Interview with Bob Novella

Interview took place in July 2015.

Bob Novella is a co-founder and Vice-President of the New England Skeptical Society. He co-hosts the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast and blogs for SGU’s Rogues Gallery. Bob’s scientific interests lie in the extremes, from the gargantuan to the infinitesimal: astronomy and cosmology to particle physics and quantum mechanics.

Mateusz Macias: First of all I want to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. How did your fascination with astronomy began?

Bob Novella: It all probably started with Star Trek which also sparked my general interest in science and science fiction as well. My interest in astronomy got a big boost after taking an Astronomy class in high school with one of the best science teachers I’ve ever had, Mr. Coffin. Not only did he know his stuff but I loved his dry sense of humor. I remember voraciously reading the text books for that class, I couldn’t get enough. I have a specific memory from around that time of me sitting under the stars with a girl I was interested in and sharing with her what I knew about galaxy mergers. That’s when I learned that not only do I love learning this stuff but I also love sharing my passion for science with others.

Ultimately though, my fascination stems from an early obsession with the extremes of the universe. The bigger, faster, farther, heavier, smaller something is, the more I want to know about it and understand it.

All the more reason why I find it unfathomable how people can have no interest in learning even the most basic things about the universe we live in. For example, in the news recently was a video of 2 hosts on a QVC shopping show arguing whether the moon is a planet or a star!

Mateusz Macias: NASA’s “Next Giant Leap” is the goal of putting human on Mars. Who should be a perfect candidate, skeptically speaking?

Bob Novella: Here’s some qualities that I think would be critical for an astronaut on a one-way trip to Mars:

1) Psychologically stable and healthy, including a reasonable family medical history. For example, a high incidence of family breast cancer would not be ideal.

2) Science-minded, Curious and knowledgeable about key activities he/she would be engaged in.

3) Adaptable and resourceful. Unanticipated situations and limited resources will make these characteristics critical.

4) Few family ties. I would think having kids and other family back on earth would be too much of a distraction

5) I don’t think faith is important in a candidate but the sense of community it tends to foster could be helpful.

Mateusz Macias: “Skeptics Guide to the Universe” podcast started in 2005. First of all congratulations on a great run. What should we expect from the show in the near and far future?

Bob Novella: Thank You. In terms of content for the show, Science or Fiction and the News-item discussion will never go away. They are simply too popular and fun to do. Everything else is up for grabs. Beginning this year we switched things up a bit by giving Jay the Who’s That Noisy segment while Evan now has the Quote of the Week. I’m excited about my new segment, Forgotten Superheroes of Science. I’ll be covering any scientist that has made significant discoveries but is not as well known as they should be. Since women scientists have been marginalized throughout the whole time they’ve been allowed to be scientists, they will have a prominent place in my weekly talk. We also plan on doing more interviews than we have the past year or so.

We also are looking for a replacement for the irreplaceable Rebecca Watson in the coming months. We’re going to take our time with this until we find someone who really gels with the group.

The podcast in the near future will also contain special episodes of us celebrating the twin achievements of 500 uninterrupted episodes and our 10 year anniversary.

Far future predictions are hard to make. I don’t anticipate anything dramatic. We’ll continue to do the show well into the foreseeable future making tweaks here and there. The only thing that has the potential to impact the show tremendously would be if we got a tv show that just left us no time to do the podcast. That would be a good problem to have.

Mateusz Macias: Let’s say we find a earth-size planet orbiting sun-like star and we even find some bio-markers in the planet’s atmosphere. We find that there is life, possibly inteligent. What should be our next move? 

Bob Novella: Finding bio-markers on an exoplanet would be one of the greatest discoveries of all time. Finally we would have achieved that critical second data-point which is critical to come up with a more general description of what life is and what is needed for it to arise.

Assuming we are certain, the next step would inevitably be to learn as much as we can about the planet and the life on it. I suspect we’d use all the astronomical resources we have available especially if there were signs of intelligence. I’m sure SETI would be all over this. Besides looking for intelligent signals from the planet we’d also need to examine the atmosphere for evidence of industry and other biomarkers. Perhaps other evidence of intelligent activity could be found on nearby planets and moons. Eventually we’d even be able to image continents if the planet is close enough.

The entire solar system that the planet resides in would also be obsessed over since that could help tweak our estimates of life in the universe (Drake equation) and help us locate other solar systems with increased chances of harboring life. For example, do they need a moon to stabilize planetary precession as we seem to? Do they need outer Jovian planets to absorb asteroid and cometary impacts?

We would hopefully also accelerate current and future projects to build even better instrumentation to answer these questions more fully. There would be little like finding life on another world to motivate people to spend money to learn more about them.

The impact on religious belief would be interesting since other life in the universe goes against many faiths believing in a single creation event. Denial is likely at first but eventually they will integrate it somehow into their faith.

As tempting as it may be, planning a trip there would hopefully not be seriously considered due to the expense and travel time required.

Mateusz Macias: What mission currently planned or active you’re most looking forward to?

Bob Novella: The current space mission I’m most excited about is New Horizons which is on its way to Pluto. This will be the first mission not only to examine Pluto but what’s called the Third Zone. This part of the solar system is completely uncharted so New Horizons is bound to make ground-breaking discoveries.

Mateusz Macias: There are probably hundreds of conspiracy theory about space and astronomy. What’s the strangest you guys covered?

Bob Novella: The strangest space and astronomy conspiracy we’ve covered has to be the Moon Hoax. I say it’s the strangest because of the sheer size and scope of this conspiracy if it were true. Some purport that as many as 400,000 people would have to be involved in this cover-up. This has to be one of the kings of all conspiracy theories even if that number is way off. Yet true believers are not swayed by what would clearly be required to pull something like this off for decades.

Mateusz Macias: I asked Fraser Cain the same question, I’m curious about your response. Let’s say Bob Novella is NASA’s administrator. In what direction would NASA go, what would you change?

Bob Novella: NASA Administrator Bob would put increased focus on two areas. One is Nuclear Rocket propulsion. Traveling through the solar system not only takes an inordinate amount of time, it is dangerous for people due to the solar and cosmic radiation. Both of these drawbacks and more would be greatly reduced due to the increased energy density of nuclear fuel (107 times more than chemical rockets). Imagine what our current understanding of Pluto would be if the New Horizons spacecraft took 5 years to reach Pluto instead of almost 10. It is clearly time to more seriously consider and implement this superior alternative to chemical rockets.

My Second initiative would be increased research and testing of automated off-world construction and development. Creating robots that can work together to accomplish large-scale goals on bodies like the moon, mars, and asteroids (and in free space) would greatly improve our understanding and utilization of our solar system. They could prepare sites for human habitation, build solar-power arrays and telescopes, mine precious materials, explore cooperatively and a whole host of as-of-yet undreamed of activities. This ability is obviously going to be an integral part of our future in space. Let’s start taking it more seriously.

Mateusz Macias: There are some people that I love to listen to, because of the way they share their knowledge – to name a few: Stephen Fry, Steven Novella, Fraser Cain and the kindest voice of podcast world – Pamela Gay. Do you have someone you look up to?

Bob Novella: I wholeheartedly agree with all your choices, especially Steve Novella and Pamela Gay. In terms of their ability to share their extensive knowledge, they are in the upper echelon of spoken-word education. I would also add other luminaries to that list like Stephen Hawking and Timothy Ferris. Finally, I’d like to mention science educators like Stephen J. Gould and Brian Greene who may not read their own work yet still have many incredibly compelling audio works available.

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