by J.Ember Hintz
My fascination with the universe started on a balmy summer night when I was thirteen years old. My father and I were relaxing on our side porch and looking up at the stars after a long day spent scraping a century of paint off the side of our barn. As darkness fell, he began pointing out constellations, trying to help me find them in vain. Maybe I was tired, or perhaps I just couldn’t see them the same way that he did. Either way, it seemed like an impossible game of connect-the-dots to me. To this day, I still can’t find anything other than the big and little dippers.
But it wasn’t the lesson in astronomy that stuck with me. It was the feeling of acute infinitesimal-ness that overwhelmed me when my father pointed out that there were more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it affected me deeply. He went on to explain that given those big numbers, the likelihood that we are not alone is pretty high. It was the first ‘mind-blown’ moment of my life.
Unfortunately, my brain wasn’t hard-wired for the complicated math that goes hand and hand with physics. So, I channeled my new fascination with the universe, like every other geeky child of the ’80s, into an obsession with Star Trek. Every day after school, I explored strange new worlds, sought out alien civilizations and, went where no one had gone before with Kirk, Spock, and Sulu, satisfying my curiosity for answers to all of those BIG questions.
My LOVE of science fiction eventually led to an avid interest in the concepts of theoretical physics and some very deep internet rabbit holes. That’s when I came across this interview with Laura Mersini-Houghton, cosmologist and theoretical physicist at UNC Chapel Hill. Not only was this brilliant woman asking the same what-if questions that had been stirring my imagination since childhood, but she was also answering them, WITH SCIENCE. She was doing the math. She was connecting the dots.
To say that Laura Mersini-Houghton is my hero, would be an understatement. She’s the scientific female role model that I wish I’d had growing up. She is the Einstein of the modern era, breaking through the boundaries of our current understanding of the universe and our place in it.
Her research on the Cosmic Microwave Background – the radiation left over from the Big Bang – and the origins of the Eridanus Super Void – a massive region of missing energy near the constellation Eridanus – fascinated me. She was the first to person to suggest that this “Cold Spot” may have been caused by a primordial entanglement between our word and another universe.
Mersini-Houghton’s research became the inspiration for my first novel, The Garden, where I was finally able to explore a few what-if questions of my own.
To learn more about Laura Mersini-Houghton and her cutting edge research, check out this article by Alyssa LaFaro, Endeavors from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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