Purple Magazine
— The Cosmos Issue #32 F/W 2019

scott bolton

astrophysics SCOTT BOLTON

the principal investigator for nasa’s juno spacecraft — currently looping around jupiter — on the ongoing renaissance in astrophysics and space observation


OLIVIER ZAHM — The cosmos represents a complexity that requires creativity, not just pure science, right?
SCOTT BOLTON — That’s right. Science without interpretation and understanding doesn’t really go anywhere. We don’t understand the basics of life, or even the definition of life, and we struggle with the fundamental things that cross the boundaries between science and philosophy or metaphysics. So, if we only look at the narrow regions of science from the perspective of a scientist and mathematician, we cannot fully comprehend or put it in the context that we need to understand how our observations describe nature… To be effective, you have to look at it from a very broad viewpoint, to realize that what you’re seeing may have implications and influences on things that are emotional… Creativity is truly the very essence of science… We must extend the analytical to our imagination. And we have to get creative in explaining nature, explaining science.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Exactly, and you have to translate your equations into words. That’s a form of creativity — it can even be a form of poetry at times.
SCOTT BOLTON — Yes, and we can learn from ancient civilizations. You can see the periods and areas of renaissance where we were learning and making giant progress. They were always marked by periods where people from different backgrounds — scientists, mathematicians, artists, philosophers, and musicians — all joined together, interacted, and stimulated each other, forcing a broader perspective. During the Italian Renaissance in Florence, this was one of the big differences compared with other periods. In Ancient Greece, they were even embracing this concept in their language — they had an alphabet that served as an alphabet, a numbering system, and musical notes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I had no idea.
SCOTT BOLTON — Yes, and they could put together words or sentences and check them mathematically to see how things worked. That’s how the idea for “circle” really came about. It’s not an accident that it’s 360 degrees — there’s literally a connection there.

SAVANNAH NOLAN — Speaking of the ancient Greeks, who came up with the name Juno for the NASA space probe that was sent to Jupiter?
SCOTT BOLTON — That was a mythological connection. We were seeking out ideas for the names of the mission, and a close friend of mine — who wasn’t actually on the team, but was an expert in mythology — told me the story of Juno. I actually wrote the mythological story on the back of our proposal so that when NASA was reviewing it, they could understand why the name meant something. Juno was the sister and wife of Jupiter.

SAVANNAH NOLAN — The god Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief, and his wife, the goddess Juno, was able to peer through the clouds and reveal Jupiter’s true nature, which is exactly what the essence of your mission is.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are we in a new renaissance?
SCOTT BOLTON — Absolutely, we’re in the middle of a renaissance. It’s probably as great as any renaissance in human history, and it goes well beyond the progress we’re making with science and technology.
A renaissance, of course, has to be an explosion in all fields simultaneously, and it’s an awareness that, all of a sudden, you become more aware of yourself, your colleagues, the world, your place in the universe, your place in society, your vulnerability, your dependence on others. It is typically also connected to a technological revolution.

SAVANNAH NOLAN — It’s a cosmic boom.
SCOTT BOLTON — Definitely. You have to try to understand what the period of our renaissance is. Our renaissance probably goes back to the time of our Industrial Revolution. That’s when we started to realize: “Okay! We can start to utilize energy in a different way, especially with transportation and communication.” But it has accelerated recently. The space program really began around 1958 with the creation of NASA, and then the first satellite, Explorer 1,
went up. We started to look at our planet in the context of the solar system and the universe. When we took the first picture of the Earth from the moon, it was an awakening. We collectively said, “Oh my god, this is a major philosophical moment.” We now are seeing ourselves more and more in the context of the solar system, but it goes well beyond that. We reach out into space; we start to understand the fragility of our planet and of life, the fact that we can affect things. These are all relatively new concepts. At the same time, communication was exploding, and almost all renaissance periods are marked with some kind of an explosion in the ability to communicate. During the current renaissance, we embraced computers and the Internet, enabling new forms of communication that connected the world as never before. It has its positives and negatives, but nevertheless it’s an explosion of a sharing of ideas.

OLIVIER ZAHM — One thing I admire about the scientific community is that you’re able to cross these huge frontiers using the same language.
SCOTT BOLTON — That’s a very important aspect. Math is obviously an important part — math isn’t new to our renaissance, but the application of it in certain ways has led to things where we’ve increased our awareness and our humbleness. During the Italian Renaissance, Galileo recognized that the Earth was not the center. It was a very humbling experience. He faced some major resistance from the church, but it changed our perspective forever. And he was obviously brilliant to get to this leap. He invented the first telescope and sold it as a tool to warn kings of invading ships — that way, he got some money from it, but what he really wanted to do was point it up at the sky. He looked at Jupiter, and he saw that there were objects going around it. These objects were changing position relative to Jupiter, and he realized they must be orbiting, that not everything was going around us. This was one of the most important realizations in history: we are not the center of the universe — how can that be? In today’s society, even in the past few decades, we’ve had a similar humbling experience in the sense that we looked out and discovered the concept of dark matter. We realized that there is some kind of matter out in the universe, and that there is more of it than the matter we understand that we’re part of. Up until that point, we believed that matter like us, in the form of stars, made up most of the universe. We were part of the main universe, and maybe the most important part — still clinging to the concept of being the center. Then we find out that there’s something dark out there, and it’s, like, 70% of all matter in the universe — and it’s not like us, or at least not like our sun because it doesn’t give off light. Then, years later, we start to realize that the universe is expanding at a faster rate than we initially thought, and the way to explain it is something called dark energy. And this takes up even more room, so you end up with some energy force that’s out there. So, between the dark energy and the dark matter, you’re dealing with something that is well above 90% of the material in the universe. We now have to accept that we’re potentially a very minor player in the universe. That’s humbling, and that’s an awakening that we’re struggling with right now.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the real discovery of our current renaissance is that actually we know very little.
SCOTT BOLTON — That’s right, and I think every renaissance teaches you that. You leap into some sort of knowledge and discovery, but simultaneously you realize how little you know. It’s a beautiful synergy, where you expand your mind and at the same time realize your limitations.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Isn’t that discouraging?
SCOTT BOLTON — No, it’s inspiring. It motivates you to do more because you realize you need to know more. This is true of every type of science throughout history. When we make a new discovery, it opens up more questions… And it’s not just science — art is also exploding in this renaissance. We share imagination and ideas in a new and much more effective way, and that allows people to share their artistic and creative aspects with others. They’re all merged together. Music is also part of the revolution. We’ve moved into a realm where things come via the Internet… I don’t need a record company to share my piece of music with the world anymore… I can make a film go viral. I can share with the world my views, whether good or bad. To me, it’s all part of science and the renaissance.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Something that fascinates me in this scientific boom are these powerful new telescopes that offer the possibility to see pictures of the cosmos at different periods of its evolution. Even at the very beginning. How does that work?
SCOTT BOLTON — Absolutely! So, the basic reason that it works is that it takes time for light to travel. If I’m looking at an image through a telescope, I have a photon or some kind of light that has had to travel into my telescope from very far away, and it took a long time to get there. So, the image I’m looking at is sort of history, a ghost — that light was emitted a long time ago. The farther away it is, the further back in time I’m looking. That’s always been true of every telescope. If I take a pair of binoculars and look at Jupiter, I’m basically looking at Jupiter about an hour or 45 minutes earlier. So, if Jupiter somehow exploded, it would take 45 minutes for the light to reach me here on Earth and for me to know that. That’s the basis of the concept of looking back in time. The size of our galaxy is so big that it takes 100,000 years for light in our galaxy to travel from one side to the other. It takes millions or sometimes billions of years to go from galaxy to galaxy. With the very first telescope, with Galileo’s invention, he was already starting to look back in time. He didn’t know the speed of light yet, so he didn’t understand the details of this.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I learned that you can see not only with your eyes, but also through different spectrums of light.
SCOTT BOLTON — We figured out how light works: it’s an electromagnetic wave. We humans are able to see a very narrow range with our eyes. We see what is called visible light, and just by coincidence — whether you think it’s a coincidence or not — the light we see with our eyes happens to be a narrow band of light that is transmitted easily through our atmosphere. Our atmosphere blocks ultraviolet, which would be harmful to us, and it blocks most of the X-rays and even some of the infrared, but it lets through this narrow visible color light, which also turns out to be the peak kind of light that the sun emits. We’ve probably evolved to see this type of light because of this — you can call it a coincidence, but it can also be evolution. So, there’s a broad range of wavelengths, and once we figured that out, we started to use that to invent eyes that see the radio waves, the ultraviolet, the X-ray, and we learned about science and physics this way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Technological eyes…
SCOTT BOLTON — Yes, essentially artificial eyes. And as we built bigger and bigger telescopes, as we started to develop space travel and build satellites, we were able to build telescopes that went above our atmosphere so they could see more wavelengths, and they could see farther because we didn’t have the light pollution that we have on Earth. The Hubble telescope allowed us to see farther away because of this, and the next telescope, James Webb, will see even farther. Now it will be possible to see all the way back to the beginning of time, although we can’t really say when the beginning was. We need to be humble. We could discover that what we think was the beginning was not the beginning. You start to mix with philosophy and metaphysics right away when you talk about what was really the beginning. What happened one second before what we call the Big Bang?

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, now we have all these artificial eyes, all these satellites and telescopes that capture the cosmos on all sides?
SCOTT BOLTON — Yes, and we’ve also begun to understand the link between mathematics and the arts and sciences. I can make computer models to see if my theories are right, and the kind of math that I use to describe the interior of Jupiter or the middle of a black hole or the basic universal structure is the same equation I would use to describe how music is made on the strings of a guitar or on a piano.

SCOTT BOLTON — Yes. Or if I wanted to describe the color of light. Everything in nature appears to work from a fundamental concept, which is sort of oscillations or frequencies that are vibrating or changing. I can make music that is a harmonic on a guitar, and I can pick certain frequencies. Of course, it’s one- or two-dimensional, and when I want to talk about the sphere or the center of Jupiter or the galaxy or something like that, I need to do it in three dimensions, so I need what’s called spherical harmonics. But it’s all working with the same basic principle, and harmonics are fundamentally important in nature throughout the universe.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And maybe there are even more dimensions…
SCOTT BOLTON — There must be! And now you get into a whole new philosophy of what happens. What exactly is a black hole? There’s one idea that maybe the universe is full of black holes, and each is its own universe. And if you enter one, you can’t come out — at least as we know it. Our bodies will not come out, but that doesn’t mean our mind or thoughts or some sort of energy doesn’t communicate out in some way. Which comes back to the question of: “What is life?” What happens after you die? We may not answer that in our current renaissance, and maybe we will never answer that, but you strive to scrape at that truth.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do we have any way of knowing exactly how many planets exist in the cosmos?
SCOTT BOLTON — No. We’ve only recently been able to make telescopes that can detect planets and other stars. We launched a satellite not too long ago called Kepler that really changed things. We discovered thousands of planets nearby and were surprised by some of them because we saw many really large planets very close to their parent star. This didn’t fit our idea… The technique we were using for the early planetary detections was to look at the wobble of a star — because it was being pulled by the gravity of a planet that was orbiting it. The easiest ones to detect were those that were wobbling a lot. If it was a really big planet and it was right next to the star, it made the star wobble more. We discovered planets that were bigger than Jupiter at the distance of Mercury or even closer. We didn’t even think that those could exist, but they do. That was the first humbling experience in planetary detection. Then we started to develop techniques that could see a planet passing in front of a star, essentially seeing the shadow cast. A tiny bit of light would be reduced from the star, and we built very sensitive telescopes that could detect that, and they discovered several thousands of planets that are the same size or twice or five times the size of the Earth. And again, they were close to their star because those were the easiest ones to detect. Now we’re starting to image via radio telescopes and can see planetary dusty debris discs or early solar systems that are around other nearby stars. We think these are where planets are being formed right now. We’ve learned enough to realize that planets are not uncommon and that they must be around most stars. Whether life is rare or not is another question, but even if life is happening in one in a million of these planetary systems, it’s still incredibly abundant out there because there are so many stars and galaxies.

OLIVIER ZAHM — If every star has a possibility of planets and there are billions of stars, there must be even more planets than stars, which increases the chances of extraterrestrial life.
SCOTT BOLTON — It would be egotistical to think that we’re the only ones.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s speak about Jupiter and the Juno mission. Why were you so captivated by this planet, in particular?
SCOTT BOLTON — I was studying lots of different planets, and the sun and the Earth. In my career, I was originally doing astrophysics and studying things even farther away, but I was frustrated by being reliant on telescope observations. Sometimes, when looking with a telescope at a close object like Mars or the moon or Venus, we’d get there and find that what we may have assumed from the telescope is wrong. When we figured out how to launch a rocket and get off the planet — which is not so easy, and that’s actually also part of the renaissance: realizing you can leave our planet —
I learned the value of being able to go and visit and collect data.

OLIVIER ZAHM — By staying in our solar system, you can have the real data instead of just having a picture.
SCOTT BOLTON — That’s right. I got interested in Jupiter because I was studying very high-energy physics, and Jupiter is massive. It’s much more powerful than the Earth, and because of its mass and giant size, it has more energy than the other planets. I was interested in extremes of energy, and that was the laboratory that had the best example. And as I went on to become interested in how the solar system formed and where the Earth comes from — and where our oceans come from, and how did we get life, and where did everything originate from — Jupiter held some of these secrets. Because it was so massive and so much bigger than all the planets, it likely formed first. Being so massive, Jupiter has been able to hold onto the material it was originally formed from. It is mostly hydrogen and helium, like the sun. Jupiter also must have formed early, while the gases like hydrogen and helium from the sun’s formation were still around. Eventually, they blow away. So, studying Jupiter is sort of like studying a time capsule that has been preserved.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it the biggest planet or the densest?
SCOTT BOLTON — It’s not the densest because it’s just a big giant ball of gas, but it’s very dense in the center, which is under enormous pressure. It’s the biggest and most massive —
it has more material in it than all the other planets put together. I can take all the planets — Neptune, Saturn, Uranus, Earth, all the comets, all the asteroids, everything — and they all fit inside Jupiter, and
there’s still space left over.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Jupiter is a giant.
SCOTT BOLTON — It’s a giant. One thousand Earths fit inside Jupiter. But Jupiter is small compared with the sun — 1,000 Jupiters fit inside the sun.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But the sun’s a star, not a planet.
SCOTT BOLTON — That’s correct. I wanted to learn how planets were made. When I realized that there were different theories of how you make the planets, the only way to truly test that theory — at least initially, the first big test — was discovering how Jupiter was made. In particular, you had to understand what it was made out of and compare that with the sun — because the assumption that scientists make is that whatever made the sun, the leftovers made the planets. So, there was a big cloud in space in between the stars, and this big cloud collapses and forms a star. That’s how stars are made, and the leftovers from the cloud somehow get processed, and then the planets are formed. So, the question was: “How did Jupiter get formed?” We needed to understand what it was made out of and how it was structured inside. Was it built from the cloud, or did it have to make rocky and icy things first in the early solar system, and have them come together and get stuck together? Like a bunch of snowflakes coming together that could make a dirty snowball, which got enough gravity and that all of a sudden caused the cloud and the nebula of gas that was left over to collapse and form Jupiter. Juno’s number-one primary science goal is to answer those questions.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I’ve always been curious about why the planets are spherical.
SCOTT BOLTON — Not all objects are balls — little asteroids can be very misshapen. They look a little bit like a dumbbell or have jagged edges, likely from collisions. The reason the planets and stars are spherical is because they are largely built by gravity, and gravity is a spherical force. What’s interesting, and what we’re trying to learn about Jupiter and all the objects, is they’re not perfectly spherical. The earth is fatter in the middle than it is at the poles, and Jupiter is the same way. We call it oblique, and that’s because it’s spinning really fast. If something spins really fast, it kind of flattens out from the centrifugal forces.

SAVANNAH NOLAN — I’ve been seeing on various news outlets that the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, a storm that’s been brewing for the past 300 years, is shrinking and may completely vanish in the next 20 years. Is it going to affect or change the planet?
SCOTT BOLTON — I wouldn’t put too much faith into a trend of the Great Red Spot that is only decades old. I doubt it will disappear completely in just 20 years, but nevertheless it is shrinking.

SAVANNAH NOLAN — The concept of permanence that humans have is remarkable — this inclination to think that everything around us has always existed a certain way, and that it’ll go on existing that way forever.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Especially when you put it into a broader perspective with planets and stars…
SCOTT BOLTON — The truth is that’s an aspect of nature we have to embrace: life and death. You can’t avoid them, and you can’t avoid change — and that essentially is what the definition of time is, right? Coupled with that is the fundamental concept of “What is life?” We don’t really know. What makes something alive versus not alive? We don’t understand the life force. There is obviously something missing in our science still, but we’re coming to grips with that. And at the same time, we are reaching out and seeking to see if we can discover life elsewhere. We may not find it in our solar system, but we’re looking, and we’re starting to understand what to look for. This is all part of the renaissance.

SAVANNAH NOLAN — Regarding energy, can we harness the incredible amount of energy Jupiter produces?
SCOTT BOLTON — I don’t think that we’re going to discover a new form of energy. The way Juno is set up is that we’re looking inside the planet and learning certain things, and we may come up with different theories about how energy is being used on Jupiter. We’re going to explain how planets work, and we may better understand how the Earth works, and we may get a new perspective on who we are and how we, the Earth, and Jupiter all fit into the larger picture.

SAVANNAH NOLAN — What’s the most valuable thing that can come from the Juno mission?
SCOTT BOLTON — It’s all basic, fundamental research. It’s not necessarily going to make a better light bulb or radio for you here back on Earth, but it is going to change our perspective and understanding about how we fit in, and how important Jupiter-like planets are if we are seeking out where there could be life in other corners of the universe. It may be that you need a Jupiter to create an Earth. It could be that we will understand better how our own atmosphere works… We’re going to learn how to explore Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. So, in some sense, we’re actually learning how to explore our own backyard. With Juno, we’re also learning about magnetic fields that basically protect the Earth from the environment that the sun is spewing out — all these charged particles that might sweep away our atmosphere. We don’t completely understand our magnetic field or how it gets created, but I believe our survival is dependent on it. One of the greatest things that’s going to come from exploring Jupiter is a greater awareness of our place in the universe and how the Earth fits in — and the fact that the Earth can change for the good or the bad. And we need to understand how that works, so that we don’t inadvertently create an environment that destroys our own life on our planet.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you maintain your sense of optimism?
SCOTT BOLTON — I am very optimistic, but I also recognize that humans have a part of them that is based on selfishness or greed, or different people have different views and may not agree on something, and that can be dangerous.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, see us as a multiplanetary species?
SCOTT BOLTON — I do. I think we have the ability to take humans to other planets, maybe even to other stars someday. And I appreciate those people in private industry who are seeking to do that. It doesn’t replace or even conflict with the fundamental exploration of science. I support what they’re doing. Someday, maybe I’ll get the chance to go up on a ride when they go up.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s all part of the renaissance.
SCOTT BOLTON — That somebody could make money from Amazon or PayPal and take their life dream of exploring space and try to make it available to others is certainly part of the renaissance.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it doesn’t contradict the fact that we have to take care of this planet and change a lot of things on it.
SCOTT BOLTON — Not at all. In fact, it helps make us more aware. What we should be focused on is that the planet is changing. We need to understand how. We need to adapt to make sure that we can still feed people, transport goods, and survive past this change. You can look at the Earth’s history and see that, whether we created the problem or not, the Earth was going to change. The Earth has never been totally stable — the weather and the climate have always been very flexible. I don’t think we should waste time worrying about whether or not we caused this climate change or not. The real point is, even if I shut down all the emissions from factories and cars, the Earth isn’t going to go back the other way. It doesn’t work that way, and it takes a long time for change to happen. At the same time, we need to accept responsibility and act responsibly. Reducing our carbon footprint is important, but not because we will reverse climate change. We might limit how extreme the change becomes. The climate is not going to go back easily. We need to understand how we’re going to accommodate the greater storms and the greater temperatures. I believe it’s going to go back and forth until it finds a new stable point. It’s going to be warmer, and then in some years it’s going to be colder, and the storms are going to increase with intensity. We need to deal with that, and who knows where the new stable point will be. We need to find out, as the oceans rise, what we will do. As the climate changes, where will we grow our crops? Are we headed toward a disaster by being too dependent on meat? These are fundamental questions. It’s all about figuring out how to deal with an evolving planet, and learning about how other planets evolve is a lesson to us. They aren’t evolving because of a bunch of humans: Venus didn’t go into a greenhouse effect because there were a bunch of gas-guzzling automobiles running around — it went into it naturally, so things could happen naturally to us.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We’re also a part of nature.
SCOTT BOLTON — Yes, this is a very important point.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Everything you’ve described is part of the renaissance. There is a brilliant side and a scary side, the unknown, and we have to deal with both aspects.
SCOTT BOLTON — Yes, and we have to deal with it using knowledge and truth. Knowledge and truth are never bad inherently. They may scare you, they may teach you things you wish you didn’t know because now you will sleep less at night, but they also challenge you to find solutions.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The truth is, your community, the scientific community, speaks the truth because we can’t rely on artists and politicians.
SCOTT BOLTON — Not always. Scientists are humans as well — it’s in our nature that we like our ideas to be the right ones. We want to have influence… Don’t ever just say that the community speaks truths. It may be less politically motivated than others like politicians or somebody who’s trying to earn a lot of money, but it is still humanly motivated. You have to take everything with a grain of salt and keep an open mind. That truth is there only until we’ve proven the next truth.



[Table of contents]

The Cosmos Issue #32 F/W 2019

Table of contents

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