Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Demystifying the Expert - Shanil Virani

Image from Thursday Night's Event
From Left to Right: Feitosa, Constantin, Virani, Knickerbocker, Faalasli, Anzalone, Chen
Image From
What were you doing at 6:30 pm the evening of Thursday, October 2, 2014?? I’d like to hope that you were attending the first of four JMuse Café events centered on Demystifying the Expert. But, seeing as the room wasn’t nearly large enough to contain the whole of the JMU student and faculty body, there’s a good chance you weren’t in attendance. Luckily for you, I’m going to give you a recap of everything you missed, and, in doing so, I’ll hopefully convince you not to miss the next event in the series (which is Thursday, November 6 in the Flex Space located on the third floor of Rose Library – so go ahead and mark that on your calendar).

The purpose of the Demystifying the Expert series is to provide the public with a forum in which they can informally learn about science in a fun and unique way. With the combined effort of the JMU Physics and Astronomy department and JMU’s New and Improv.’d Comedy Troupe, learning has never been more entertaining. Two physics professors have coordinated the series of events alongside New and Improv.’d: AncaConstantin and Klebert Feitosa. Dr. Constantin’s work outside of the classroom is studying galaxies and their formation and processes, and Dr. Feitosa (also known as Dr. Bubbles) studies just that: bubbles! (As a student doing research in his lab – it is every bit as much fun as it sounds.) New and Improv.’d, founded in 1998, is JMU’s only improv comedy group. They perform multiple shows each semester, both on campus at TDU and throughout the community. Be sure to follow them on social media so you can learn more about them!

            The four talks organized for the 2014-2015 academic year are comprised of one expert and a panel of comedians trying to discern just what the expert’s expertise is. Thursday’s panel was comprised of Trevor Knickerbocker, Mikail Faalasli, Alan Chen, and Amanda Anzalone. Trevor is a senior Intelligence Analysis major that took a Quantum Physics class for fun. Mikail is a senior Business major; the only science he knows is the science of making money. Alan is a sophomore Physics major who politely asked the audience to remember not all physics is not astronomy (but all astronomy is physics!) when hearing his answers throughout the evening. Amanda is a junior Media Arts & Design major with double majors in Business French and Creative Writing, aka nothing to do with science. That being said, she felt 100% confident in the evening’s program.

Amanda felt so confident, in fact, that she is returning to the panel for the event in November. When I asked her about how Thursday went, she replied with, “It's such a fun experience and an amazing feeling being able to help bridge the gap between science and the student body. We are trying to show them that science doesn't have to be a feared subject!” That last statement means so much when coming from a student who isn’t actively pursuing a career in science. Science can have this stigma of being inaccessible to non-scientists, but all it takes to get people interested and informed is a relaxed setting where people can laugh and learn.

Dr. Virani at the John C. Wells Planetarium
Photo Credit: Daniel Stein
Our expert for the evening was Dr.Shanil Virani. The panel was not given very much information about the expert before they began picking his brain. What they were told is Dr. Virani is currently the Director of the  John C. Wells Planetarium located in Miller Hall. He the organizer of the monthly star parties on east campus and the public science talks that happen twice a semester. He earned his PhD from Yale University and before that he worked at the NASA Chandra Space Telescope. As an avid promoter of informal science education, he was named a NASA Solar System Ambassador two years in a row, 2013 and 2014 - which is no small defeat.

Following the brief introductions was a series of games and discussions, starting off with a series questions from the panel to the expert. There was only one catch – the questions had to be yes or no questions. From this first game, we were able to discern that Virani is an astronomer who takes pictures, doesn’t study things within our solar system, and is capable of answering yes when asked if he could answer seriously “To infinity and beyond!” when asked at a cocktail party what he studies. It has something, but not everything, to do with black holes and nothing to do with parallel universes (because, “this is
science”). We learned that Dr. Virani can see all black holes, however, not all astronomers have that ability.

When it became apparent that the panel was not going to coax any more information through yes or no questions, there was a brief time where Dr. Virani was able to discuss his work.  As the panel had been able to discern, Virani primarily studies black holes – but how does one study something one can’t see? To explain, he had the audience rub their hands together then stop and notice that their palms were hotter. Then he had them rub their hands together faster, imaging they were doing so at the speed of light and imaging just how hot that would cause their hands to be (around the order of millions of degrees Kelvin, in case you were wondering). Though we cannot see black holes, we can detect them and the lurking galaxies that host them by looking for certain wavelengths of light  - gamma rays and x-rays.  Around each black hole is an accretion disk made up of matter that will eventually fall into a black hole; these disks are extreme environments, allowing us to study and test exotic physics such as Einstein’s theory of general relativity. By studying what happens to space and time around black holes, humanity can be one step closer to developing a grand unified theory (or as Virani called it, “The Holy Grail of Physics”) that describes the behavior of nature in our universe.

Every single galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its center, and Dr. Virani’s purpose in studying them is to understand how they grow and evolve and the influence they have on their host galaxies. Observation has shown that there exists an intimate connection between the formation of a galaxy and the black hole at the center. Dr. Constantin raised two questions: why should we care about black holes and would we be here without them? To answer the first question, Virani explained that in order to better understand black holes, humanity has to develop the skill sets and technology to do so. These skills and advancements help humanity progress, sustaining civilization and pushing us into the future. For the second question, the answer is no. We know that black holes can form when stars collapse inward on themselves once they have exhausted their fuel. It is in the centers of stars that all heavy elements (more massive than Lithium on the periodic table) are formed. As Carl Sagan once said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.”

After the discussion came two more games, the first of which consisted of 5 quiz-like questions concerning acronyms and jargon within Dr. Virani’s field of expertise. Through this game we learned that AGN stands for active galactic nuclei (not aperture globular neutrino, one of the 4 choices to the question), which are very bright cores of galaxies. Next we learned that a galaxy is an enormous collection of stars, gas, and dust bound together – because the answer with the most words is usually the right one.

Between the second and third questions, Dr. Virani briefly went into just how vast our universe is. The Milky Way Galaxy, the large spiral galaxy in which we reside, is home to about 100 billion stars. Over the last 3 years, we have determined that, on average, each star has about 5 planets orbiting it. Considering that there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, one question arises: how am I supposed to understand such a large number? The answer is quite simple: you can’t. According to Dr. Virani, these numbers are “astronomically” large (pun intended…). When you study astronomy, you deal with things that are very, very large, and when you study an atom you deal with things that are very, very small. In our lives we don’t experience these extremes; so, while we can determine such values as the mass of the earth, our sun, and even the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, these numbers are still incomprehensible in our every-day life.

The remaining 3 questions in the game taught the audience that a photon is a particle of light, not a potato from Star Trek, a QSO or quasar is an incredibly bright galaxy core, not a powerful wizard you don’t want to mess with, and lastly the Chandra Space Telescope was not named after a NASA administrator, but a well-known Indian-American physicist who received a Nobel Prize in physics. Chandrashekhar earned this honor by discovering the Chandrashekhar limit while on a boat trip from India to Cambridge, UK. He determined that, when at star has at least 1.4 the mass of our sun, there is nothing to prevent it from becoming a black hole when it collapses.

The Very Large Telescope in Chile
Photo from
When studying the sky through observation, a dark sky is the most important thing to have. It is because of this that Chandrashekhar was able to do the work he did on a boat, and it is also why observational astronomers do a lot of work in Hawaii – the night sky is dark and clear and the elevation makes it an ideal location for telescopes. One of the panelists chimed in, asking how often astronomers run into evil villains at these remote locations near volcanoes. Ironically enough, one of the James Bond movies was filmed at the Very Large Telescope in Chile, showing that astronomers are both undeniably cool and not very skilled with a thesaurus.

The last game was a series of rapid-fire questions about Dr. Virani through which we learned that his favorite astronomer is Carl Sagan (because he is fantastic), his dream job when he was little was astronaut, and he would go to Mars in a heartbeat (who wouldn’t?!). Astrology isn’t real, there is no known center of the universe, and if Virani had to be on dancing with the stars, he’d dance with Dr. Constantin. The most important question asked was, “If you had to let people know one thing about what you do, what would that be?” This entire blog post could be (alas, it is not) reduced to his answer: “Black holes are at the center of every galaxy and we don’t know why.”

As the evening came to a close, questions were opened to the audience. The first, and possibly most important, audience question was concerning the reluctance to fund space research. Virani’s answer was that it boils down to a lack of nationwide science literacy. There is a disconnect between the people who understand science and the people who don’t. Because of this disconnect, there are many social controversies concerning scientific topics that are by no means scientifically controversial (climate change, evolution, etc.). It is for this very reason that this series of events exists – to help the public connect with scientists and promote a well-informed understanding of the implications of the work scientists do.
Because this is already on the verge of being too long, I have spared you many of the details of Thursday evening’s event (which says a lot about the event concerning how much I’ve told you). What you should come away from this thinking is, “Wow, I really missed out on an awesome event and I know where I’m going to be on the evening of November 6.” For further information on upcoming events, visit the Facebook pages of JMuse Café and JMU Physics and Astronomy!

-Keely Criddle
JMuse Cafe/Physics & Astronomy Blogger