In the film “Interstellar,” an astronaut played by Matthew McConaughey is sent through a space-bending wormhole to find salvation for Earth’s beleaguered inhabitants. Astrophysicist Fiona Harrison, 51, is a real-life star-hunter, scanning the universe for its most violent objects: supernovae, spinning black holes and neutron stars. She said she got into astronomy because it gets into so many “mind-blowing concepts” — such as black holes — that “you don’t dream about in everyday life. The universe is much stranger than you can imagine.”
Q: How do you explain some of these concepts to your husband (a law professor at UCLA) or your kids?
A: I try to make good analogies, give people something they can visualize. Sometimes physics and science is just weird and strange and it seems unbelievable but it’s true. Like the idea that black holes rip apart space-time, or having to think about X-rays as both electromagnetic radiation and particles at the same time.
Q: In popular literature and films, black holes are magical places. How do scientists look at that?
A: There are people who believe it’s possible to visit one. But if you get close to a black hole, you get stretched and it’s not sure how you would survive. … Science has told us black holes actually exist, they are not just figments of theorists’ imaginations.
Q: How exactly do we know they exist?
A: We know black holes exist because we can measure the motions of stars in our own Milky Way and in nearby galaxies. We see the stars orbiting the black holes, and in particular in our own galaxy, those stars orbit so close to the black hole that we can tell that there is an object 4 million times the mass of the sun that is very small — less than the size of our solar system. There is no known force in physics that can stop something this dense from collapsing to a black hole. Every galaxy has a large black hole at its heart.
Q: And how about wormholes?
A: A wormhole is a hypothetical feature of space-time that would enable a shortcut from one location to another. Einstein formulated equations that govern gravity and space-time, and wormholes come out of these equations as a mathematical solution. However, that does not mean they exist. Unlike black holes, wormholes probably do not.
Q: What’s the next frontier for astrophysics?
A: The launch of the James Webb telescope in 2018 will be transformative. Also on the ground, complementary to the Webb, will be the 30-meter telescopes like the Giant Magellan Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope, which will be able to peer much further back into the universe.