How To Hold A Dying Star

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Kimberly Arkind squatting down to talk to some children in the audience
Kimberly Arkind squatting down to talk to some children in the audience

Talking up the future astronomers

NASA’s Kimberly Arkand headlined this semester’s last event in the Astronomy Department’s Public Outreach series. In her lecture, she tackled the question of how we visualize something as humongous and invisible as a supernova.

In Pupin 301, Arkand began her speech by telling us a bit about herself. While she started out interested in biology, she now works for NASA as a “data storyteller,” meaning she takes astronomical data and turns it into something understandable and/or pretty. For example, Arkand creates images like this one, which comes from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory at which she works. Not only do scientists have to convert x-ray data into 2-dimensional images, they also have to color them with an eye towards their audience. While blue generally indicates heat in a scientific context, images often assign red to heat and high energy due to cultural associations.

The tone of the lecture was light and focused on the children in the audience. There were, however, only half a dozen children in the hall. Arkand did not assume any specific astronomical knowledge of the crowd, which did indirectly reveal how much work Frontiers of Science does to set a scientific baseline in the Columbia community. Astronomical phenomena were described vividly – supernovas were stars “vomiting their guts out all over the universe.” Kimberly Arkand’s friendly vibe gave the whole event a Leslie Knope sort of feeling.

To turn to the title of the event, Arkand took the imaging process a step further, moving from 2-D to 3-D. By studying objects such as Cassiopeia A, a supernova, for long periods of time, astronomers can get intimate details on the velocities and distances of their elements. To turn these mathematical developments into visual realizations, scientists depended on brain-imaging software. After they created their models on the computer, they took them to 3-D printers in order to bring them into real life. Thus, anyone with access to a 3-D printer and the publicly available imaging files can hold a dead star in their hands.

Arkand argued that this effort is worth more than just kitsch. A truly 3-D object allows a whole different way of looking at data. Additionally, these could be tools of gender equality. Playing with complex 3-dimensional objects helps children develop spatial reasoning skills. Since girls are less likely to be given toys that promote this skill, a common marker of intelligence in IQ tests, bringing these scientific learning tools into the classroom could create a more gender-equitable environment. To hold a dead star in one’s hands lets one better understand how it works.

Image via Kimberly Kowal Arcand’s Twitter

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