If there are universal laws for physics and chemistry, shouldn't there be universal laws of biology? Why are moons a reasonable place to look for extraterrestrial life? Why should we put telescopes on the dark side of the Moon?
In Episode 1, we talk with three bright stars of astrophysics, ASEF professors Maruša Bradač, Andrej Prša, and Uroš Seljak. Listen as they discuss the dark matter, the origins of the universe, and the age-old question of whether life exists on other planets.
The ASEF Podcast host is Tanja Janko, a Master's Student of Chemistry at the University of Zurich. She was an ASEF Fellow in 2019 with Dr. Dimitri Krainc at Northwestern University.
ASEF PODCAST – Episode #1: In a galaxy far, far away…
Tanja: The American Slovenian Education Foundation ASEF is an organization that enhances American and Slovenian education activities, uniting Slovenian scholars and educators globally. It has three core values: academic excellence, character formation, and dedicated service permeated by special care for Slovenian heritage. In the ASEF podcast, we host ASEF professors to get to know their research, best practices from their field, their vision for the development of that field in Slovenia, and how they envision collaborating among Slovenians worldwide.
Welcome to the first episode of the ASEF Podcast. My name is Tanja, and I'll be the host of this podcast. I am a master's student of Chemistry at the University of Zurich, and I was as a fellow in 2019 at the Dimitri Krainc lab at Northwestern University. Today we host three ASEF professors who work on astrophysics. With us are professor Maruša Bradač, a professor of physics at the University of California Davis, Andrej Prša, professor of astrophysics and planetary science at Villanova University, and Uroš Seljak, professor of astrophysics at the University of California Berkeley.
Thank you all very much for joining us today. First, we would like to ask you if you can briefly introduce yourselves and perhaps tell us where you studied, for how long you've been in the field, and maybe something about your current research. Andrej, maybe we can start with you.
Andrej: Sounds good. Hello everybody! My name is Andrej. I've been in the United States since 2006, which was a postdoc gone wrong. I was supposed to be here for just a year. But then after a year, Villanova essentially reached out with an offer that I couldn’t refuse, so I stayed. I studied at the University of Ljubljana. I graduated under the advisorship of professor Tomaž Citar. I've been working on eclipsing binary stars. I've been working on those since my Ph.D. years. I still ah as best as I can, I still dabble with them but right now I've brought my interests to exoplanets and to life in the universe. So those are my main topics. And then one remark that I can give is that every once in a while you come across something unexpected. So a spinoff project turned out to be extremely important, and that is we managed in 2015 to pass a resolution that I lead to nominalize the units of the mass and the radius of the Sun and Earth to be used as the units of measure, which before were used but nobody could quite agree what those numbers were. So as part of that spinoff, I also dabble with fundamental strong.
Tanja: Great! Maybe Maruša, can you continue?
Maruša: Yeah. Hi, my name is Maruša Bradač. I am currently a professor at the University of California Davis, but previously I have studied also in Ljubljana but continued my studies in Germany and Bonn where I graduated and later moved on to the United States where I have been since 2004 so long time now. I started working mostly as an expert in dark matter, particularly dark matter properties from astronomical observations. And later my topics of research have moved more to the first galaxies that formed in the universe. And now I'm mostly using, I´m part of the team that will be using the James Webb Space Telescope to observe those very first galaxies and I’m very much looking forward to that.
Tanja: Okay, Uroš, can you introduce yourself?
Uroš: My name is Uroš Seljak and I am a professor in both Physics and Astronomy department at UC Berkeley. I'm also a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. And let's see if I'm probably the most senior of all of the people here. So it's more just a career path. I too have been my undergraduate and masters at the University of Ljubljana. I've got my Ph.D. from MIT, and I went to a postdoc at Harvard and I was a professor at Princeton. I went to ICTP in Triest. I went to the University of Zurich as a professor there and then I came to UC Berkeley in 2008.
So I do Cosmology, that's my main topic of research. In Cosmology, I have started doing the research on cosmological background, his altarpiece and later I have been working a lot also on large scale structure of the universe, for example how the galaxies cluster and dark matter clusters and things like that. In recent years, I have diversified somewhat, again I started working on exoplanets but one of my recent passions is statistical analysis developments in the foundations of statistical analysis for particular, based on statistical analysis and machine learning those two areas.
Tanja: Okay, so you mentioned well that you work on dark matter. Can you explain what that is and maybe explain what are the possible pathways that we could take, unlocking the mystery of what dark matter actually is? And maybe we can start with Maruša?
Maruša: Yeah, so, dark matter is a very strange form of matter. We know it exists but we don't know exactly what properties it has from all the measurements that astronomers so far have. It looks like it has very unusual properties in that it doesn't interact. The particles of dark matter don't interact other than through gravity. The ways to achieve this is to observe dark matter in action through astronomical observations or we can also do similar observations of, we can also try to detect dark matter directly on Earth. So that's the realm of particle physicists. One thing to say though is while I'm very much hoping that LHC or a similar experiment will detect the signature of dark matter and will finally be able to grab a dark matter particle here on Earth, at the end of the day, it will still be up to astronomers to confirm that that particle is in the dark matter because one of the things that dark matter has to satisfy is that it has to make a significant amount of matter in the universe. And that's really up to astronomers to see whether the properties of that particle that we will detect hopefully soon here on Earth are indeed the ones that are matching the astronomical observations.
Tanja: and please both of you, you Uroš and Andrej please comment and provide your own view on dark matter as well.
Uroš: Yeah, right. I guess one interesting question is: what's the relationship between dark matter and dark energy? People, you know, often hear about both of these things, but they're not the same. Dark matter we think is really some solid particles that people are trying to discover in the lab. Whereas dark energy is more something where you might be cosmological constant or maybe it's something else. But we're not really directly searching for it in the lab. It also has very different properties. It has more properties of energy for example: the expansion of the universe is actually accelerated due to the dark energy. So we think if it dominates, if it becomes a dominating component of the universe, which seems like what is happening today, then it will actually lead to a very very exponential expansion, especially fast expansion of our universe, and the universe will become dark because all of the other galaxies, for example, will recede away from us. So that's the dark energy and it's very different in those properties from dark matter.
Andrej: Well, uh you have two experts talking about what it is. So I'm just gonna add a fun fact that astronomers as nerdy as they get, can actually have a little bit of fun. So throughout the history of dark matter, the candidates for dark matter were first these things called the Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects, which shortens into MACHOS. So then when they came with the alternative, which has to be something that is on the opposite side, right. So they came with a Weakly Interacting Massive Particles or WIMPs or WIMps. So you have MACHOs and WIMPs as the main contestants. And since they've been proposed MACHOs have gone out of favor and WIMPs are the particle that remains in favor to explain dark matter. And astronomers hope that (we'll not just astronomers, astronomers, and particle physicists) hope that we will get an answer to the dark matter in the next decade or two. Dark energy, on the other hand, my bet is we're not going to know for centuries.
Tanja: And maybe can you explain what kind of tools do you use for studying dark matter? And maybe adding on to that question, how did dark matter or studying dark matter and dark energy help you at understanding the creation of the universe.
Uroš: Yeah, so let me talk about the second question and then we have Maruša talk about the first one. So I was talking earlier about the future of the universe and how this dark energy in particular affects the future of the universe. And when it comes to the creation of the universe, we don't really think the dark matter played a role there, and also probably not dark energy the way we think about it today. The creation of the universe was probably more had to do with, I don't know, concepts like inflation and maybe some spontaneous creation of the universe out of nothing and things like that. And those are very fascinating questions, but so we typically study them by looking at fluctuations in the dark matter. So and so that those fluctuations in the dark matter and in the cosmos micro background then it's obvious are giving us hints for those theories of inflation in the very early universe.
Maruša: Yeah, and I can add a little bit about how we study dark matter. So in particular, our group has been using colliding clusters of galaxies. So these are some of the biggest structures in the universe that have collided. And we can see those collisions. So you can, by studying the distribution of all the matter in these structures, also figure out what the properties of the dark matter particles are, how they collided, and how they are moving through space. And so we can study their interaction properties that way. In addition, astronomers can look at the formation and evolution of galaxies and large-scale structures and study dark matter by comparing these structures with the structure computer simulation predicted. And so those were some early indications of the amount of dark matter we need in the universe in order to form the galaxies as we know them today. And all of this research together is helping us put together a picture of what dark matter might be and what its properties are. In addition, we can also study the regular matter that comes as a result of interaction of dark matter. So for example, from Fermi Telescope you can study gamma rays that could be admitted as a result of dark matter annihilation and so on. There are multiple experiments that deal with studying of dark matter and all of them are sort of pointing to the same common picture of what dark matter is and how much of it there is in the universe. But what exactly the particle of dark matter is and what's its mass it's still something that's unknown.
Andrej: Yeah, I have very little to just add, really, just to stress maybe once again, what both my colleagues said before: that the presence of dark matter is revealing itself in almost all aspects of fire away astronomy. So for as long as you're confined in the realm of our own galaxy and looking at the fine structure of the galaxy, dark matter is mostly insignificant. But as soon as you look at the big picture, for example, you see that galaxies do not rotate the way they would if own life matter were there. So you see these deviations in rotation curves, you see from what Uroš was saying early on, you have various acoustic constellations that points to the ratio between light matter, dark matter early on and how that impacts the evolution of the universe. So wherever we look, to Maruša’s point, wherever we look, we seem to constantly see a consistent picture pointing us to the answer, as best as we can tell, it is, everything is consistent across the board, even though the answer itself remains okay.
Tanja: Ok, thank you. And now if we touch a bit on exoplanets since Andrej and well, also Uroš, you both work on this field. Can you maybe tell us something about exoplanets and how do you study them? And maybe what are the two fields for studying exoplanets and galaxies and stars?
Andrej: So, exoplanets are a field that exploded over the last couple of decades. And those who’ve studied eclipsing binary stars, so systems of two stars that eclipse one another have had a bit of an advantage because at least in my mind, exoplanets are nothing else than eclipsing binaries in the extreme mass ratio. So instead of having two stars, one of those stars is kind of a failed star, so a smaller star. But the primary technique of detecting exoplanets remains the transit method. Which means we stare at the star for a long period of time and we see a dip because a planet transits and that gives us all sorts of fundamental information about the entire system, not just the planet and the stars. So being able to put the model together that is rooted in well understood laws of gravity and then on top of that understanding of radiation physics, that tells us just how much light's block, tells us what the mass of the planet will be, what the radius of the planet will be, what the temperature ratio between the two will be if it's a giant planet. So you can learn a whole bunch just by looking at the light curve of such an object. And then there are other methods that I'll just briefly mention. You can see the imprint of an exoplanet as a radio velocity modulation. So if you see wiggles that something's tugging your star back and forth, chances are it's an exoplanet. And the relevance of course, is that it kind of tackles the ages-old question whether we're alone in the universe. I imagine no human being is left completely impervious to the notion that there may be other worlds out there and other civilizations that, you know, eventually you might even contact, but I think at least that's what makes the study of exoplanets so far. So I'll hand this off to Uroš and Maruša to cement this idea even further.
Uroš: Yeah, So, you know, there's this old saying “somebody's dirt is somebody else's gold”, right? And for Andrej exoplanets are dirt that he's trying to get rid of because really all he cares is expecting binaries. Right? And to me, it’s just the opposite, I couldn't care less about the environment- to me, that’s just dirt that I have to get rid of so that I can actually get to the interesting stuff, which is the exoplanets. We collaborate very well, you know, because of this, right? So, yes, exoplanets has exploded, for example, Captain satellite has, has detected, I don't know, a few thousand exoplanets in just one satellite, and the other techniques, micro lensing, for example, is a very interesting technique. People are also trying to do direct imaging of the exoplanets. and it all goes from the physics point of view, I guess the most interesting thing is how did the planets been created. So it's basically the formation of the exoplanets that is perhaps the most interesting unsolved problem. But from the broader perspective, it is also the question of habitable zone: how many habitable zone planets are there out there? In other words, it goes back to this question. Are we alone? Are we not? There's this famous Drake equation that has, I don't know 20 terms, you know, but this is one of them that we can actually answer. Of course we cannot answer the other 19 probably, but we'll get those. This question, for example, is one question that I'm studying right, getting the occurrence of Earth-like planets with, you know, one year period around stars. How typical is this? And this is very difficult question because the Earth-like planets at least in satellites like capital and tests are very, very weak, very in the noise. And so it becomes an interesting statistic question, which is how I dealt with this. But there's no question this field has exploded and it will continue to be one of the most important fields in astronomy in the next decade or decades.
Maruša: So I can probably add very little to this as I'm not, I'm the only one here who is not directly studying exoplanets except that when we were designing the camera that I'm part of for the James Webb Space Telescope, a big component of our group, in fact, half of the people in our group care about exoplanets. So it was an interesting, a sort of sociological, experiment: how do you (and also technological experiment), how do you build a camera that will satisfy both observations of first galaxies as well as observations of exoplanets themselves. And I think we managed really well. And I'm really looking forward to this exquisite data when we are getting it. Unlike what Uroš was just saying on studying the exoplanet population in general, what we are mostly focusing is individual exoplanets and then trying to understand their structure and what they are made of and what kind of elements do we see, their atmosphere, etcetera. But it's definitely going to be very exciting field and it's going to have a very bright future from all the experiments that will be happening soon.
Tanja: So Uroš mentioned the Drake equation and you mentioned a bit about having the possibility of, well, there is maybe a possibility of having intelligent life out there. And you touched on the habitable zone. Maybe you can describe please. What exactly is that? Maybe comment on, what does your intuition tell you about the possibility of intelligent life in space?
Uroš: Yes. So, habitable zone. I can talk about habitable zone for sure, habitable zone for stars like our sun is typically defined to be somewhere, let's say between Venus optimistically to Mars, right? So we are, you know, let's say half the way between Venus and Mars in terms of the distance from the sun. And so we are definitely in the right spot for the habitable zone. And that's because, you know, there has to be water, it cannot be frozen and it cannot be paper and it has to have atmosphere. So that's one condition right, that it has to be at the right distance from the sun. And the second condition is that probably has to be a rocky planet, so it probably has to be small enough. So it's not a gaseous planet. So that's what defines the habitable zone. And those are the questions that we can answer. But this Drake's equation, which really is the equation which tells the possibility for, let's say, intelligent life, as I said, has probably, you know, 19 other terms of which I have absolutely nothing useful to say. Therefore I will not say it.
Andrej: So I'll maybe expand a couple just with a couple of thoughts on habitability itself. So, habitable zone by itself obviously doesn't guarantee, as Uroš already said, you know, you gotta have a planet, that's right as well. But then you can have habitability outside of the habitable zone. And if we look at our solar system, the hardest moon isn't anywhere near the sun, it's actually one of Jupiter's moons, Io it is the closest moon to Io and tidal heating is what makes it an extreme volcanic world. And Europa, which is the second one is one of the prime targets for exo-life exploration because we have undeniable proof that there's about 30 km worth of a water ocean under the ice of Europa. And we know that there's rock, salt, water connection between them, which is what we hope to understand that this is how life here on Earth, where life here on Earth developed first. So, in terms of habitability, there are endless options. You've got to start somewhere. So the point of a habitable zone, which is exactly what Uroš said, you can't lift too much of volatile gasses into the atmosphere because then you trigger around like greenhouse effect close or even if you put all of them into the atmosphere, they'll still freeze over and, and snow, like dry ice and dry snow. So if it's too cold, it'll just slow back down. So you need to be somewhere in between those regions that it's nice and cozy for life to have water. But let me just share one last thought and this is more of a global thought and then I'm sure someone will throw the Fermi paradox at me after this. But so far as physicists, we observe two irrefutable facts: the first is that physics throughout the universe is universal. And the second is the chemistry throughout the universe is universal. So my question to you guys then is if physics and chemistry is universal, wouldn't it be natural that biology is universal as well? And I'm not claiming that there are humans walking out there, but carbon-based life forms, that's what I would expect to be everywhere in the universe.
Uroš: Can I just add to that? So I guess Andrej is talking about universality in terms of physical laws or in terms of…
Uroš: Right. But the diversity can be still very large, even if the underlying physical laws are the same.
Andrej: The point I'm trying to make is that there's no place in this universe where we observe the laws of physics to be different.
Uroš: The laws, yes.
Andrej: Yes. All the distributions, everything else that we see. Absolutely. There is variation. But my argument here is that I see no inherent reason why biology would favor one planet in one galaxy, out of 200 billion solar -well stellar- systems, out of billions of galaxies out there. So it seems only natural to me that there has to be carbon-based life.
Uroš: Yeah, so I actually want to add just a little bit to what Andrej said at the beginning, which I forgot to mention earlier. We have all seen the movie Avatar right? And the movie Avatar was actually happening on the moon, circling a planet, a Neptune-like planet, right? And it is indeed quite reasonable to think that moons might actually be a better target for a habitable life. The only problem is that we have not detected a single moon -yet. That certainly is one of the passions of mine to try to detect it. I actually thought I had detected it like a year ago but then it turned out it went away. And the way to detect a moon in my mind at least is to look at the times of the transit of the planets and see if there are small variations in those times. And I think that is the most sensitive way and that's the one I'm actually focusing on.
Maruša: Yeah, I can add a little bit to this. I mean all what has been said is absolutely correct. We have no way of saying definitely that's carbon-based life. If you go one step below, intelligent life exists elsewhere. But you know history is teaching us something. Whenever we thought in the past that we are the center of something or we are the only and one thing in the universe, that turned out to be wrong. So I don't see why, you know, there we can be so selfish to think that we are the only intelligent life in this entire universe. We know there are so many stars and galaxies out there that there has to be something else. And if I can give a quote that is not scientific in any sort of way, but comes from Calvin and Hobbes they were saying that “the surest sign that the intelligent life exists is that none of it has contacted us yet”. So I am going to say if I have to make a bet, I would definitely think that there is intelligent life elsewhere.
Tanja: Okay, thank you. A lot of interesting points have been made. So my next question would be: we landed our fifth rover on Mars two months ago. If we speculate how could a Mars colony affect astronomy research? what do you think if we would install telescopes or deploy satellites on Mars? Would that provide some advantage over those that are currently located on Earth?
Maruša: I can start with this one. So I mean directly for the research that us three are doing this, this kind of rovers aren't providing that much extra information. On the other hand, what we are achieving with these rovers is advancement in technology that's beyond that imaginable. And I firmly believe that such a research should be supported, and it should be there. And it's telling us a lot about planetary formation which is crucial for us to figure out how exoplanets then form. Because of course the easiest way to study us, an exoplanet system is by first looking at the solar system and understanding the very details of how our solar system formed and so that's why I think those are very good endeavors sending people to Mars are something that I support a lot less. I think that's more of a similar to moon landing, it's a little bit of a political battle. But if you think about political battles sending people to the moon actually is what was the reason for the whole Nasa and whole research that happened afterward to have started, and so those kind of things can be extremely helpful in ways that one could not imagine a priori from the get-go.
Tanja: Andrej or Uroš, do you have something to add?
Andrej: No. I'll just say I completely agree with Maruša that sending people to Mars is just a stunt to get people excited. If somebody offered me the chance to go would I go? I would consider it. But not for the scientific reasons. It's just that, you know, pioneering venture that just sounds so appealing but robots can do so much better than we can, and they're so… really humans are so much more fragile than robots. That really makes no sense in a scientific sense it is to send people out there. As far as the other part of your question regarding whether it would be useful placing observatories there and so on. Absolutely not. The main obstacle here on Earth is the atmosphere. And even though the atmosphere on Mars is a lot thinner than the atmosphere here on Earth there's still an atmosphere. And if we can put telescopes on the satellites in space then why would we bother landing it someplace else? An argument could at least superficially be made for the Moon because the Moon has no atmosphere. So the telescope on the Moon would be pretty cool and there actually are telescopes on the Moon put there by the Chinese space agency that is operating and they're just so darn cool. But in terms of science just think of Tess because (I just mentioned Tess because Uroše mentioned it just a minute ago) Tess is a small little satellite that has enough fuel In a little box really to have it operate for 100 years, 100 years! Just think about that little instrument put out there in space. Unless something hits it out of nowhere Tess will be operating until Nasa decides to and my hope is they do not pull the plug for a long time. But I think to Maruša’s point that most of all this hype over landing on Mars beyond the fundamental research of Mars and habitability of Mars and stuff like that which is awesome, and we flew our first helicopter on Mars just recently and stuff like that right. Most of everything else is (?)
Uroš: Yeah, let me just add to that. Instead of thinking of scientific research on Mars there is actually an interesting spot which is the dark side of the moon. Where it actually does make sense to send things there. Well it's dark side, right. In other words it's shielded, It doesn't have the turmoil variations. And there are actually reasonably good arguments to send telescopes there and to land on the dark side of the moon and have a telescope station there. I'm also -because I am partly the part of energy one of their projects that they seem to -I'm really excited about- is to do exactly that: to go to the dark side of the moon to measure various things, searching the 21 cm radiation. So these are basically microwaves. For many different reasons, basically this is scientifically interesting. But of course, I suspect there are also political reasons why they're pushing it so hard because they would basically use signs as an excuse to occupy dockside at the dark side of the Moon.
Tanja: Okay, thank you. And now, if you switch topics a bit, you are all working at US universities. Would you share some of the advantages or shortcomings that you have experienced during your work? And maybe compared to Slovenian universities and research community? And what would you say that our strength of Slovenian academic space compares to US. Maybe we can start with Maruša?
Maruša: Sure. So I'll start with the advantages of Slovenia because I think people often forget that we do have many advantages and one of the main advantages is the level and quality of the education a student is getting from finishing a degree in Slovenia. It's really quite astonishing. And if I compare our students in Slovenia to the student's I’ve done work with in the US I see that I have to spend a lot of time teaching a US student the very basics of astronomy because they have never really received it. So the basic education is definitely a lot better in Slovenia. Also as a professor in US teaching a class of 400 students is kind of an eye opening and you’re feeling like you could be replaced by robots because nobody can, you don't really remember any of your students and you're not giving them anything beyond the actual material that you're teaching. And so there are definitely advantages there. What the disadvantages are in Slovenian universities compared to US universities probably funding and this notion of what we call our one university where university itself supports research, basic research itself. In Slovenian universities as a professor you have to teach. And then if you manage to get your own projects started you might be able to do a lot more research but the sort of the resources are usually limited and we also have a very limited resources for telescope access which in the US Is definitely better from that point of view. But as always in life there are always advantages and disadvantages. And I think Slovenia often thinks of itself as inferior to US. But in many cases this is not the case I think.
Uroš: Yeah. Okay so let me let me go second. I think… well I certainly went through Slovenian university education and I got a very strong undergraduate education and so I believe that in terms of education Slovenian universities are on par with the best universities here. And moreover because of the high school level the students are probably better educated in Slovenia than here then there's probably some advantage there. I would only -in terms of what we could learn, what Slovenia could learn from, let's say US I would perhaps emphasize the research component. A lot of undergraduate students here do research as part of their training. There's a lot of incentive to do research in terms of grants. There's a lot of incentive from the students themselves to do research because they know that when they apply to the graduate school for example they will need recommendation letters from the research advisors and not just from the teachers. And so this is the component that I personally would like to highlight as something that I would like to see more in Slovenia, and I hope this can be changed. I will try to do something about it myself as well. But I would say this is perhaps the most important difference. The consequences, basically, at least in my field, are that if you get an application from a Slovenian student and if that student has not had any research experience then the student is not competitive at the graduate school level because just reading that the students got a ten in a class that's not good enough for graduate school. So that's really something that should be emphasized more at undergraduate level in Slovenia.
Andrej: So as everybody is used to this, I'm echoing more or less what's already been said. I teach smaller classes. So my classes here in the major (I'm talking within the astro-major) is typically between 10 and 15 students -which is much more manageable, and it does give us an opportunity to train them to be future astronomers. Villanova is also one of those institutions that prides itself in undergrad research. So as part of the undergrad curriculum, while we do not require a formal thesis, we do require a research project, that has to be presented at least at a national level and published at least in some shape or form. Without that, they cannot graduate. And so if you apply this across the entire generation of students, you can imagine that the efforts to get them there is substantial. Now, I truly agree. I would actually go even further to what Uroš said. I would say even the best institutions here because they're pulling from such a varied background of people, Slovenia does not have that problem. It's much more uniform. So because of that it's easier to provide the entry level of knowledge that it's more uniform across the entire country. Whereas here you're pulling from all walks of life and as you do that, you essentially go to the least common denominator and go from there, which really puts a burden onto the instructors to convey all the knowledge. And because of that, primarily because of that, I think the Slovenian education system higher education system is superior to the US. However, for exactly the reasons mentioned by my colleagues, access to research in general, observing facilities funding, and so on, makes the experience here much better because we're not going to be tested for the rest of our lives. We're going to be doing research for the rest of our lives. So if you're exposed to this research, you're exposing them to their life in academia that awaits them. And then the disadvantage of Slovenian education that I see is because university is not something you pay for, and the degree is not something you purchase, essentially, there's a whole lot of self-patting on the back and arrogance, and this fundamental division between professors and postdocs and graduate students and undergrads where it's almost like a cast where you belong. You kind of need to know the rules of engagement there, which I really did not appreciate. And to this point, I don't hear students are treated with much more finesse, I will say you try to help the students rather than students being there because you are so good. It's your job to really teach the students be their very best. So, this person ability is what I miss. And mind you, I'm talking about the department of Physics, which is probably one of the most personable because it's the smallest in all of the University of Liubliana. But I would argue that we in Slovenia that we could do much better than what we're doing so far. So yeah, I think as Maruša said, there are pros and cons, and sometimes pros outweigh the cons. And I think for, for the three of us, the pros of being in the United States outweighed the pros of being in Slovenia. That's why we are here. But it really is a decision that everybody makes for themselves based on the pros and cons.
Maruša: I might add a comment on this on your last comment, Andrej, about, you know, about casts and such. I mean, a paid university system also has its huge drawbacks. And one of them that we have increasingly been seeing lately is entitlement in a sense, “I paid for this, so you have to provide me a service”. And the service needs to some people take it in a good way, and some people also take it in a really bad way. It's like, “I don't need to do anything, you have to provide everything for me”. And so it can, the paid universities can create drawbacks. It can also it can also be very disadvantaged for students with low income or parents who haven't had degrees. And I find that whole paid university to be really quite problematic and so in no way would I want to advocate this for Slovenia. But what I do, what I do think we can indeed do better is to be more approachable to students and the students do not feel like there is a caste system. Because it really isn't. Really we are there for you and, and you're there for your education, not that students are there for us. So I think, introducing paid system though would make more harm than good.
Andrej: I fully agree; when it comes to education, I'm as far left as you can imagine. And so I certainly never advocate any paid system. In fact, I advocate that the debate system here stops, even if that cost me my job, given that I'm teaching at a private university. But ultimately, I fully agree. It is just, I feel that when it puts you as a professor in a different position considering the clientele that you're serving. So our students are there because of you, or are you there because of your students? And it seems to me that egos sometimes get those two confused. Why someone is where.
Maruša: Students should really be there for their own education, not because of us. And so the sooner we get this across… and, you know, they need to, take this into their own hands. A lot of times because they paid for something, they feel like it should be handed to them…
Andrej: I agree. I fully agree. But ultimately the expertise lies in us and we pass it on. So it's kind of a two-way street work. The universities need both faculty and students.
Tanja: Okay. In your opinion, how can Slovenia compete in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics? For example in Slovenia we have a startup called Skylights which is developing nanosatellites, and there is a big trend over using nanosatellites for different purposes. Do you think that nanosatellites can be used to replace space telescopes or even provide some advantages over using land telescopes? And do you think that such a company can be relevant to the development of your field in Slovenia? Maruša, you can start.
Maruša: Okay. I mean, the company making nanosatellites, it's mostly technological advantages that you get from these satellites, and that's a really great thing. In terms of astronomy it really depends on what you, what you do with them because if you think about the case of Starling, which sent a lot of satellites into space, what it costs for astronomy is a lot of headaches because all these satellites are causing streaks in the sky that we have to remove from our astronomical data. So, in the end, for astronomy they are doing a lot more harm than good. Regarding what is what Slovenia would need to advance this presence even further, I think one of the main things is access to telescope time, which Slovenia is lacking in this case, and of course lack of funding is the other problem. But all the European countries, for example, are joined in the European southern observatory scheme where you can apply for telescope time in Chile. Slovenia does not have this access, and as an observational astronomer, that's probably one of the biggest drawbacks of Slovenia in terms of astronomy landscape.
Tanja: Andrej maybe?
Andrej: Funding funding, funding, funding, funding, funding. I really think I can't overstress this enough. A recent NSF study has shown that each dollar invested into science returns five-fold. It's a 500% return on the investment. Let that sink in for just a second. 500% return. The problem is that you don't know who collects those 500%, right? It's not a single investor that can collect that. But R and D in general in fundamental science results in a 5-fold increase. If a country wants to prosper, this is such an obvious direction where an overall prosperity can thrive. If you invest more into fundamental research. So I would say: funding funding, funding, funding, funding, and then, a little bit more funding.
Uroš: I actually I wanna bring up the thought that maybe there are opportunities where we do not need to invest at least in the telescopes. And this may also connect to your next question, which is the data science aspect of astronomy. Astronomy is an amazing field in the sense that you could be sifting through the data, through lots of data, and looking for something interesting in here, and then a lot of that data is actually public. You know, for example, the data from Nasa satellites that Andrej and myself are working on, that's all public: you can just go and do it. And so this certainly is an opportunity where I think Slovenia could if it’s interested become a leader in it. Especially since it is already quite strong in machine learning and artificial intelligence. And combining those two aspects, I believe this could actually be a winning strategy for Slovenia without actually investing into, without actually paying for, the satellites or telescopes or whatever.
Tanja: Okay, since you already started with my last question… Do you Maruša and Andrej have any further opinions on how artificial intelligence in Slovenia can help advance the field of astrophysics?
Maruša: Yeah, I definitely agree with Uroš. That's a really good opportunity for Slovenia to tap into because the initial investment to do such science is actually not huge. And so you can do a lot with a very efficient computer cluster. Slovenia has historically been good in theoretical research, in general. With theoretical, I'm here now including the data science aspect of it. And so I definitely think this could be an excellent way to go forward.
Andrej: And I will just mention that I usually dislike artificial intelligence to be separated from data science. It sounds to me that artificial intelligence again sounds like hype words that people latch onto. The truth is exactly what Uroš and Maruša had said. And that is data science in itself is something that Slovenian undergrads and grads really get it supposed to quite well. The issue still remains that I maintain this point that if you want to really make a difference, you have to funnel money into that. So while yes, you don't have to pay for observatories and you don't have to pay for large corporation memberships and so on because the data are public, you do need to have people well paid so that you stop the brain drain, you stop people feeling uncertain about their future. And those that are best will really make a difference. So pursue data science, which is a forte of Slovenia's education, but pursuing responsibly so that you realize what you have. And it is an as up your sleeve, and I agree with Uroš: Slovenia could take the leadership role in all of this, but not without extensive funding. I really think that it needs to become more than just a niche. It has to be a trademark if you will a signature of Slovenian expertise that really distinguishes itself, and you know what, when we see applicants (going back to Uroš’s point) from Slovenia, I usually have a trigger reaction. This person is going to be really good at data science. And sometimes it won't happen, but most times it will. And because of that, I think, fostering that further and investing significantly in that, I think they're very, very juicy food.
Uroš: And let me just add to that actually in terms of investment, what kind of investment. In this context I would actually like to emphasize that starting with a maybe supercomputer center that is available and that is based on proposals that people apply to and get a CPU that’s computer time. If their project because it is good, I think that would be a fantastic way to start because it would serve many different communities, not just astro-people right, but also everybody else, and it would be peer reviewed based, and it would be a real investment. So, you know, supercomputer center. What we need, you know in my research group, you know, we are doing data science, what do we need? We need a supercomputer, right? We need a Gpu cluster, the CPU classes and things like that, so, and that's what makes the difference for us.
Tanja: Okay, we are slowly coming to the end of this episode. We would like to thank you for such a great conversation. And before closing off is there may be a book, an article or maybe a podcast that you would recommend to our listeners, which would be further interested in today's topic of discussion.
Andrej: Let me go first because I don't have any of those to recommend. My recommendation would be to go outside have a life. One of my greatest passions is scuba diving. If you've never tried it (and if you don't have problems with your ears) go try it! It's amazing! You find aliens down there that look nothing like what you're used to. So my suggestion really is get your nose out of the book. There's a whole world out there worth exploring. So make sure that you spend some quality time outside.
Maruša: Yeah, I would like to add to this that you know, in nowadays we're too connected to the digital world. Getting out of it is actually fantastic. And rather than maybe reading a book at home, visiting public lectures of which there are many also in Slovenia, it's probably a better way to spend your time and talk one on one with scientists. See how they're thinking, see how they act, how they go about with their life. Because I mean, I myself, as a little kid went to astronomy camps and got excited about astronomy that way. And you know, no zoom session or podcast or anything would have replaced that because that's the best way to drive the curiosity.
Uroš: Yes. I also don't have anything specific, but I will encourage everybody. Yes. The search for material, there's a lot of material on Youtube and Google and you basically just typing the topic of interest. That's how I do it. If I'm interested in learning something I type it in, and then, you know, something interesting comes up. Right, And then I listen to the lecture on that topic or maybe read an article over there. That's, that's the best way. Basically what I'm trying to say is we're learning all of our lives rather life. And I encourage everybody to do the same.
Tanja: Well thank you all for joining us in this podcast. And to our audience, we hope you enjoyed this podcast episode. We will be glad to hear your feedback! You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please follow us on social media to learn more about our professors, fellows, and many other activities that are hosted by ASEF. We hope to see you on our next episode, where we will discuss fields of artificial intelligence.