by J.Ember Hintz
My fascination with the universe started the summer I turned 16. I worked for my dad, painting decks, fences, and barns. It was a miserable outdoor sweat your ass off summer job, and I got acclimated to the heat pretty quick. So much so that sitting inside the AC at night was like being stuck inside a freezer. I enjoyed 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 Grape Soda and dad with his amber stout. As darkness fell, he began pointing out constellations, trying to help me find them in vain. Exhausted and near-sighted, I just couldn’t connect-the-dots and see them the way he did. 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 I felt when my father pointed out there were more stars in our galaxy alone than there are grains of sand on Earth. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it broke my teenage brain. He explained 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 who 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, and that was way before Henry Cavill even got involved. HaHa. Fantasies about aliens with chiseled jawlines and red capes aside, I decided I wanted to be an astronomer, work for NASA or go to Space Camp. I did none of the above.
Unfortunately, my brain isn’t hard-wired for the math that goes along with physics. So, I channeled my new fascination with the universe, like every other space-obsessed teen, into an obsession with Star Trek. Every day after school, I explored strange new worlds, sought alien civilizations, and went where no one had gone before with Kirk, Spock, and Sulu, satisfying my curiosity for fictional answers to all the growing questions in my mind. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Are we alone?
My lifelong obsession with science fiction eventually led to an avid interest in the concepts of theoretical physics (minus the math) and some deep dive internet rabbit holes. That’s when I came across an 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 and connecting the dots. Einstein and Hawking level dots.
To say that Laura Mersini-Houghton is my girl power hero would be an understatement. She’s the scientific female role model 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 and the origins of the Eridanus Super Void fascinated me. Mersini-Houghton was the first person to suggest that this anomaly could result from a primordial entanglement between our world and another universe. The line between science and science-fiction has always fascinated me. Human cloning? Yes, please. Cybernetic implants? Sign me up. Mission to colonize Titan? When do we leave?
Mersini-Houghton’s research percolated in the back of my mind for a long time. It even worked its way into my first manuscript. Authors and scientists share the same muse – wonder. And we have the audacity to ask “What if?”.
To learn more about Laura Mersini-Houghton and her research, check out this article by Alyssa LaFaro, Endeavors from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Subscribe to my Inklings Blog, where I share all the nerdy, beautiful, and thought-provoking things that inspire my creative muse.