This Infinite Gravity: Reflecting on My (space)time at Launch Pad Astronomy
“This tiny massive black hole…”
That’s when I almost laughed aloud in class, reveling in the feeling of learning a new language that was in some ways the complete opposite of mine. Astronomers, you see, generally use the word “massive” to mean an object that has mass. (We Are All Massive was an alternative title for this blog post, in fact!). So it is possible for something to be both tiny and massive in the eyes of an astronomer.
Similarly, we (the general public) use a color scale for temperature that goes from blue (cold) to red (hot). But it’s almost the opposite for astronomers. Their graphics often use blue arrows/colors to indicate the hotter stars, and the red to indicate cooler stars, or cooling stars. That’s because we measure stars on the electromagnetic spectrum. Blue light has a higher frequency wavelength. Red light has a lower frequency wavelength. As light loses energy, the wavelength decreases and that’s called redshifting.
See? I learned something.
(I hope I got all of that right. Oh God I hope I got all of that right.)
I spent the last week in Laramie, Wyoming at the University of Laramie for Launch Pad Astronomy, supported by Science Fiction Writers of America, and taught by Professor Mike Brotherton (an astronomy professor at University of Wyoming and a science fiction author) and Professor Christian Ready (an astronomy professor at Towson University). By 10am every day, we were in the classroom, learning, with a break at noon for lunch, and back in the classroom at 1:15 for more learning through to 5, with another break for dinner. After dinner, we typically reconvened for discussions on science in science fiction or world-building or going up to rooftops or the observatory to look through telescopes.
It was intense.
My Google doc notes have things like
“Light can also appear as particles called photons (explains, eg , photoelectric effect)
A photon has a specific energy E, proportional to the frequency f:
E = h*f
h= 6.626x10^34 J*s
Is the Planck constant
The energy of a photon does not depend on the intensity of the light!!”
and other notes like,
Luminosity of a star is proportional to its temperature to the fourth power (T^4) and to its radius squared (R^2)
I sent my dad a photo of a slide of a flowchart about how to identify properties of nearby stars (parallax, apparent brightness, distance in parsecs, luminosity, spectral type, chemical composition, temperature, radius) and was like “Look at all this math!” and my dad, a doctor and scientist, was like “That is basic arithmetic.”
Okay, so he has a point.
But it’s a lot more math that I’ve done in the last, oh, 14 years? Maybe more?
It was also more learning than I’d done in years.
The center of a star wants to explode (nuclear fusion)
The gravity of a star wants to collapse it in on itself.
This is what lets a star be a star.
I’m a nerd. I like to do deep dives on subjects and surface, gasping and vomiting information at the people closest to me. But I haven’t sat in a classroom for six to eight hours a day in a long time—definitely since high school since I rarely scheduled back to back classes in college. And it wasn’t easy, but I imagine I feel today the way runners do when they go running after a long break. Exhausted and elated. I’ve stretched my mind in a way I haven’t in a long time.
Light is affected by gravity too.
Still, even while learning new things, I found myself drawn to the same things I’m always drawn to, no matter what I’m studying. The people. I found myself in the back of the classroom, googling my professors. Googling the scientists they mentioned (Newton, Kepler, Brahe, Herschel). Googling the names of asteroids (did you know there’s an asteroid named after Anne Frank that was discovered by a Nazi scientist? Does that make you hella uncomfortable? Because it made me hella uncomfortable!). Finding and reading and leaping around, connecting dots and ideas through the people and timelines and ways that we’ve viewed the world.
“"Some people characterize brown dwarfs as failed stars, but I like to think of them as uber successful planets." - Christian Ready
I haven’t forgotten that when I was in Israel and we went stargazing, the guide reminded us that when the Pleiades are mentioned, the Hebrew word for them is “kimah”, which is related to the Hebrew word for “one hundred”. You might know that the Pleiades are the seven sister stars—in theory, you can only see seven bright ones with your naked eye. You need a telescope to see that it’s a cluster of stars. There are more than a thousand stars, and some of those may be binary systems. And somehow, people more than two thousand years ago, without telescopes, knew that it was more than seven. How did they know? Were the atmospheric changes that dramatic?
Professor: "What's causing this?"
Professor: "Gravity. Unless it's Interstellar. Then it's love."
We joked that a lot of Launch Pad was trying to drink from a fire hose. It was so much information to capture and digest and file away properly in our minds.
But it also felt as if they’d taken a wrench to a rusty spigot and turned it on.
“"There's Earth. All the cool kids are there. All the assholes are there too."
Mike, one of our professors, posited that scientists tended to be more curious than the general public. I do think that’s true. I think writers are the same way. I drink in new information like I’ve walked across the desert. Like most writers I know, I love learning esoteric facts and information. Non-fiction about weird places, events, and unknown times in history or strange science or deep dives into one corporation’s misdeeds are totally our thing. We read r/unresolvedmysteries and compare notes. We talk about bones and decay and sky diving and camels and sand and mountains and falcons the way only the desperately curious can.
At the airport yesterday, several of us hung out at a brewery between our gates. And as tired as we were, as much as we’d hit our introvert walls, we still were talking about everything we learned. We were joking about gravitational lensing on our group Whatsapp. We were carefully testing metaphors and jokes about spacetime, density, and luminosity. We reveled in the potentiality of ‘shepherd moons.’
This is how a writer steps into a new world. Tentatively, carefully, holding the new piece of information up against the old information to build a bridge. Or, perhaps, a mirror, reflecting the same light in a new direction.
This is why I opened this blog post by talking about language. This is the language I had. This is the way my language can change. This is the language I had. This is everything new in my world. And by writing it this way, I built you a bridge too. A tiny massive bridge, if you will.
Gravity rendered a geometric effect—it is the curving of spacetime around masses. Gravity is curved space.
All of us came into Launch Pad with different backgrounds and different goals. There was a nonfiction picture book writer, and two video game writers, and a middle grader writer who has also written for the big screen, and two YA writers (myself included), and SFF novelists and SFF short story writers and people who did a mix of both. Some of us were there for space elevators, some of us were there fact-checking pre-existing novels and mining astronomy for future novels, some of us were there to find out how astronomers think and work and question the universe. All of us were there to learn, and we all learned differently. Some people needed to chew on the idea for a long time (me) and others needed to ask a question every few minutes. Some of us had preexisting knowledge and some of us probably couldn’t have named all the planets in order in our own solar system (me, admittedly.)
I loved having authors from all corners of publishing there. It was fun to talk to each other about works in progress, past work, upcoming work, why we were there and what we wanted. But it also meant we were always approaching the big questions in different ways, and that questions arose because we were all working on different things.
Could there be such a thing as a dark matter planet?
Can you hack a star?
Thinking of dark matter as connective tissue of the universe.
Dark matter is pulling the universe in, while the universe is also trying to expand Currently, dark matter is winning.
We found titles for stories—I’m not sharing those because they belong to those authors now—and new story ideas from simply learning about the name of a star. (I mean, don’t you feel bad for Antares? Imagine being a massive star, way bigger than Mars, and only being named “Not-Mars”?)
We peered through telescopes and gasped at Saturn’s rings. We learned to find Jupiter in the sky, and Vega far above us (and learned that it’ll be the new ‘north’ star in about 10,000 years.) We learned to read the spectra of stars and look for transits—planets crossing between the star and us, caught by a telescope (TESS). We drove (carefully) to the top of a mountain to the Wyoming Infrared Observatory (WIRO) and saw the Milky Way and the research on quasars.
Closest point to Earth is perigee
Farthest point to Earth is apogee
Gee - from the Greek word for Earth
We workshop attendees often struggled with the same concepts—the fact that light can slow down (after all that talk about the speed of light!), the phrase “stationary shock waves”, the observable universe, the center of the universe.
But we all stepped into that discomfort. We all leaned into the unknown. We all stewed in our frustration and chewed our way through the fat of the concepts to the meat of the idea. Not one person in that group balked at the learning. Not one person noped out like that octupus gif I like so much. All of us showed up day after day to gulp down the water, to build the bridge, to fit the things we were learning into our own personal contexts, our own personal lexicons, our own personal worldviews.
It was a joyful experience to learn together. It was a joyful experience to learn.
I have never been so happy to be this tired.
A telescope is a time machine. We’re looking into the past.
I’m working on a middle grade novel with a twelve year old girl who wants to be an astronomer. She’s grappling with grief and impending loss while she’s looking into the sky and grappling with the vastness of space, with how small we are within our solar system, and how much smaller we are in our galaxy, and how infinitesimal we are in our universe. I wanted to know what she would study and what she would learn. And I wanted to know how she’d think. I wanted to find the metaphors on which I’d construct this story. (Death is, in a very real way, a tiny massive black hole. Light cannot escape it.)
I can feel that I’m close to a breakthrough. But I’m not there yet.
I’m still writing and reading and writing and reading.
But I’m so much closer than I was a week ago. And I have 7,000 words of notes and a week’s worth of slides to reread and study and handwrite carefully to imprint the information into my mind, and thus into my book.
Thank you to Launch Pad Astronomy, the University of Wyoming, Science Fiction Writers of America, Mike, Christian, Jim, Adam, Doug, and all my fellow workshop attendees for making this last week a truly stellar experience.