Terraforming Mars


(Image copyright NASA)

On February 28 we were delighted to host Dr Chris McKay from the NASA Ames Research Center.

Dr McKay, who does research on the evolution of the solar system and the origin of life, gave a talk on the physics and ethics of terraforming Mars. He’s also actively involved in planning for future Mars missions including human exploration. He has been involved with polar and desert research, traveling to the Antarctic Dry Valleys, the Atacama Desert, the Arctic, and the Namib Desert to conduct research in these Mars-like environments.

Dr McKay described a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much energy it would take to convert Mars into a planet warm enough for plant life to grow and eventually have an atmosphere where humans could breathe. He discussed the idea of using nuclear weapons to warm Mars, how perfluorocarbon (PFC) gases could create the right greenhouse gas effect, and what time scale this would take: centuries (for plant life) or hundreds of thousands of years (for habitable human conditions)?

Dr McKay also discussed the ethics of terraforming: Should we leave an isolated planet as it is? How should we react if we encounter any kind of life form, even microbial, on Mars? What could a Second Genesis discovery, of independent life, tell us about biochemistry on Earth? His take is that, if possible, we should consider terraforming Mars, but be prepared for ethical questions that haven’t been considered yet.

Thanks to Dr McKay for a great talk and a lot of great stories about doing research in the Arctic and Antarctic!

Money for Research

Guillermo Barro Figure

The Physics faculty not only teach, they are also researchers in various areas of physics and astronomy, in areas like galaxy formation and evolution, black holes at the center of galaxies, particle physics and the Higgs boson, and exoplanet discovery and classification.

To do this research takes time, people and money. Currently the faculty have more than $900,000 in external grants from NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Space Telescope Science Institute, Google, the Hubble Space Telescope Program, and the San Joaquin County Office of Education. For a small department, that’s a lot of money! Some of this money is to support undergraduate students to work with faculty on their projects or to travel to conferences to present their research. You don’t need to be a world expert, you just need to be curious and ready to learn new skills.

The figure is from Dr Guillermo Barro’s recent paper on star-forming galaxies, you can read more about it here – or just ask him about it at a physics social.

Here are some of the grants:

Dr Elisa Toloba, “The Nature of Compact Stellar Systems in Massive Galaxy Clusters Using the Hubble Frontier Fields”, $130,000 from the Space Sciences Institute

Dr Daniel Jontof-Hutter, “Statistical study of known multi-planetary systems”, $110,000 from the NASA Astrophysical Data Analysis Program

Dr Guillermo Barro, “Spatially resolved UV-to-FIR SEDs of compact SFGs at z~2”, $130,000 from the Space Sciences Institute

Dr Jim Hetrick, “The Delta Sierra Science Project”, $55,000 from the San Joaquin County Office of Education

Dr Kieran Holland and Dr Jim Hetrick, “Lattice gauge theory at the University of the Pacific”, $210,000 from the National Science Foundation


Women in Physics conference


Katie Ram, Nina Madsen and Katie Christensen attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) which was held in Los Angeles at Harvey Mudd College, Pomona College and Cal Poly Pomona during the winter break. Here’s what they thought about it:

Katie Ram: With good fortune, I had the privilege of attending the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) for the third time. Each conference has provided a unique experience that has shaped and influenced my experience in the physics community.

My first year, I discovered the vast diversity of fields available to someone with a physics degree. Many misinformed peers had convinced me that I would only be able to teach or work in a lab, but at CUWiP I learned of many other careers and spoke with physicists working in everything from industry to astrophysics to law.

The Pacific physics department is a remarkable place for its students. Here I have found support and encouragement, and I rarely, if ever, felt foreign to the physics community. However, during my year studying abroad in Chile, I was not only an actual foreigner, but one of maybe 5 women in a physics class of over 100 students. That eye-opening experience and some discouraging statistics led me to question what sort of environment I would be entering after graduating from Pacific. However, a second venture to CUWiP motivated me to continue in my path. I was encouraged by the presence of 200+ women physicists, and learning about imposter syndrome helped me overcome underlying self-doubt. Panelists and peers shared not only their research, but their stories on overcoming gender stereotypes and insecurity.

This last CUWiP was helpful to me as an upcoming graduate. In addition to sessions on various graduate school options, I partook in discussions on work-life balance. A solid work-life balance is essential to a sustainable lifestyle and career, but Ph.D. programs and careers in science are notoriously difficult environments for establishing such an equilibrium. A diverse panel of physicists explained their personal routines and strategies for creating a work-life balance. Already experimenting with some of their approaches, I hope to incorporate some of their ideas into my lifestyle as I journey into my career.

Overall, CUWiP has provided me with the resources, information, and motivation that I needed when I needed them. I highly encourage any women physics students to attend, as the conference may reshape their perception of a career in physics.

Katie Christensen: The women in physics conference was very informative. Everyone who spoke had a clear message and was helpful to many of the women there. It was great seeing and hearing from successful women in the physics field, and reassuring to hear that their career path wasn’t as manicured as one would expect. It was comforting to be surrounded by hundreds of women who were all excited about physics. Regardless of the small population of professional women with physics degrees, and the adversity some women in physics might have faced, many of them have been successful in building WIP societies at their universities and getting other people, not just physics students, interested in STEM topics. Overall, the conference was well put together, and very successful in spurring drive in women to persevere in the world of physics.