Karen Masters Explains the Universe
The associate professor of physics and astronomy is one of the authors of a new book, 30-Second Universe, that breaks down the 50 most significant theories, principles, and people in astrophysics for a general audience.
If you take a class with Karen Masters, the associate professor of physics and astronomy will spend a whole semester—15 week—exploring and explaining recent developments in the field of astrophysics, from black holes and dark matter to the Big Bang and Einstein’s relativity theories. But for those with markedly less time, Masters has co-authored a book, 30-Second Universe (Quarto), that breaks down the 50 most significant theories, principles, and events in the field into short, two-page chapters that can be digested in, well, 30 seconds. The book, a collaboration between Masters, CUNY Astrophysics Professor Charles Liu, and Rutgers Associate Professor of Physics Sevil Salur, is part of a series that aims to teach general-audience readers about a popular topic—from Ancient Greece to chemistry to whiskey—by explaining its most crucial ideas in easily understandable language. Masters spoke to us about the new book—which is out Oct. 1—the importance of removing jargon from science books, the contributions of some of the most important women in cosmology, and how all of us were inside the Big Bang.
Haverford: How did you come to write this book?
Karen Masters: Through my collaborator Charles Liu, who you see is a co-author. This is a commissioned series, “30-Second Something,” [and] he was invited to put together a group of co-authors to do this book [on the universe] in the series. We've worked together on an astronomy survey [Mapping Nearby Galaxies at Apache Point Observatory, part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey], and I thought it sounded fun. He did most of the work putting together the subjects—the chapter headings and what the structure of the book was going to be—and I wrote some of them.
H: How did you decide which chapters you were going to write or which topics you were going to tackle?
KM: There are three authors, and [we split it up by expertise]. Sevil is a particle physicist, and so it was pretty obvious that she was going to do the particle physics. My expertise is astrophysics, cosmology. So I mostly wrote on those topics. And then towards the end of the process, they asked me if I'd like to do the glossary, so I did do that. That was fun. It was just these very, very short definitions of terms that are used in the book.
H: How do you create a glossary of technical terms for a general audience?
KM: It's just about removing the jargon, right? I just think about,"What words am I using that are jargon?" I think it actually really helps that I have kids and I'm used to talking to kids. My kids ask questions, and I have to sit and think, "How do I explain this to them?" … It's a puzzle that I find fun. I think it's fun to try to think of explaining complicated things in quite simple ways. You meet physicists who take pleasure in making it sound obscure and scary and difficult. And I'm not one of those physicists. I want everyone to think that physics and astrophysics and cosmology can be understandable, at least at some broad level.
H: You’ve done quite a lot of work for a general audience, such as contributing a chapter to the Passion for Science: Journeys into the Unknown biography anthology or being the scientific spokesperson for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. How did you start down this road?
KM: It was something I did back in grad school. So in graduate school at Cornell, we had this Curious About Astronomy/Ask an Astronomer website where we would field email questions from people. It’s still going. The Cornell astronomy graduate students run the Ask an Astronomer service, and so I probably answered two or three questions a week—not a huge workload. But it's this constant practice on how to explain things, and also constant information about the questions people have [because] when you're in the middle of it, you don't realize what's confusing for others. So it was a real good education for understanding what all the common misconceptions are and what are the things that need to be explained in a book like this, actually.
H: Speaking of Passion for Science: Journeys into the Unknown, can you tell me a little bit about your chapter on Mary Somerville?
KM: She was Jane Austen-era, and so she was not educated at all and she had to steal her brother's math books to learn math in secret at night. Only after she was widowed in her 30s and was independently able to live, was she like, "Well, I'm doing it now." And she got a math tutor, and she learned it all. And then she wrote all these really, at the time, influential books about physics. She wrote books about geography and microbiology. Really cool stuff. She was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society at the same time as Caroline Herschel—they were the first two women. They weren't made proper members, they were honorary members. … In the U.K., lots of things are named after her: Somerville College at Oxford is named after her; she's on the 10-pound note now in Scotland.
H: The biographical chapters you wrote in 30-Second Universe are all about women scientists. Was that on purpose?
KM: Those are the ones I asked to do, and it's definitely an interest I have: making sure that the stories of how women who contributed to science are no longer hidden. [I wrote about] Henrietta Swann Leavitt, Hypatia, Vera Rubin—unquestionably people who made huge contributions to the history of cosmology.
H: So, in keeping with the book’s theme, for those who haven’t heard of Vera Rubin, can you explain who she is in 30 seconds?
KM: She was an astrophysicist who measured the motions of stars and galaxies, or gas in galaxies. In order to go in a circle, there has to be a force holding you into that circle, otherwise you'd fly away. So we can use how fast galaxies are rotating to measure how much mass they have. And so what she discovered is they have a lot more mass than they appear to have. Actually, it was the first evidence of dark matter on galaxy scales. And we still believe that almost 25% of the universe is this dark matter, which is material that is there, we can tell it's there because of its gravity, but we can't see it. It doesn't create any light. Lots of people think that Vera Rubin should have gotten the Nobel Prize for that discovery. She did not. And she passed away about two years ago. I met her, actually. I went to her 80th-birthday conference.
H: What do you think is the biggest misconception about cosmology or astrophysics?
KM: The most common misconception is asking, “Where did the Big Bang happen?”
KM: I think because when you see a visualization of it or when you imagine it, you think of it as a point, and you want to know where is that point--where was that point in space? And a lot of the visualizations make it look like an explosion, so things are coming out of a point somewhere. But the reason it's a misconception is that the entire universe was in a point at that time. It's a point in time, but it includes the entire universe. It's hard to imagine, right? But I mean, we were in the Big Bang.