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Fun Fun Funkhouser ’15: An Interview w/ Dr. Scott Bolton

FunFunFunkhouser

Yo ‘migos, I have something special for all of you space nerds (like me) out there!  This past weekend at Fun Fun Fun Fest, I had the great privilege to interview Dr. Scott Bolton, a NASA Scientist and Associate VP of R&D at the Space Sciences division of the Southwest Research Institute.  Dr. Bolton has worked on a variety of incredible space missions, including Juno, a mission to Jupiter set to arrive next year.

Additionally, Dr. Bolton runs a company called Artistic Sciences which helps to promote the cooperation of scientific subjects, the arts, and education.  He has served as a consultant for numerous art projects and was at the festival to speak to audiences about the mission he’s working on, and about the overlap between music, space science, and everything else.

h/t Clair Taus @clairtaus

h/t Clair Taus @clairtaus

You’re in town presenting for Artistic Sciences, a company which funds documentaries and does educational outreach, could you tell me a little bit about what you guys are doing?

It’s a company that I got started quite a while ago.  The goal was to try to reach out to the public in a better way and show the blend of art and science that exists.  I had always been interested in science but also had an interest in art and music.  I started off developing music over many years, from the time that I was in high school.  After I started doing NASA work I went back and said let me see if I can do more on the side.  NASA was trying to do something similar to this on both a formal and informal basis, so I grabbed onto the informal side and started creating products that I thought the public might be interested in.  I then expanded to working with some record companies, MTV–early on when they were first getting started, doing things with videos, getting things that were affiliated with the moon, getting them to embrace space a little bit–and then using that work with record companies, primarily Atlantic, who introduced me to different artists.  When I would meet Artists and Musicians who were like-minded we would develop and create products.  Some of them got into videos, or stretches of interviews, things like that.

Would they be specifically space themed or just STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) things in general?

It was before STEM was really a thing.  Education knew it was an issue, but they hadn’t started the program per se.  It was mostly education and entertainment related, and mostly space related because I had all of these connections to NASA.  I was saying, OK, look here’s a really cool picture, here’s a great mission let’s do something, whether I was working on that particular project or not.  I worked with an artist named Vangelis, who’s a Greek composer–he did Chariot’s of Fire, [1492], and other stuff.

I also did a lot with another composer named Michael Kamen who kind of bridged classical and rock.  He did some of the Metallica Symphony albums, worked on a lot of Pink Floyd, Eurhythmics, a lot of different artists.  Then I worked with the band Genesis a little bit and slowly discovered musicians who were actually space science fans, and it really began to blossom.  As my career progressed, and my NASA work became more advanced, especially with this current mission, Juno which is sending a probe to Jupiter, we had an educational mission embedded within NASA.  It forced me to set Artistic Sciences aside for a little while because I didn’t want any kind of a conflict.  As that went I used my connections to further NASA’s work, and I still do.  With both, what I’m trying to do now is sort of enlighten people to the idea that science and art aren’t necessarily as far apart as people are taught.  In fact, the same kinds of physics and math that describe how I make music, how a musical instrument works, is the same basic math that describes the interior of a planet, or how a gravity field works.  This, light, sound, it’s all the same basic stuff, and it’s an aspect of nature that sometimes goes overlooked.  I want to really bring attention to that and get people to realize that it is not only OK to do both [science & art], it’s important.

They do kind of supplement each other to a degree.

They do and I believe that the world advances with innovation and the most innovation comes from people that try to embrace both sides.  The analytical, logical side and the creative, artistic side, and come up with new things.  A lot of this essentially defines a renaissance and that’s really what Artistic Sciences is about, trying to help people realize that and to help motivate and inspire them to go that extra mile.  Not to buy into the old concept that there are two sides of the brain and you have to pick, figure out which one you are, and to stay in your little box.  You don’t want to stay in that little box.  It should be a trigger to say, “Oh I need to work to develop the other side.”  Get them a little more balanced so that you can use both and create new things!  If you go through the past 20 years, or even the last 1000 years, and pick out what has made the biggest difference and it occurs when these two sides come together.

It does feel like a lot of the main thinkers, scientists and philosophers for millennia and centuries past had a balance between the two.

Exactly.

A lot of Hellenistic thinkers studied biology and the sciences, but also all of the artistic things of the age.

Absolutely.  I’ve done a lot with Vangelis in Greece because I learned about how, in Classical Greece a long time ago, they really worked in that kind of an environment.  They had it right in the sense that in the same room, the same debate, they would have the artists, the scientists, the musicians, the philosophers, they had everyone in there.  That’s essentially what was going in Florence in the Renaissance period too, and it’s happening now.  It’s important to realize that and to become part of it.

Artistic Sciences is trying to do this, right?  Trying to get people from all different walks of life into the same room to talk about these things?

Exactly.  That was one of the reasons to come here [to FunFunFun Fest].  There are a bunch of musicians and artists here, and the producers of this festival have started to recognize that science is part of this whole thing too.  They reached out to me and I said I would absolutely help out.  My friend Bill Nye was also a part of it and he thinks a little bit like this as well.

To that end, how do you think we need to improve our educational system?  What do we need to do to bring all of these different subjects together in a way that we continually produce students who will think of things from a balanced standpoint?  Is it all funding…

No…

…or do we need to change the way that we structure education? 

Yeah, we need to not only change the way we structure it, but the way that we deliver it.  The way we think about it needs to be refreshed.  I’m heavily involved in trying to create STEM activity in the country and am one of the people who believes it ought to be called STEAM.  The ‘A’, originated by the Rhode Island School of Design, aimed at the idea of ‘design,’ whereas I’m looking at a broader picture of what the ‘A’ really represents.  It’s all kinds of art.  The way we teach art, math, and science needs to be reevaluated.

To switch gears a little bit, the Juno mission you mentioned is scheduled to arrive to Jupiter on July 4th of next year, what are you most excited about its arrival and its mission commencing?

The most exciting part is the climax of a project that I’ve been waiting on for a really long time!  The highest risk of any mission is launch–rockets have not evolved too much since we invented them, they’re basically controlled fire crackers–and sometimes it doesn’t go the way we hope.  Once you get past that, and you’re going and travelling towards your target, the next major engineering milestone is arrival because usually you have to do something special to initiate the gathering of the data.  In our case we have to do something called ‘Jupiter Orbit Insertion.’   Once you’ve gotten near the planet, you need to slow down so that Jupiter’s gravity can grab you and be the dominate force.  That’s a very critical part and it’s what I’m most anxious about now.  Once that happens, the most exciting part is that now that you’re near Jupiter you have to turn on the instruments for the first time and start to gather the data that is going to answer some of the fundamental questions that drove the mission in the first place.

Some of those questions are, “Does Jupiter have a rocky core?” what the different atmospheric elements are, etc.?

That’s right.  The most important part of what we’re looking at is how Jupiter formed in the first place.  What was going on in the early solar system that created Jupiter and the rest of the planets? We don’t know if there’s a core of heavy elements, what you’d call a rocky core, or if it’s gas all the way down.  It was probably the first planet to form and is the largest of planets, it took up more than half of the leftover matter once the Sun had formed.  If it had formed after anything else, it almost certainly would’ve disrupted other formation.  The question is, were there little rocky pieces floating around the solar system before Jupiter formed or not?

Juno’s primary mission is 32 orbits, each orbit lasting 14 days.  It takes a while to get set up, so we take the first 100 days or so to get set up and then the orbits.  Then after the last orbit we dispose of the spacecraft.  At the end of the mission we fly the craft into Jupiter so that it doesn’t accidentally crash into one of the moons we want to study later.

So all of that information is going to start coming in this next year?

It’ll start coming right away, but will take a long time to figure out.  I can’t tell you that an hour after we start to get the data that we’ll understand all of the secrets.

To change gears, a lot of big movies have been space movies that are trying really hard to get the science right.  Movies like The Martian, Gravity, and Interstellar are good examples.  Are they succeeding in their scientific aspirations?

Sucess is a degree and not a binary answer.  Are all of those movies scientifically accurate to the extent of our knowledge?  No.  But I think to the extent that the plot allows you to illustrate things in a scientifically accurate way, the producers of these movies went and did that.  If correcting the scientific [aspects of the film] created a huge left turn in the entire plot, then they said, “Well, I’d have to rewrite the whole story!  The thing doesn’t work anymore.”  So there’s an element of fiction in each one and they’re each a little different.  They’re serving a purpose, which is mainly to entertain us, and if we learn something, great!  People who are misled and think that science or physics works in another way, that probably only happens if you believe it all too much.  What it can do, though, is spark people’s interest to go and find out how accurate the science was.  I think that’s ok!  In fact, if movies were forced to be completely scientifically accurate by the directors, producers, or just peer pressure from the public, they might be less entertaining to us and then less inspiring.  I think this would be a mistake.

Look at Star Trek.  It wasn’t always right but Gene Roddenberry did do a really good job at getting a lot of it as best he could, which was part of its interest.  Those movies [above] tried and it shows.

When we launched in 2011 there was not a big enough rocket it to take it straight to Jupiter.  It’s very massive, like an armored tank.  The clever engineers who figured out how to get to Jupiter, realized that they could fly around the solar system and come back around getting a sling shot around Earth.  We’re there in 2013 and it turned out that when we were flying by within a couple of weeks of when Gravity came out.  The team is sitting around and I’m panicked we have to fly by the earth really closely and there’s debris, other satellites out there and if we hit one, that’s the end of us.  A long time ago, both us and our other armed neighbors naively engaged in blowing up satellites for practice, and it’s not like we can vacuum up the debris, so it’s still out there.  This is the whole plot of Gravity.  I was very frightened of that happening to us!  Turns out it’s really rare because space is big and debris is small, so you’d have to be really unlucky.

It was an extra stressful movie for you then?

I wouldn’t even go to it.  A bunch of the team went that week and I’m at home saying, “I can’t watch it [Gravity] this week, I’ll be too upset.”  It turned out, when you look at it, while it was very interesting, the physics of how the debris comes around isn’t correct.  It can’t come around again like they showed it, but the idea that debris is out there and if you get hit it’s a catastrophe, that’s right.  The whole movie is based around the tension of “I know this is coming around again, what am I going to do?”  That part of it was a little fictional, but I understood that if they changed it the entire plot fell apart.  There’s your poetic license.

Star Trek or Star Wars?

Two great pieces of culture.  They made a difference in my life as a kid.  When Star Trek was on I would go to school and me and all of my friends would discuss the previous episodes.  We were excited by all of Klingons and wars and what not, but it was also the idea of reaching out and going somewhere where no one else goes.  I used to sit up at night and look at the stars and wonder “What’s out there?”  “I can’t get there even though I want to and I want to learn about it.”  That’s really what attracted me to go into the field and try to reach out into space.  Unlike Star Trek, the reality is we can’t go from star to star, or galaxy to galaxy [editor’s note: yet].  But we can go from planet to planet.  It’s the furthest we know how to go, so I might as well help that!

Are there any credible warp theories out there?

No [laughs]… to be honest.  That doesn’t mean we can’t figure it out.  We need to inspire young people to keep thinking and working on it.  There are propulsion systems that we could use that are more efficient than the ones we’re doing.  They cost lots of money and have to be developed, but someday you could use something exotic like antimatter.  Whether you’ll go faster than the speed of light?  I don’t know.  Somehow, the speed of light is connected to matter as we know it.  There’s something intrinsic, possibly, and Einstein described it the best.  It may be to go into warp–going many many times faster than the speed of light–you might have to give up ‘matter’ as we know it.  It doesn’t mean it’s not possible.  There’s a lot of things we don’t understand that science hasn’t explained yet, so the possibilities are really limitless.

It seems like imagination is a really important part to the evolution of science.

That’s right and, in fact, we need to constantly work that if we’re going to progress as a species.

iss-set-big-bang-theory

What do you think is the most accurate TV show is?

There are many documentaries.  Cosmos was really good, of course.  It was very well done and a lot of time went into it being scientifically accurate.  Setting those aside though, How do I make the scientifically accurate part of documentaries entertaining?  What you want is the entertaining side that teachers without people realizing it.

You get pieces of this in The Big Bang Theory, they’ve tried keeping things accurate.  Of all the normal shows, maybe their doing the best job.

Maybe having accurate science in the background, not at the forefront, makes it more accessible for a lot of people?

Exactly, and I think it has a lot of other things too.  It portrays these people as geeks and nerds.  Some are, but not everyone is, and a lot of what it’s doing is showing that people defined as geeks and nerds can be cool.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about, any other projects?

I’m hopefully working on the next Europa mission.  A lot of other little projects trying to learn about Earth and the rest of the Solar System.

We’re going to hopefully do a new [arts connected] project with Juno next year, but I can’t talk about it quite yet.  We’re trying to link it to where it helps people understand the connection between science and art and how it works.

I’ll also say that a lot of this goes back to the ancient Greeks who were very clever and more advanced than we give them credit for, since we’ve lost a lot of what they wrote.  Part of it is because the ancient Greeks gathered people of different fields together.  It stimulated them to think about things from a different perspective.  It was the original concept of the university.  Universities have turned out pretty big and, unfortunately, you rarely find physicists hanging out with the math department much less the art, sculpture, or philosophy dept.

That’s really what we need though, and that’s part of the goal of Artistic Sciences.  To have people recognize the need to mix the arts and the sciences in their personal lives.  Don’t say, “I don’t want to be friends with that person because I’m a mathematician and they’re an artist.”  The truth is we all have more in common than we think.

Article written by Kalan Kucera

So by your account Harold Potter was a perfectly ordinary Englishman without any tendency towards being a Scotsman whatsoever?