Early Love Of Science Results In New Discoveries

Hertz Fellow Alex Filippenko
posted: 7/10/2017
listed in Fellows

I’ve been interested in science since my earliest days. In the first grade, I played with magnets and wondered why they attract or repel each other, and why they pick up little bits of black stuff (iron filings, it turns out) in sandboxes. Then, in the second grade, I learned how to make electromagnets and thus was able to control this weird effect called magnetism, but I still didn’t understand it. Later, I played with microscopes, electronics kits, insects, and finally chemistry sets—indeed, chemistry was my main interest from age 10 through 17.

When I was 14, my parents gave me a small telescope for Christmas. I took it outside and pointed it at a bright star, and it was thrilling to see it look brighter. The second star was also interesting though the novelty was wearing off—the star appeared brighter, but it still looked like a point of light and nothing more. I decided to point to one additional bright star before going to bed, and when I let the vibration of the telescope settle down, I realized I was looking at Saturn and its rings. It knocked my socks off! That night, I “discovered” Saturn. It didn’t matter that millions of people had seen it before me—no one told me to point the telescope at that bright light; I did it myself and I discovered Saturn. And I realized that if the thrill of discovering something that everyone else already knows about is so great, how wonderful must it be to truly discover something new for the very first time in humanity? I was hooked. Eventually, near the end of my freshman year in college, I switched majors from chemistry to physics, with the intention of becoming an astrophysicist—and I’ve never regretted it.

I call astronomy the “gateway science” because it gets kids interested in science and technology. Who hasn’t been amazed to look through a telescope or just up at the sky and see all the stars, and know that people have been up in space? We hear about the moon landings, see detailed photos of planets sent back from satellites, and it’s just mind-boggling. Humans are the only animals that have the intellect and curiosity to ask questions, and the opposable thumbs needed to build machines to explore nature. So some of us have an obligation to explore, right?

Humans have been exploring since our earliest days. Whether setting sail to find new lands or developing and testing theories of physics, we have an innate need to discover. I still get giddy with excitement when I hear about an important new discovery, like when scientists demonstrated a key prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity by detecting gravitational waves emitted by two merging black holes. Or that we are closer to potentially discovering bio-signatures of life on other planets because we are finding planets similar to Earth orbiting other stars.

When I was growing up and learning what being a scientist is like, I realized that most of us can only dream of making a fundamental contribution to science. In most cases, you learn something small and you contribute to the advancement of human knowledge, and then someone else makes a breakthrough discovery that perhaps synthesizes much of what had been discovered prior to them. You can’t count on making a breakthrough discovery, even though everyone hopes to. Well, it’s incredible, but an opportunity to do just that landed in my lap—I was part of two teams that discovered that the Universe’s expansion (which was identified by Edwin Hubble in the late 1920s and early 1930s) is speeding up with time, not slowing down as everyone thought.

Gravity is an attractive force. When I throw an apple up, the mutual gravitational attraction between the apple and Earth slows it down, eventually stops it, and then brings it back. So, too, we expected the expansion of the Universe to be slowing down because all galaxies would be pulling on all other galaxies, slowing the expansion. In the early 1990s, we set out to measure the expansion history to see if it’s been slowing down so much that someday it will stop and turn around, or maybe the Universe will keep on expanding forever. From the past history of expansion, we hoped to predict the future.

Much to our surprise, in late 1997 we found that during the past four or five billion years, the Universe’s expansion has not been slowing down; rather, it’s been accelerating. Well, no one believed us at first, but then in the next decade, our own additional observations and other independent methods verified that the Universe is expanding faster and faster with time, driven by something we don’t understand. We call it “dark energy” because we do not see it and it’s mysterious. It’s some form of energy that’s kind of like an antigravity effect; it pushes the Universe apart. We’re trying to understand it, which is important since it constitutes about 70 percent of the overall matter plus energy contents of the Universe. And prior to our work it wasn’t known!

This discovery led to a fundamental revolution in physics. As a kid, I could not have dreamed that I would be so heavily involved in a discovery of this sort. That’s one of the reasons I believe so strongly in funding science education and research. Science is something that should be supported to the fullest extent possible given the intrinsic interest humans have in nature and the practical applications that come from science—along with just the joy and beauty of science.

Federal funding has been decreasing over the last few decades, so we require and rely on private donations and foundations more and more to fund science. As a graduate student, I had the privilege and honor of being a Hertz Foundation Fellow, which supported me while I pursued my PhD at Caltech from 1979 to 1984. The Fellowship was fantastic because it gave me the flexibility of working with whomever I wanted; I could choose whichever advisor would take me regardless of whether they already had funding to take on new students or to pursue a new project. Some good ideas are not funded because committees often try to fund safe science, stuff that’s certain to give a result. Sometimes the best ideas can’t be very well defended to a committee of critics because they seem just too far out—but those could be the breakthrough discoveries no one saw coming.

One of the reasons I got into teaching was to share my love of science. I can encourage the next generation of explorers, those who might make amazing breakthroughs, through my passion for science and my knowledge. It’s a great time to be a scientist, when we are on the cusp of amazing new discoveries. I hope children continue to be interested in and pursue science—and that we continue to have sufficient funding to encourage that interest and enable amazing new discoveries.

Alex Filippenko is a Professor of Astronomy, and Richard & Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences, at the University of California, Berkeley. One of the world’s most highly cited astronomers, he has been recognized with several major prizes, including a share of both the Gruber Cosmology Prize and the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Alex is the only person who was a member of both the Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-z Supernova Search Team, whose discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe resulted in the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for both teams’ leaders. An enthusiastic instructor, he has been voted “Best Professor” at UC Berkeley a record nine times, and he was selected as the 2006 National Professor of the Year among doctoral institutions. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a PhD in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology, where he was a Hertz Fellow. He was one of only two people selected for Caltech’s 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Photo Credit: Kris Koenig