Planetary Radio • Oct 26, 2022

Meet the new Planetary Radio host! (and enjoy a beer with a cosmologist)

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Sarah Al-Ahmed

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

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Brian Keating

Experimental Astrophysicist, UC San Diego Center for Astrophysics & Space Sciences (CASS) and Associate Director for Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

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Mat Kaplan

Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society

Join host Mat Kaplan as he proudly introduces the person who will take on the show he created 20 years ago. Then we’ll join astrophysicist Brian Keating at a joyful gathering of cosmologists who hope to reveal secrets of the Universe through the new Simons Observatory. You might win Brian’s new book about thinking like a Nobel Prize winner in the What’s Up space trivia contest.

Sarah Al-Ahmed portrait
Sarah Al-Ahmed portrait On Jan. 4, 2023, Sarah Al-Ahmed will become the new host of Planetary Radio, The Planetary Society’s renowned, weekly space podcast and radio program.Image: The Planetary Society
Simons Observatory team at public event
Simons Observatory team at public event Simons Observatory team at the public event titled "We are cosmologists, ask us anything." It was held at Amplified Ale Works in downtown San Diego.Image: Mat Kaplan / The Planetary Society
At the Simons Observatory
At the Simons Observatory At the Simons Observatory site more than 5,000 meters above sea level in Chile’s Atacama. From left: Adrian Lee of UC Berkeley, Marilyn Simons and Jim Simons of the Simons Foundation, Brian Keating of UC San Diego, and David Spergel of Princeton University.Image: Brian Keating, UC San Diego

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Trivia Contest

This Week’s Question:

Where in the solar system, but not on Earth, is a feature named Sarah?

This Week’s Prize:

A copy of Brian Keating’s “Into the Impossible: Lessons from laureates to stoke curiosity, spur collaboration, and ignite imagination in your life and career

To submit your answer:

Complete the contest entry form at or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, November 2 at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.

Last week's question:

What video game that was particularly popular in the 1980s owes its name to William Herschel?


The winner will be revealed next week.

Question from the October 12, 2022 space trivia contest:

What currently active spacecraft at Mars has been operating the second longest?


Launched in 2003, Mars Express is the currently active spacecraft at Mars that has been operating longer than any other except for Mars Odyssey.


Mat Kaplan: Meet the next host of Planetary Radio and then enjoy a beer with a cosmologist, this week on Planetary Radio. Welcome. I'm Mat Kaplan of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. I won't keep you in suspense any longer. Ladies and gentlemen, of my favorite solar system and the cosmos, it is my great pleasure to introduce my colleague of the last two years and proud to say a good friend, the new host, the incoming host, of Planetary Radio, you have already heard her on the show, here is Sarah. Now I've been saying Al-Ahmed, but we just spent five or 10 minutes as you were trying to teach me the preferred pronunciation. How is Sarah Al-Ahmed?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's pretty good.

Mat Kaplan: I don't think so. You're being kind. Sarah, congratulations on being named the person who's going to be taken over the show with the start of 2023.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks so much, Matt. I am so over the moon excited about this and it's been really hard kind of keeping it to myself these last few weeks, but I could finally tell everyone, all my friends and family, and share with the world that I'm going to be the new host of Planetary Radio.

Mat Kaplan: I think I've told you that I was pulling for you all along. Now, you won this fair and square. We had hundreds of applicants, tremendously talented people, and we are grateful to all of them for going after this, but I was not a bit surprised and I was very pleased to see you rise to the top. I know that the show will be in good hands and I also know that over time, you will be bringing your own voice and your own approach to this, in collaboration with our other great colleagues, and that's one of the reasons that I told our COO, the great Jennifer Vaughn, two years ago, that I thought it would be time after 20 years to hand over the show to somebody new. And I agonized a lot over this. I'm in a lot less agony now knowing that you'll be taking it on.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That makes me feel really good to hear. Your vote of confidence literally means the world to me because I've seen what you've done with this show, even before I was working for The Planetary Society. Planetary Radio is a staple for our community for all space fans out there and it means a lot to have your trust in this, but it's not lost on me what a large thing this is. It's huge to step into the tracks that you've laid for me and for all of us and I'm going to do my best, but...

Mat Kaplan: Of course you will.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I've had your tutelage all this time. I've had a lot to learn from you, so I'm very grateful.

Mat Kaplan: And as this show is published, we're just heading into a time of transition because I mean, you are still wrapping up the very important work that you have been doing for the society. Part of that is, I mean, you are listed on our website as the digital community manager and that digital community that you've been devoting yourself to, it's still not out there for people to enjoy yet. What's the current status of that and what's ahead?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh, I'm so excited to talk about this because this is something that we've been working on behind the scenes for almost two years now. We really want to put the society in The Planetary Society. We want to give all of our members a place to interact with each other and really share and learn and work together to advocate for space missions that we love so much. So what I've been working on very heavily for the last month is the production of our new member community app. We're not going to officially give out the launch date right now, but in the coming months Planetary Society members will be able to log into The Planetary Society app on their phone and connect with us and all the other members. So behind the scenes, I have been working diligently to build that app and I am so excited to share it with everyone.

Mat Kaplan: Not surprisingly, you're going to be handing that off to somebody else, a player yet to be named, because you're going to have your hands full with Planetary Radio. I am very excited as a member about the coming community, digital community, but I'm also excited that I'll be participating in it as I continue to be a part of The Planetary Society staff. We will start hearing more from you I think as we go into the next few weeks of Planetary Radio. My original thought was that the handoff would take place on the 20th anniversary of the show. That's not going to happen now because you just have too much to finish and to come up to speed on. But we're now looking at what? I think the first Wednesday in the new year is when you will be taking over the microphone.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: New Year, new host.

Mat Kaplan: Yep.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: But we'll be working together over the next few months. So people will hear me here and there, but officially January 4th.

Mat Kaplan: Between now and then we have some outstanding guests lined up for you. Some of them are people that I just have so enjoyed talking with over the years. I've never met a guest I didn't like, but there are a few that I'm really looking forward to sort of wrapping up my tenure with, and you'll be hearing about some of those in the coming weeks. I mean, I will mention one, I'm bringing together two of my most enjoyable guests, Rob Manning and Andy Weir. Rob Manning, the Chief Engineer of JPL and Andy Weir, well you know who Andy Weir is. Two of the most imaginative, creative and funny people that I know and we're going to put them together in December and talk about the importance of creativity in this business of space, space science, and really maybe across more of life. That's just a little taste of what's ahead. November 30th is when we'll actually celebrate the 20th anniversary of the show. That's the closest show to the actual date. My last show will be December 28th and we will do... continue a tradition, be looking back over 2022 and Sarah, I'm very glad that you will be one of the people we'll have on that show as well. But like I said, we'll be sneaking you in between now and then to talk about other stuff that's going on across the universe.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's going to be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to learning behind the scenes how Planetary Radio gets put together and getting to meet all of these amazing guests that you have lined up. I cannot tell you how awesome and fun this is going to be for me.

Mat Kaplan: You're going to have such a blast. As I've also said now and then the selfish little secret of this show is that it really was just the excuse that gets me into talking with these people, my heroes, and all of them are, and I know you feel the same way about them. I mean, you are at least as big a space geek as me. Do you remember when you first realized that you were a space and science geek?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Oh, yes. I remember vividly and honestly my parents were kind of space geeks. When I was a kid, they were really into Cosmos with Carl Sagan and my mom started me really early on Star Trek, so I already loved space, but there was this moment, I was six years old and we used to do show and tell in first grade. So our teacher would always start show and tell by bringing her own thing to share and one particular day, I think it was in spring, she brought in a newspaper clipping talking about an exoplanet that they had discovered. And I don't believe it was the first exoplanet, I think it might have been the second exoplanet, but it just opened up the universe to me. Before that other planets, other worlds, other star systems, that was all something that I'd seen on television. But to finally know that it was real and that we actually had evidence of these other worlds, I lost my mind. I went home that night and I told my mom, "They found another planet outside of our solar system and this is what I want to do. I want to be an astronomer when I grow up." I'm fairly sure most people thought I was going to give up on that at some point, but it stuck.

Mat Kaplan: Everybody thought I was going to become a lawyer. I could have set them straight as well. I have been a space nut for as long as I can remember, space and radio, as I say. The difference, one of the differences, between us is that you grew up and became a genuine astrophysicist and astronomer. Two things that I will never be. Could you talk a little bit about how you actually went into this as a profession?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, I had to actually chase that dream out of little kid speculation into actual math and science and that meant studying hard all the way through school, getting those scholarships so I could afford to go to a good university. And ultimately I went to UC, Berkeley and started my degree in astrophysics. To say that was challenging would be an understatement. I think anybody that goes into the hard sciences has those moments where they question if they made the right choice. But all of that math, all of that effort, all of the collaboration we had to do to get our lab work done, all of that was absolutely worth it for the amazing things that I and my other classmates were learning. There was never a moment that I finally went, "I can't do this math anymore. Let's quit." Because at the end of that, that tunnel of math was understanding about our cosmos and our place within it. It was magical.

Mat Kaplan: What about the astronomy that you got to do? I mean you did this as a professional.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I did. I began kind of learning about exoplanet detection in my lab work at Berkeley using the transit method. We were waiting for big planets to pass in front of stars and back then we had to do it with one planet and one star at a time. So I was using the nickel one meter telescope at Lick Observatory to do this work and eventually they sent up the Kepler Space telescope, which took all of our positions searching for planets out there. But I can't even be mad about it, it did it better than any of us could. And then as soon as I graduated, I started research with Alex Filippenko, mostly data taking, using the same telescope. I was looking for basically shiny objects, active galactic nuclei, supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, the brightest things we could find so that we could then do research on them.

Mat Kaplan: Alex Filippenko, another of my favorite past guests on this show, great astronomer, one of the co-discoverers of dark energy we should add, but also a great educator, a great teacher. You went kind of in that direction in your career because you ended up at a place that I never miss a chance to give praise to, the Griffith Observatory. Now's your turn.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. I mean Alex Filippenko and a lot of the other educators that I've encountered over these years really inspired me. Doing the research, discovering things that was amazing, but it was watching them and the impact they had on me and other people as they shared what they learned. It's one thing to discover a planet and it's a totally different thing to tell a child that they're made of stardust. Coming out of all of that, I realized I really wanted to pursue science education and Griffith Observatory was the perfect place for it. That building, the people that work there, just decades of people dedicated to sharing the passion, beauty and joy of space and they are so committed to it and I've learned so much from them. I cannot tell you enough what a wonderful place that was and what a great experience it was for me. All the opportunities I had to connect with those wonderful space people that I held as heroes as well. All of that time I got to meet all the guests, but also writing on their magazine, doing show production work for All Space Considered, their monthly show, and also teaching the kids field trips. I taught school field trips for 10 year olds for about five years there and it was an amazing time. Those kids love space.

Mat Kaplan: You mentioned All Things Considered... Excuse me, All Space Considered hosted by the now retired, terrific Laura Danly and other folks there and it was because of that show that you and I met about three years ago. I love to tell this story, but why don't you tell it?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. Well, it was near the end of 2019 and we invited you as a guest to come and talk about the LightSail 2 mission and I remember being really excited about the LightSail mission as a concept because solar sailing is the technology that could take us to other star systems. I was so excited to hear more about this. So I helped produce that show and I ended up sitting down right next to your wife in the front row, which was really cool. She was very nice and ultimately connected us with each other, introduced us.

Mat Kaplan: She came to me at the end of the show because she'd been talking with you and said, "There's this great young woman that you need to meet." Sure that happened and in fact there's a photo taken, a little selfie taken, on that night. I then went back to The Planetary Society and told people about this great person that I had met and we really ought to steal her from the Griffith Observatory. Took what, about a year for that to happen for you to be pulled in, but it happened.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And who knows how that could have gone. I think about the last few years and how difficult it's been for everyone as our reality has changed due this due to this pandemic. I was working at Griffith and suddenly the building had to be shut down for everyone's safety and it was in that moment when I was reconsidering my life's trajectory that I thought, "The Planetary Society, it's the perfect place. I would love to work there." And I remember talking to you that night about how to get a job at The Planetary Society and I'm still completely baffled that you went back and remembered me and when I was interviewing for the job at The Planetary Society, you remembered me then, too, and it was moving for me because you're one of my space heroes, Mat.

Mat Kaplan: Oh, thank you. I don't know what to say to that except that you have proven yourself indispensable already at the Society, now you take on this great new challenge and I just wonder about some of the things that you may have in mind as the show goes forward. I know people probably shouldn't expect to see a whole lot of change early on, but I'm hoping that, like I said, you bring your own voice and approach to it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I don't want to change things up entirely right off the bat because you've created this beautiful show that it doesn't need to be changed a whole lot honestly. But I do want to find a way to share it with more people. I think it could do really well if we put it on some other platforms or even make some videos out of it. The guests that we invite, we already kind of capture video of these interactions, so it would be wonderful to share with a broader audience and maybe if we put it up on Twitch or something, we'll get more young people excited about space. Also, I don't know, I am a huge nerd for sci-fi and pop culture and gaming, maybe we can find a way to wrap in some more of the people who are sharing those things outside of scientific discoveries, the people that communicate those discoveries to everyone through pop culture. Maybe we can get some of those guests in. Not that you don't already, I mean Andy Weir, amazing.

Mat Kaplan: And some more of those kinds of people coming up just in the next few weeks as well. I can't wait to see where it goes. In the meantime, like I said, we enter into this period of transition. I have been acknowledging on the show the hundreds of lovely comments that I have been receiving from you listeners out, there is a new way to do that, not just to express your feelings about the last 20 years of the show, but also maybe to share a welcoming message for Sarah. And I swear this was not my idea, it was the wonderful idea of other of our colleagues at The Planetary Society. Sarah, can you say something about this toll free line that is now in place for people to call into?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, this is going to be really fun. So if you want to leave a message for Mat thanking him for his amazing service over the last 20 years or you want to welcome me, I would be very happy to hear your messages, you can call our hotline, which I think is 1-844-PlanRad. Is that correct, Mat?

Mat Kaplan: You are absolutely right. If you are alphabetically challenged, it's 844-752-6723. But yeah, 844-PlanRad is my preference as well. I think I was told by some of our colleagues that it may not function well outside of North America, so we apologize for that. Of course, I still welcome anything that you choose to say at Planetary Radio at, that email address where before too long, Sarah will be opening the mail. We look forward to hearing from you and I guess the idea, Sarah, is that we will then take some of these comments and air them on the show.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, we have to find a good way to get everyone's voices in there as we celebrate your legacy on the show, honestly. I mean, I'm very excited to hear people's welcomes for me, but I'm even more excited to hear about the ways that your time on Planetary Radio has touched peoples' lives. So we're going to chop that up and we're going to put it on the show and I don't know if it'll be one show all at once or just a little trickle of wonderful messages throughout the next months, but I'm really excited to hear what people say.

Mat Kaplan: Me too, already very grateful for everything that has already happened and grateful to have spent these 20 years at... I have enjoyed so thoroughly and grateful that my colleagues at the Society were part of the decision to bring in the woman that you've been listening to the last few minutes, the next host, only the second in the history, 20 year history, of Planetary Radio. Sarah, congratulations once again and I can't wait to continue to work with you and see you take on more and more until January 4th when you are the one asking the questions.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks so much, Mat and thank you for trusting me with the dream job.

Mat Kaplan: Sarah Al-Ahmed, or Al-Ahmed. She says she's comfortable with either. We'll take a break before we head for a San Diego California bar and a cosmologist confab.

George Takei: Hello, I'm George Takei and as you know, I'm very proud of my association with Star Trek. Star Trek was a show that looked to the future with optimism, boldly going where no one had gone before. I want you to know about a very special organization called The Planetary Society. They are working to make the future that Star Trek represents a reality. When you become a member of The Planetary Society, you join their mission to increase discoveries in our solar system, to elevate the search for life outside our planet and decrease the risk of Earth being hit by an asteroid. Co-founded by Carl Sagan and led today by CEO Bill Nye, the Planetary society exists for those who believe in space exploration to take action together. So join The Planetary Society and boldly go together to build our future.

Mat Kaplan: I haven't forgotten the Downlink, our free weekly newsletter. I'm sure my next guess was as blown away as I was by the image on top of the October 21st edition. It's the Pillars of Creation, that star nursery at the heart of the Eagle Nebula, about 6,500 light years from us, but this is not your mother's pillars of creation, the one that the Hubble Space Telescope wowed us with in 1995. If you thought it was spectacular, you're going to love the new version brought to us by the JWST. Just wait till you see it at Over at itself, you'll find a wonderful new article by my colleague Jason Davis. It's the best brief explanation of where to find water on Mars I've ever read. Jason also talks about how we might someday access and use that water. We've talked with Brian Keating before the experimental astrophysicist, cosmologist also works, is the Chancellor's Distinguished Professor at the University of California San Diego where he is with the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences. Brian also leads the worldwide effort that is building the Simons Observatory high atop the mountains of Chile's Atacama. Their hope is to literally shed light on our cosmic origins. After years of meeting virtually, all 300 team members were invited to gather at the university last July and many of them made the trip. It was the kickoff event that brought me to the Amplified Ale Works Kitchen and Beer Garden in downtown San Diego. They gave the July 10 public event an irresistible name, We Are Cosmologists, Ask Us Anything. When I arrived, Brian was talking with an eager young undergraduate.

Brian Keating: And that frequency is where the microwave background photons are the brightest, so that's where we optimize the resolution or the diffraction limit of the telescope. So, yeah.

Speaker 5: What courses do you teach at UC San Diego?

Brian Keating: I teach everything from Intro to Physics for pre-meds to all the way up through Cosmology for graduate students. This past quarter I taught Cosmology for advanced undergraduates and what's really fun is that I'll allow them go on to intern in my lab or do research with me afterwards. It's really fun.

Speaker 5: I'm entering my third year in astrophysics at UC San Diego and I'm looking at a lot of the Cosmology classes, the Astrophysics courses and yeah, I'm beginning the mechanic sequence and the electromagnetic sequence.

Brian Keating: Great. Yeah. Next spring I'll be teaching again the Cosmology Physics 162. You're welcome to enroll. It'd be fun to see you there, but in the meantime yeah, go to my website and check it out.

Speaker 5: Yeah, totally will do.

Mat Kaplan: Brian and several other team members then joined a panel discussion in the outdoor settin.g minutes after it ended beers in hand, Brian and I had this conversation. Brian Keating, a bunch of cosmologists walk into a bar. I don't know the punchline for that, but there must be one.

Brian Keating: Yeah, I'm waiting for the rabbi, the priest and the minister to show up, man. Hopefully they'll come by soon.

Mat Kaplan: Those are the proto cosmologists.

Brian Keating: That's right, yeah. They're all interested in Genesis or the Big Bang or any of these things and we are welcoming all of them.

Mat Kaplan: Just like you and just like... I mean what brought everybody together here today, or maybe I should say this week.

Brian Keating: I think the love of the universe, first of all is palpable, people love learning about the cosmos, the universe at large, the planets and everything else, but in particular, we're about two days in advance of the release of the data from the James Webb Space Telescope, the very first light images and spectra from this magnificent device and people are printing it everywhere from the Union Tribune to the New York Times. All over the world people are getting so excited about this instrument that a few hundred scientists built, catapulted a million miles away from the Earth and we on the Simons Observatory, the project that I co-lead with my collaborators, we're hoping to dovetail our data with their data and in combination, this conjunction will allow us to unravel, unfurl the universe, as they like to say, in more precise detail than we really could have imagined even back when Hubble Telescope was launched. It's phenomenal.

Mat Kaplan: I'm going to come back to that, how that dovetailing might work. By the time people hear this, those first science images from the JWST will have already wowed lots of us. You surprised me when you said the thing you're most looking forward to among those first images, we know we're going to see an image of one exoplanet, that you're looking forward to that more than some of the stuff that's a lot farther out.

Brian Keating: Yeah, stuff that's closer to what I do is the early universe cosmology, the first stars, the first galaxies to form, but actually I kind of feel like maybe I get enough of that in my day job as a cosmologist. But really what excites me is the prospect that we might someday discover life on another planet. I'm not super sanguine that that would be in the offing. I'm sorry to disappoint the many listers of The Planetary Society. I know that Planetary Radio, they love thinking about exoplanetary species and civilizations. That not with standing I do think that the images that were released from this WASP-96b, I love that name, I got to get it on my license plate, those spectra really can set the stage for what we're about to see when the flood of data come in from the web telescope. This is just the first light images in spectra and the quality of the data that are being released, they just blew us away and for us to think about, we're just extrapolating a few years from now how much we're going to know every single square degree of the sky that we look in, there's an exoplanet and not only the exoplanet, we'll be able to see... we're not going to see little cities there or little green men there, but we're going to see the telltale signs, perhaps, of civilization, be it in the form of an agriculture or oxygenation or some event that's taking place on this distant exoplanet, if indeed life does exist. And to me, that is the most... that's the second most interesting question in all of science, the first being was there a single big bang?

Mat Kaplan: And I'll bet in spite of your well-founded skepticism, you would be the first person to cheer if that data came back and said, "We're not alone."

Brian Keating: I would love that because for me, to know that we're not alone in a universe is a very powerful thing because I doubt, even if we do discover, a Webb does discover, eventually life or other the many, many other collaborations, not just Webb, it's the golden age. Someone asked tonight about how do we react emotionally to the fact that we're living in a golden age of astronomy exactly paralleling, although with 10 times better equipment, the golden age that previously existed in the 1900s? I mean, it's not so often that human beings forget about scientists, live in an age where they have so much, a wealth of treasure trove of data coming in from the universe at large as we do now. So we're really blessed to live in this time. But yes, if we do find that there is evidence, I will be overjoyed with the light to know that because I think it will make our impression of our own existence that much more stark to us. We're living through a time of economic crisis, of political chaos, of warfare, death and destruction on Earth and to think about, "Well, we did discover life" potentially in the next couple years, perhaps we will do that, but it won't be life like ours. I think it's very parochial to think that we are the only form of life, everything will be like us, but it will be maybe subdominant to the type of life form that we are and that will make us hopefully take our own life on Earth so much more tightly and be more precious and careful with our own tenuous existence on Earth.

Mat Kaplan: One would hope. All right, let's look a lot farther out and a lot farther back with the Simons Observatory. Tell me why so many cosmologists have gathered here and were able to come out and enjoy a beer or two and listen to this great panel?

Brian Keating: Yeah. So we are our hosting, in the middle of July, we're hosting the first face-to-face gathering of the 300 observers of the Simons Observatory, which is the world's premier cosmic microwave background observatory located at 17,200 feet in the Atacama desert of northern Chile.

Mat Kaplan: Even higher than... I've been to 5,000 meters. You're even higher than that, good Lord.

Brian Keating: Yeah, exactly, or a couple hundred feet higher than that. And that allows us this unrivaled glimpse, almost as good as being in space, not quite, but for 100th of the cost of the Webb space telescope, or maybe even less. So we are going to this phenomenal observatory site in order to make these infant baby pictures of the early universe. Every one year we would gather, previous pre-pandemic times, we'd gather in person somewhere, either UC Berkeley, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, or UC San Diego, and this is the year that we had slated to be in UC San Diego. And thankfully we're able to do it in person after two years being on Zoom. So this is just a joyous occasion for us. We see people hugging each other. You kiss... I got kissed by my Italian collaborator, Carlo. I hadn't seen him in three years. And it's just you become a family when you work with... I would say if you're not comfortable spending 10 years with the people you're working with, don't spend one year with them. And these are such phenomenal people. I'm going to be spending hopefully 20 years with these people. We've already spent six, two more years before we get first light data from the Simons Observatory and I hope that we're funded for another five years after that. And maybe who knows, even beyond that. So it is a family and I always talk about them, my welcome address tomorrow at the UC San Diego where we host the project office, kind of the center of power where we disperse all the funding and administration for the observatory, it's a full-time job for myself and my colleagues, that we will be setting the pathway to get those precious first light photons from this magnificent instrument built by 300 people who all happen to be enjoying sunny San Diego this week.

Mat Kaplan: So as we speak, the new issue of Scientific American has an article about these big questions about the beginning of the universe, the Hubble constant and the fact that we still don't know, pardon the expression, what the hell's going on in some ways. You're hoping to help answer some of these questions, right?

Brian Keating: Yeah. Well, to quote the rapper Biggie Smalls, he used to say, "More money, more problems," but in this case, we have more problems, more money because we actually are able to look for these tensions. There are anomalies in physics that don't make sense to us and the universe is created in such a way that to test the properties of the smallest particles known to human beings, the subatomic particles, the neutrinos and dark matter, which we don't know much about, dark energy, we need the largest possible laboratory. Well, you can't get any bigger than the universe itself. So we're using the entire universe as an accelerator, as an atom smasher, if you like, as a collider to experiment, to probe the universe at the highest possible energy scales. Conversely, probe the smallest possible link scales. So we are learning about these anomalies, these problems that may point to flaws in what's called a standard model of particle physics, a standard model of cosmology. I like to look at that as Leonard Cohen said, "The cracks let the light in." So where are the cracks in the standard model, the edifice, the artifice that we made up about the universe, which is a lot. We know tremendously precise details about the universe, but we know so much about it that we know that it doesn't quite make sense. There are anomalies and those point to tensions that we can hopefully resolve with these instruments. So it's a golden age. The more crises, the more fun for scientists, I say.

Mat Kaplan: One of the things that blew me away listening to your colleagues from some of these sister campuses, as some of the technical details, what it is taking to put together this exquisitely sensitive instrument and the kinds of things you have to achieve at, what is it a 10th of a degree above absolute zero? I'm just marvel at the fact that humanity is capable of taking on these kinds of projects.

Brian Keating: It is. And it's not even just building it. When we go down to San Diego Bay, you see an aircraft carrier, it wasn't just built to be built. It was built to be going out and projecting power into the world, right? So there's an operating cost that we typically account for about 10% of the construction cost goes into each year of operations, meaning in a decade you double the cost of the instrument. So I was calculating, and I'm going to show this in my opening remarks tomorrow, we are equivalent to the cost of say a Boeing 737 Max, 900 Max, it's a commercial passenger jet, that's about how much our observatory costs, all totaled be about a hundred million dollars. That airplane costs $10,000 an hour to fly it with fuel and the pilots and insurance and everything else, the maintenance. Our observatory costs a lot less to operate, but it costs about the same capital to build. So that means we can operate maybe longer than a Boeing 737 will last for, but when you think about how many parts are in a Boeing 737, how exquisitely they all have to fit together from different suppliers, we have scientists on all seven continents working on the Simons Observatory, speaking 30 different languages, eating different cuisines, my favorite thing to talk about. And when you look at the universe that we're trying to unfold, of course it's much more complicated than this instrument. But I ask you, Mat, would you get on a plane that you designed and built yourself? No, of course. So you have to build in a lot of safety and checks and there are people involved. We actually have to think about safety at high altitude, as you mentioned, wearing oxygen, we have to bring diesel fuel up, we have to have road maintenance, all these mundane things that I never thought as a 12 year old kid with my little refracting telescope looking up at the moon I'd be thinking about diesel fuel and some generator that's not working and that we need a maintenance plan for this type of conveyor belt. It's incredibly the mundane things, but without the mundane things, we don't build the instrument. So it's incredibly complicated, operating near absolute zero at atmospheric pressures, pressures lower than one billionth of the atmosphere that we are enjoying here at sea level. So for all those reasons yeah, it's an incredibly complicated instrument, machine if you will, and multiple machines that working in congress together and hopefully providing this unparalleled glimpse into the early universe.

Mat Kaplan: Just one more, the greater significance, the human significance of this, I think it's also wrapped up with why you wanted this group to get together today at a bar in downtown San Diego and reach out to other people. This has real significance for humanity and it goes beyond a lot of those terrible problems that we're dealing with across the rest of society.

Brian Keating: Yeah, that's right. So I think that science in general appeals to the... it's the one thing that, it used, to be nonpartisan and that maybe most of science can be free of politicization, but some of it has been politicized, it's true. And yet astronomy, in particular cosmology, it's very difficult to politicize the origin of the universe, the Big Bang and the distribution of matter and light and energy, and yet I'm sure some people would want to do that. But in any case, that type of polarization doesn't come into play in what we do, it creates kind of a safe space that we can enjoy and contemplate philosophical questions that were unanswerable up until now, basically this very day. And I always say on my podcast, I always say that scientists have a moral obligation to explain to the public in words the public can understand what it is that we're doing with their money. They give us this precious commodity that's fungible, their money, taxpayer to every single scientist here, every scientist you've ever known. There's no such thing as a privately trained scientist who didn't get anything from the government, which means from the taxpayer. So I believe it's our moral obligation. I strive to do that in my outreach efforts, but I've tried to inculcate that in my students and my colleagues as well, that we're giving back to the people, but really we're getting more in return. John Muir used to say, "By looking out, I really realized I was looking in." We're looking out on the biggest possible skills and conversely, we're learning more and more about what it truly means to be human beings.

Mat Kaplan: I saw that you ran out of meteorites that you were handing out to people, so you started giving away books. We'll do that at the end of this show, we'll give away another copy, we've already given away one when you and I spent time a while back, of your first book and now you have one more that's in print, which I look forward to reading. You gave me a copy today. And then there's that Galileo project. I was going to let you go because I know there are people waiting to talk to you, but say something about these newer works.

Brian Keating: Yeah. So I was privileged to record an audio book, the first ever by Galileo Galilei, the famous Dialogue of Two World Systems, which is the one that got him in prison for the remaining nine years of his life by the Pope who had formerly been... it's this incredible backstory behind this book. And so that's an audiobook. It's 21 hours long. It's available anywhere you get audiobooks or on my website, But if your listeners go to, they'll see a form that they can fill out and I will send them a piece of meteorite space dust from the early solar system, our planetary society, if you will, that it used to be. So if you go to my website, it's only people in the USA unfortunately, just from shipping demands and so forth. But if you go there and then you can check out my books that I've written there, you can download a copy of the audio books or you can buy a physical copy of the physical books, Think like a Nobel Prize Winner, Into the Impossible and Losing the Nobel Prize or Galileo's Dialogue. But yeah, don't miss your chance to get a fragment of the early planetary system, aka a meteorite.

Mat Kaplan: Thank you, Brian. Have a great time this week with your colleagues and I sure look forward to first light from that amazing observatory.

Brian Keating: Thank you, Mat. It's been a pleasure. It's always great to see you and in person without a mask.

Mat Kaplan: I love it. UCSD experimental astrophysicist, Brian Keating at last July's We Are Cosmologists public event in San Diego, California. You can learn about the Simons Observatory and much more at It's time for What's Up on Planetary Radio. Here's the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society, my favorite astronomer, he's Bruce Betts. You haven't heard it yet, but I think you will enjoy hearing my conversation with our colleague, Sarah, as I introduced her, the new host of the show.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, I'm very excited about Sarah hosting the radio show and not just because we're getting rid of Mat. I mean, that's most of it, frankly. But no, Sarah's great. I'm very happy with her choice. It's going to be fun to hear her enthusiasm and knowledge. And no one of course can ever fill the shoes of Mat because they stink, but God, I just-

Mat Kaplan: Just gets better and better.

Bruce Betts: I try to compliment you and then it just goes awry.

Mat Kaplan: You just can't. Your brain just isn't wired for that. But thank you. I know how you feel and I'm going to miss you too. Let me make it better, I've got a couple of these for you, Stephanie Delgado in Arizona, "I'm enjoying every last Mat Kaplan PB and J, passion, beauty and joy, before retirement." But that was followed by Ben Owens in Australia, "Okay, Bruce, time to load up the Laser Bees into another Falcon 9 and see if we can put Dimorphos back into its original orbit."

Bruce Betts: Anyone can knock an asteroid off its orbit, it's putting it back that's the real challenge. Laser bees being a project that we funded some early research using lasers to vaporize side of an asteroid and use the gas to push it. Wow. We'll give that a thought.

Mat Kaplan: Give some thought to what's up in the night sky, too.

Bruce Betts: We just had our partial solar eclipse, seen by some in Europe and surrounding areas. Now we've got our total lunar eclipse coming the night of November 7th through the 8th. You excited, Mat? Total lunar eclipse?

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, I am. I want to see it. It's late though, right?

Bruce Betts: Yeah, but I figure you party all night usually anyway, so you just need to crawl out. I'm sorry, I lost it on that one. About 11 UTC, which is about 3:00 AM here on the Pacific coast and 6:00 AM on the East coast. So we'll see. For the Americas, we will see the eclipse in a completeness over on the Western coast. It will set during totality on the East coast. It'll also be visible across the Pacific, it's kind of centered around the middle of the Pacific and over into very Eastern Asia and New Zealand and parts of Australia. Partial eclipse starts about two hours earlier ish. So look things up, go out on the morning of November 9th, that's the night of November 8th, depending where you are, check out the total lunar eclipse as the moon passes into the Earth's shadow and think about the profundity of being able to appreciate the three dimensional nature of the Earth moon system as one orb enters the shadow of another orb with the light cast by a third orb. Orb, orb, orb, orb. It's lost all meaning. Three planets in the evening's tonight sky, got Jupiter super bright over in the east, Southeast when the sun sets and Saturn looking yellowish up above it and considerably over in the sky. And a little bit later, an hour or two later, reddish Mars. Man, it is getting bright and will continue to get brighter through early December when Earth and Mars come closest in their orbits. Let us move on to this week in space history. An asteroid fact for you there. Well, we got a fact. The first asteroid close fly by by a spacecraft was this week in 1991 when the Galileo spacecraft flew by Gaspra in the main belt.

Mat Kaplan: I remember that faintly.

Bruce Betts: You were on the Galileo spacecraft as I recall. Actually you knew Galileo.

Mat Kaplan: Great guy, great guy. Insanely jealous of Leonardo, but that's okay, everybody is.

Bruce Betts: DiCaprio?

Mat Kaplan: Yes, of course.

Bruce Betts: How about we go on to a random space fact?

Mat Kaplan: That was the Halloween random space fact. Thank you.

Bruce Betts: So Mat, I think you'll like this one, even though it's a kind of a basic geometric fact, I'm guessing most people don't think, "How far is it to the center of the Earth?" The distance to the center of the Earth is about the distance from New York to Berlin, Germany, an eight hour to 10 hour flight, that's New York to Berlin. It takes much longer to reach the center of the Earth.

Mat Kaplan: If there was a hole just going down to the center of the Earth that didn't explode as a super volcano and kill us all, I wonder how long... we have to figure this out, this is one for Randall Munroe, how long would it take to fall from sea level down to the center of the Earth, the absolute center of the core? That's an interesting one for you. I'd like to have an answer by next week, please.

Bruce Betts: I think I can actually do that one as long as you allow me to do freshman physics assumptions. What if you put it all the way through the Earth and then it would keep going and it would start oscillating? There's all sorts of fun, terribly unrealistic physics, which is why I choose to move on to trivia contest. I asked you, as of now, October 2022, what spacecraft at Mars, in orbit or on the surface, has been operating the second longest? Mars Odyssey has been operating the longest. And how do we do, Mat?

Mat Kaplan: I'm going to provide what I believe is the answer in the form of a poem from Jean Lewin in Washington, it's titled "Stand Clear of the Doors," it'll become obvious why, "You could take the A train from Manhattan out to Queens, R on and L in Chi Town to Harlem Lake, you take the green. If you were in London though, in the bridge you want to see, starting out in Stratford, you would take the Jubilee. But if you're off to Martian soil and expedience is stressed, the second longest operating craft would be the Mars Express."

Bruce Betts: Wow. Wow. Wow.

Mat Kaplan: Clever.

Bruce Betts: That was impressive. We get a... Yeah, very clever. And we get information about Earth public transportation systems as a bonus. Yeah, Mars Express. I thought I wanted to throw a little love to Mars Express, an impressive European space agency accomplishment.

Mat Kaplan: Timothy Myers in California says, "Mars Express, orbiting Mars just slightly longer than I've been enjoying Planetary Radio." It was launched in 2003 I read.

Bruce Betts: Wow. We've been operating even longer than it has.

Mat Kaplan: That's true.

Bruce Betts: But not as long as Mars Odyssey.

Mat Kaplan: I got a winner for you.

Bruce Betts: Oh, good. That's usually part of our show.

Mat Kaplan: Adam Walks, a first time winner also in the state of Washington with Jean Lewin, maybe they know each other, he said, "Mars Express," he also said, "Keep up the great efforts in keeping us educated and affecting policy." Thank you, Adam. Adam, we're going to send you a Planetary Society kick asteroid, rubber asteroid that you can knock off course.

Bruce Betts: But we'll put it back. All right, in honor of our proto host, like a proto star Proto-Planetary... in honor of our upcoming host, we're going to play Where In the Solar System? Where in the solar system is our feature named Sarah? Go to contest. Nothing on the Earth, somewhere other than the Earth, where is there a future named Sarah?

Mat Kaplan: I love it. Sarah, I think you're a barred from entering for this one. You have until Wednesday, November 2nd. Wednesday, November 2nd at 8:00 AM Pacific time to get in on this one. And what we have for you is a copy of the book by Brian Keating, Into the Impossible: Think Like a Nobel Prize Winner: Lessons From Laureates to Stoke Curiosity, Spur Collaboration, and Ignite Imagination in Your Life and Career. Brian Keating, the astrophysicist in charge of the Simons Observatory Project out of UC San Diego, not far from where I am right now. I think you'll enjoy it. I've enjoyed talking to you for What's Up, Bruce. I think we're done.

Bruce Betts: One quick thing, Mat, I want to introduce a new segment, The Memories of What's Up. We'll do a quick one. Hey, you remember when that Mars Rover drove over us at some conference? Fortunately, it was it so [inaudible 00:46:56] rather than perseverance size.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. Right. And it never went to Mars. It was just sort of a prototype, speaking of more protos, but that was fun. Yeah, it rolled right on over us, didn't even care.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody go out there, look up in the night sky and think about your proto what... Thank you and good night.

Mat Kaplan: That's Bruce Betts. He's a star and you're going to hear more and more from that proto star, Sarah. I bet she'll be talking with the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society who will continue to join us every week here on What's Up. Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California. And it's made possible by its generous and loyal members. Don't forget to leave your message for Sarah and me at 844-PlanRad and then go visit to make us even more grateful. Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Josh Doyle composed our theme. Ad astra.