actually come out of astronomy that have been fed into the medical field. And, you know, from that tie in, I would expect actually, there’s going to be probably

Unknown Speaker 15:51
AI implications for how you evaluate images like that. The one thing that that I’m kind of,

Unknown Speaker 16:00
you know, kind of keeping in the back of my mind when I see all this chatter about chat, GBT and other AI things, is at what point are these intelligence agents going to be able to help out with computer programming?

Unknown Speaker 16:14
Right now, I very much live in a space where, from a hardware standpoint, I can buy almost a unlimited amount of computing power. However, from a software standpoint, it’s very difficult to use, it’s very difficult to write the code to use that hardware and use it effectively. And so these sorts of things could potentially have a really big impact. If they get good at writing code. And I’m seeing hints that perhaps they’re they’re going to be going in that direction. And so that’s very exciting. Yeah, interesting.

Unknown Speaker 16:54
Would you go on a Mars mission? Gerard?

Unknown Speaker 16:59
So would it be round trip or one way? That’s the first question.

Unknown Speaker 17:05
I would I would be very interested in going on a round trip mission.

Unknown Speaker 17:10
Though, that yeah, that may be a discussion I’d have to have with my family, because that is a long trip.

Unknown Speaker 17:17
I actually submitted for astronaut selection and application seven times, and actually got some response and callbacks from from Houston a couple of those times.

Unknown Speaker 17:33
So I’ve had a long interest in that kind of thing.

Unknown Speaker 17:37
And so I think it’d be kind of a natural fit. I actually think that the more immediate destination of the Moon is much more interesting in terms of its proximity. For starters, it’s three days away, rather than, you know, six to nine months away.

Unknown Speaker 17:55
But I also think that the as a destination, the moon is,

Unknown Speaker 18:01
you know, more interesting, because because of that proximity, and because of the ease of access, I think there’s going to be a lot more activity there much more immediately than Martian endeavors. And so that’s actually something I’m keeping my eye on. And it’s very exciting to me. Only three days away. That’s right. Wow, just build a road trip. Yeah. That’s quick. Yeah, you can you can, you can count me in for that one, too. That Gerard it? Oh, yeah. Should you necessitate somebody with with with my skill set, we don’t need to go into any further depth into what that might be.

Unknown Speaker 18:37
So you are very adept at looking from Earth out. And you’re also very adept from looking space down to earth. So I’d be remiss not to ask you, not from a political standpoint, or anything else, just from your opinion on, on on a satellite looking at the United States versus a balloon looking at the United States, what are the what are the capabilities? And I know that it’s not just just an opinion? Sure. So this has been

Unknown Speaker 19:07
a fascinating for me to watch the brouhaha over the whole balloon thing from the standpoint of, you know, every day, we have hundreds of satellites going over us from other countries that are looking down at us, you know, nosing around in our junk and trying to figure out our business. And, you know, we do it too, and that’s fine. And I

Unknown Speaker 19:31
I’m actually largely in favor of that, in fact, because if everybody knows everything about everybody else, you know, you’re at least the tendency to make bad decisions in the lat in in a vacuum of information that goes away, and that’s a good thing.

Unknown Speaker 19:49
And so, you know, this whole balloon thing has been, I’ve been just kind of bemused by the whole thing.

Unknown Speaker 19:56
Balloons from a technical standpoint, they

Unknown Speaker 20:00
You have better loiter time, you can stay over a spot for longer probably with with an orbiting satellite, you kind of zoom overhead very quickly. And so maybe there’s some advantages from that end.

Unknown Speaker 20:13
And, you know, balloons also potentially can drop things, which is probably a concern.

Unknown Speaker 20:20
But it’s been interesting to see the story unfolding further, as we’ve started to learn about how well this is not an isolated event, this happens, apparently, a lot. And, you know, how do we feel about that? And technically, there has been somewhat arbitrary but but existing delineation between being in our airspace, you know, versus a satellite flying overhead. And so this clearly was a violation of that. And, you know, I think the response was appropriate. And I think it’ll be interesting to find out what we can learn from what has been recovered.

Unknown Speaker 21:00
And, you know, we, from a, from a scientific standpoint, we actually use balloons to loft up payloads frequently as well. And you know, that that’s the kind of thing that it certainly has application in a much more mundane avenue of life as well. And so,

Unknown Speaker 21:19
yeah, this is definitely still a developing story. And so I’m kind of interested to see where it goes. Yeah, interesting. Thank you. So satellites, some move faster than others, we have the ability to anchor some.

Unknown Speaker 21:33
So as you go to an increasing altitude of satellite, the things that are say, you know, 500 miles up, you know, they will orbit the Earth every 90 minutes or so. And so if they’re overflying us, you know, you get a chance to take a snapshot, but that’s about it, you don’t have a lot of time.

Unknown Speaker 21:52
If you go quite a bit higher up, up to about about 20,000 miles up. Those are where the geostationary satellites are. And that’s really the domain of a lot of communication satellites. That’s how, say Direct TV and your Hulu and Disney plus and whatnot gets relayed around the country and around the world is by bouncing off these satellites that are essentially hovering over the US. And they’re very good for communication satellites. They’re also used for intelligence purposes as well for things looking down. But it’s a little harder, because you get the advantage of you’re now parked over a spot, but you’re a lot higher up. And so it’s very hard to see small things, you know, if you want to read the license plate off the car, that’s really hard to do from up there. And so

Unknown Speaker 22:42
there are advantages and disadvantages to being low down or being high up if you’re building that kind of satellite. And, yeah, and so people, depending on what they’re trying, what tasks they’re trying to accomplish will go for a payload in either place. And then there’s stuffs and stuff in between about halfway between us between the low stuff and the geosynchronous stuff is the plane of where all the GPS satellites live. So, you know, the satellites that tell your phone and therefore you where you are at. Those all live at about 10,000 miles up and so, you know, depending on the mission design, you dial in different orbits.

Unknown Speaker 23:23

Unknown Speaker 23:24
Thank God for smart people, Gerard.

Unknown Speaker 23:29
All I know is that because of GPS, I get pizza, because with GPS, you couldn’t tell the guy where your house is that and he puts that in his phone and that’s why you have pizza because he can get to your house

Unknown Speaker 23:45
it’s the greatest thing I’ve maybe I’ve heard in a really long time. Best thing about GPS is it gets me pizza it gets

Unknown Speaker 23:52

Unknown Speaker 23:54
I mean, yeah, I getting pizza, spying, espionage, you know, what is of greater value? It’s not better or worse. It’s just different. You know, maybe the world would be a happier place if there was more delivered pizza.

Unknown Speaker 24:10
But that could be a pizza and ice cream for everybody. That’s right, can all agree with? Yep. Maybe a little bit.

Unknown Speaker 24:18
Dry. Thank you so much for coming on. It was good to catch up. Where can people learn more about you? How can people engage with you? So I have a Twitter feed is at Fringe doctor. And as long as Twitter remains alive and who knows how long that will be? You can come see. Come see me there. And that’s a good place to look. The Lowell Observatory also has a website and I have a little corner of it there. So just go to Lowell, l o w e l And you can find out about us online and you can even come visit us in lovely Flagstaff if you want to see the sky up close and personal

Unknown Speaker 25:00
We have about 100,000 people here that come visit right now. And we’re building a brand new visitor center, a $50 million Visitor Center, which will open in about 15 months. And it is enormous. So we will teach you all about astronomy if you come to the observatory so put that on your calendar.

Unknown Speaker 25:19
If you enjoyed as much as I did show, Dr. Mann Bell, your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who also appreciates good ideas. Follow Gerard on Twitter, it’s at Fringe Dr. Dre does that Dr. Or do CTLR fully spelled out do CTR, your or

Unknown Speaker 25:41
spell the word and you’ll get to my feet. There you go.

Unknown Speaker 25:45
Excellent. And then And put that on your calendar 15 months from now give or take and come check it out and dig a little bit deeper into what Gerard is working on and the cool things that they are constantly discovering and working, discover and everything else. Thanks again, Gerard. Thanks, George. And until next time, remember, do your part by doing your best

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