8 min read

The beauty of scientific discovery

The beauty of scientific discovery
Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. https://www.nasa.gov/webbfirstimages

When we talk about beauty in science, the first thing that many people think of is the sublime beauty of the stars. The stars have captivated human beings for millennia, so it's no surprise that the breathtaking images released a couple of weeks ago from NASA's James Webb Telescope made global headlines. (If you haven't seen them yet, stop reading and go take a look!)

But there's more beauty to be found in astronomy than the visual beauty of the stars. There is also profound beauty in the process of scientific inquiry and especially in the experience of scientific discovery.

That's what I learned from my recent interview with Prof. Duilia de Mello, who is a Professor of Physics and Vice Provost for Global Strategies at The Catholic University of America and a researcher at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Her research specializes in extragalactic astrophysics. You can watch a video recording of our interview here, which includes some remarkable images from Hubble that she talks about. Here she also recounts the fascinating story of how she discovered a supernova.

A transcript of our interview follows.

What drew you to astronomy and astrophysics in the first place?

I was a scientist since I was a kid. Because I asked a lot of questions. I was very curious. I wanted to know why. And I just wanted to discover more about the universe. I decided I was going to become an astronomer so I would know everything about the universe. So that's why I chose to be an astronomer.

What role does beauty play in your work as a scientist?

Beauty is very important in my work. Every time you look at an image, especially with the Hubble Space Telescope, because that's my favorite instrument, you always experience beauty. You can't deny that. When you look at an image that Hubble has taken of anything in the universe, you will be absolutely in awe, because it is really an amazing instrument. So I have experienced it many times, not just when I'm staring at an image, but also at the sense of discovery. There is beauty in discovering something.

So a long time ago, when I was in Chile, in one of the mountains in Chile, I discovered a supernova, a star that exploded. And I was the first person to see that. And when I realized that that was like an unbelievable moment. And I think that is probably a changing point in my career, because I really, it brought me back that feeling that I had when I was a kid that I wanted to know more about the universe. So that kind of triggered back all my feelings. I do still feel that when I look at the deep images of the universe that Hubble has taken. So that feeling is is a feeling of beauty, you do appreciate creation. And you do see that with with a different eye, when you actually admit that. It's very important to feel pleasure in, in beauty in science, the beauty of discovery.

It doesn't come like this eureka moment that people think, right, that you're like, ooh, and you, it's something that kind of builds up. So it's it's a feeling that you have of accomplishment. And it's also a feeling of advancing knowledge. So it's this, when you look at from outside, and you see that you made that contribution, it's absolutely great. So every time that I look, for instance, at the star that exploded, I was the first one to see it. When I look at the papers and the articles are being, that have been written today about that supernova, and I think, oh my gosh, and I was the one who discovered that. It's really important to admit that, to feel that feeling because it triggers other feelings afterwards. And it's the pleasure of being a scientist. So I feel a lot of pleasure being a scientist.

Tell us about the supernova you discovered – how did that happen?

So, so back in 1997, the supernova is now 25 years old. So back in 1997, I was one of the telescopes in Chile in an observatory, and I was by myself. And I was observing a sample of galaxies, those are colliding galaxies, galaxies that kind of pass through each other. And it takes, you know, millions and millions of years for the reaction of the passage. It's like a ballet between galaxies. So I was observing one of these galaxies, and then all of a sudden, I counted the number of stars that I saw in the sky. I had a map of the sky, and there was an extra star. And I was like, Am I in the wrong place? So I couldn't believe it, right? So I counted again and again. And then I decided to pass the instrument that I was going to use over this extra star. I did some triangulation, and I said, Wow, this is really close to that galaxy that I'm supposed to observe because you don't really see the galaxy, they are too faint. So I passed this instrument in front of this extra star, and I had to integrate the time it was like 20 minutes until you get the data.

And at that point, my boyfriend came to say good night because he's also an astronomer, and he was observing in another telescope. But his time was over. So he was going to sleep. And then I told him that I think I discovered supernova. So he came actually to give me a sandwich because it was like midnight, or 1am, something like that. And then it's like, no, you're kidding. And I said no, I think so, it has to be! And then, you know, I told him to wait, because it was that 20 minute wait. So when, when the 20 minutes was over, then the thing popped up in the screen in the computer, right? And then I look at this, and [gasps] it is a supernova, because you could actually tell, because what I was doing, I was taking the spectra of the objects. So it means that I was looking at the chemical composition of the object that I was observing. So I was looking at the chemical composition of this supernova. And because it had exploded, the spectrum was very messy. So it was very different from what I expected. So that was like, so I sent Tommy to the library [laughs] and Tommy went to get some books, because at that time, it did not have internet in on our observing area. So he went to get the books, I call them an astronomer who was in charge and asked him if this was a supernova. And then he said, Yeah, congratulations, you discovered a supernova! But I still did not believe it. And then it was only like, next day, because I asked him, I wanted to see a catalog or something because how do I know I was the first one to ever see this? So he said that the guy who who was an expert in supernovas will be in the mountain at that time, tomorrow morning, the day after. So I didn't sleep very much [laughs].

His name is Stefano, this other guy. And he, uh, he, he came that morning from the city. And I asked him, that, you know, I had seen this object, and if he knew anything about it, and then he looked at it and said, "Oh, congratulations, you discovered a supernova!" And I asked him, "How do you know?Do you have a catalog?" [laughs] And then he looked at me and said, "I am the catalog." [laughs] Because he was the guy who actually cataloged all supernovas.

So at that point, I believed that I was the first one to have seen that star exploding.

What advice would you have for scientists who have still not experienced the beauty of discovery?

Yeah, I think one also has to remember that there is beauty in discovering. And also, I think sometimes people don't don't realize what they have done and the importance of their work. So they, they might have already written important things, important discoveries, and they just don't see that, they see that as routine. So I recommend people to look it up, you know, when they doing the scientific method, you know, the result is a discovery. So they have to kind of give them a little, you know, pat on their shoulder saying that they recognize it as a discovery, if you're the first one to ever propose something, you're the first one to ever realize something, you discovered something.

It happened to me also, when I discovered what I call the blue blobs. So the blue blobs are a nursery of stars that are born outside galaxies. And I, I had a kind of feeling that this happened already, that I would expect to see this star somewhere. So I was looking for them already. So I applied the scientific method, or I had a question, I had some kind of hint that this happened. I had a method that I was developing to find them. And then when I find them, it is that moment of discovery. But of course, you're writing your papers, you're doing your table, you're analyzing your data, so you don't have the eureka moment. So but you have to kind of see that inside your research that you do have that moment that you kind of put it all the puzzle together and you wrote your article. So it's just people are not used to that they, they they tend to see science as their daily job, but it's more than that. So to the people who haven't experienced this feeling of discovery, I think you probably have, you just don't realize it.

Why should the public care about beauty in science?

I only do science because I love it, right? Because I like it. And and I see the beauty in what I do. You have to be able to communicate that to the public so they can actually sympathize or even enjoy that beauty with with you, right? So I think it's easier for the public to see the beauty if it's something that is obviously beautiful. But if it's not obviously beautiful, like the images of Hubble are obviously beautiful. But if it's something that, you know, it's an equation or it's something like a theory that you're proposing, an interpretation you're proposing, you have to explain to the public, why is that important and why you think that is beautiful. And it, there's nothing wrong about using the word beautiful, it's actually important to use it and show your enthusiasm to the public. After all, we are all contributing to society with a little bit of science that we do, right? We want to really have a society that understands science. And, you know, we're going through a strange phase right now with science deniers. So it's really important to tell them that science, you know, is saving us and science will have a major role in society. It's something that we do together with with the public. It can't be just scientists doing science.

So it has to be the society that is doing science. So I think that, you know, to trigger the curiosity in the kids is super important. I always say that every kid is born a scientist, and we spoil them afterwards [laughs]. Because they're explorers of the world when they when they're discovering everything, right? And this is what science is about. We are always asking questions and always trying to answer them. And kids do that every single minute of their lives. So why should they stop when they grew up? So this is why we have to tell them how beautiful that is and trigger that curiosity that they had when they were kids.


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