It was snowing like crazy atop 9,656-foot Jelm Mountain, 30 miles southwest of Laramie, which was OK with Mike Brotherton.
Comfortably sequestered in the living quarters of the Wyoming Infrared Observatory with one of his grad students, the astronomy professor at the University of Wyoming had plenty to keep himself busy: maintaining the facility’s 2.3-meter telescope, using it to gather data when weather conditions permitted, and in general using science to explore the myriad questions the cosmos asks.
“And I don’t have to worry about getting sick,” said Brotherton, who for two weeks had been riding out the COVID-19 pandemic up there on the eastern fringes of the Medicine Bow National Forest. His wife, Jean Elizabeth Brotherton, works in a senior care center in Laramie, and it seemed safest for everyone if they “socially isolated” for a six weeks or so.
“It’s a little bit of a science-fiction scenario,” Brotherton, who also is a published sci-fi author, said of the whole coronavirus era. Civilization has weathered many a pandemic over the millennia, he noted, but this one — in this age of connective technology and social fragmentation — demands its own response and poses its own questions.
“How well does [that technology] work and how well does it not work?” Brotherton asked. What challenges are people experiencing? How are we adapting? What will we take with us once we reemerge? “You have to work to find the human angles,” he said, but they are there, waiting for able artists to explore.
Using a little bit of that technological magic, Brotherton will offer a glimpse of both sides of his professional life — scientist and science-fiction writer — this weekend. On Friday he will present via Zoom on behalf of Wyoming Stargazing the April edition of the astronomy nonprofit’s “The World Above the Tetons” speaker series, talking about his research into supermassive black holes, quasars and galactic evolution.
On Saturday he will meet virtually with area writers to talk about “hard-science fiction” — using scientific facts, principles and procedures in telling stories that probe aspects of human nature — in a workshop presented by the nonprofit Jackson Hole Writers.
From ‘Star Trek’ to Hubble
Brotherton’s entry to science was through science fiction — specifically, and like more than a few young minds, through “Star Trek.”
“I think I usually trace it back to when I was 6,” the St. Louis native said. “My parents put me in from of the TV and said, ‘Michael I think you’ll like this.’ … And I did like it. I liked sci-fi after that. ‘Star Trek’ was set in outer space, so I came to like astronomy as the way in reality that we get to see what’s out there in space.
“And I liked Mr. Spock — he’s so logical — I liked him the best because he always made the most sense. And I share a birthday with Leonard Nimoy.”
At Rice University he majored in engineering and studied computers, astronomy and creative writing. When graduation loomed and it came time to chose between getting a job and going to grad school, he thought that if he were to invest another four or more years in higher education, he had better pick a field of study he really loved. That turned out to be astronomy. At the University of Texas in Austin he specialized in quasars — an extremely massive and energetic “quasi-stellar radio source” found at the center of the most remote galaxies observable — earning his doctorate in 1996. Post-doc fellowships followed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and at the Very Large Array in New Mexico, working on a survey of the sky dubbed “FIRST,” for “Faint Image of the Radio Sky at Twenty-Centimeters.” In 2002 he accepted a position with UW’s Department of Physics and Astronomy as an assistant professor.
The roots of astronomy are in observation — basically looking at stuff through a telescope — but these days “telescope” means a lot of things. We observe the visible light emitted by remote objects, but we also collect information from the infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray, microwave and other bands of the electromagnetic spectrum.
“I use all of them,” Brotherton said, collecting the data and then integrating it into images. “It may look like a fuzzy blob to the eye, but take a high-quality telescope and look at the different colors and integrate it all for half an hour — that’s where the fantastic images come from.”
Black holes and quasars
Brotherton’s “bread and butter,” he said, is spectroscope, which involves splitting the electromagnetic data into its constituent “colors” to reveal even more detail.
“You know a picture is worth 1,000 words,” he said. “Well, a spectrum is worth a 1,000 pictures.”
Using such satellites and facilities as NASA’s flagship Chandra X-ray Observatory, the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton, Johns Hopkins University’s Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) satellite, the Hubble Space Telescope, and telescopes at the Keck, Lick, McDonald and Kitt Peak observatories, among others, Brotherton has focused his attention on “active galactic nuclei and their relationship to their host galaxies,” as he states in his professional bio. He will talk a bit about this in his Wyoming Stargazing presentation.
“We recognize today that quasars are powered by supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies 1 million to 10 billion times the mass of our sun,” he said. When enough gas accumulates around and falls into a supermassive black hole (that’s the scientific designation for these objects, not just a hyperbolic description), it “turns on,” rereleasing enormous amounts of electromagnetic radiation to outshine its home galaxy and be detected from across the universe as a quasar.
“We think every large galaxy has a supermassive black hole,” Brotherton said, “and we’ve discovered that the masses scale with the mass of the galaxy.” That is: The bigger the galaxy, the more massive the black hole. “In some sense, that doesn’t seem so unreasonable,” but it does raise a lot of new questions, like whether a black hole turning on as a quasar affects the evolution of its home galaxy.
“Without supermassive black holes the galaxies would not look like they look like today,” he said. “We think what the black hole turning on its quasar does is to regulate star formation in galaxies,” helping to draw out the star-formation process and thus affecting the life span and development of the galaxy.
Turning science into sci-fi
That in itself may not have the makings of a good science fiction story, but it could inform a good story, heighten its realism and give the characters motivation to make decisions.
Brotherton started writing sci-fi as a youngster, too — “though not good science fiction,” he said. He got more serious about it in college, too, and went on to take classes and attend workshops.
“And over the course of several years and several hundred rejections I started selling stories,” he said. Since his post-doc years he has written and sold three novels: “Star Dragon” (2003), “Spider Star” (2009) and “Diamonds in the Sky” (2009).
According to many sci-fi writers, one cardinal rule of the genre is that you don’t violate known science. One can write around a gap in knowledge by “playing with the meta,” Brotherton said, quoting Gregory Benford, but using science fact can help a writer help a reader to envision some of the many amazing cool things there are to see in the universe. Reading a novel or watching a movie like “Avatar” or “Interstellar,” he said, “”I know enough to say, ‘Wow, they got that part really, really right.’ … And then I look at other aspects and say, ‘That is so stupid.’” ￼