by J.Ember Hintz
My fascination with the universe started the summer I turned 16. I worked for my dad who had a side painting gig. I was a crap painter, so I helped with the decks and fences and barns. All the outside, sweat your ass off stuff. I got accustomed to the heat. So much so that sitting inside the AC at night was like being stuck inside a freezer. I liked being outside. So did my dad. We were relaxing on the side porch after a long day spent scraping a century of paint off the side of an old barn. Me with my Orange Crush and dad with his Michelob. 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 our galaxy alone than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it broke my teenage brain and affected me deeply. He went on to explain that given those big numbers, the likelihood that we are not alone was pretty high in his opinion. My first thought was that I so wanted to be the person that meets and falls in love with a hot kryptonite fearing alien. Yes, that was exactly where my mind went. I had serious Lois Lane envy y’all and that was way before Henry Cavill even got involved. Haha. Fantasies about aliens with chiseled jaw lines and red capes aside, I suddenly wanted to be astronomer or like work for NASA or something.
Unfortunately, my brain wasn’t hard-wired for the complicated math that goes hand and hand with – well any branch of science that involves anything other than basic math. 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 fictional answers to all of those BIG questions.
My life long obsession with science fiction eventually led to an avid interest in the concepts of theoretical physics (still not the math part though) 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, she was also answering them, WITH SCIENCE. She was doing the math. She was connecting the dots. Like Einstein and Hawking level 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 fascinated me. She was the first to person to suggest that this energy “Cold Spot” may have been caused by a primordial entanglement between our word and another universe. Welcome to the Multiverse. I’m gaga for IRL scientists who embrace the absurd and push scientific boundaries. Human cloning? Yes please. Cybernetic implants? Sign me up. Mission to colonize Titan? When do we leave?
The line between science and science-fiction has always fascinated me. Mersini-Houghton’s research percolated in the back of my mind for a long time. Eventually, it became the inspiration for my first manuscript where I was finally able to explore a few what-if questions of my own – without having to do any math.
Inspiration is EVERYWHERE. Stay curious my friends.
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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