“Right now, we are spinning at around 800,000 kilometers per hour around the center of our galaxy, and at around 100,000 kilometers per hour around the sun. And every day we follow our routines and forget how lucky we really are to be living on this unique planet.” That’s astronomer Marja Seidel introducing a short film about one of her recent expeditions to very remote areas of the globe, helping others to understand the uniqueness of our planet, its place in the universe and the need to preserve it.
Seidel, 29, has reached thousands of people on five continents with her unusual outreach missions, bringing knowledge of the universe to those who otherwise have no access to such information. A newly minted resident of Pasadena, she was born in Waltrop, Germany, received her bachelor’s degree in physics and earth and space sciences at Jacobs University in Bremen and in October, 2015, received her Ph.D. in astrophysics at Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias on Spain’s Canary Islands. Earlier this year she finished a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, where her research focused on the formation of galaxies and the influence of dark matter. Seidel has just signed on as a scientist with Caltech’s IPAC division, which partners with NASA, JPL and the worldwide research community to advance exploration of the universe and provide information-outreach programs for the public.
We spoke with Seidel for this family and education issue not because of her career per se, but because of her distinctive extracurricular accomplishments, spreading what she has called “visions of the cosmos” near and far. Last summer, while pursuing her postdoctoral research, she organized a project for underserved schoolchildren here in Pasadena, so they could learn about the Great American Eclipse and then observe it through glasses and telescopes she had donated for the occasion. “Even in a place like California, resources can be scarce,” she said. “Some schools might not even have funds for a science teacher in certain grades. Cooperating with the Pasadena United Schools District [PUSD], we identified five schools that had a focus on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but were located in underprivileged areas. The idea was to provide them with telescopes, education material and workshops to fully take advantage of the eclipse with their students and to possibly continue astronomy education at their schools.”
On one recent global expedition, Seidel and an ecologist friend traveled for two months by horseback and paraglider to remote villages in Colombia’s Andes. In their backpacks they carried telescopes, binoculars, inflatable models of the solar system, Play-Doh and other crafts items to help inspire villagers, particularly children, with the joy of discovery. Joy seems to be a key component in her outreach missions, which combine a love of nature and adventure sports with a passion for science. The aim of the Colombia project, titled “Cielo y Tierra (Heaven and Earth),” was not to hold formal classes in astronomy or ecology, she says, but simply to lead entertaining experiments and exchanges that open people’s minds to all the wonders out there for them to discover. Seidel’s own joie de vivre is evidenced in the short film of this odyssey at cieloytierra-project.com, which shows the two women gliding above the clouds, trekking on horses through spectacular terrain and connecting with villagers who may have no access to technology, may never have seen a telescope or binoculars before and have certainly never encountered young women scientists gliding down from the sky to explain our unique planet and its relationship to the heavens.
From Seidel’s profile page on a couch-surfing website, we learned that in addition to paragliding and horseback riding, she climbs mountains and volcanos, surfs, hikes, scuba dives, skydives, has a pilot’s license, plays saxophone, has been in several bands, plays “a bit of guitar,” speaks five languages, has lived in five countries and has visited 30, which she lists alphabetically.
We first contacted Seidel while she was working with Carnegie Observatory’s telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert, then talked with her a few days later via Skype when she was visiting Germany.
You’ve written that even as a child, you knew you wanted to be an astronomer. Were your parents scientists, or how did that happen at such a young age?
My parents weren’t scientists. I think there were many triggers. It happened that at a very young age I experienced some comets, and then some other public observations, and so I started reading about astronomy at around 10 years. I actually started reading A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and I didn’t understand much because I was so young still, but I found it very fascinating. Where I lived in Waltrop is densely populated, so the skies are not very clear, but when we went to more remote places during the holidays I could see the stars. And the light from the stars is basically millions and millions of years old — you are looking into the past of the universe. This was all fascinating, and so I started going to youth astronomy camps at about 15. The first was in Germany, then some international astronomy youth camps in the Czech Republic, Poland and other places.
When did you realize that science outreach was necessary, and you wanted to visit remote places to share your knowledge?
I have always had a passion to share what I’m doing. In high school and as an undergraduate I already was involved in social outreach activities, reaching out to communities with very low resources. This kind of led me to know that there is a need, that there are many people in this world who do not have the same starting position and a lot of things need to be done [to assist them]. I think education is a key to making society evolve, and astronomy is a very powerful visual tool to get people interested in science. You have a telescope and just let people observe, and then ask questions. Not that they, in the end, have to study astronomy, but just to get them curious about science and know there is so much out there to discover.
So going to remote areas was a decision made after doing some research on where NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are going. I found there is a huge difference between urban and rural areas. There are not many organizations that go to remote and rural areas of developing countries. And in those areas, so many children still drop out of primary school because they are not encouraged to get an education. They’re told the only things they can do is to work in the fields or, in the worst case, go into drug trafficking. So that was something we wanted to address.
you’ve referred readers to Carl Sagan’s 1994 Pale Blue Dot book in some of your writing and talks. He says that astronomy is a humbling and character-building DIscipline that reminds us we are just this tiny planet spinning in one small galaxy among trillions of galaxies in a vast cosmos, and yet we’re the only place known so far to harbor life. Photographed from space, earth has no borders, no nationalities. We humans are all one species, and we have to take care of each other and of our planet or all hope is lost. You feel that’s relevant for today?
Yes, this is definitely my philosophy, and something that motivates me. I actually learned about Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot rather late, when I was already over 20, and I realized I had written down very similar thoughts. Astonomy offers a very different perspective on life here on earth. What we often do as an inquiry activity is build a solar system to scale…and we see how little the solar system is in our galaxy and how little our galaxy is compared to all the billions and billions of galaxies in the universe. This really gives a sense of scale and perspective and can lead to this feeling of global citizenship where you feel part of one humanity, which is on this little space ship called Earth. I definitely am convinced that if we do not start thinking that everyone on Earth is just one humanity, if we do not stop thinking about the differences between us, but about how similar we all actually are…and that from space, the earth is seen really without any physical borders…if we do not start thinking in that direction, then I don’t see that there’s a future for humanity.
Do you see much hope?
If we do start thinking that way, then yes. I think this is a very [assertive] step we must take as humans, to start thinking of us as one humanity. When I talk to businesspeople, I sometimes ask them: If you have a company and everyone works against each other in all the departments, does the company run well? No. So the departments all have to work together as one company. Well, the earth is like one company. We have to work together instead of against each other.
You visit these children in remote places, where they have so little formal education. I know you bring crafts and telescopes, but is it really possible to enlighten them about such complicated things as the solar system and our place in the universe?
It’s possible anywhere. Imagination is never limited just because your resources are limited. Everyone, even in the most remote areas, has a lot of imagination and dreams. I think when you learn about something like astronomy, you think, wow, this has changed me. Just because of this one experience, this one little match being lit, my life has changed. They can see there are lots of other opportunities and things to think about in life. Maybe different types of jobs they never imagined before. These people always have very interesting questions, and we are staying in touch with some of them and trying to train local collaborators where possible to continue the work.
If you had one thing to say to nonscientists, who rarely think about all this, what would it be?
Never stop being curious and surprised at what the universe might give you. And really start appreciating our planet’s place in the universe and how very special our planet is. Keep thinking about that!