Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 34 - Sarah Horst - LOOK TO THE STARS - Part 1 of 3

The fact of the matter is at the end of the day, and even with these spacecraft that we build or these telescopes that we build, we're not putting all of that money onto a rocket and launching it into space. That money gets spent to pay people here to purchase things from a lot of small businesses.
Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 34 - Sarah Horst - LOOK TO THE STARS - Part 1 of 3

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“The fact of the matter is at the end of the day, and even with these spacecraft that we build or these telescopes that we build, we're not putting all of that money onto a rocket and launching it into space. That money gets spent to pay people here to purchase things from a lot of small businesses. Sometimes NASA tries as much as possible to contract with small businesses, it pays people salaries that then go back into the economy and all of those things. So, it seems sometimes that we're just sending this money into space, but that’s not really what happens. And I think it's important for people to remember that.” This episode of the Smart Athlete Podcast is brought to you by Solpri, Skincare for Athletes. Whether you're in the gym, on the mats on the road, or in the pool, we protect your skin so you're more comfortable in your own body. To learn more, go to JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I'm your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today is an Assistant Professor at John Hopkins University. She has her PhD in Planetary Science, which is awesome because I haven't talked to anybody yet in this field. So, we're hopefully going to get into some really cool stuff. She raced for the triathlon club at the University of Arizona. Welcome to the show, Sarah Horst. SARAH: Hey, how's it going? JESSE: It's going pretty well. As I said before we got going, thanks for taking the time to kind of hanging out with me today. First, I have to ask, so if you're just listening on iTunes, or on Soundcloud and you're not looking on YouTube, you're missing out on Sarah’s background, we’ve got stars, I assume they're probably proper constellations or what's going on? SARAH: Oh, gosh, yes. It’s a little nerdy. It actually is a headboard from my bed, and is the sky above Pasadena, California the night that I found a methane storm on Saturn's moon, Titan. So, it's probably even nerdier than you could possibly imagine when you asked me that question. JESSE: No, that's awesome. So, I have two different businesses and one of the businesses I create original card games and board games, and I have a math game for kids that space themed. And in that, there's like a Captain's log from Star Trek. And the date for the Captain's log is my 500th birthday. SARAH: Okay. That’s amazing. JESSE: Yeah. So, I'm with you, I’ll do-- I like all kinds of weird nerdy stuff like that. Totally cool. So, I have to ask, how did you figure that out? Was it like a telescope taking pictures every day that you could reference or? SARAH: Yeah, so this was when I was still an undergrad and we were using this pretty small teaching telescope that is on the roof of one of the buildings at Caltech where I did my undergrad. And so, Titan, which is the largest moon of Saturn has a hydrological cycle kind of like Earth, except for the liquid is methane, not water. And but it occasionally has these big storms that make these big, puffy bright clouds like we see on Earth. And so what we were doing was we were looking at Titan night after night after night in these really narrow filters of light. So, instead of looking at the whole spectrum, we were just looking at these really specific bands. And in one of those bands, you just see methane, and then another one you don't. And so we weren't even resolving Titan with this telescope, Titan was just like this little dot. But we would look to see how bright it was in each of those little filters and we would compare it every night. And if there was a big storm, then in that filter, Titan would be much brighter than it normally is. And so then, if that happened, at least at the time, my advisor, who's Mike Brown who's more famous for killing Pluto, than for any of his work on Titan, which is another story, we just call somebody who was on a big telescope. Most often he would call someone on the Keck telescope, which is in Hawaii, and he would ask them if they could use some of their precious observing time to just take a picture of Titan real fast, so that we could see If there actually was a storm or not and where it was. And so we did that for a year. And then after that, because it turns out that the idea actually worked really well then it kind of just became this like much more advanced thing. And we had like, proper ways to actually get telescope images if we found a storm. It wasn't-- The storms on Titan are pretty infrequent. And so you wouldn't want to just try to look with a big telescope all the time. You want to try to look with a little itty bitty telescope so that you're not wasting the big telescope’s time. Sometimes we will go Earth years, multiple Earth years without seeing a storm on Titan. And so we don’t really want to be looking every night with the world's most expensive telescopes because that would make everybody mad pretty fast. Yeah. So, that's the story with that. JESSE: And then, so you mapped it out, I would assume that you're mapping out major constellations here behind you from that night? SARAH: Yeah, so it's basically the sky. Actually, I'm trying to think what constellations there are here now that I'm looking. This is Andromeda right here. There's Saturn right there, I don’t know if you can see where I'm pointing. I don't remember what the other constellations are. And some of the stars have fallen off over the years. So, it might be time to redo this, but this is, the word is ?? 6:36> from Colorado. And I think because it's kind of-- Well, the lighting here is not great right now, but it's kind of bluish. And I kind of felt like it looked like the night sky. And so that was-- So, then I was like, well, I'm just gonna put stars on it. And then I was like, well, if I put stars they have to have some kind of meaning because I do this for a living. I was trying to figure out what would be meaningful. Anyway, that's how that happens. JESSE: Right. Because if you put up stars in a random pattern, it would have eventually driven you crazy. And you'd like these need to be arranged in some sort of fashion. SARAH: Right. Right. Yes, that's an absolutely true statement. So, I felt like if I was going to do this, I had to do it right. Although, I will say there's lots of other stars in my house because there's lots of space stuff all over in my house. And none of the other stars are in any kind of particular arrangement. They're just like stars. So, I don't know. JESSE: That's okay. This is its own story, but for that game brand, I kind of started that brand, it pivoted into games over time. But I kind of started it with the idea of catering to nerdy people. And I think about nerds or geeks in the sense of like you're just really into something, whatever it is, whether it's like in your case planets, and space, or you're into cars or you're into forestry, whatever it is. I always find, and that's kind of the people I'm looking to talk to you on this show, big smart athletes. But I always feel like those kind of people that are really like gone way down the rabbit hole kind of have the most interesting things to say, because they've spent the most time thinking deeply about something, instead of just sitting on the couch watching Netflix all day, which is a good pastime. But we have to spend our time doing more than just that. So, the one thing I want to ask you a little bit facetious, but, I mean, why should we study space at all? I mean, we have lots of like terrestrial problems; climate change and political issues, and I'm hungry and I want something to eat. There's all these things that we could deal with right here, why do we even bother looking at Titan? SARAH: Yeah, so I get asked this question a lot. I think there's there's a few different reasons. I think from kind of a practical considerations, so one of the things that you just ticked off in your list of things that are important are things like climate change. So, I think one of the things that planetary scientists are really trying to do is understand how planets work. And although we study specific places and specific processes, so I studied a lot about Titans atmosphere. And it's not just to understand that like one specific place, but it's to get a better understanding of how planets work in general. And to do that we develop a lot of different tools or we borrow tools from the Earth science community. In general, they tend to be more advanced in a lot of things just because we've been studying Earth longer than we've been studying things like Titan. And so in doing that, we get a chance to test those tools. So, an example are some of the models that are used to study Earth's atmosphere and try to predict what will happen over time as the CO2 levels are increasing. And we can use those same tools to study the atmosphere of Venus or the atmosphere of Titan. And in doing that, it gives us-- it's like another experiment that you're running. And it lets us test those models in a different set of circumstances and that lets us really figure out if those models are working the way that we think they are, if we really understand the physical processes that are in the models, which is important. And so just kind of from that aspect, everything that we're doing to try to learn how other planets work, even if they're very different from Earth, in the end helps us understand Earth better because Earth is a planet, as it turns out, which is kind of a long standing joke with planetary scientists, because we're supposed to study Earth even though Earth is a planet. So, that's kind of practical I think the other two things are a little bit harder to just like point to a really specific day to day life benefit. So, I think the one thing is, I think it's important as humans, for us to study things that don't necessarily have a practical application. So, to try to answer these questions about how did we get here? And are we alone in the universe, and to allow the curiosity that seems to be very natural to humans to let us try to answer these questions that we come up with. And I think that doesn't just apply to space science, but you can think about art and music and all of these things that may not necessarily have a super important day to day life, practical implication, but I think are very kind of deeply ingrained in us and are one of the things that makes being human like a good thing to do. And then I think the final thing is that and this definitely applies not just to us, but one of the things that we do in planetary science, especially with the spacecraft that we send, the telescopes that we build is we're always kind of pushing the envelope of science and technology because we're trying to go to environments where we have never sent a spacecraft or we're trying to do a type of measurement that's never been done before. And I think anytime you do that kind of thing, anytime you're pushing the envelope, you are provided with an opportunity to really make a big discovery And it may just be a software algorithm that's going to turn out to be really important. Or it may be a new type of rubber that is going to be really useful. And so there's an entire website of NASA spinoff technology, and if you go and read it, it's really interesting because there's all of these things that you would never know that you're using in your day to day life that were developed because of space exploration. And so one of my more recent favorite examples that I learned about was that when they were developing tires for the lunar the moon buggies that they sent with the Apollo astronauts, and it was really challenging because it was a very different environment to drive around on the moon; the temperatures are much colder, all of these things. And so in developing the tires that they ended up sending to the moon for Apollo, they actually figured out a better way to make tires for just everyday using cars on Earth. And so a lot of that technology that was developed for this one off use or like a couple times use on the moon ended up being something that found its way into our everyday lives. And most people don't know that. And for some of these things, maybe that wasn't really necessary. We had tires, they were working, okay. But because we were really pushing the envelope to try to do this in a different environment, we learned something that had an impact that found its way into everyday life. And the thing that's hard about that, is that when Congress wants to cut NASA funding, or when people ask how does your-- what you do matter? Why should you keep doing it? You can't point to those things because we don't do-- A lot of that's gonna spinoff stuff doesn't happen on purpose. You don't think, okay, well, if we develop this new tire for the moon, it's gonna be really good for Earth. Like that's something that people realize later or somewhere during the process. And so you can't promise that those kinds of things are going to happen. Or at least in my mind, you can't promise specific things will happen. I think every time we've done something like that, there have been major developments that have done their way back into everyday life. But that's a hard thing to promise and so that makes it a little harder to use that as a justification for what we do. JESSE: Yeah, and I will be upfront with my partisanship. If you listen to other episodes, often, I get along, not get along, but identify more easily with people, I'll say academics that are working on functional or practical problems. Because I'm an entrepreneur so I can't bring research in and then sell it. I have to make practical solutions to real world problems. So, on a personal level, it's much easier for me to identify with people that are working on things that immediately apply. But I also understand and I say this in other interviews as well, that there are a lot of things that come out of like, let's just figure things out. And then somehow this kind of collective knowledge eventually spits out these nice little pieces that we wouldn't know otherwise if we hadn't spent the time to kind of hone in on that almost like human nature of curiosity and exploration and all of those things. You also made me think about, I can't remember who to attribute this to, but somebody talking talked about with new technologies, so we're kind of past the point now, but say like, when renewables weren't really-- renewable energy wasn't really going yet. We're getting close to it being or have already passed in some cases like solar being more cost effective than oil. Somebody mentioned that often it's easier for say government to just throw money at a problem initially, until enough information is there for private enterprise to take over. And kind of go from that point because it wouldn't have been profitable for private enterprise to just throw money at it in the hopes that something appears. So, sometimes I kind of think of that in the same realm where it's like NASA or other government projects are working on these things. And then something nice comes out of it, and then private enterprise takes over, refines it even further and makes it practical for everyday lives. So, I will even though I identify more easily with people working on strictly functional problems, I will certainly always defend your right and ability to look at things like Titan and try to figure out what's going on there because that kind of-- it's part of, I don’t know, it’s part of what it is to be human, I guess is to indulge in that curiosity of discovery. SARAH: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean, I think one thing too that people also kind of forget, because I feel like a lot of times when people ask the question, they're trying to justify spending money on what we do. Right. Especially, and I'm very cognizant of the fact that a lot of my money comes from the US taxpayers, because I get a lot of my research funding from NASA. But the fact of the matter is at the end of the day, and even with these spacecraft that we build or these telescopes that we build, we're not putting all of that money onto a rocket and launching it into space. That money gets spent to pay people here to purchase things from a lot of small businesses. Sometimes NASA tries as much as possible to contract with small businesses, it pays people salaries that then go back into the economy and all of those things. So, it seems sometimes that we're just sending this money into space, but that’s not really what happens. And I think it's important for people to remember that because we do we are very much cognizant of the fact that it is people's hard earned money that fund the work that we do, and I think for the most part, although there's occasionally high profile cases where people have been up to no good, the scientist that I know that they get all their money from the US government all worked very, very hard to make sure that every single dime is used in the most efficient way possible. In part because we need to work so hard to get that money in the first, which is a different issue. JESSE: ?? 19:47> just take courses in grant writing and trying to like-- SARAH: Yeah, they don’t really teach you how to do that. You just kind of like learn by failing a lot. Yeah. JESSE: I really liked the image of just like loading up gold bars onto a rocket and then launching them into space and then hoping for the best. SARAH: I mean, sometimes I feel like when you talk to people because-- Okay. So, for example, the mission that I have used a lot of data from that was in the Saturn system for 14 years cost about four and a half billion dollars. That sounds like a lot to a normal human. JESSE: Right because for one person, that have-- Right. SARAH: Yes. So, in the budget of the federal government, that's effectively no dollars. And if you actually average it over the lifetime of the mission, that was like $5 per US taxpayer or something. So, all those beautiful images of Saturn and everything else $5. Four and a half billion dollars still sounds like a lot but every single one of those dollars was spent on Earth paying engineers and scientists and helping pay the salaries of administrative staff and custodial staff and buying parts from lots of different contractors and all of those things. And so you get this vision in your head of like, Oh, we don't know, spacecraft, and we sent it off of Earth. And I think everyone thinks that the money is just like jammed inside of it. JESSE: Yeah. It's like launching off and there's dollar bills flying ?? 21:29> the atmosphere. No, I just-- And then the visualization was just fun. But yeah, I mean, obviously, you make a very good point that it is not really going anywhere. It is resources that are now gone into space, but the money itself is still here. It kind of gets to the point like, I talked about this every once in a while, but I don't think people really understand what money is. Like money is a store of value. It really is imaginary in every sense. It's a system that we've made up to keep score of the value that we exchange with one another. So, yeah, it didn't get just get launched into space like you gotta exchange for all these people to make this thing get launched into space. But that's a whole other animal we’ll try not to get into today. Go to Part 2 Go to Part 3

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