Dark energy: the unknown force of nature explained

Post-doctoral fellow explains astronomical phenomena in AstroTours lecture

Dark energy: the unknown force of nature explained

Dark energy is a mysterious universal force with a fantastical name. First predicted by a version of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, support for its existence was only uncovered near the end of the twentieth century. Even today, relatively little is known about it.

To explain this cosmological phenomenon, the AstroTours team hosted a talk titled “Dark energy: The weirdest 70% of the Universe” as part of its popular science-themed seminar series.

Dr. Pavel Motloch, a post-doctoral fellow in the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics at U of T, summarized the confounding force that derives from its mysterious nature.

The complex topic was presented in an approachable manner, with a generous spattering of witticisms and quips, enjoyed by the attendant audience.

Observing an anomaly through the death of stars

Motloch began the talk by describing how observing supernovae led to a better understanding of the universe’s expansion, and to the discovery of dark energy.

A supernova is a massive explosion of a star. The immense release of light and energy from the event is brilliant against the dark galactic backdrop, with some outshining entire galaxies.

As Motloch explained, the brightness and colour of the light we observe from a supernova provides an estimate of our distance from the dead star. Using this information to calculate the distances of dying stars, researchers are able to study the size of the universe and the speed of its expansion.

The prevailing theory for much of the past century suggested that after the Big Bang, the universe was expanding, but that gravity was causing the rate of expansion to slow down. However, there was a discrepancy in the expected and observed brightness from the most distant supernovae.

Deep space observations of supernovae, especially those made using the Hubble space telescope in the 1990s, suggested that the universal expansion was instead picking up speed. The culprit? It might be dark energy.

Not Einstein’s folly — the cosmological constant

Described in simple terms, dark energy functions as an antagonist to gravitational force. As gravity is described to bring matter together, dark energy pushes it apart.

It may not come as a surprise that the presence of dark energy was first predicted by Albert Einstein. In his general theory of relativity, a cosmological constant was introduced to account for an expanding universe, despite gravity. Mathematically, the cosmological constant represents dark energy.

The theory of general relativity predicted the existence of gravitational waves and black holes among other at the time unknown properties of space-time.

Yet Einstein himself expressed regret on including the cosmological constant. Motloch joked that Einstein’s doubt in his work “was his actual blunder.”

Darkness still survives? 

Knowing the rate for the expansion of the universe, dark energy is quantified to currently comprise roughly 68 per cent of the universe.

It has a density of approximately 10-29 grams/centimetre3, which can be analogized as the mass of a feather roughly divided by the volume of Earth ⁠— adding to the challenging endeavour of studying its characteristics.

Motloch referenced that there is novel dark energy experimentation ongoing using particle accelerators. To illustrate the complexity and difficulties of such endeavors, he introduced an analogy of trying to understand the mechanism of cars by crashing two of them together and studying the flying debris.

Whether dark energy even exists is a matter of interpretation to some.

Acknowledging the possibility for other interpretations of the data, Motloch assessed his confidence in the general theory of relativity and dark energy. “It might be that our understanding of how gravity is working is wrong, there [have] been many proposals, but as far as I can tell, general relativity is still the best one,” he said.

“It turns out that this one [cosmological] constant is able to explain all the cosmological data we have.”

Other than its tendency to push matter apart, not much else is known about dark energy. For now, it is a useful constant that helps physicists balance the universal ledger.

How astronomers observe the distant reaches of the universe

2019 Fleming Medal recipient Dan Falk leads panel discussion on dark matter, exoplanets, extraterrestrial life

How astronomers observe the distant reaches of the universe

How do astronomers study celestial objects millions of miles away? The Astronomy and Space Exploration Society explored this question during a panel hosted on November 27 looking at the current observational methods of astronomy.

Audience members of all ages filed into Cody Hall that evening as a panel of four graduate students faced them, eager to share their knowledge. Award-winning science journalist Dan Falk moderated the event and guided the discussion as the night progressed.

The four panellists each come from diverse areas of research. Taylor Kutra, a second-year graduate student, studies the processes and environments in which planet formation occurs. Alysa Obertas, a fifth-year graduate student, studies the orbital dynamics of compact solar systems.

Third-year graduate student Emily Deibert focuses on ground-based observational methods of studying exoplanet atmospheres. Finally, Colleen Gilhuly, a fourth-year graduate student, studies spiral galaxies and their formation with Dragonfly, a telescope array, which is being operated on in New Mexico by researchers from U of T and Yale University.

Exoplanets: what do we know and how?

Falk began the discussion by asking what astronomers currently know about exoplanets and what still remains a mystery. 

Deibert acknowledged the bias in current exoplanet discovery methods, claiming that most discovered exoplanets are ‘Hot Jupiters’ ⁠— massive Jupiter-sized planets that orbit relatively close to their host stars. This does not occur as a result of them being the most common, but rather because they are the easiest type of exoplanet to detect. 

Instead, Kutra estimates that the most common exoplanets are ‘Super Earths’ — planets between the size of Earth and Neptune.

However, Kutra explained that exoplanet formation is still a mystery due to the problem of dust coagulation. She explained that it’s difficult for dust to coagulate due to the metre barrier problem, which is when a metre-sized proto-planet faces a headwind, slowing the coagulated rocky matter, causing it to fall into the star. 

Similarly, Falk raised another mystery: how is it possible to study planets that are not in our solar system at all? The panel remarked that this involves techniques like looking at the spectrum of exoplanets in order to determine what types of gases and features are present. In fact, Deibert observes the “fingerprints” of molecules that can only be resolved by large ground-based telescopes with high resolutions. 

Kutra also noted that we do not have the most common types of exoplanets in our solar system, which exacerbates the difficulty of understanding them.

Among such difficulties, it has become an interdisciplinary objective for both planetary and exoplanetary scientists to unravel the mysteries of planet formation.

Dark matter and extraterrestrial life

As the discussion turned to dark matter, Gilhuly described the U of T-led Dragonfly telephoto array, which aims to find the true nature of dark matter and its upshot for galaxy formation.

Large telescopes usually cannot sustain lenses because they tend to deform under their own weight. However, Dragonfly has sustained a massive lens with nano-structured coating that changes the material’s refractive index and reduces light scatter. This is favourable to observe bodies that are large and faint, like ultra-diffuse galaxies. 

After the guided portion of the discussion, Falk opened up the floor to questions. Immediately, a young boy shot his hand up and asked, “Are black holes dark matter?” inciting laughter amongst the audience. Surprisingly, the answer was somewhat complicated, as black holes are in some ways dark matter, but may only account for 10 per cent of the dark matter in the Milky Way. Thus, there must be something else accounting for the other 90 per cent.

Several other questions centred on the topic of extraterrestrial life, particularly whether exoplanets could possibly support life. Kutra acknowledged that hospitable atmospheres are essential for complicated molecules to form — it is a necessary but insufficient condition. Obertas further elaborated that there is an evolutionary element to extraterrestrial life.

It may be that the evolution of life follows a completely different course, with different foundational elements. Furthermore, we may not even be able to recognize extraterrestrial life because of how different their make-up is to our own.

Disclosure: Haya Sardar is the Secretary of the Astronomy and Space Exploration Society and Emily Deibert has previously written with The Varsity.

UTSG: The Milky Way in Motion

What is dark matter? How can be detect its presence? Come to AstroTours Keynote lecture at the University of Toronto and hear from Prof. Gurtina Besla about the ways astronomers use the motions of stars and other objects to understand this “invisible” component of the universe. There will be pre- and after talk activities including telescope observing, planetarium shows and much more! 

Full information on the event details can be found at:


UTSG: Planet Gazing Party

Come see the planets as you’ve never seen them before! On September 14, join us for our second annual Planet Gazing Party with telescopes, prizes, stars and planets. Starting at 7:30p.m., we’ll have telescopes set up to view Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons. Come see mountains and craters on our own Moon in spectacular detail. Talk to astronomers and telescope enthusiasts and get all your space questions answered. Take a selfie with our gigantic Moon globe and play trivia games to win great prizes.

Make sure to arrive before 9:00 p.m. if you want to catch Jupiter and it moons. Saturn, and the Moon will be visible until the conclusion of the event.

This is a FREE event. No registration is required.

This event is being offered by the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics in partnership with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

How do you fit 14 billion years of cosmic history into a 30-minute talk?

A theoretical astrophysicist tells the story of the universe in AstroTour talk

How do you fit 14 billion years of cosmic history into a 30-minute talk?

Dr. Patrick Breysse, a postdoctoral researcher at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, dragged our minds back in time, painted a picture of the universe, and explained how laughably inadequate the term “Big Bang” is at capturing the birth of our reality, in a public talk delivered at U of T on August 1.

How early conceptions of the universe evolved over time

The talk, titled “A Brief History of Everything,” was attended by around 300 audience members at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. Breysse opened with an introduction to the works of American astronomers Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Edwin Hubble in the early 1900s.

At that time, philosophers believed that the Milky Way was at the centre of the universe and was surrounded by a sea of unchanging, unmoving stars. But the discovery of massive swirling clouds called spiral nebulae threw a wrench in that model. 

“There was a great debate around [1908 about] whether these were little gas clouds in our galaxy or enormous things outside of it,” explained Breysse.

Leavitt noticed the blinking of special stars called Cepheid variables, and she figured out that the speed of this blinking could tell us how bright the star is. Hubble used this to figure out how far bright stars are. The giant cluster of stars they quantified eventually became known as the modern galaxies. 

Hubble also showed that these clusters of stars are separate from the Milky Way. The closest galaxy to us, Andromeda, is a whopping 24 quintillion kilometres away — that’s eighteen zeros!

“If I say Andromeda is as far as the moon is away from us, as the moon is from the earth, then the earth would have to be the size of a virus,” noted Breysse.

Hubble concluded that everything in the universe was moving away from us, and so there must have been a point when everything was together, and that an explosion resulted in this scattering of matter.

Decades of investigation later, we know that we are not at the centre of the universe, but are instead surrounded by massive constellations of massive galaxies and cosmic phenomena. 

“Astronomy is, if anything, good for telling you, you are not special in any comprehensive way!”

How theoretical physics underpins our current understanding

From the centre-of-the-universe conception, Breysse brought us up to date with the Lambda Cold Dark Matter model of the universe. This model is, in essence, the Big Bang Theory – the universe started out in a “hot dense state, and then nearly 14 billion years ago,” something happened and here we are.

Astronomers study the origin of the universe by constructing images of cosmic webs of matter and empty space using powerful telescopes and satellites. These researchers glean knowledge from ergo-planetary discs, and learn about the birth of galaxies from nebulae. 

Despite all this, there is a two-billion-year gap in our knowledge. Breysse and his research team use microwaves and intensity mappings to construct an idea of what our cosmic past might have looked like – the universe’s “baby pictures.”

“Every telescope is secretly a time machine,” said Breysse. “Telescopes look at light, and light travels at a constant speed.”

As light travels at nearly 300,000 kilometres per second, images captured from the distant reaches of the universe represent moments taken from the past. This is accounted for by the time it takes for the light to reach our instruments.

The further out we take observations from, the closer we get to the moment the universe originated.

Reactions from audience members

Audience members were given the opportunity to ask questions and express their appreciation at the end of the evening. 

“It was a fun and informative talk. He made a topic that’s quite difficult to understand simple, and did it in an entertaining way,” said Maeesha Mahbub, a third-year Fundamental Genetics and its Applications specialist, to The Varsity

The audience was also, surprisingly, filled with children from the neighbouring communities accompanied by their families. One brave nine-year-old, Leffe Monette, enthusiastically asked Breysse questions during the talk.

“I really enjoyed the talk! I liked how he showed us how far the other galaxies are,” said Leffe, a student of St. Michael’s College School. “I want to be a [space] scientist!”

Following the talk, audience members were given the chance to view Saturn and Jupiter through telescopes from U of T’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics atop McLennan Physical Libraries.

AstroTours also set up a free planetarium show for audience members following Breysse’s talk, conveying further information on the vast expanse of the universe to interested attendees.

“Wrong side of history”: U of T criticized for involvement in Hawaiian telescope project

U of T faculty, students in solidarity with Native Hawaiian protests to protect sacred site

“Wrong side of history”: U of T criticized for involvement in Hawaiian telescope project

Protests in Hawaii against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the Mauna Kea — a sacred mountain that Native Hawaiians, known as Kānaka Maoli, regard as their origin site — have made their way to U of T. The university is a member of the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), an organization that has funded the astronomy project.

U of T faculty and students criticized U of T’s involvement in the project, in solidarity with peaceful Kānaka Maoli protesters who have been occupying the site since construction began on July 15.

Astronomy’s rising star?

The TMT is a project over 10 years in the making, with the promise of enabling astronomers to look far into the past of stellar and galactic evolution. With an area nine times bigger than any existing visible-light telescope, the TMT is designed to identify images with unprecedented resolution, surpassing even the Hubble telescope.

The profound sensitivity of the TMT boasts the potential for observational data to answer questions about “first-light” objects, exoplanets, and black holes in the centre of galaxies.

This potential for furthering astronomy and astrophysics is what makes the TMT astronomy’s rising star.

Why is the TMT being protested?

In July 2009, the Board of Governors for the TMT chose the Mauna Kea as its location. Mauna Kea has long been an astronomical hotspot, serving as the location for 13 observatories. The TMT would be the 14th, standing as the biggest telescope on the mountain.

Mauna Kea is a sacred ancestral mountain, a place imbued with both natural and cultural resources. It is the location of many religious rituals conducted by the Kānaka Maoli, as well as a burial ground of sacred ancestors. Additionally, its ecological value is profound, housing esoteric ecosystems and providing water to the residents of Hawaii.

For these reasons, native kia’i (guardians) and kūpuna (elders) have resisted industrialization on Mauna Kea ever since the first telescope was built in 1968.

Subsequently, the TMT has attracted significant protests, serving as the Leviathan of telescopes. Dr. Uahikea Maile, Assistant Professor of Indigenous Politics at U of T, describes the TMT as a “unique beast” because of its size and location.

The project requires eight acres on the northern plateau of the mauna, which is currently untouched. Maile asserts that the corporation backing the TMT tempts the State of Hawaii into “valuing techno-scientific advances and alleged economic benefits over Native Hawaiian rights and the environment.”

Hence, ever since 2014, kia’i have attempted to halt the construction of the TMT by forming blockades at the base of the summit.

A brief space-time log of events

On July 10, Hawaiian Governor David Ige announced that construction of the TMT would begin on July 15, 2019. Five days later, hundreds of peaceful protestors stood together to form a blockade that would prevent construction crews from ascending Mauna Kea to begin constructing the TMT.

Located at an elevation of 6,000 feet, the blockade is logistically supported by the Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu, a place of refuge providing resources and infrastructure to sustain all those involved in the blockade, wrote Maile. All people at the pu‘uhonua have access to free housing, food, health care, child care, and transportation.

Maile, who is of Kānaka Maoli descent, spent two and a half weeks at the protests. He recounted that the kia’i were “constantly prepared for the risk of police force and violence.” On the second day of protests, Governor Ige deployed the National Guard, militarizing the once peaceful site of protest.

On July 17, police arrived at the scene carrying riot batons, tear gas, guns, and a Long Range Acoustic Device, according to Maile. The elder kūpuna, many of whom were in their 70s or 80s, formed the central blockade, while they requested the kia’i to stand at the sides of the road.

Thirty-eight people were arrested at the scene, most of whom were kūpuna, but after hours of negotiations “a deal was struck and all police left.”

Numerous sources maintain that U of T’s statement on the Thirty Meter Telescope (artist’s depiction pictured) are not reflective of the views of all faculty members and students.
Courtesy of TMT Observatory Corporation

University of Toronto responds

U of T, a member of ACURA, is involved in the TMT. ACURA has served an advisory role in the estimated $1.5 to $2 billion project. Its members and other Canadian astronomers are planned to receive access to 15 per cent of the telescope’s viewing time.

It is important to note that U of T is not directly invested in the TMT. Nonetheless, Professor Vivek Goel, a board member of ACURA and Vice-President, Research and Innovation, and Strategic Initiatives at U of T, published an official statement explaining that he has been “watching closely the recent events at the construction site.”

He continued by writing that U of T “does not condone the use of police force in furthering its research objectives,” and noted that the university’s commitment to truth and reconciliation impels it to consult with Indigenous communities.

Lack of consensus amongst faculty members

U of T’s official statement has received backlash from numerous sources who maintain that it is not reflective of the views of all faculty members and students.

For instance, Dr. Eve Tuck, an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Justice Education, has written three letters to U of T President Meric Gertler, criticizing the statement for not going far enough in taking action against the TMT.

In an email to The Varsity, Tuck wrote that while the university has no direct funding in the TMT, there are still ways to divest. “There is more than money that can and should be withdrawn in this situation, including support, endorsement, affiliation, reputational backing, approval, and advocacy for the project.”

She believes that it is imperative for U of T to prevent the TMT’s construction, and if it does not do so, it “is on the wrong side of history.”

Moreover, protesters of the TMT have found an unexpected ally in some astronomers who, perhaps counterintuitively, oppose the project. For instance, Dr. Hilding Neilson, an Assistant Professor at U of T’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, wrote that “the statement from the university doesn’t say a whole lot.”

He specifically questioned the statement’s assumption that astronomy has a “moral right” to the mountain because it is a scientific field, which supposedly seeks to benefit the accumulation of knowledge for all of humanity.

Power to graduate students

An open letter authored by astrophysics graduate students at the TMT’s partner institutions reinforced this opposition from U of T astronomy professors. The letter, published online, called on the astronomy community to “denounce the criminalization of the protectors on Maunakea” and to remove the military and police presence from the summit.

Two signatories, Melissa de los Reyes and Sal Wanying Fu, wrote to The Varsity that it is “imperative for the astronomy community to denounce [the arrests of kūpuna] and take a stand against the further use of violence in the name of science.”

Reyes is a second-year graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, while Fu is an incoming graduate student at UC Berkeley. Both are National Science Foundation graduate fellows.

The open letter was published despite the risk that it could potentially impact the signatories’ research careers. The signatories include graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and professors.

Signatories from U of T include professors Hilding Neilson and Renee Hlozek, Postdoctoral Fellow John Zanazzi, Sessional Instructor Dr. Kristin Cavoukian, PhD students Fergus Horrobin, Fang Xi Lin, Marine Lokken, Adiv Paradise, and Emily Tyhurst, and undergraduate students Yigit Ozcelik, Andrew Hardy, and Rica Cruz.

Jess Taylor, the Chair of CUPE 3902 and a writing instructor in the Engineering Communication Program at U of T, was also a signatory.

The signatories Reyes and Fu hope that the discussion prompted by the letter causes academic astronomers to “reckon with the ways in which social systems are inextricably linked with the way we do science.”

Neilson commended the bravery of its signatories, writing that “for students to come out and do this, potentially not only against their own research, but against their supervisors’ and departments’ requires standing up to power.”

Activism by undergraduate students

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and the Indigenous Studies Students’ Union (ISSU) also published a joint statement on August 29 condemning the construction of the TMT at Mauna Kea.

The UTSU represents full-time undergraduate students at the St. George campus, while the ISSU’s membership includes students who are enrolled in the Indigenous Studies program or are taking at least one Indigenous Studies course.

The unions called upon U of T to “cease construction” of the telescope and to relocate it to an “area where its construction would not infringe upon the sacred land of Indigenous peoples or damage land that is environmentally protected.”

Eclipsing Indigenous knowledge

It is important to recognize that the Kānaka Maoli protests are not against science. Rather, they are against a Western ideology of economic development that — in the name of science and objectivity ­­— has historically propagated mechanisms of colonization, slavery, and incarceration. Following centuries of colonial and postcolonial development, the scientific industry today undermines and maligns Indigenous knowledge systems — associating it with primitivity.

Meanwhile, Neilson draws attention to the value of Indigenous knowledge, stating that “a lot of the tensions between Hawaiians and TMT come from the fact that a lot of us are ignorant of Hawaiian knowledge, and what it means for Mauna Kea to be sacred.”

Ultimately it is not a question about science versus culture, but about whether development under the guise of science reinforces a certain hierarchy of culture. It is evident that there is a need for a scientific Big Bang, one where Indigenous cultures is no longer at the bottom of this hierarchy.

Editor’s Note (September 9, 3:26 pm): The article has been updated to reflect that ACURA has funded the TMT, according to a 2013 ACURA report, but does not own a 15 per cent stake. Canadian contributions collectively have a 15 per cent share in the TMT project.

Dunlap Institute celebrates 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon landing

SpaceTime event featured talks, games to commemorate first spaceflight to land humans on the Moon

Dunlap Institute celebrates 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon landing

On Saturday, July 20, U of T’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing with a SpaceTime event at the Daniels Spectrum.

The public event took place precisely 50 years to the day that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to take “one small step” onto the lunar surface at the climax of the Apollo 11 mission. Accordingly, the event focused on milestones in crewed space exploration, particularly surrounding the moons of our solar system.

The key attractions were three talks presented by experts in the space industry and academia. Interspersed between the talks were shorter anecdotes on spaceflight, chosen to augment the main features. Audience members were also able to participate through show-style games involving trivia and artwork.

The evening’s first speaker was William Maxwell King, a Master of Applied Science candidate at the U of T Institute for Aerospace Studies.

King’s presentation was titled “Spaceflight: A Human History,” and took the audience on a journey from the first rockets to the first Moon landing. Beginning with the origins of modern rocketry in the aftermath of World War II, the accompanying slideshow featured photographs of early rockets such as the United States’ Bumper 2, which was based on the German V-2 rocket. Similar pictures showed early Soviet successes in space before the triumph of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s Apollo program.

King selected a historical angle for his talk to showcase the incredible progress that human ingenuity made over a very short span of time.

“I think the lesson that I see in the Apollo legacy is that there is no challenge too great to tackle,” wrote King in an email to The Varsity. “Especially as our world faces catastrophic issues such as climate change, the Apollo program shows that we can indeed construct technological solutions to seemingly impossible problems.”

The second talk was thematically closer to the present day, as Dr. Jamil Shariff, an engineer at MDA Corporation, an aerospace company, presented the opportunities that the Moon will allow humanity in the near future.

In his talk titled “The Moon: A Gateway to the Future,” Shariff went into detail on the Lunar Gateway Project, an international collaboration to build a permanent space station in the moon’s orbit. Shariff particularly highlighted Deep Space Exploration Robotics (DSXR), which is Canada’s planned contribution to the endeavour. 

The Canadian Space Agency and MDA Corporation have developed concepts for a new pair of robotic arms — the large eXploration Large Arm (XLA), and small eXploration Dextrous Arm (XDA) — for use on the Lunar Gateway. The arms will be analogous follow-ups to the large Canadarm2 and small Dextre arms that currently service the International Space Station.

“The relatively careful, stepwise approach that NASA/ESA/CSA/Roscosmos are taking with the Lunar Gateway is to use ‘cislunar space’ (the space between the Earth and the Moon) as a proving ground,” wrote Shariff in an email to The Varsity.

“In this environment, the effects of long term habitation in space and increased radiation exposure can be studied and mitigated. Experience can be gained operating in a self-sustaining manner with no resupply from, and limited communication with, Earth.”

Information gained from studies along this vein could be applied to hypothetical missions such as crewed deep space explorations and Martian missions.

Closing the evening was Dr. Michael Reid, an Associate Professor and the Coordinator of Public Outreach and Education at the Dunlap Institute. Unlike the previous two speakers, Reid was less focused on the Moon, as a definite and singular, in favour of moons, as indefinite and plural concepts.

Reid’s talk, titled “To the Moons,” advocated for increased interest in the many natural satellites of our solar system, which number in the hundreds, instead of continued fixation on our eight neighbouring planets. Reid used slideshows of photographs to argue that exploration of nearby moons would provide a broader understanding of the possibilities that alien worlds hold. 

Saturn’s moon Titan was in particular focus during the presentation, given its thick atmosphere and liquid oceans of water and hydrocarbons. Combined with an atmospheric pressure and low gravity that is favourable to humans, Reid cited it as an example of a nearby celestial body which could prove agreeable to colonization.

“What I was trying to do was encourage people to think about places in the solar system we could go beyond planets,” said Reid in an interview with The Varsity. “Titan is one really good example, particularly if you’re thinking about human colonization or travel. But it’s only one, right? There are other places you could go depending on your motives. In general… the places in the solar system that might [possibly] be compatible with life are probably actually not planets.”

Despite the astronomical subject matter of the talks, the Dunlap Institute made it clear in advance and during the event that people of all educational backgrounds, including children, were welcome.

“I think the easiest way for laypeople to get involved with space exploration is to come to events like this,” wrote Master of Ceremonies Dr. Mubdi Rahman, a Project Scientist in the Dunlap Institute, in an email to The Varsity.

“[These events are opportunities] to actually chat with people actively working in the field, and there are often surprising collaborations that come out of these meetings.”

From one world to another with the press of a button

The Habitat podcast considers the good, the bad, and the boring of a life on Mars

From one world to another with the press of a button

The Habitat is the perfect podcast to listen to on your morning commute. It’s the best background sound when you want to sleepily close your eyes, press play, and escape to a different planet — literally.

Released in April 2018 by podcast-behemoth Gimlet Media, The Habitat is about life on Mars – or rather, what life would be like on Mars. Listeners are taken behind the scenes of a NASA simulation, where six volunteers agree to give up a year of their life in the spirit of scientific experimentation.

In practice, this means that six adults — three women and three men — are physically and socially isolated in a dome the size of a tennis court on a far-off Hawaiian mountain for 365 days. The Habitat documents the participants’ experiences in confinement – the good, the bad, and the mundane.   

The podcast is soothingly simple. Listeners overhear the team’s monotonous lives, often with background noise, long pauses, or dull conversations. The host, Lynn Levy, is your friendly guide into the experience as she navigates the daily lives of those in the dome with us.

The six individuals speak to Levy, documenting their days, sharing information about their families back home, and reflecting on their feelings about others inside the dome. As the individuals discuss their lives, Levy slyly inserts background history on space travel in a charmingly nerdy way. In one episode, the possibility of romance and sex within the dome is explored. Levy then provides listeners with historical context, explaining how NASA doesn’t explicitly ban space sex but does try its best to prevent coupling of participants seeing that it may complicate missions.

The episodes touch on routine, friendship, homesickness, and extreme annoyances, showcasing how the experiment isn’t truly about the scientific possibilities of reaching Mars, but rather, how human emotion may place the entire operation in jeopardy.

A rich finish to each chapter, every episode ends with a variation of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”

When listening, you’ll feel as though you’re inside this weird, wacky, and deeply challenging experiment. It’s an out-of-this-world experience.  

Disclosure: Kaitlyn Simpson previously served as Volume 139 Managing Online Editor of The Varsity, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc.

Editor’s Note (September 28, 12:13 pm): This article has been updated to reflect the author’s former and current affiliations with The Varsity.