Spotlight: Dr. Parshati Patel, Astrophysicist and Book Author
Hi everyone and welcome to Spotlight with Scientists in School Today, I am joined by astrophysicist, book author, science communicator, Dr. Parshati Patel. Welcome to the show! Thank you for having me! This is really a treat! I can't wait to get into it all stars, planets, space, it's just so exciting! But let's start like I always do right at the beginning. Were you a curious child? I was, I think I used to ask too many questions and my parents you know, I come from an era we didn't have internet until probably like end of high school so they just bought me a lot of books and the more books I got I think the more curious I became it wasn't just science or space I remember last time going back home and I used to have books on history and geography and you know like all of these different things it wasn't just science which I’m surprised that you know I used to read other things as well Right, it wasn't just science you could be curious about other things.
Did you have an encyclopedia set? You mentioned days before the internet A lot of them! Apparently, also like very thick dictionaries for some reason, too, so I was really surprised last time the whatever leftover books I got to see you know my mom donated a lot of those books but she had some and I had a reverse dictionary and I’m like I don't know why I had it but it's interesting that we used to have these books that you know didn't only entail about the facts you know, we were also looking at so many different things! How interesting! Now you mentioned a little bit back home. Where was back home and what brought you to Canada? Yeah, so I grew up in India , I’m from Ahmedabad, Gujarat and I was born and brought up there I did my, you know, elementary and high school there and I even did two years of Bachelors in Physics in India and I realized early on that I wanted to study astronomy and I talked to a lot of, you know, scientists that were there while I was in high school and a lot of them suggested that you know move abroad and you know try and see if you want to do this at Bachelor's level because you never know, after you try out something you may not like it and so I always was fascinated with space and I really loved the idea of studying it but I got this idea from them that, you know, it's much more than just you know reading facts, it involves a lot more when it comes to research so you may want to try it from Bachelor's so I decided that I wanted to go abroad I did not know which country so you know I was looked at US, I got into schools but I couldn't get the visa so I was like "Okay, where else can I go?" I had like Canada, Australia and then I picked Canada and I’m so glad I did because I absolutely love the fact that you know I love the country and people here and that's how I ended up here And shoveling the snow? Because I’m sure you had to shovel snow today that was okay? I did not think about that when I was selecting Canada Yeah exactly! So you're in Canada you're still studying planets, stars, you have your Doctorate I’ve noticed that you prefer to call yourself an astrophysicist over an astronomer. Why is that? There are actually a couple of reasons for that One is the experience that I’ve had when you tell people you're an astronomer and then you know this is primarily kind of from back home where astronomy and astrology is generally mixed up very easily and so when I used to tell people astronomy people would think I’m an astrologer and they would ask me for like you know Palm reading? Yeah, exactly! I’ve had so many of them and so I was like but when I say I’m an astrophysicist you get a different reaction because people then automatically you know say "Oh, physics oh that's science," like you know they automatically attach you to science and so I decided to try this thing where like instead of saying I’m an astronomer I would say astrophysicist and people had a different reaction and I realized that people were more intrigued when I say astrophysicist because it's like a mystery it's like, "What is an astrophysicist?" right and so I started using that and technically I am an astrophysicist so if you look at I said star so a stellar astrophysicist I used computer models I’m a computational astrophysicist I use physics to do all of that so it's very close to the technical term that we use and so I feel like you know it's more, it's better to tell people what exactly you're doing and to bring them to the depths of things rather than just you know leaving this vague idea of what you know astronomy obviously entails a lot more than just, you know, studying stars and being an astrophysicist Okay, so let's talk a little bit about stars and planets because we have kids watching as well and at Scientists in School we're so excited we just launched a new virtual workshop called "Our Place in Space" So, it's fantastic that we have you on board So, we're going to start with the basics What makes a star a star? What makes a planet a planet? Yeah, that's a great way to start because you know we have our Sun which is a star but why is it not a planet? It's a ball of gas and you know kind of in the simplest terms as we can tell it's round from the gravity it's producing a lot of heat and light that's something that planets don't do you know they may have some residual heat that is coming out from you know the time they formed but they don't produce the light and the energy the amount that a star does so you know basically a star is a ball of gas that is producing a lot of light and energy and it's round because of the gravity Now planets, you know given that we have discovered so many and only you know in our solar system different types of objects but then beyond as well we kind of have a distinct definition for the planets now.
So, first of all it needs to be round like a sphere because of the gravity it also needs to be, you know, large enough to have cleared its neighborhood What I mean by that is, you know, people might think "Oh, this is why we don't call Pluto a planet anymore" is because around Pluto there are other objects that are almost half its size or as big and when you clear your orbit around the Sun and you are the biggest object in the orbit you can call yourself a planet. And so that's the major distinction between star, planets, and dwarf planets See, I grew up in the time where Pluto was a planet I remember that day when all of a sudden no it's not considered a planet anymore. Okay, so we'll get to planets in a second I just wanted to know are stars the brightest thing in our solar system? So, our Sun is the brightest in our solar system if you go further beyond obviously there are many more stars you know in the universe there are different kinds of objects that are much more brighter than our Sun so we're lucky we're close to the Sun you know we have Sun as the brightest object in our sky but as you go beyond the Sun is not the brightest star there are different kinds of stars and there's some that I studied that are like one of the most biggest stars and they're much more brighter and much more bigger as well Okay, now in the early 1990s it's unbelievable that we really thought we only knew of the planets in our solar system I kind of find that mind-boggling right and now we know that there's many more so, my first question is are we talking thousands, millions, billions? How many more are there? So, we have detected or I should say we discovered you know 4908 as off February 2nd and I’m being very specific. I’m surprised you gave a specific number to be honest yeah okay Yeah, the reason is because you know every day that number changes because as you know we have more tools and more technology to be sifting through the data and looking for more and more planets around other stars these are called exoplanets and so that number is increasing and it changes you know A couple of months ago if I would have said it would probably like 4 800 now it's 4 900 you know next month it might be different that's just because of the amount of observations we're taking and we're going through and the most interesting part about these is these you know 4 900 of them that we have found aren't just like you know a star and a planet a lot of them actually more than 3 600 of them are actually in multiple you know in a solar system that has multiple planets so, it's kind of like ours in some ways but not to the extent of what we have So, it's very interesting to see that we have found so many of them just by looking at a very small patch for a very, very small time So, you know just by the statistics or kind of the you know the data that we have if we look at you know our galaxy we think there are more planets in our galaxy then there are stars in our galaxy and that is just, it just blows your mind when you think about that It does, it does, So, let me ask you the next thing.
So, in the 90s we only knew of these planets what changed that now we can, we know that there's so much more What changed? Our technology, obviously but can you give me more specifics? So, we have, you know, many more different methods we're using now to detect these plants but we also have as you said more technology we have dedicated telescopes that particularly, you know, literally their job is to look for these kinds of planets and then we also have many more people kind of working in that direction as well and sifting through that data that we have collected over years you know interestingly, you know I said there are 4 900 planets we have found but just using the data that we have collected so far we think there are at least eight thousand, eight thousand four hundred more that we call them candidates so you know they've been detected by one telescope but we always you know look for other ways to make sure that you know they're confirmed so we use different techniques to confirm them and so we still have these 8 400 that we haven't even confirmed you know and so there are a lot more ways to now look out there a lot more different technologies people are using multiple of them to normally detect and confirm them and there are you know newer technologies coming out as well and I think one of the ones that I would like to highlight you know specifically here in Canada we have just launched the James Webb space telescope and that telescope you know will also be looking at these exoplanets So, there are a lot more you know things that are available for astronomers to look for these exoplanets. Now these 4 900 planets, do they all have names? Are they all given names or just numbers? Or what happens there? Yeah so there's a unique way of you know numbering them I think in our in our solar system we have like Earth, Mars, you know all of these different names but when you're using different telescopes to detect these first of all these planets get named after their you know star so, for example let's say we have Proxima Centauri it's the closest star and there is a planet around it the one that was found is "Proxima Centauri b" so you know we just have like a little "b" sometimes you get numbers based on the you know there's a Kepler 61 Kepler 361 like there are lots of different numbers that we give to the stars and then based on that each of the planets get these little alphabets next to them based on the discovery so it's a very interesting way of naming them but also it's you know it's more for astronomers to look at it from the data-wise rather than you know having a very interesting name for all of these I mean there are going to be hundreds and thousands of them being discovered every year it would be weird to just like start to find names to name each of them Yeah, is there a planet that's equally habitable as Earth do you think out there? Definitely I think you know we have found so many planets that are in what we call the habitable zone so this is the zone in which you know if you were to put liquid water it's far away from its star that the water would be liquid and we know like you know here on Earth we are basing everything that we know about life here on Earth we're trying to look for planets that look similar to Earth so one of the systems I would want to name there are tons of you know these habitable planets out there and obviously as we get to know more of them that catalogue changes but the one system that is very interesting that I would like to mention is the Trappist-1 system and it's very interesting because it has you know the seven planets, it's a small star it's not as big as our Sun but from the observations it looks like they're all rocky planets and they could all potentially have some kind of water on it some of them you know fitting in that habitable zone and could have liquid water so and it's only 40 light years away so if we can find a way to travel at the speed of light it would only take us 40 years to get there Only 40 light years away. So, what makes a planet habitable? Bring it down to the basics. What would it need so that, you know, we could live there? What are you looking for? Yeah so something that we look for is definitely you know having water because you know that is very important for life. Having a, you know, temperature that would be something that is not too extreme and this is why we call it the habitable zone because you don't want the extremes you also want to make sure that there is some kind of land you know we look for things kind of very similar to Earth in many ways because really this is our only example of life in the universe and we're taking whatever we can from here and trying to find planets that look or feel similar in that way so, I think water is the most crucial one and just because we know that you know even if it's just a water planet like literally ocean you could still possibly have life there and so we look for things that are looking very similar to Earth I’m sure you find so many things fascinating I’ve got them listed here black holes, nebulas, neutron stars Do you have a favorite or something that you love to look at or follow? My interest in space came from stars and planets and I think that has to do with the fact that we could look up and see them and know that they exist and everything else I like you know when I was young I just felt like this is too far-fetched I don't understand a lot of the stuff but as I studied I still was really intrigued by star-forming regions so these are nebulas where the stars forms it's like stellar nurseries basically and then I was always fascinated by young stars and you know these stars you know so, like our Sun when it was like a baby, like a toddler other stars that are more massive you know what are the phases that they go through? and especially the stars that I studied and the reason why I picked those stars to study was because they formed behind a wall of gas and dust you cannot really see them from here and you know the one really strange thing about astronomy is you cannot go to your specimen you're trying to study so, all you have is light and so trying to decode that behind the thick wall of dust and gas I find them really like mysterious and like I always get curious to know more about what's happening there So, young stars and star-forming regions are like my favorite things to look at but also to like to study as well.
So, Prashati we're going to switch gears because you're not only an astrophysicist but you've really gotten into the world of outreach and science communication you are the co-founder of "Women of Colour in STEAMM" and that's with two Ms so science, technology, engineering, arts, math and medicine tell me how can we work together to ensure that youth girls and women of colour consider this field? Yeah it's something that is dear to my heart just because of my experience and you know the culture that I come from I did not have role models since I was growing up even though I wanted to go into the field of astronomy my role model was Dr. Kalpana Chawla you know she was a NASA astronaut but I didn't want to be an astronaut I wanted to be an astrophysicist but the fact that what she was able to do being you know someone who looked like me coming from the similar culture I took it as you know if she could do it, I could do it so really I think one of the things and thanks to you guys, you guys are also bringing a lot of these role models that kids today need because if they don't see themselves there they won't be able to you know follow their role models path and be able to be there and then for people already in the field I think one of the things that I always think about is bringing other people on to that table you know bringing the opportunities to them giving them the voice amplifying their voice and helping them get where they want to get and so I think there are two ways to do that bringing you know giving them role models but also showing them that it is okay to not know where you want to go you can explore these different areas and, you know, I mean, I switched fields from astrophysics, to science communication and education after my PhD so like you know you can always find your passion at a certain point in life and you find a role model and you go towards it and if it doesn't work out for you, you don't feel like it you change it so you know be open to that vulnerability of people's you know idea where they want to go I think is also very important because I always find people you know trying to sway people in one direction or the other and I think it's important to show them where you could go rather than forcing them to go in a certain direction and it works for all different fields whether it's you know a STEM or STEAM or you know STEAMM with double M, does not matter in whatever field you want to go you just need to make sure that you open doors for people wherever you go Truer words could not have been spoken thank you for that, that's wonderful. Parshati, you do something else, too you're not only I keep saying astrophysicist science communicator extraordinaire but you've always wanted to write a book and your dream was realized and I showed you before I pressed record that I actually went out and got this book "My Book of Stars and Planets - A Fact-Filled Guide to Space" This is amazing! How did this come to be? This is very interesting I always you know I wouldn't say always because it was only a few years ago when I went back to India that someone asked me like "When are you writing a book?" because I would love to show my parents that someone from our community could do the science because they were in engineering and they wanted to go into sciences and I was like "Oh, I never thought about writing a book" and so my first idea was like "Oh, maybe I should write about a book for young kids" you know just having a character that goes through kind of the similar life phase that I went through while trying to enter into a field that is not normal for people and that was my first idea, but I hadn't really worked on it or anything, I just had this idea and then DK reached out to me and I read a lot of DK books as I was growing up and so I was like I think it's a very common thing for everyone to have that in their house and so when they reached out to me they found my video on YouTube and they saw and you know they asked if I would be interested in writing and I was like this is not the kind of book I was thinking of writing at first but it's DK, like I read this book I got inspired, I got excited, and I passed it on to my nieces and nephews now I need to like maybe I can give back you know it's you know move out that idea of actually writing a children's book that is about a character you know that goes through life but actually talk about the facts that I find so interesting and when they reached out you know they're like it's going to be a book about facts and then here are the topics we want to cover and I got so excited because I wanted to write so much more but there's only so much you can fill in those boxes right so I decided that it is my time to give back from what I got when I was young and I said, "Yes" I was just like I cannot pass up this opportunity it was a very stressful time because I’m starting you know a new job and also trying to do this and it's not easy actually the whole book was written within a few months so, Oh really? Yeah it's a 96-page book and so, it's a lot of work within three or four months trying to finish but I think I really enjoyed the process just you know knowing trying to figure out which facts are more interesting than the others. There's great facts first of all it's full of pictures, it's really great but you do have a lot of great facts! Like, I just loved reading simple things like on the moon there's a place called "the sea of tranquility" but there's no water on it, right? Those are good conversations to have with your kids I also loved at what point do you become an astronaut you know like we all fly in airplanes but then there's that I think it was 100k and then you're considered an astronaut so, it's filled with a lot of great a lot of great facts And it's exactly what I wanted to do was give little nuggets of things that can inspire me or, you know, that curiosity and be like "oh I want to know more about it" now let's go and look it up and that's exactly what this book does it covers so many different topics and it's literally just like space it goes from engineering to astronomy to stars to galaxies everything you can think of. Yeah and like you said it's those little nuggets right so someone might read something about the telescopes and say "oh I want to learn more" and it's like, "Boom! Let's go figure it out!" Yeah, it's great You're also diving into photography you want to take great pictures do you have a tip on how to take a great photo of the night sky? Yeah, definitely it's one of my passions that has grown during the pandemic obviously being at home one of the things you know you can use your cell phone or whatever camera you have your cell phones are actually very intelligent nowadays they all have a night mode you want to prop it up on a tripod or even you know on books or a rock and just make sure it's steady and expose it for at least you know five to ten seconds and you can get amazing pictures just with your cell phone and then you know I’ve had my friends experience that first time getting that 10-second exposure on a rock and they cannot believe their phones can do that nowadays so, you know I would suggest everyone to try it out at least once just maybe right now find Orion in the night sky and point it leave it for 10 seconds and see what you get.
Dr. Patel this was so interesting I’m sure anybody watching would be inspired to look up at the sky and get to know space and I love the title of our workshop "Our Place in Space" there's a lot to think about it's just wonderful so thank you so much, thank you Thank you for having me.