The “Pale Blue Dot” Blues

Reconciling a career in astrophysics with eco-anxiety.

Though generally we cover phenomena beyond our Solar System, beyond the Milky Way, or even beyond the Local Group all the way to the very edge of the observable Universe, today’s Beyond Astrobites post is about our very own Earth. 

An eerie scene of the Golden Gate Bridge, with an orange sky backdrop, with raging fires in the background due to the California Wildfires.
An eerie scene of the Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco, CA, USA), with an orange sky backdrop, as a result of the smoke and ash from the August Complex fires. Source: The New York Times

Climate change is, and will continue to be, the defining crisis of this century, and its effects will be felt by every single human. Extreme weather patterns, with California wildfires becoming a way of life and Texas freezing over, rising sea levels threatening island nations all around the globe, and declining biodiversity leading to loss of essential life are all being exacerbated on a daily basis. As we study and characterize atmospheres of planets parsecs away from us, Earth’s own is changing in front of our eyes. 

· · ·

“Why study the Universe when we have so many problems on Earth?”

We have been asked some variation of this at some point in our astrophysics careers, especially so in the past year where our lives have been completely upended by a global pandemic. As wondrous as the cosmos can be, as exciting as learning about the origin and the ultimate fate of our Universe is, and as humbling as it feels knowing that the very elements we are made of were once formed in the centers of stars, we cannot deny that we only have this Pale Blue Dot.

Why then do we study what we do?

Left: The famous “Pale Blue Dot” image, referenced in Dr. Carl Sagan‘s awe-inspiring speech, taken from a distance of about 6 billion km on February 14, 1990 by Voyager 1, only 34 minutes before the cameras were forever shut down. Earth, the tiny pale dot, “suspended in a sunbeam,” was one of the last things the probe saw. Right: The cleaned version of Voyager 1’s image released on its 30th anniversary, February 12, 2020, by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Source: NASA for both images

Astronomers face versions of this question frequently, particularly when major space exploration missions get funded, or robots land on another world. Quite frankly, I struggle in crafting a well-thought-out response, for I am far less eloquent than Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, a former associate director of science at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center who in 1970 wrote this letter in response to a very similar question, “Why spend billions studying Mars when there are children starving?” 

Just like Dr. Stuhlinger, I can point to all the space technologies that made their way to the ground (i.e. MRIs, solar (photovoltaic) cells). I can explain how space exploration is why we now have the GPS navigation system we all rely on. And I can even emphasize that Earth is the most well-studied planet by NASA. 

But in a world that favors instant gratification and results now, the lack of immediate, tangible impact of current astrophysical research in the context of global crises can render space-related endeavors futile. Sometimes, the above answers do not even satisfy me as I see the impact of COVID-19 and climate change on the many who have lost their homes and lives; it makes it difficult for me to justify remaining in this field. Motivation for an article like this comes after speaking with several of my fellow peers, mentors, and faculty who have felt similar tensions—it is important to share that we are not alone. We can inform ourselves and act on the issues, understand the statistics, and conduct groundbreaking research, but how do we begin to deal with the resulting emotions of anxiety, grief, or depression? 

I, personally, have felt this to my very core; I constantly grapple with a feeling that my expertise could be bettering society in a more direct way. After studying chemical and biomolecular engineering, I envisioned a career in renewable energy or environmental science. It was only the fall of my senior year that I ended up doubling in astrophysics and decided to pursue my PhD in astronomy. This last year when, after beginning graduate school remotely, I woke up to an orange-tinted sky of an alien planet, my home aflame in the middle of a health crisis, I felt so far detached from astronomy and my research.

What am I doing? Why does any of this matter?”

· · ·

Eco-anxiety. Ecological grief. Climate despair. Existential dread. Whatever you call it, such feelings have increased dramatically, especially in younger generations, over the last decade according to a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association on the impact of climate change on mental health. A meta-analysis combining 36 studies looking at the relationship between natural disasters and mental health impacts showed that between 7–40% of all subjects exhibited some form of psychopathology (that was not present prior to the disaster), with anxiety having the highest prevalence. Nearly 50% of all people living in areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina developed depression or PTSD. These alarming numbers will only continue to grow as the frequency of natural disasters exponentially increases. 

Science and society are not mutually exclusive; these feelings cannot be disentangled from our work. We respond to our surroundings, and experiencing this profound distress as we watch our planet slip away in front of our eyes is to be human. In fact, there is a term for this: solastalgia. There are days where I continue to work from home, researching distant planets, but feel paralyzed. I have to remind myself that combating climate change is far too big for one person to undertake alone. These feelings are then followed by the thought that if I am not directly contributing to planet-saving technologies, then my priorities are out of line.

But if there is any tool we astrophysicists can impart upon our personal communities, it is the ability to think at the largest of scales.

· · ·

Reminding Ourselves of the Greater Goals

I decided to write this, aimed at the broader astronomical community, to confront and start a conversation about the struggles to find meaning in our work, something I see my peers and I wrestling with every day. I also wish to express to society that I, as an astrophysicist, care about our Earth far more than Venus, Saturn, or any of the 4,000+ confirmed exoplanets. Billionaire climate escapists incorrectly speak for our field when they suggest that we can relatively easily leave Earth and settle on other planets. However, scientists such as Dr. Michel Mayor, winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star, vehemently disagree. We cannot simply evade the present sixth mass extinction and seek haven elsewhere. 

When something as grave as climate change is dawning over all of humanity, we must come together to tackle it, and there is no discipline better suited for bringing together such an international undertaking than astronomy. It is the one field that unites all countries in that none of us truly knows what is out there; this Pale Blue Dot, and everything on it, is all we have. 

What can astrophysicists do now? A previous Astrobite discussed the carbon footprint of the average astronomer and highlighted specific ways that we as individuals, a field, and a society can take action towards moving to a more sustainable future. Sure, we can compost, take the stairs instead of the elevator, bike as often as possible, switch to cloud computing, cut down on flights—all of which are easily implementable into our lifestyle. But unless this is done at a large scale, we will feel like our efforts are but a drop in the ocean. 

While playing our individual parts, how can we find fulfillment in our careers? Why does it matter? Here, I share a few ways that I have reconciled my feelings towards pursuing a degree and/or career in astronomy, physics, or planetary science in hopes that if you have resonated with anything I have said, you can find yourself inspired to continue your science and help save the world. 

· · ·

What is being done as a field?

Current areas of interest with a direct connection to global crises:

1. Studying Venus and its runaway greenhouse gas effect aided our understanding of Earth’s atmospheric evolution. Although whether human activity can induce a Venus-like runaway here on Earth is still debated, our understanding of Earth’s climate was deepened by examining our searingly hot neighbor. NASA is returning to Venus after nearly 3 decades with two missions to understand its atmosphere (DAVINCI+) and surface (VERITAS) which could reveal gaps in our climate models and help us better understand Earth’s own atmosphere. 

2. Astronomical techniques, namely machine learning imaging algorithms and artificial intelligence models, can shape not only medicine, but also bolster our study and monitoring of Earth by characterizing the Sun’s influence on our atmosphere or even creating virtual sensors when satellites monitoring essential atmospheric parameters stop working.  

3. NASA’s Earth Science Missions and ESA’s Missions for Climate have a few dozen satellites that orbit us 24/7 monitoring essential climate variables and sending the information down to scientists who live-track the changing climate. This constant flow of information is critical to understanding anthropogenic effects and helps to predict weather conditions. 

4. Even as the most well-studied planet, Earth has many mysteries yet to be uncovered, such as what is the origin and driver of the Earth’s core and resulting magnetic field (see: dyanmo theory)? Our nearby Solar System objects (the Moon, Venus and Mars) at one point had magnetic fields but no longer do, and current research seeks to answer why Earth’s dynamo has sustained for so long. This dynamo is responsible for our magnetic field, which is not only the reason for the beautiful aurora borealis/australis, but also why we are shielded from dangerous cosmic rays and solar flares, and have not had our atmosphere and water stripped away like Mars

The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, as seen over Canada by the International Space Station. As solar wind and energetic particles hit our magnetosphere, or the space controlled by Earth’s magnetic field, they are accelerated and collide with nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our atmosphere. As these atoms return to their ground energy state, they release photons resulting in the beautiful green hues. The magnetic field is essential to our survival since it constantly protects us from harmful cosmic rays. Without it, the Sun would have long stripped away our planet’s water and atmosphere, just like Mars. Source: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Earth’s ever-changing atmosphere and climate, cycling from ice ages to interglacial periods, can only be understood by delving into space. Studying other planets and our place in the cosmos inherently helps us realize what makes Earth so special.   

· · ·

On a more personal level…what can you do with your career? 

We as astro/physicists, due to the very nature of what we study, have a unique perspective and thus both the ability and responsibility to respond to the public’s skepticism towards funding space-related research rather than investing those resources in climate change solutions. The climate crisis is likely the first time people have encountered planet-sized problems, and understanding the causes and consequences of the impending disaster can be very hard for the general public to latch onto. However, in constantly having to think and solve problems on an astronomical scale, we can help our community confront the big questions of climate science and see beyond individual concerns. 

As the “gateway” science, astronomy naturally lends itself to conversations about climate science. For thousands of years, humans have contemplated their place in the Universe. Our sense of wonder as we explore the vast unknown can be used to stress the importance of protecting our precious planet, the only place we know to harbor life. 

Going Beyond Academia:
Using your degrees, especially a PhD, as a toolkit to effect change.  

1. Researchyou do not need to be in academia to continue your research.

A research-focused career is possible at places like one of the 17 US national laboratories, or at NASA Climate, where you can utilize your physics, chemistry, and radiative transfer background to better climate models, monitor atmospheric conditions, or work on planet sensors.

2. Science Policyyour input as a scientist is needed in policy-making rooms.

There are many ways to get involved in policy, whether it be in your local, state, or federal government. Here are a few opportunities to consider: AAAS and AAS Science Policy Fellowships.

3. Consultingyour expertise as a critical thinker and researcher helps launch grassroots initiatives.  

At conservation non-profits, such as The Nature Conservancy, you can advise projects and collaborate with like-minded individuals from all fields who are working towards the same goal: protecting our home. Diversity in thought—especially through interdisciplinary science—is what leads to innovative solutions!

4. General Public Education the fruition of your outreach efforts, your “Broader Impact.”

An issue central to the climate crisis is that much of the scientific discourse is either filled with jargon or is focused on creating hysteria and panic. Additionally, corporations and news outlets that have a direct interest in anti-sustainable strategies (i.e. fossil fuel companies) interact with the public more on a daily basis and are able to propagate myths that fit the company’s economic goals. As scientists, you can play your part in creating well-informed citizens and shifting the narrative, whether that be through giving public talks at schools, creating video content, incorporating climate science into the introductory astronomy class you TA, or writing (see below). 

5. Science Writing you did not write that dissertation for nothing, right?

If we cannot communicate effectively to the world, how can we come together? Inaccessible conversation harms everyone. Effective writing and media communication is fundamental to empowering citizens so that they feel they have the power to change the future. Writing opportunities through fellowships with AAAS and CASW, workshops such as ComSciCon, and organizations such as yours truly, Astrobites, give you the ability to hone your science communication skills to stop misinformation and call society to action.

· · ·

What specifically can advisors and institutions do? 

Our advisors’ and institutional support can also go a long way and is necessary for cultivating a scientific culture that places value on people.

Faculty, Mentors, Advisors 

– Understand that your students may be displaced, dealing with grief, experiencing eco-anxiety, thereby preventing them from fully focusing on their work. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, if a person’s basic physiological and safety needs are not met, they will not be able to tend to needs higher-up, where work and research lie.

– As climate disasters become more prevalent, more students will be needing to evacuate, seeing their homes disappear, and seeking refuge. It is nearly impossible to compartmentalize and focus on science during these times. Be more accommodating, offer those extensions, and show your students you respect and value them as people, not as their scientific output.

Universities

– Though plans to be in-person are in full swing as campuses all across the world reopen, keep your tele-work policies. These accommodations help students and workers with disabilities, and after 15 months of remote operations, we know that it works. 

– Provide support (educational or monetary) for students, faculty, and workers who are affected by natural disasters and global crises. 

· · ·

What can we all do?

Everyone in Astronomy, Physics, Planetary Science: I urge, implore, plead you to ground yourselves and 

– realize your role in helping shift the public perception of the dichotomy between space research and climate solutions. 

– approach conversations where people do question why you are in this field with the understanding that their query comes from a place of genuine concern and is likely not laced with malicious intent; shutting down the dialogue does not do anyone good. 

– keep conferences and collaboration meetings remote as frequently as possible. 

– sign this open letter by Astronomers for Planet Earth (and join them if you can)!

– do your part by having these hard conversations with people around you; we can only most directly and successfully influence those closest to us. 

– continue to educate yourselves; I would recommend listening to Dr. Jennifer W. Atkinson’s podcast Facing It which talks about how to approach climate anxiety. 

· · ·

As astronomers, we reckon with the fragility, beauty, and utter chance of our existence on a daily basis. All of the groundbreaking research we are privileged to do and are surrounded by does not matter unless we have a planet to live on.

We owe it to ourselves, our fellow humans, and our future to protect the only planet we have ever called home. 

Astrobite edited by H Perry Hatchfield and Ellis Avallone
Featured image credit: “Earthrise” from NASA and the Apollo 8 Mission

Author’s Note:
I am thankful to Astrobites for giving me a platform through Beyond posts to share and reconcile these feelings publicly, in hopes that other scientists in related fields also understand the value of their research and realize that they can make tangible impacts in moving forward to a livable planet. I hope you are moved to work towards minimizing harm for future generations, so that everyone gets a chance to marvel at the cosmos just like we get to do. If you made it this far, thank you, dear reader, for listening to what I have to say. Lastly, another thank you to Ahmed Malik for also helping edit this article, something I have been longing to write. 

About Suchitra Narayanan

I am a first-year graduate student at the Institute for Astronomy, UH Mānoa, currently working to constrain dust grain size distributions around dipper stars with Dr. Eric Gaidos. My interests include astrochemistry and its role in planetary formation, mainly through chemical kinetics and modeling of exoplanet atmospheres and the ISM. I originally am from Coimbatore but have spent most of my life in the Bay Area. I studied both chemical engineering and astrophysics at University of California, Berkeley. When I’m not science-ing, you can find me at the piano (I’ve been classically trained since I was 4!), in the ocean (I’ve been a competitive swimmer/water polo player, and open water lifeguard for East Bay Regional Park District), or playing with my darling pup, Taco (a mixed border collie rescue).

9 Comments

  1. Absolutely *phenomenal* post and advice (and resources). I was quite shocked, idly reading the daily newsletters, to find such such an expertly articulated response to some thoughts (how insufferably entitled the idea of having an “existential crisis” seems right now in the wake of the last year).

    I guess I am reminded of the letters of Nikolai Luzin:

    “…I don’t know how it happened, but I cannot be satisfied any more with analytic functions and Taylor series…it happened about a year ago…To see the misery of people, to see the torment of life, …It is unbearable, having seen this, to calmly study (in fact to enjoy) science.”

    I take heart in the idea that (like you gave examples of), despite how disconnected and ‘academic’ some effort may seem, when properly directed, slow, methodical, quality research seems to generally have a high return-on-investment in quality of life… and it’s cool to see people and organizations like the ones you mentioned (and c.f. crowdfight.org!) grouping talent around the big problems.

    Kind regards,

    a-

    Reply
    • Hello! Wow thank you so much for your kind words and taking the time out to comment this. I am really glad you enjoyed and resonated with this. I absolutely feel what Nikolai said, thank you for sharing. ~Suchi

      Reply
  2. Mahalo nui Suchi for a fantastic article! You skillfully navigated several complex issues that we face in astronomy, as well as the science community in general. My sense is that you will find yourself “bettering society” in ways you have not imagined yet.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much Doug! This means a lot coming from you. I hope that once we’re back in person and you’re officially the IfA Director, we can work towards implementing some of these solutions into our own department! 🙂

      Reply
  3. I left astronomy and went into climate science because of this feeling of not contributing enough to real humanity problems. But the truth is that lots of things can be done within astronomy too, as you say. For me, it was time for a change, but different for every person.

    Reply
    • Hi Anna! Wow, could I ask what it is that you do and when you made the switch? I totally get what you’re saying! I’m definitely the same, and I don’t see myself as a full time astrophysicist. I’m looking at my PhD as something that’s giving me the tools to become an even better advocate for our Earth come 4 years from now than I would have been with just my BS education a year ago, since I’ve found a place in science policy! I’m still working on things in the meantime to contribute meaningfully as I do get my PhD training. I think having the ability to think big picture but also ground my ideas with engineering principles has really been a useful perspective for me.

      Reply
  4. Hi, given that you give, among other things in this excellent article, advice to see this field in view of climate change etc. I have a question I find difficult to answer: everyone speaks about costs of going to space (or heaving mass out of the gravity sink) in terms of dollars, like say about 22,000 $ per kg.

    I’m interested in and find it difficult to find the costs of going to space in terms of CO2-equivalents, like say xxxxx CO2 per kg. Can you help me point in the right direction?

    Only thing I find in one of the books I’ve read (Wanjek: Spacefarers) is that a conventional rocket adds heat to the atmosphere comparable to one Hiroshima atom bomb. But that is just heat which results regardless of the fuel. But I look for calculations in terms of energy usage.

    Can you help me?

    Cheers, gregor

    Reply
    • (not Suchitra, and this is only a rough Fermi-estimate reply, this doesn’t really answer your question, it’s just a stream-of-consciousness as I was searching)

      There are a few threads on space.se regarding this question that might interest you. For a RP-1/LOX rocket like the F9, this suggests a fuel CO2 emission of ~440,000 kg, implying about 20 kg CO2e / kg payload to LEO, or 53 kg CO2e / kg payload to GEO. For scale, “…launching 80 rockets a day would increase pollution in the US by about 1%”.

      This is way too oversimplified to be of use, though – for instance, the huge energy consumption of refining aluminum (5 to 15 kg CO2e / kg) suggests the CO2e just to produce the Al required for a SpaceX F9 might approach that of the fuel load.

      A quick search on Google Scholar for “rocket life-cycle assessment” has a few results for estimates of that hardware CO2 that might interest you depending on the family of rocket you’re interested in; but these don’t generally seem to be very rigorous.

      Here’s a fantastic review of most of the current literature, but it’s paywalled. Most important quotes:

      “A study comparing the impact on radiative forcing of CO2 emissions from hydrocarbon propelled rocket launches compared to black carbon emissions found that black carbon emissions had a factor of 10^5 more impact on climate than CO2 emissions (Ross and Sheaffer, 2014).” (whoa!)

      “A modelling study which examines the cumulative effect of emissions from 1000 launches per year of space vehicles powered by hydrocarbon engines, found that after a decade of continuous launches, the black carbon emissions would result in radiative forcing comparable to that estimated to result from current subsonic aviation (Ross et al., 2010).”

      Best of luck in your search!

      -dc

      Reply
  5. Thanks a lot. That gives me plenty ideas how to go on.

    Reply

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