Questions and Answers

from the National Honor Society Meeting

Houston, Texas, November 9, 1998

Questions from NHS students; Answers from Prof. Patricia Reiff

(These questions and answers were compiled from two hour-long sessions following the preliminary talks on "Is Science the Salvation of Society?"; interestingly, many of the same questions were asked at both sessions)

Q1. It has been said that "science without humanity is cruel" - do you agree?

A1. Yes, I ran across that quote myself when I was researching this talk. I agree that the results of science used without regard for its consequences can lead to cruelties. However, I strongly hold, as is clear from my remarks earlier that pure science is neither evil nor good - it is a tool, which can be then used for evil or for good. {Note added: my uncle John C. Reiff, who was an engineer at White Sands, said recently: "Technology merely alters the level at which man displays his stupidity" (quoted in the Daily Oklahoman, 1998)}. Consider fire, perhaps man's best invention (or at least his best appropriation of the natural process). It is simultaneously the most useful and most destructive force in most people's lives, bringing them electricity and heat most days and occasional devastating destruction. The knowledge of science is like fire - tamed, it can aid the whole world; released, it can destroy it.

Q2. What do you think was the greatest scientific discovery in your lifetime?

A2. Hmm. I guess the greatest one might be the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick. I remember making a wire model of DNA for a junior high science fair at the time. My mom and dad were both physicians and had told me about how genetics worked - but now we could actually see how the genetic information gets encoded (and sometimes gets copied in error). The promise of genetic therapy is just now being exploited. Another event (which was not a scientific discovery really but a technological breakthrough) which shaped my career was, of course, the launch of Sputnik in 1997. I was truly a "child of the space age", and the excitement of learning about space has stayed with me ever since.

Q3. How do you believe that the Earth formed?

A3. In my Solar System class at Rice I present the Kant theory of the formation of the solar system as the Sun and its family of planets condensing out of a vast molecular cloud. That cloud was enriched in heavy atoms by the presence of a nearby supernova, which also gave an initial compression to our nebula, allowing the collapsing force of gravity to overcome thermal expansion (generally, only clouds with 2-3 solar masses of material will collapse by themselves). Conservation of angular momentum during the gravitational collapse results in a disk (since the particles can readily fall parallel to the spin axis but not in towards it). Grains create protoplanets which collide and make planets: the early Sun's T-Tauri phase blows off the lighter materials from the inner solar system, yielding rocky planets close in and gas giants far out. However, I notice that you stressed the word "believe" in your question. Yes, I believe that all these things, although explainable by natural processes, brought forth a wonderful planet, the only planet which is clearly habitable by man. We are protected from galactic cosmic rays and solar storms by our magnetic field and atmosphere. The sequence of events in Genesis is exactly how you would describe the situation to an untrained audience. "Let there be light" is exactly the prescription for the Big Bang. I discuss my personal views on some of these things in my essay "Three Heavens - Our Home", which is accessible from my web page .

Q4. What do you think about the movie "Contact" and extraterrestrial life?

A4. I really enjoyed "Contact", not only because the protagonist was a woman scientist, but because the science was believable and her quest for truth very touching. As for life on other planets, I can only say I don't know. If you look at the Drake equation, which gives the number of intelligent communicating planets which there should be in the galaxy, we are uncertain of the values of a number of his factors by at least a factor or two and probably a factor of 10 or more. The least certain one in my view is the probability of randomly creating life from non-life, given the proper primordial soup. As I recall he uses a value of about 10%, but it could be as low as one in a billion or even less. Someone once calculated that the odds of creating even a one-celled bacterium from a mix of amino acids was like blowing up a junkyard and ending up with a 747! Consider a person who was just smothered by a pillow. That person has every red cell, every enzyme, every organ in place but will never live again, so there is something very special about life. We certainly have no credible evidence of extant life on other planets, at least for now. All the other planets we have discovered around other stars so far have been too close to their star for habitation. There may be life elsewhere in space or in time, but unless wormholes like in Contact exist, we probably won't be able to go visit them.

Q5. Will we be able to leave the planet 5 billion years from now when the sun goes red giant?

A5. Frankly, I'm not too concerned about 5 billion years from now. I'm more concerned about the next 100 years when the population of this planet may grow to 10 billion people. The stress on our environment from that many people will be enormous; the consequences devastating. Already the shuttle astronauts see global smoke from slash-and-burn agriculture. Madagascar has been changed from a rain forest to a desert, and the Amazon is following suit. If the antarctic ice cap melts from global warming, we will have incredible coastal flooding. Your generation must meet these challenges. It is no surprise that most space scientists are environmentalists; we just have nowhere else to go, so we must take care of this planet.

6. Will we be able to fly faster than the speed of light?

A6. Not according to the special theory of relativity. Even getting close is very, very hard. Even with a fusion drive that mixes matter with antimatter, in order to carry enough energy to get a spacecraft to the nearest star in a reasonable amount of time would require many millions of times the annual energy output of the Earth.

7. How close to the speed of light are we able to go now?

A7. I think the fastest man-made object presently in the solar system is the Voyager 2 spacecraft, which picked up "slingshot" energy from close passes with Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus - even so, its velocity is less than 100 km/s. At 100 km/s, it would take 3000 years to travel one light year, or 10,000 years to the nearest star. We are hoping for a even faster spacecraft, which will use Jupiter's gravity to allow us to fall very close to the Sun, then to do a rocket burn there to reach a very high speed, greater than the solar system escape speed. With reasonable fuel capacity, and conventional fuels, we could increase the asymptotic velocity by a factor of 3 or maybe 10. Much faster speeds, however, would require lighter spacecraft and newer techniques, like a solar wind ion engine powered by nuclear fusion. Even so, it would take an enormous amount of energy to reach c/10.

8. Do I believe in evolution?

A8. You certainly feel free to ask me anything, don't you? It's not exactly an astronomy question, but I'll give you my personal view. I certainly do believe in natural selection. Individuals with favorable characteristic manage to reproduce and have their characteristics continue. Mutations yield both favorable and unfavorable changes, and the favorable ones will win in the end. Mammals dominate today because the shrewlike creatures which coexisted with dinosaurs were more able to survive the great dark of the Chixulub extinction. The evidence for significant changes over the ages are quite strong. On the other hand, if you ask whether I think Man descended from apelike creatures, well, his physical body may have, but his spirit, in my personal view, was a special gift from God. Consider that when South America divided from South Africa about 35 million years ago, the monkeys which were split between the continents had genes which were at least 90% similar to ours. But even with that much time to evolve, no American apes developed language or a spirit which could sing or write poetry. I personally see the hand of God in the Big Bang, the creation of life from non-life, and of the placing of God's spirit into Mankind. The rest of the story is rather more easy to do from natural processes.

9. Will the galaxy crash into Andromeda soon? (many billion years).

A9. To tell the truth, I'm not sure if our galaxy is headed to Andromeda. I know the galaxy has a proper motion relative to the others in the local group of galaxies, but the velocities are around 100-200 km per second and the distances many kiloparsecs, so the time between collisions is in the billions of years. Sleep tight tonight - worry about tornadoes or asteroids instead.

10. Will the change in affirmative action mean fewer women and minorites in graduate school?

A10. Naturally, Rice was not happy with the Hopgood decision. Diversity has been very beneficial to schools, and minorities and women will always be welcomed and encouraged. The ruling does remove quotas, which is reasonable. You do not do a person a favor in putting them into a situation where they cannot succeed; but we can and should find qualified students from many backgrounds. If you know of someone interested in a great undergraduate or graduate school experience, send them to us!

11. Was it hard for me to succeed as a woman in graduate school?

A11. Well, graduate school is hard work. I think every graduate student at some point wonders whether it is worth it. And some give up, often just a few months before finishing. For some, I think it's because they don't want to leave the safety of the nest to go out into the wide world. As for being a woman, well, all the women in my family have been sucessful. My mother's mother was widowed at a young age and worked two jobs - as postmistress and owner of a boardinghouse. My mother graduated from medical school in 1942. My father's mother had a Master's degree in Latin in 1906, and was principal of a High School when she met my grandfather, who was one of the teachers in her school. So it was never a question in my family whether I could not do something just because I was a woman. One wag said "If you want to be a woman in a man's field, you have to be better than most of them. Fortunately, that's not difficult". (laughs) I don't completely agree with that, of course, but I will say I couldn't be a mother and a full-time scientist without a very helpful husband. He has been a full partner, both in science and in family life.

12. Have I ever been discriminated against?

A12. Someone (and I wish I knew who) said "No gentleman would ever insult me, and noone else can". I'm sure that from time to time one or more individuals have had negative views about me just because of my gender, but my overwhelming experience has been quite the contrary. I have been encouraged at every side, from mentors who were generally white males. Women graduate students today have many more female role models, so there's no excuse for all of you to succeed in whatever you set yourself to!

date last modified: May 25, 1998