Interview with Astronomer Sandra Faber

I’m thrilled to post my interview with Astronomer at the Lick Observatory and UC Santa Cruz Professor Emerita Sandra Faber, Ph.D. to the Rocket Girls Podcast.  Dr. Faber, according to her faculty webpage at UCSC, “focuses on using the lookback power of large telescopes to study the formation and evolution of galaxies.” She has made important discoveries about how the the brightness of galaxies is related to the the speed of stars within them, co-discovered the Faber–Jackson relation, and played a significant role in designing the Keck telescopes in Hawaii.  She was recognized by Discover Magazine as one of the 50 Most Important Women in Science, received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in 2013 and the Gruber Prize in Cosmology in 2017.  Dr. Faber earned her B.A. in n Physics with minors in Mathematics and Astronomy from Swarthmore College, and earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Favorite Segments from the Interview:

Dr. Faber compared the creation of our universe to the rising of a bubble seemingly out of nowhere in a glass of Coca-Cola.

“We’ve all seen a glass of coke Coca-Cola. So, isn’t it amazing that, lets hone in with our little microscope on a little piece of the fluid there while it’s still a fluid, and then just, just like that probably due to a quantum fluctuation, a little bubble appear out of nothing right? So, the surface of that bubble is really like the space in our universe except as we know a surface has two dimensions whereas space and our universe has three. If you’re willing to forget the difference between two and three for a moment and think that we were living in a two-dimensional universe; like flat creatures slithering around on the surface.

Then the appearance of that bubble and its expansion, that’s the point. The new bubble just appears; somehow the motion of the space there just appears out of nothing. We have fluid and a microsecond later we’ve got this surface and then the surface gets bigger. This is really what the big bang was like in our universe. There’s something like the coke and we don’t really know what that something is. Which pre-existed our universe and then suddenly a little seed appeared that had within in all the potential of the space of our universe. That’s the little microscopic bubble and it’s been expanding ever since, but no I would say we’re not creating new space it’s just the space that appeared as the bubble appeared out of nowhere. It’s simply since then getting bigger.”

The Existence of Our Galaxy is Due to Tiny Quantum Density fluctuations at 10-35 seconds (that’s a really, really short amount of time) after the Big Bang.

Advice to Girls Passionate about Science

  • Read magazines like Discover Magazine and Scientific American.  Google things you want to learn about.  Read.
  • Study math and physics in high school.
  • Attend a summer institute to do authentic, publishable, scientific research


How to Get More Involved

Dr. Faber talks about the summer research opportunities in Astronomy at UC Santa Cruz.

The Transcript

Melanie Fine: This is Melanie Fine of Rocket Girls and here I’m interviewing Dr. Faber, Dr. Sandra Faber, who is an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Welcome Dr. Faber.

Sandra Faber: Thank you.

Melanie Fine: So thank you for making the time to talk with us today, and I wanted you to tell me about your work at Santa Cruz. What kind-- what do you do in your work as an astronomer? I’ve read that you’re investigating distant galaxies.

Sandra Faber: Right! One of the great things about being an astronomer is that you use the telescope and that allows you to look back in time. So you can actually see how the universe was in the past. And this is really interesting for people like me who are interested in the formation of the galaxies, because you can look billions of years back in time and see proto galaxies, infant galaxies, we can watch them grow over time and piece together the whole history of galaxy formation.

Melanie Fine: And how do you see galaxies? Are you looking through a telescope? Are you studying data that comes through a computer? How does that work?

Sandra Faber: Well first of all, you do look through a telescope and I am an optical infrared astronomer so I use optical infrared telescopes. There are some x-ray telescopes. There are gamma ray telescopes. There are radio telescopes, but I use the part of the spectrum that we see with our eyes, visible light and maybe slightly longer wavelengths than that. So what you do, first of all, is you build a big telescope, it focuses the light, it makes a picture of a bit of captured sky.  And you take a picture of that you record it, just the way you would do it on a digital camera, and have a detector there that converts all that information to digital information; a bunch of numbers, brightness’s, and pixels and so on. And then we have a bunch of computer programs that we use to analyze those images. And one other thing that we can do, we don’t just take pictures of patches of sky; we can actually put the light from a little region into something called a spectrogram; which spreads the light out into a spectrum with blue at one end and red at the other. And then once we do that then magically a whole lot of features appear in the spectrum that are dips of certain wavelengths of light and there are peaks at other wavelengths of light. And those dips and peaks carry information about what that thing; a galaxy for example, is made out of. What kinds of stars it has, how much gas it has, what the composition of the gas is, and actually even how things are moving inside the galaxy. Even something called the Doppler effect. So, it’s a combination of energies of the sky together with spectra at some pieces of the sky. That’s what I analyze.

Melanie Fine: And so, correct me if I’m wrong, so you’re really looking at color and location. When take a --

Sandra Faber: Exactly.

Melanie Fine: So you take a visual if you’re doing something in the visible light range. So, I know as a chemistry teacher that we use spectrographs to determine identities of elements. Is that part of what you do?

Sandra Faber: That’s exactly what we do. That’s right. So, as I was saying, there are these spectral features, some come from stars, some comes from gas planets between the stars that are excited by star light and cause the glow. And by measuring the strength of those features they’ve all been identified. Some come from iron, magnesium, calcium, sodium, hydrogen, bigger stellar features, gas cloud features are oxygen, sulphur, nitrogen, and so on. We’ve developed very sophisticated methods for measuring the composition of the stars and the gas from the strengths of those features.

Melanie Fine: Right, wow, and then you talk about the Doppler effect and I know that some, the Doppler effect like shortens wavelengths and elongates wavelengths based on ,I guess, perhaps how fast the star is moving or gas cloud.

Sandra Faber: It depends on whether its velocity along the line of sight. If it’s moving sideways it doesn’t give you a proper effect, but if it’s coming towards you then the wavelength of that feature is shortened up to the blue. And if it’s going away from you it’s lengthened out to the red.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: We measure that and we get very precise velocities that way.

Melanie Fine: Really. How do you distinguish those velocities from like the chemical composition? Because color also gives you chemical composition. How do you know which peaks are motion versus which peaks are chemical composition?

Sandra Faber: All the peaks are chemical composition and the positional peaks tells you the motion.

Melanie Fine: Oh, interesting. Ok, very good.

Sandra Faber: So, given a peak you can do two things here. With it you can measure its size, that is to say you know, is it really a high peak or a low peak. And you can also measure its wavelength. Maybe this is a good time to also mention that, because I study galaxies, galaxies are in the universe and the universe is expanding. And there’s an expansion law here that the farther the galaxy is away the more it is red shifted due to the expansion. So when I look at a distant galaxy I see an overall shift to the red due to the expansion of the universe. And then if I hone in on different parts of the galaxy I can see slight differences because relative to the center, the main motion of the galaxy, a little piece might be in rotation about that center. So, by measuring slight Doppler shifts differences inside a galaxy I can actually tell a lot about the kinematics of the galaxy. How the stars and gas are moving inside it.

Melanie Fine: Well, I guess there is a lot of physics in figuring out the rates of expansion – you mentioned kinematics that’s why that triggered it to me.

Sandra Faber: Yeah

Melanie Fine: A lot of physics, a lot of calculus probably even more advanced math than that. So, yea I know that a number of years ago, actually not too long ago, a couple physicists won a Nobel Prize for determining the rate, I guess, were determining the rate of expansion of the galaxy. In the rate is it, is it accelerating the expansion?

Sandra Faber: That’s right. Yes. So, you can look at the distant galaxies and compare one to another at slightly different distances and see the difference in the rate of expansion. But then, you can look at much more distant, sorry, much more local nearby galaxies and their light is coming from times that are much closer to today. And you can compare differences among them and you can see that the differences are getting bigger, the differences in the rate of the expansion that’s what I’m trying to say --

Melanie Fine:  Right.

Sandra Faber: Are getting bigger as we come down in time to the present era. And that’s how we know the universe, as you say accelerating, it’s amazing.

Melanie Fine: Well, I had asked someone about this before and he, of course, didn’t have an answer. So, it’s expanding into what? I mean, are we creating space or is space infinite?

Sandra Faber: We are definitely creating space. I think most people think, most cosmologists, this is very speculative but I think most cosmologists would say that our universe is very big and we don’t know how big it is in total. We think that there’s an awful lot more of the universe beyond what we’ve probed so far. I’ll come back to that.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: But, most people would probably think that out universe is finite in size all together. But here’s the key, this is the interesting thing. It looks as though there are more dimensions in physics than just space and time of our universe. We tend to think that we have three space dimensions here and then there’s a fourth expansive that’s time. But, physicists are thinking about theories in which there are 10 or 11 dimensions all together.


Melanie Fine: And we don’t know what--

Sandra Faber: In order to—

Melanie Fine: Go ahead. Continue.

Sandra Faber: yea where this idea comes from it sort of played out naturally, after a lot of work, in trying to account for the nature of subatomic particles like protons, electrons, quarks, and things like that. And so, it’s a very invigorating idea because maybe reality has lots of dimensions and then maybe our third dimensional universe, as it expands and evolves and space gets bigger, both space and time because time is getting bigger too as time passes, maybe it’s expanding into these higher dimensions. Maybe they’re out there but there’s no way of light traveling from inside our universe to the other dimension. So there are effectively hidden from us. Can I give you an analogy?

Melanie Fine:  Please, that’ll help. Yes.

Sandra Faber: Ok, so supposing we’ve all seen a glass of coke Coca-Cola.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: So, isn’t it amazing that, lets hone in with our little microscope on a little piece of the fluid there while it’s still a fluid, and then just, just like that probably due to a quantum fluctuation, a little bubble appear out of nothing right? So, the surface of that bubble is really like the space in our universe except as we know a surface has two dimensions whereas space and our universe has three. If you’re willing to forget the difference between two and three for a moment and think that we were living in a two dimensional universe; like flat creatures slithering around on the surface. Then the appearance of that bubble and its expansion, that’s the point. The new bubble just appears somehow the motion of the space there just appears out of nothing. We have fluid and a microsecond later we’ve got this surface and then the surface gets bigger. This is really what the big bang was like in our universe. There’s something like the coke and we don’t really know what that something is. Which pre-existed our universe and then suddenly a little seed appeared that had within in all the potential of the space of our universe. That’s the little microscopic bubble and it’s been expanding ever since, but no I would say we’re not creating new space it’s just the space that appeared as the bubble appeared out of nowhere. It’s simply since then getting bigger.

Melanie Fine: Getting Bigger.

Sandra Faber: Yep.

Melanie Fine: So let me ask you about another piece of that analogy then. Is that there are many bubbles in coke. Do you think that that’s happening throughout this massive coke stuff?

Sandra Faber: Yea, in fact what people think is that the coke itself is expanding very fast and the bubbles are being created in it and being swept apart. It’s a little sad. It’s hard to imagine how you would ever communicate with one of those other bubbles. But the bubbles are, as the coke is expanding, the bubbles are constantly appearing in it just the way they would in the coke on the kitchen table. I’m glad you asked that. So now this is speculative, but on the other hand if you think that this, that there’s this coke-like stuff, and a bubble can appear in it to make our universe then why would you think that it’s the only one.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: There’s probably some sort of process that can do this many many times over. So it’s quite natural to assume that once you’ve made one universe this way that you could make others. And then I happen to do something, somebody called an anthropic cosmologist. We can go in that direction if you want in this interview, but I’ll just summarize in one sentence by saying I think that there’s very good, strong, logical reasoning being based on physics itself, to think that there are infinite number of other universes out there are different. And it’s kind of like planets in our galaxy. Now we know that there are thousands of planets around other stars and we’re learning about them and so far they’re all different from earth. The earth is a little small but there is a zoo of planets out there. I think there’s a zoo of universes out there and they’re all different too.

Melanie Fine: So, let me ask you think maybe something I misunderstood. Before I thought you said the coke was sort of fixed in the glass, but you’re saying the coke is also expanding?

Sandra Faber: Yes, that right. I mean you know it’s not so easy to make an analogy between coke on the kitchen table and what we call the metaverse, which is the universe of our universes. So, yeah, you have to sort of suspend disbelief at certain points and the coke itself is expanding very fast in this picture.

Melanie Fine: In fact, it’s accelerating. It’s expanding.

Sandra Faber: In fact, it actually is. I haven’t told you that but it is true.

Melanie Fine: So, our galaxy is expanding. It’s accelerating which means it’s increasing its rate of expansion?

Sandra Faber: No, no no no.

Melanie Fine: No no?

Sandra Faber: Our galaxy is not expanding. No no no.

Melanie Fine: Ok, so --

Sandra Faber: So our galaxy, the material in our galaxy expanded for a while, but our galaxy was generated from a density fluctuation in the surface of the bubble. You might very well ask well, where did that density fluctuation come from? What is a density fluctuation? If you were to fly through the whole universe, meaning if you were to fly around on the surface of the bubble with a little meter that told you the local energy density of matter and energy, the meter would be fluctuating a little bit. Not by very much about a part in a 100,000. But that turns out to be extremely important because the upward peak act as seeds. There’s a little bit more gravity, normal gravity there that’s attractive and so it’s drawing in surround matter. And this is a runaway process, something that a physicist calls an instability. I have a little peak it draws in matter around it. Oh, well the peak is stronger than it used to be so now it draws in matter more strongly. It runs away, if I can use that, that phrase. And so, that is what that process is what created all the galaxies that we see in our universe. And remember using my coke analogy I’m just talking about what’s on the surface of one bubble.

Melanie Fine: Of one bubble.

Sandra Faber: I’m not talking about between the bubbles. I’m not talking about what’s in the other bubbles or whether the other bubbles are like this one. Okay, so I’m trying to give you—Ok go ahead.

Melanie Fine: So let me ask you, so our galaxy we’re talking about the Milky Way and so that’s not expanding any more but our universe is expanding? Is that what I misspoke about?

Sandra Faber: That is correct. So, we’re a little dot on the surface of the bubble and the bubble is still expanding.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: The dot is not.

Melanie Fine: The dot is fixed. And do we know you know I’m getting off, it’s just so fascinating. Do we know why there were certain gravitational peaks that created these density centers? Do we know why it was not consistent and I guess-

Sandra Faber: Yea, yea we do. So I think this is the most amazing part of the whole story because it’s the best combination of weirdness together with likely to be true. So we talked about the coke and the other bubbles that’s pretty speculative. But, now we get into the surface of our own bubble, our universe, and its very beginning. As it began to emerge from the coke just after it snapped into existence our story starts and we know an amazing amount about it. This is what’s incredible. So, there’s a magic time in this picture, which is 10-35 seconds. So maybe we should just pause there and invite our listeners to contemplate what that number looks like. Should we do that?


Melanie Fine: Let’s do that.

Sandra Faber: Ok. So this is a fraction and in the numerator is a one and then draw a very long horizontal line and put a one underneath it followed by 35 zeros.

Melanie Fine: A very big denominator. A very small number.

Sandra Faber:  Exactly. That’s correct, right. So, ten to the power 35 is in the denominator.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: And that one followed by 35 zeros. You know, in plain English this is a very small number so it’s almost the big bang, but it isn’t exactly the big bang. It is slightly later than the big bang.

Melanie Fine: It’s 10-35 seconds after.

Sandra Faber: That’s correct, yea. Already I hope you’re feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the wonder of all of this. Well, it turns out that that’s a very special time when the temperature of the universe was 1028 degrees Kelvin. So 1028 that’s one followed by 28 zeros. That’s hot and that is a very special time in our current theory of particle physics. And at that moment, that is called in the jargon the normative grand unification, and the properties of matter and energy were very different. Suffice it to say, that there weren’t particles as we know it. There were no photons as we know it. There were was something else and it is a, as we flew through space, it was an energy density in this very small compact recently formed bubble. And this energy density has an amazing property, this is where the wonder quotient goes even farther, as the bubble was expanding that energy density is not getting less. And this is actually predicted by physics by our current understanding of particle physics and grand unification. It’s called a scalar field. That doesn’t really help you understand what it is because it’s completely counterintuitive. But the thing that you need to know about it is it is an energy density per cubic centimeters, so many irks per cubic centimeter. And it doesn’t go down even though the universe gets bigger. And that’s what is so counterintuitive because you would think that if you had some stuff in space and space is getting bigger then the stuff would get more dilute.

Melanie Fine: Right, so if I think--the analogy that’s hitting, what I’m thinking of right now is when I’m blowing up a balloon. Right and the balloon has a certain amount of rubber in it and I’m blowing it up and it gets bigger and bigger. Well each patch is going to have-- it’s going to be stretched—

Sandra Faber: Less rubber.

Melanie Fine: Yea, so the rubber is going to have less rubber. You said it very simply.

Sandra Faber: That’s wonderful. You have a knack for saying exactly the right things at the right time.

Melanie Fine: Thank you.

Sandra Faber: Perfect, yea that’s perfect. I have a feeling you’re leading me. You know what you want me to say.

Melanie Fine: No, actually you’re giving me more credit than I deserve. I’m just fascinated about what you’re saying.

Sandra Faber: Ok. Well anyway, I think we’re working well together. Yes, the balloon analogy that you just mentioned that’s the universe of today. If the universe is expanding today, on average everything is getting farther apart, the galaxies are moving apart. And so, the large scale density is going down. The photon density is going down. Another way of saying that is the cosmic microwave background radiation is cooling off. We’re a normal balloon today. But this universe at 10-35seconds was completely different. Ok, so accept that for a moment and now plug that into Einstein’s equation of general relativity which described the dynamics of the universe and when you put that in something unbelievable happens. A new kind of gravity is generated and it’s repulsive. And so it causes the universe to accelerate. Remember the accelerating universe that we talked about a minute ago? It looks as though our universe had two different periods of acceleration. And what I’m talking about is the first one, soon after the big bang. It’s called inflation. The inflationary universe and it is caused by the existence of this amazing energy density that doesn’t go down even though the universe expands. So, I’m almost finished with the consequences of this. When the universe expands under inflation it actually expands faster than the speed of light. It’s not true that things can’t go faster than the speed of light. They can on large scales. So if you were an observer sitting in the surface of this bubble, the bubble is now expanding faster than the speed of light, let’s say that there is a person right next to you. That person gets swept away by the expansion and you could observe that person, of course. Persons can’t exist at 1028 degrees Kelvin.

Melanie Fine: Right, right.

Sandra Faber: Pretend you’re observing that. That person or object and you feel that person accelerating and actually they accelerate faster than the speed of light and that causes them to red shift out of sight and they disappear.

Melanie Fine: Yea, you can’t see them.

Sandra Faber: So-

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: You can’t see them anymore. That’s right and this is happening all around in every part of the bubble. Ok, so why is this important? Because when things expand faster than the speed of light then generate fluctuations, quantum fluctuations. So, in this bubble on incredibly small scale, microscopic scales, there’s something called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle which says that on any given second the energy density in any region of space is fluctuating. It’s happening today, but we don’t notice it because space is not expanding fast and these fluctuations are constantly coming and going, sort of under the radar. They don’t bother us. And we’re macroscopic bodies; they have very little consequence for us. But in a rapidly expanding universe, an inflating universe, a fluctuation doesn’t have the change to die away. It appears and before it can fade back down the universe has expanded so fast that it’s now become a macroscopic fluctuation. It’s frozen in because it’s now big, very strange.

Melanie Fine: Very strange.

Sandra Faber: So, long story short, soon after the big bang this very strange thing called the scalar field, constant energy density, universe expanse faster than the speed of light, quantum fluctuations are frozen in at a level of about one part in a hundred thousand. We don’t really understand that number very well, but empirically that’s what it takes to make our universe. And these little fluctuations were blown up to big sizes and then later made galaxies as we see them today; galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and super galaxies. The universe is full of large scale structure from galaxies up to things that are even bigger and all of this stuff began as a tiny family of quantum fluctuations 10-35seconds after the big bang. So, bottom line, you look at the Milky Way galaxy today, a hundred thousand light years in diameter, started as a micro, micro, micro, microscopic quantum fluctuation 10-35 seconds after the big bang. I cannot express the joy I have in having learned that as a scientist and watch other people make discoveries to confirm that. Isn’t that interesting?

Melanie Fine: It’s absolutely fascinating. It’s absolutely fascinating. I can’t fathom. I have so many questions coming up. But I can’t, I can’t fathom how people can figure this out.

Sandra Faber: One step at a time is the answer.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: That’s the magic of science. Absolutely, that’s the magic of science. You get, you know, you learn one thing—science never, science answers many questions but it generates more. And the magic is just following each new question.

Melanie Fine: I guess and taking it where it leads.

Sandra Faber: That’s right. So astronomers, like myself, would not have gotten to first base on this unless the particle physicists had come up with a new theory of particle physics that involved this scalar field. But at the same time the particle physicists would not have gotten to first base. They would have had a theory, but they wouldn’t have had no way of converting that into observable properties of our universe today without the astronomers.  So this is, so this is an absolutely beautiful marriage of the microscopic and the macroscopic.  It’s one of the most beautiful stories in science that has ever been told.

Melanie Fine: Which is that huge range of physics that it it covers the most microscopic, beyond microscopic, to the most macroscopic.

Sandra Faber: that’s right so I’ll tell you a personal story as I was applying to college back in, gosh, I think 1961.  I wound up going to place called Swarthmore College. And I remember, vividly, filling out one of the applications and one of the questions was well, what do you plan to do with your Swarthmore education? It was kind of high fah-lootin hoity-toity. Well I thought about this and I was already interested in the universe, the origin of the universe and I said this is what I want to study. But it’s not clear to me exactly how to go about it.  It not clear whether the best way to study the universe is by studying its large scale properties, galaxies, and things like that or whether or not it’s really more fundamental to understand the microscopic properties of the universe. And I said for example chemistry because I didn’t know about particle physics and atoms were the smallest things I knew about so I named an atom, right.

Melanie Fine: Right and that’s what we, other than the electrons, protons, and neutrons, that’s what we chemistry teachers still teach. We don’t go below that, even in this day.

Sandra Faber: Yea. Right, right, so I was doing the best I could with the knowledge that I had at that time. But I must say, I take a lot of credit for this, I anticipated in that answer the entire unfolding history of the next four decades, five decades, of cosmology. And I myself personally, I didn’t, no offence, I did not like chemistry. So I, placed with that choice as a freshman, I opted for the large scale and became an astronomer studying galaxies and that’s been very good for me I’ve really enjoyed that. But in the meantime the particle physicists came to the floor and provided the microscopic theory and in fact that is what modern cosmology is, it’s the marriage of the two that I was contemplating.

Melanie Fine: So how did you, as a 17 year old applying to university, get into this area? It seems I’m going to really sexist here; it seems to be boy stuff.

Sandra Faber: Well, I wasn’t exactly a typical girl. I was very tomboy. I come from a long line of engineers. I was interested in mechanical stuff, structures; I was a science geek, not just astronomy. You know, I really was interested in spiders. I kept records of weather. I had a microscope and would watch creatures swimming around in it. I was really much more—I didn’t have any dolls. I was not interested in dressing up, going through the sort of teenage transition that girls go through usually in middle school and the first years of high school. It was kind of painful for me ‘cause I wasn’t really interested in the same things as many other girls were interested in at that time. So, I think I have a streak in me that is kind of boy oriented as far as my interests are concerned. I would hasten to add though that there are tons of female astronomers. Some of them are my best colleagues and I don’t think that my history is necessarily their history. I think you can become a wonderful astronomer even if you like to dress up.

Melanie Fine: Exactly, even if you went through all of those phases successfully, which so few of us really did. It seems like everybody was really popular except me. But when I take people’s individual stories we all felt out of place.

Sandra Faber: We all felt this. It’s universal. It’s really the worst stage of my life and I think it’s true; it’s true of many people.

Melanie Fine: Right. So your childhood you had parents—you had a lot of engineers. Were your parents engineers or it was more—it was other relatives?

Sandra Faber: My dad was a civil engineer. He ultimately gave that up. He lost his job in the depression because they didn’t build anything, any structures during the depression. His dad was an engineer.

Melanie Fine: Wow.

Sandra Faber: Also, another civil engineer, mining engineer in the west and built the first bridge over the Snake River.

Melanie Fine: Wow

Sandra Faber: So, yea, I think I really love telescopes you know. There’s nothing as great for me as walking into Keck telescope on Mauna Kea and looking up. I mean it’s an enormous structure and to think that that mirror there is being held to an accuracy of one fiftieth of a wavelength of light. It’s just an amazing engineering feat and I really enjoy that.

Melanie Fine: Now how come you—how did you choose science instead of engineering?

Sandra Faber: Good question. I think, I think probably if I had had proper information I still would have chosen the science because I’m really interested in why. But, that said, I didn’t even know about engineering in high school. There weren’t any engineering classes in my high school. Oh, and by the way, I –that’s not true, there was drafting and shop and I was not allowed to take that I had to take home ec’ and learn how to sew aprons.

Melanie Fine: I made an apron too.

Sandra Faber: I learned, my high points of home-ec, I learned how to make a toasted cheese sandwich and I learned how to sew an apron.

Melanie Fine: I don’t remember cooking, but we must have.

Sandra Faber: Right, but what I wanted to do was take drafting and I wanted to learn how to use the machine shop. Machines, I wanted to learn how to use the blade, a drill press, and stuff like that and I was not allowed.

Melanie Fine: So, it was a lot of the way high school was set up at the time that you went into science. But you also said something that if you knew more at the time you still would go into science because?

Sandra Faber: I think I would because you know I was already a passionate cosmologist. I didn’t know that I could be one, but I wanted to be one as I wrote the answer to that question on the Swarthmore application. I said I wanted to know where the universe came from. So, even—had I known about engineering, I don’t think I would have thought I could answer by being an engineer. No. I had to be an astronomer or a physicist or something like that. Now having said that I, people like me we need tools, we need to build telescopes. We need to build instruments, spectrographs and things like that and I spent a large part of my career doing that.


Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: But that’s a means to an end, not the end in itself, at least for me.

Melanie Fine: Right, you build the tools. You can’t find the stuff at the local Walmart. You have to build it and it means to find out more about the universe rather than to create something that allows someone else to find out more about the universe.

Sandra Faber:  This is very true, yea. I think you put your finger on it, but I’d like to say though, that my experience has been that being an astronomer there are lots of parts to that.  You know, I’m a faculty member. I teach student. I plan big projects. I’ve lead the construction of the world’s largest spectrograph. I helped do the optical design of the Keck telescopes and wrote the scientific justification. What I’m trying to say is it’s very varied kind of activity. Which I really appreciate and what I want to say is that I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. I think you know doing the performance test for my spectrograph was just as much fun as writing a paper on the properties of a galaxy. Just different. So—and solving a problem and getting an answer. So these are all aspects of, almost all aspects of the work are fun.

Melanie Fine: Right. There must be something you don’t like. There must be something that you do that you don’t like. What’s like your least favorite thing?

Sandra Faber: I guess the least favorite thing is trying to find money to support the work.

Melanie Fine: That answer I knew ahead of time. It’s the only one after everything that we talked about, but I knew. I just had a feeling.

Sandra Faber: Yea, it’s the worst part.  Well it’s true but what do you have to do? You have to write a grant proposal to, say the National Science Foundation or NASA, right. Ok, so you would rather not do that.

Melanie Fine:  Right.

Sandra Faber: Well, on the other hand, it forces you to think about what you are going to do and you have to hone your plans and make them sound convincing, successful and so on. This is all very good exercise for you and now you sit down and you start writing, and the minute you start writing something you discover stuff that you never thought about. In the process of trying to make a logical argument you suddenly say oh, I never thought about that I better think about that gap and fill it in. And you get into this and in fact it’s fun. Once you’re into it it’s fun.

Melanie Fine: It’s so interesting; I had a similar conversation with one of my professors from Cornell X number of years ago, Dr. Roald Hoffman. Who really is in his retirement. He’s done tons of writing besides his career. As a scientist you do a lot of writing. But he said it’s really only when he gets down to writing does he really get a sense of what he—of putting everything together and figuring out what he’s got. There’s something in the process of writing that brings that to the forefront.

Sandra Faber: This is absolutely true and often people hate writing papers because there is this discipline to it. They would rather sort of float around thinking that they understand things. It’s a lot easier. But, I will tell you from a personal experience, I have never brought a project satisfactory to completion without actually writing the paper.

Melanie Fine: Why are these papers so, I would say almost impossible for us non-scientist to read and understand?  

Sandra Faber: Oh, you should read my papers. They’re I think, anybody can understand them. I mean five minutes of introduction you could then proceed to understand. You’d get 80% of it.

Melanie Fine: I believe you because of the way, just—I was going to talk to you because how much have you written for the public? Because your analogies and your explanations are so much clearer than things that I’ve been trying to learn on my own.

Sandra Faber: I am known for being good at this. I’m also known for not being interested in writing popular things. I would rather give speeches and talk I’m not interested particularly in sitting down and writing words popular—partly, this is the selfish thing. It’s a lot of work to actually write things down and that’s what I’ve been saying.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: And popular things have finite lifetime. I see my colleagues spending years, you know, writing the book. The popular book. But I know that that is going to have a lifetime of, you know, five years maybe. And then the science will have moved on and people will have figured out other ways of explaining these and that story will become dated. Unlike my scientific papers. I feel my scientific papers are part of a sacred archive of science that even if a hundred years from now nobody is reading what I wrote; nevertheless, I will take the satisfaction that it was a crucial contribution at the time.

Melanie Fine: Right, it was a step to getting where we, where we currently are.  

Sandra Faber: Yep. That’s right.  So, in some sense I think scientific papers are never dated the way popular works are.

Melanie Fine: Right. Interesting. Interesting.

Sandra Faber: It’s like saying that, you know, this this—let’s say we’re building a cathedral, the cathedral of science and we look at one of the building blocks on the lower levels. That’s never dated it’s always there. It’s always holding up what went after it.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: See what I’m trying to say?

Melanie Fine: I completely understand. I completely understand. It’s—all science even science that has been proven wrong, which is the process of science you use all the information you have to explain what’s going on, and then you get new information. But all of it has led to where we are.

Sandra Faber: That’s right, and yes all of those earlier building blocks are part of the history and to understand what came later you really ought to understand how we got there. And so all of that remains interesting. Even as the frontier moves on.

Melanie Fine: So, if you were giving someone advice about a career in science, you know, a career in perhaps astronomy; what do you think is, you know, this day and age, we’re in 2017 what do you think is the most fascinating area to go into?

Sandra Faber:  Well, I think that the discovery of exoplanets has opened up a whole new field of astronomy. If I were going to go into astronomy today as an observational astronomer that’s that’s probably what I’d be pursuing and many of our students are doing that.  My department Santa Cruz is the leader this, in fact, Mount Hamilton Lick Observatory is the place where—one of two places in the world where planets were---exoplanets were first discovered. We developed a technique for doing that. So, students are flocking to us. They want to study exoplanets and it’s amazing the clever ways that people are thinking about to detect them, you know. These planets are not bright. They’re not like stars. They don’t shine by their own light in general. So, you have to be very imaginative in order to figure out how to find them and people are doing that it’s really remarkable. So that’s what I would do.

Melanie Fine: And that’s one of the things that Santa Cruz is doing right now. What other universities are on the forefront, right now, of exoplanet research?

Sandra Faber: Well, it’s really catching, so I would say any respectable astronomy department that’s serious about doing modern astronomy has to have a program in this area, but places that come to mind that are especially strong would include Berkeley, UC Berkeley, Cal Tech, Santa Cruz, and Harvard, let me leave it at that. Those are on the tip of my tongue.

Melanie Fine: Got it and can you think of any way perhaps a high school student could get involved in this or learn more about it and get involved in it at that stage of her career?

Sandra Faber: Well, I think I would encourage students to read. So, there’s an awful lot written on this subject at the popular level and also the slightly more technical level. So we go to Google, google exoplanets, read Discover Magazine, Scientific American, and get used to processing slightly technical information through the written word. That’s number one. The number two, you’re going to be pretty occupied with your regular studies during the school year and it’s important, as you can see from my conversation, to be laying a strong foundation in the physical sciences. If you want to be an astronomer. So that means really math and physics. So pay attention to that. Throw yourself into doing the problems, talk to your fellow students, you know, learn to get some satisfaction out of solving problems. That’s the next thing. Then the third thing is during the summer more and more programs exist in which you can get a taste for real research. And you’ve been telling me about your own plans for this. I’ll just mention the fact we have a summer internship program up at University of California Santa Cruz in astronomy, biology, and a whole bunch of sciences, and we’re recruiting high school students to do research from surrounding schools. We have 60 students coming in this summer and these people will do real projects. They will publish real papers. They will submit real projects to the Intel science fair and so on and win prizes. One of our students won second in the world in a project, in an astronomy project.

Melanie Fine: Fabulous

Sandra Faber: Yea, it is fabulous. So, I don’t know what’s going on in your neighborhood but I’ll just bet that there are summer research experiences for high school students.

Melanie Fine: So, are you telling me that Santa Cruz are limiting their geographic reach of their program just local students in the bay area?

Sandra Faber: That’s my understanding, yes.

Melanie Fine: Ok. Ok.

Sandra Faber: My colleague astronomer Raja Guha Thakurta‘s founded and running this program and yea, we’re drawing from the Monterey bag and the San Francisco bay areas.

Melanie Fine:  Got it. Got it. And I’ll do some more research on it --

Sandra Faber:  Oh, let me; let me let you know about one more thing. The University of California has something called the Cosmos program which is the summer immersion program and it; I think there are two or three sites.  One is Santa Cruz, one I think is Davis, and one I think is Irvine.

Melanie Fine: Ok.

Sandra Faber: And these Cosmos programs bring in something on the order of a couple hundred high school students. And I think they’re very valuable. They’re shorter than the research program I was just talking about and it’s more laboratory, let’s do experiments, let’s listen to talks, rather than let’s do actual research. But, I think students in both really enjoy them a lot. So I think I would definitely recommend that. So that’s Cosmos run by the University of California.

Melanie Fine: Got it. So that’s more of a hands on learning. Yes, I have the locations I was just looking it up as you’re saying. UC Davis, UC Irvine, San Diego and Santa Cruz. I think you mentioned all four.

Sandra Faber: Oh ok.

Melanie Fine:  San Diego wasn’t mentioned.

Sandra Faber: San Diego.

Melanie Fine:  Right.

Sandra Faber:  Didn’t know that.

Melanie Fine: Right. Fabulous, that’s a great, great reference. So one more thing, on the topic of women and science, and you talk about physics and math. I know from our-- I also teach some physics at my high school, I know that our AP physics teacher laments that there always tend to be far more boys in AP physics than girls. Do you have any thoughts about what we can do to increase the number of girls that take these physical sciences?

Sandra Faber:  This is, this is an interesting point. Somehow people are focusing, you are not going to like this answer maybe—

Melanie Fine:  Ok.

Sandra Faber: People are focusing on circumstances which drive girls away. We imagine some large pool of girls who would love to do this if only given the proper opportunity. That may be true, but I think it’s interesting; an interesting possibility is that girls just don’t like some of this activity.

Melanie Fine:  Right.

Sandra Faber: You know it’s reasonable to think that people have likes and dislikes, and it’s not ridiculous to think that some of those likes and dislikes are conditioned by gender or determined by gender.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber:  I mean we think that women love little babies more than men love little babies. You know, we sort of take that for granted. So, maybe it’s true that men love mathematics more than women love mathematics. That’s not to criticize anybody in this. I mean I don’t get mad at you because you don’t like the color blue. It’s just something you like or dislike and you can’t do much about it. So, I think we need to take that that into account. I would say in astronomy for example, even within the filed there are rather few women theoreticians compared to people like me. I’m an observer more than I’m a theoretician. And I don’t really love so much writing down equations and flogging through algebra. I just don’t like it. So, that’s not to say I don’t need to have some skills there. I do. I need to write, be able to read others papers, and I need to do simple calculations myself, but I’ve gone in other areas that I like better and therefore I’m better at. Ok, so now how does that help you with your question? That’s a really good question. I think people ought to spend more time talking to girls. Maybe you do that.

Melanie Fine: Right--

Sandra Faber: Why, you know-- So, here’s what I would say. When I got into Swarthmore I was already interested in the question of where the universe came from. Being very interested in that, I did a lot of things in order to make research work to answer that question possible. If a girl wasn’t interested, at that age, in astronomical questions she’s not going to become an astronomer.

Melanie Fine:  Right.

Sandra Faber: What are girls interested in? That’s that’s what I would like to know. Through the high school years starting in middle school. What do you think?

Melanie Fine:  Well, I think I think--

Sandra Faber: You talk to them all the time.

Melanie Fine: I think it’s very individual. I think that what you’re saying is correct. I think that there are some who take to it for whatever reason and are fascinated by it. And some who could care less and can’t wait for the year to be over.

Sandra Faber: But that’s true also with boys.

Melanie Fine: Exactly. Right.

Sandra Faber: You think that there are statistically fewer girls who are interested in scientific questions?

Melanie Fine: Actually, yea, I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t even answer that if there are. I think that there are certain traits that girls of have a little—and I don’t know where they come from a little less of a sense of I can do this you know. Then boys have I think some of that work with laying in is the , you know, noticing that that you know if you have a boy and a girl in general applying for a job, the boy will apply for it when he has 60% of the skills and the girl will wait until she has 100%  and so th---

Sandra Faber: You are so right! You are so right. This is really, maybe one of the biggest factors in the difference between men and women in science. And in fact, I even noticed this wife my grandson, he’s five. He’s interested in fighter jets and planes. He makes a paper airplane, it’s good. He’s doing very well for his age. It’s the best ever. He is the best in the world.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: Nobody else has ever made a plane like this. This is the best. It’s nonsense, of course people have done and he can even see better planes being made on videos. It doesn’t matter. That is his attitude towards himself but whereas most of the girls I know, you are so right, they have to be perfect.

Melanie Fine: We criticize ourselves before the—even we let the world to do it.

Sandra Faber: Yep!

Melanie Fine: We’re not good enough.

Sandra Faber: And we know this this amongst our male and female graduates do this. Who are already moving on. The boys will speak up and say the most idiotic things. And the girls will be very cautious. They will not speak up unless they are sure they are correct.

Melanie Fine:  Right and we all know that life is about ceasing opportunities, and if girls you know, make a fool fools of themselves more. You know to be a little more blunt about it. To be able to say something stupid because after the stupid thing might the most brilliant thing you ever say. But, if you’re afraid to say the stupid thing you never get there.

Sandra Faber: Yea, right. So here’s one little piece of advice that I’ve been giving. Everybody who comes in contact with me, this is one of you know, a little piece of strategy to succeed as a scientist. And I think it’s a good one for women in particular and that is the use of the question to show off one’s self. So, we all sit in lectures with students who are listening to the professor, there’s a research colloquium, we’re listening to somebody present their scientific work. So, I think that there is an art to asking questions. Most girls will not ask questions, because they’re regarded as a sign of weakness. Ok, so that, you’re a professor you know very well that you are grateful for questions and you don’t care where they come from and you remember the people who are willing to ask them. Would you agree with that?

Melanie Fine: Right. Right. Definitely.

Sandra Faber: They help move the class around—along and even if it’s an obvious question there are probably other, 20 other people in the class who wish they could ask the same question but are too embarrassed. So, even if it’s an obvious question ask it.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber:  Speak up and make yourself noticed but even better if you think you can amplify or embellish question, to make it a little bit more subtle, to go a step beyond what has been discussed. To even display the fact  that wow you know something more about this subject than the lecturer has gotten to so far weave that into the question and then your question becomes a vehicle for advertising yourself. And it’s not weakness. It’s exactly the opposite. It says something very special about you.

Melanie Fine:  Right.

Sandra Faber: So I think that it might be easier for girls to operate within the realm of questions rather than statements.

Melanie Fine: Right. Right. So maybe have you know some—I never really thought about it having a—having a ulterior motive to your questioning, but that also ---

Sandra Faber:  Oh boy, I have demolished so many people with my questions. I’m famous for this actually.

Melanie Fine: Don’t ask me questions then. So it involves, you know, really, really reading  up on your subject and again going back to what you said  is reading  and learning and part of that reading and learning , I guess,  is is having a need to know something. A fascination with something that motivates you to want to read up about it and find out more.

Sandra Faber: There is that and also taking responsibility for your own brain. Don’t just be the baby bird with open mouth.

Melanie Fine:  I know, I know.

Sandra Faber: The education system is pouring in facts. No. You you’ve now become responsible for what your brain intakes and processes and who you’re going to be 20 years from now as an adult.

Melanie Fine:  That’s really profound because I find that in the high school level more and more. There’s a sense of, you know, once they ask a question on an exam that I haven’t taught word for word that implies them to use what they’ve learned to think outside of it, they are lost and the immediate response is you didn’t teach us that. And it’s so much so that I kind of avoid it these days and I’m sure that has ripple effects throughout the university system. It’s like you’re not—I’m not here to teach you facts I’m here to teach you how to use your brain to think.

Sandra Faber: So, I don’t know maybe you could advertise questions like that so that students know that’s what you’re doing and you know, instead of being surprised by this question. What the hell is she doing here? Ok, this is one of her questions.

Melanie Fine: Right.

Sandra Faber: One of her questions of a different nature. Well, ok let me see if I can think about that.

Melanie Fine: Right. So I’m running, I so appreciate this interview, I’m running low on time and you’ve given me so much of your time. I so appreciate it. Anything that you think I should have asked that I didn’t?

Sandra Faber:  No, I really like this interview. It’s been different. We’ve sort of wandered around in different directions. I really liked it and you know it couldn’t possibly be any longer people will have a hard time listening to it as it is. I’m sure.

Melanie Fine: Right. Right. I just, I love it because I know so little about astronomy. When I started I told my other ten year old son that he couldn’t come in because I’m having this phone call and she studies distant galaxies and  he said “well there are seven galaxies right?’. I said I don’t know. You know, I imagine there are more than seven but that’s what he told me there’s seven. “Yes, mom there’s seven galaxies”.  So--

Sandra Faber:  I think he’s confusing planets with galaxies.

Melanie Fine: Oh, maybe.

Sandra Faber: Clear him up on that point.

Melanie Fine: And that number always changes too. Is it a planet? Is it not a planet? Yes, so I’ll go back to him. I imagine infinite galaxies. Could I come back with him whit that answer or do we have a number? A million?

Sandra Faber: No. No. We only see part of—it’s like being on the surface of the earth in a boat. You only see part of the surface. You don’t really know sitting out there on the ocean how big the earth is.  The universe is like that.

Melanie Fine: So we don’t know.

Sandra Faber: We don’t know.

Melanie Fine: You’ve elucidated so much stuff in a way that’s understandable because you know quantum physics, quantum theory, the origins of the universe. This is really dense stuff that’s based on mathematics that’s beyond my ability and beyond at least at present so many of my listeners abilities. That I really appreciate this interview and how much you went into the science of it in a way that was easy to understand or easier to understand.

Sandra Faber: Great, hope this will be useful. Thank you very much.

Melanie Fine: Thank you so much. Have a good day. Bye.

Sandra Faber:  Ok. Bye.

Like this episode? Please share it! I can keep this blog and all my podcasts and videos ad-free and sponsor-free ONLY because you share my work! Please share or subscribe to my podcast and YouTube channel too!

Listen on iTunes
Download MP3

Related quotes to consider:
[Follow RocketGirlsSci on Instagram for tons of great quotes]







Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *