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Finding Light in the Dark (with Sarafina El-Badry Nance)

Dean chats with author and astrophysicist Sarafina Nance about methods for coping with cosmological anxiety. New episodes of Looking Up release every other Friday!

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Looking Up is transcribed using a combination of AI speech recognition and human editors. It may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Dean Regas: [00:00:00] It's so easy to get bogged down by the little things, you know, like being stuck in traffic or waiting in long lines Forgetting your stuff at home, my keys, my phone! Where's my phone? Oh my gosh. And it's even easier to get bogged down by the big things, you know, like climate change, the end of the universe.

We have so many problems down here on Earth that it seems kind of crazy to spend our time doing other stuff. Like studying the sky. I don't know, what if I told you that putting your eye to a telescope could actually make you feel better? From the studios of Cincinnati Public Radio, I'm your host Dean Regas, and this is Looking Up,[00:01:00]

The show that takes you deep into the cosmos, or just to the telescope in your backyard to learn more about what makes this amazing universe of ours so great.

So I, I definitely have what would be considered an unusual relationship with the universe as, as in I actually have a relationship with the universe. You know, I, I, being an astronomer for more than 20 years, you do your stargazing and you know, you actually get to know the stars, which I, saying this out loud is very weird because I know what stars are.

They're these, you know, giant spheres of, of. material fusing that are trillions of miles away, but I, I still, I still like them. I mean, I still like look up at them and I feel like I even know some of them in a very weird way.

I remember this is, this is, oh man, this is super personal in a way, but [00:02:00] I remember very early on in my career, I was looking up at the stars and I was watching the stars in the constellation Scorpius. So this is the Scorpion constellation. And I was looking at them and I was like one of the stars looks different.

There's no doubt about it. One of the stars looks different. And I'm looking and I'm like, well, why would it be different? What am I seeing? And I had to think about it. And looking at, that one has gotten brighter. And I thought I was a little crazy. I even talked to our other astronomer. I was like, do you, do you notice that star different?

It's an ordinary star. It's not even a very strange star. It does have a very unique name. Uh, it's called Shuba. But, anyway, I was like, hey, uh, Paul, look at Shuba up there. Doesn't it look weird? And Paul's looking at me like, what are you talking about? It just looks like a dot. It's like the other dots. And I was like, I can tell there's something different about it.

And I was so happy because a week later, there was a story about Shuba that it suddenly brightened. And I noticed it! Now, [00:03:00] that's, you know, a very minor thing. But it made me think, you know, I do have a relationship with this stuff. I notice these things that are up in the sky in a way that other people might not.

And it makes me feel connected. It really does. And, uh, uh, these kind of things really have, have helped. And, and I'm not the only one. I mean, this is what helps me get through this, too, is thinking, Am I just kind of a weird guy who just stares at stars and notices if one dims slightly? I don't know. But, uh, throughout history, astronomers have been doing this, and cosmologists, and astrophysicists, and literally every single day, somebody is discovering something.

Every day we find a new asteroid and every week we find new stars and every month we find new galaxies. And I think it keeps me young because I'm learning something new every single day and can't wait to see what's coming up next.[00:04:00]

Our guest this week is Sarafina Nance, astrophysicist and author of, "Starstruck, a memoir of astrophysics and Finding Light in the Dark." Thanks so much for joining me.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.

Dean Regas: We want to dive into your book, and it's, you know, divided into these three parts with these interesting titles. You have Origins, Phases, and Fates. So, uh, can you tell me a little bit about your personal origins? You know, how did you get started in astrophysics?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: Yeah, so I have loved the night sky ever since I was a little kid. I used to listen to NPR's Stardate Radio. We are made of star stuff. And I would stargaze with my dad every night.

And I lived in the Texas Hill Country, so the stars were big and bright. And I just remember being enamored with the [00:05:00] night sky and knowing that I wanted to do something with astronomy in my life. No matter what that was, I wanted to keep doing something with the night sky.

Dean Regas: At the beginning of your career, you know, you were getting into astronomy even more and more.

And were there these It's kind of like questions you had, you know, your big questions that you're trying to find out when you're studying the universe.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: Yeah. I think I was, you know, really fascinated with things like where did we come from? Are we alone? How did the universe get here? What is the fate of the universe?

I think science is uniquely tasked to answer those questions.

Dean Regas: You know, I do notice that, that as an astronomer, people want to know, you know, does it mean something or does, you know, have you, have we gleaned something special from the universe? So I don't know. Is there any kind of existential thing that the [00:06:00] universe has taught you?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: Well, I think on a, you know, uniquely fundamental level to who I am. I sought out the night sky in large part because I have pretty severe anxiety and, you know, the vastness of the cosmos allowed me to feel more present and grounded in my daily life.

Dean Regas: I mean, I feel the same way. There's, there's This just calmness about watching the sky and just even without a telescope and it's it is fascinating that there are other people that have the opposite reaction that there's the idea of the cosmos is out to get you and that, uh, you know, they're worried about Armageddon like situations.

And, um, I think, you know, in just hearing what you are, you know, your big questions are, You know, how do you grapple with the, the fate of the universe? You know, how, how scientists think the universe is going to end? How do you, how do you [00:07:00] put a good spin on that?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: So for those who aren't familiar right now, we think the universe, which is currently not just expanding, but accelerating its expansion.

will continue to accelerate its expansion forever and the space between galaxies and planets will sort of get further and further apart until we're plunged into this permanent darkness. And yeah, that sounds very sad or scary or overwhelming, but I think on the other hand, knowing the fate of the universe, knowing what's coming allows me to feel even more grateful for this present moment.

I can appreciate the time that we're in, the relationships that I have. I feel. You know, more connected to our Earth and myself and the people, you know, [00:08:00] around me because I have that context.

Dean Regas: In case listeners are really afraid that this is going to happen next Wednesday, what does the time frame, uh, that, uh, we're looking at for end of star formation and frozen...

And all such

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: Not for trillions upon trillions of years way beyond our human understanding of time I think

Dean Regas: Okay, phew! That's good. All right Just making sure about that. Well-

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: We're good.

Dean Regas: Grappling with the end of the universe is is something so far out there and hard to wrap your brain around now in your astrophysics career, you've overcome many challenges but you've also come across some personal challenges and that you had a medical diagnosis that Said that you were at a higher risk of getting cancer. I mean, whoa, you get some news like that What was your anxiety level like when you received it and you know, could astronomy help in dealing with it?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: Yeah, so I was [00:09:00] diagnosed with the BRCA2 gene mutation, which gave me an 87 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer, a 30 percent lifetime risk of ovarian cancer, um, and a smattering of other just increased cancer risks. And, you know, when I learned that, it was on the heels of my dad's. Metastatic cancer diagnosis, and I was extraordinarily anxious.

The protocol for treating somebody with my diagnosis is increased monitoring with MRIs every six months and going to a bunch of different doctors, um, having my own oncologist. I mean, it really felt like its own sort of chronic, uh, scary diagnosis in its own right. And I think astronomy was not just, uh, important.

I think it was necessary for me to be able to navigate the overwhelming [00:10:00] feelings that accompanied that diagnosis. On a more fundamental level as we just spoke about, .It was really just acknowledging that we are so small and our problems, which might feel overwhelming and are big in our own lives are are transient in, you know, the scale of the universe.

And there's something, I think, for me, deeply comforting about that.

Dean Regas: Well, I know for me, it's, you know, my relationship with the universe and astronomy in general, it's very personal. And I think that's how it is for a lot of people that they, everybody finds something a little unique about it, which is, which is amazing.

Do you have any advice for folks that are tackling their own issues, their own fates? Any advice that you could give?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: Oh, that's a good question. I think for me, one tool that helped keep me grounded [00:11:00] in the sort of turbulence of that time was really falling upon science, you know, trusting science, equipping myself with research and literature that allowed me to make informed decisions about my health and about my family's health, I think trust science and, and, and allow it to guide you through those, those hard times.

And then, you know, on the on the other hand, I think finding something that will calm you down and give you a sense of reassurance and relief and peace in that turbulence. For me, it's astronomy, but it doesn't have to be astronomy for other people. I think there's something so beautiful about each of us discovering what brings us that peace and it's different for each and every one of us.

Dean Regas: Having something to look forward to that's one of the things about astronomy that like captures me is you know You have these specific dates [00:12:00] of things happening. I'm an eclipse chaser. That's what motivates me to keep going. I got these two eclipses I can't think about anything else other than that, but I'm trying to work on it But for you like what what's next what do you have on your horizons that you're looking forward to that are coming up?

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: I'm currently really hoping that Betelgeuse will explode as a supernova sometime soon. Um, but I think more than likely that won't happen for another hundred thousand years or so, but I can keep my fingers crossed. And then, you know, on a more professional and personal level, I'm... You know, really excited for the book to be out in the world and to get to meet readers.

Um, I am graduating with my PhD in the next, uh, couple of months, which is very exciting. And then I think, you know, just kind of being open to seeing what the universe. Has in store. I'm excited to see what's next.

Dean Regas: That sounds wonderful. And yeah, every time I look at Beetlejuice, I try to egg it on. I'm [00:13:00] like, come on, you can do it. You can explode.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: Exactly. Just say the name three times, and if enough of us do it, we'll get an explosion.

Dean Regas: It's got to work eventually. So, uh, uh, well, Serafina, thanks so much for joining me today and sharing all this, uh, you know, very amazing insight and, uh, just your, your, your view of the universe. It's just so amazing.

Sarafina El-Badry Nance: Thank you so much for having me. It was a joy talking to you.

Dean Regas: Well, talking with Sarafina here has gotten me, you know, thinking about bigger stuff, bigger picture stuff, and you know, stargazing is one of my passions, but eclipse chasing I think is the tops, and that is really going to be something that's going to be moving me in the short term, where we're going to have our two big solar eclipses coming.

But I was looking at eclipse maps and astronomers can map out the pathways of all the eclipses for the rest of time, basically. So I like to pore over these maps to see where these eclipses are [00:14:00] going to be. You know, maybe the pathway will go over Australia and New Zealand, or maybe across Egypt, or maybe across South America.

And Then I looked at these maps of, uh, eclipses happening in the United States. And I saw three of them happening in short order in the 2070s. And I saw my fate. I saw my future because I saw myself. Seeing those three eclipses back to back to back. And I put this date on my calendar. It is in my brain and I may tattoo it on me somewhere.

May 1st, 2079. That is going to be the last eclipse I see. That'll put me at about 105 and a half years old. I figure it's doable. I eat pretty well, exercise a little bit, need to exercise more, but that's my goal.

Looking Up with Dean [00:15:00] Regas is a production of Cincinnati Public Radio. Ella Rowen is our show producer, audio engineer, and exoplanet existentialist, who will also live to the ripe old age of 105 and a half, I have no doubt.

Our theme song is Possible Light by Ziv Moran. I'm Dean Regas, and keep looking up.[00:16:00] [00:17:00] [00:18:00] [00:19:00] [00:20:00]