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Alexis's astronomy FAQ

In this FAQ I give some answers and comments to the most frequent questions posed to me. I have divided the questions and answers into three sections:

Astronomy

Q: Have you seen any UFOs?
Q: Do you believe in extra terrestrial life?
Q: So, you're an astronomer! Cool, I'm also very much into astrology.
Q: Do you plan to go into space?
Q: What's your research field?
Q: What is an astronomer doing, anyway? Surely all stars must have been discovered by now?
Q: Where can I buy a star?
Q: I heard you discovered and named an asteroid Saltis. Why didn't you name it after yourself or your wife?

Deep thoughts

Q: Is the universe infinite? If not, what is beyond?
Q: What are your favourite deep thoughts?
Q: With all diseases and poverty in the world, how can it be justified to study astronomy?
Q: Do you believe in God?
Q: What is science?

Personal

Q: Why did you become an astronomer?
Q: "Alexis", isn't that a female name?
Q: "Alexis Brandeker" doesn't sound very Swedish!


Astronomy

Q: Have you seen any UFOs?
A: UFO literally means Unidentified Flying Object, and it has happened plenty of times that I've seen flying things in the sky without having immediately identified them. That doesn't mean these objects were flying saucers or alien space craft, though. I don't think there are any reliable evidence for us having been visited by extra terrestrials. In fact, I find the idea rather silly. First of all, it's very difficult to traverse the distances of interstellar space. Just to give you an idea, our fastest space craft would take 50 000 years to reach the Sun's nearest star neighbour. The nearest star! This means that any potential visitors would have to be much more technologically developed than us. So what do these very advanced visitors do after the major effort of getting here? They hide. Not only do they hide, they miserably fail to do so for a very small fraction of the humanity, the UFO-enthusiasts. Despite being that advanced, that is. Does this sound like a very likely scenario? I think not.

To round up, my firm belief is that UFO-sights belong to the same category as sights of brownies and fairies. If we'll ever be visited by extra terrestrials, I think everyone will notice.

Q: Do you believe in extra terrestrial life?
A: I don't know if there are extra terrestrials, and I don't find it meaningful to believe either way since I have nothing to support my belief.
Q: But surely you must believe something, you're just being "politically correct" when you say you don't know about alien life?
A: No! I honestly don't believe either way. In an attempt to make you understand my point of view, I offer you this simile: Imagine I have a box full of sand. I then ask you if there is an odd or even number of sand grains in the box. Naturally, you don't know. But what if I insist and ask you what you believe? Would your answer be meaningful, or of any use to me? I think not. On the contrary, I think an answer would be misleading, since that might make me think you had some substance for your belief when in reality you had no.

That said, I do hope there are extra terrestrials. But that's an entirely different matter from presuming there are. In fact, my computers and I are involved in a huge programme that searches for extra terrestrials, and you can too: check out SETI@home.

Q: So, you're an astronomer! Cool, I'm also very much into astrology.
A: While spelt similarly, astronomy and astrology mean very different things. Astronomy ultimately tries to understand the universe around us as it is. Astrology uses basic astronomy and then adds some wishful thinking. Astronomers explore the universe by the scientific method; astrologers write horoscopes. I would say modern astrology is more related to religion and psychology than astronomy.

And no; I'm not interested in astrology, not at all.

Q: Do you plan to go into space?
A: Why, we're already there! Just think of the Earth as a giant space ship, rambling through space in company of the Moon and the Sun. We are all astronauts.
Q: Right... but you know what I mean.
A: I'm not very anxious about leaving the surface of the Earth, despite being an astronomer. In fact, an astronomer and an astronaut have about as much in common as a meteorologist and an aircraft pilot. Part of my indifference to space travel is that the astronauts of today hardly leave the atmosphere of the Earth, much less travel to the stars ("astronaut" literally means "star traveller"). If there was a way to truly travel to the stars, like they do in e.g. Star Trek, I would be much more interested. But as it is for now, I'm very content with studying the universe from the ground. (Though I sometimes dream about what it would be to travel through outer space; one result of my fantasies is StarStrider, a windows space simulator I wrote with a friend).

Q: What's your research field?
A: I'm studying solar systems in the making. Yes, solar systems are being formed in this very moment. You may have thought that all stars that exist formed shortly after the Big Bang, and that they will continue to shine forever, but that's not the case. Stars are born and die all the time, it's just that the time-scales are so much longer than a human life-time, that we normally don't notice. It's difficult to explain what I do in detail without going on at great length, but if you're interested you may have a look at my thesis page.

Q: What is an astronomer doing, anyway? Surely all stars must have been discovered by now?
A: Astronomers do many different things, but a typical astronomer spends about 90% of her (mostly his) time in front of a computer. Even observational astronomers, who travel to telescopes located at distant and hard-to-get places, most often observe from the basement of the telescope building, in front of a computer (in fact, several computers) controlling the telescope. Typically, a very small fraction of an astronomer's time is devoted to actual observing, most of the time she spends analysing the data (with computers) and writing applications (on word processors) for new research grants/telescope time.

There are more stars in the universe than there are sand grains on every beach in the entire world. Less than 1% of the 200 000 000 000 stars in our own galaxy have been catalogued. And there are about as many galaxies in the visible universe as there are stars in our galaxy... So no, not all stars have been discovered. But discovering all stars is not what astronomy is all about. Astronomy is about understanding the universe, and hopefully that can be done without knowing of every single star. For recent astronomical discoveries, I recommend the news service of the Sky & Telescope magazine.

Q: Where can I buy a star?
A: You mean, who is the current owner of the stars? No one, really. Of course, there are plenty of people that would be more than happy to take your money. If you insist and really don't know what to do with your money, I may be able to help you. I can even sell you a whole galaxy, containing billions of stars, with an amazing discount on the price per star. More seriously, if you're really interested you should first read what the International Astronomical Union has to say about selling stars (and naming them).

Q: I heard you discovered and named an asteroid Saltis. Why didn't you name it after yourself or your wife?
A: It's not custom to name asteroids after yourself. Comets are named after their discoverers, but not asteroids. As for the name of my wife, there already is an asteroid named Erika. Besides, I think the name Saltis (after the nickname for Saltsj÷baden where the Stockholm Observatory was located 1931-2001) was a quite good choice, don't you agree? Read more about Saltis on my Saltis page (in Swedish).

Deep thoughts

Q: Is the universe infinite? If not, what is beyond?
A: It depends on what we mean by "the universe". If we define the universe to be all that has been, all that is, and all that is going to be, that is, everything, then the universe is infinitely large, since the universe is expanding and the current paradigm says it will continue to expand forever. On the other hand, if we define the universe to be all that is now, at this very instant, then the universe may well have a finite volume. This doesn't necessarily imply the existence of a limiting boundary, as I will show by a simily: Imagine the surface of a sphere. The surface has no boundary; going along the surface you will never reach "the end of the surface". Still, its area is finite (you only need a finite amount of paint to paint it). Granted, the surface of a sphere has a curved geometry, but so has the universe on large scales. Also, the surface of a sphere is two-dimensional while the volume of the universe is three-dimensional, but it's much more difficult to imagine a curved three-dimensional geometry, and the difference is of no principal significance.

Seen another way, if you travelled forward in a straight line you would not reach the end of the universe but merely come back to where you started. There's nothing "beyond", as there are no borders. (In reality you cannot do this experiment even in principle since the universe expands so fast that you will never be able to catch up).

Q: What are your favourite deep thoughts?
A: These are mainly two and remain a complete mystery to me. The first has puzzled me since early childhood (infact, it's one of my earliest memories), and the second has fascinated me ever since I started to study physics.

  • Consciousness. Why am I conscious, and why is my consciousness restricted to myself? I have no problem with other people being conscious, but that's a very different thing. I don't directly feel their consciousness, and I have no way to prove that anyone else is conscious but myself. In fact, it's strictly impossible to prove consciousness, for anyone. I just know that I am.

    How did my consciousness come to be? How will it cease to exist?

    I understand that others are conscious, but why did my consciousness happen to reside in myself? This question is completely meaningless when applied to others than myself, but very meaningful when asked about myself by myself.

    For the above argument to make sense to you, you have to replace "I" with "you" and "myself" with "yourself", and so on.

    Let me add that I have some understanding for people who believe in souls and reincarnation. I think the kind of questions I ask are precisely what they intend to answer. But I find their hypotheses extremely unsatisfactory since there are no evidences what-so-ever for them, and, even worse, there is no possibility for evidence. That makes the hypotheses pointless, nothing more than possibly entertaining thoughts; they have no explanatory power.

  • Time. It's really a mystery. Why is there time? Of course, without time we wouldn't know there was no, but still. Why do we have this sense of flowing time progressing forwards? I'm not impressed by thermodynamic arguments since they are either symmetric with respect to the forward/backward direction of time, or tautological. What would it be like without time? Maybe time is an illusion? Pretty strong illusion in that case. What exactly is time? Is it possible to even define time? We all have a feeling for what time is, but it's usage in physics is axiomatically postulated rather than derived. That is, not understood in terms of simpler things. Maybe new insights into the laws of nature will eventually unravel some of the mysteries of time. I hope they will.

  • Q: With all diseases and poverty in the world, how can it be justified to study astronomy?
    A: Astronomical research, like other research in the natural sciences, is an investment in the future. We strive to increase our knowledge of the universe. The universe is ruled by the physical/natural laws, and by gaining knowledge of the universe we gain knowledge of the physical laws governing it. With a better understanding comes the power to influence our environment and extend our possibilities; knowledge is power. The technological progress of humans is a firm attestment to the power of knowledge.

    The real question is how we should weight immediate needs against possible future improvements. That, I cannot answer. Also, there is the question on how to distribute resources among the natural sciences.

    Thus, to briefly answer the question, if we spend for instance 95% of our total resources on improving our current situation, I think it may be justified to invest the remaining 5% in improving our knowledge for future benefits. (these figures are taken from thin air and shouldn't be interpreted literally)

    In the long run, we have to improve our technology, it is essential for our long-time survival as a species. Otherwise natural disasters (like a collision with an asteroid, a nearby supernova explosion or the death of our Sun) will inevitable wipe humans out of history. We need to spread to other planets, even other solar systems, to increase our survival likelihood. Even if we can avoid natural disasters we are a threat to ourselves and therefore need to spread. Note, however, that I'm talking of time-scales of at least tens of thousands of years, so there's no immediate need to hurry with space-travel technologies.

    Q: Do you believe in God?
    A: I'm not convinced there is a God. I don't say there is no; I just say I'm not convinced. I do respect people who think there is one, but by the very nature of religion there is no way they can give me a convincing argument. I think there are two ways to become a believer: You either have been born into the belief and never had reasons to doubt it, or you've had a 'vision' or been 'enlightened' by some other means. No arguments alone can convince me of God's existence. The argument is symmetric. Thus, there is no way anyone can convince me that God does not exist. I'm sorry if you find this confusing. To me it's crystal clear.

    Since there is no way of proving or disproving the God hypothesis, I feel it's pointless to discuss it at too much length. It's just a matter of belief. This goes for other meta-physical beliefs and religions as well, as long as they have no observable implications.

    Q: What is science?
    A: To quote the physicist Feynman, Science is a way of trying to not fool yourself. In science we collect observations about nature and search for patterns; whenever we think we find a pattern we call it a theory and test this theory against all available and future observations. By respecting the observations we ensure that theories that do not match the reality of nature are recognised as such. Thus science is self-correcting, a very important property.

    The scientific method is the only way I know of that is able to produce knowledge. In fact, I think the scientific method is the only way of acquiring knowledge.

    Personal

    Q: Why did you become an astronomer?
    A: I've always been obsessed with space and astronomy, since childhood. Carl Sagan's TV-series Cosmos, broadcasted on Swedish television in 1982, did a lot to fuel my interest. I remember I couldn't read the subtitles fast enough, so my father read them out aloud for me (I didn't understand any English at that age). I have never regretted my choice of profession, I find it a great privilege to be paid to unravel the mysteries of the universe and contribute to our understanding.

    Q: "Alexis", isn't that a female name?
    A: In most countries, the name Alexis is given to males. The big exceptions are the USA and Canada, where Alexis is a quite popular name on females. As for myself, I'm most certainly a male.

    Q: "Alexis Brandeker" doesn't sound very Swedish!
    A: No, it's not a typical Swedish name; it's not typical at all. In fact, I think it's unique among the 6 milliards of humans (I know it is on the internet). Alexis stems from Alexius which in turn is related to Alexander, derived from the words meaning "to defend, help" in Greek. My mother is Greek, but Alexis is a quite unusual name even in Greece. The name is only common in America, and then mostly on females.

    My surname has roots from Austria since my grandfather was Austrian. He spelt the name Brandecker originally, but a c disappeared at the authorities when he moved to Sweden and was left with Brandeker.



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