TV Takes a Cosmic Trip With UCI Scientist

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Thursday, October 28, 2010
Pat Brennan
The Orange County Register

Stand on a shoreline three billion years in Earth’s future, and the view is heart-stopping: the sky is swallowed up by the enormous Andromeda galaxy, closing in for its collision with our own Milky Way.

That’s one of the stops on a journey of cosmic proportions with James Bullock, a UC Irvine physics and astronomy professor and co-host of “Inside the Milky Way” on the National Geographic Channel at 9 p.m. Thursday night.

The show includes “3-D, state-of-the-art CGI (computer generated imagery) model of our own galaxy,” National Geographic says, and tracks the history of the Milky Way, visits the supermassive black hole at its heart and takes flight through its “dusty spiral arms” in search of alien life.

Bullock, 38, is making a first foray of his own as a television host on a trip through universe, territory once dominated by the 1980s series “Cosmos” and its host, Carl Sagan — whom Bullock credits with inspiring his own scientific career.

Q. You seem to be making a lot of efforts to popularize science lately, including providing the Register with a top ten list of what’s ahead in cosmological science. Is communicating science to the public beginning to take up more of your time, and will you be doing more of it?
It’s always an issue of time. One of the things I think is very important is outreach — the public engaging in science, and education in the broadest sense. I feel like it (the television show) did fit into the mission of science. We have these public observatory nights at UCI, and that reaches a fairly large audience. I think a special like this on National Geographic reaches an even larger audience.

Q. Will you reveal any new discoveries during the show?
You’ll definitely hear about some of the more recent evidence for the existence of things like dark matter — and the multiple reasons why we believe it’s there. And more recent developments on the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. There’s even a discussion on planets around other stars — exoplanets — and some discussion of a new exoplanet discovery.

Q. What is some of the evidence in favor of dark matter (so-far unidentified, but said to make up most of the matter in the universe)?
One is the speed with which stars spin around galaxies. Stars orbit around the center of the galaxy the way planets orbit around the sun. In our solar system, if you look at planets farther away from the sun than the Earth, they’re spinning around much more slowly than the Earth is. That is expected becaused the gravitational tug of the sun falls off as you go away from it. You might naively expect the same thing for galaxies. If you look at stars farther and farther from from the center, you expect them to be going around more slowly. What you actually see is that they’re going around as fast as the stars in the center. The primary explanation is missing matter that you can’t see; that’s why it’s called dark matter.

Q. Do you talk about the possibility of life on other worlds?
It’s discussed a little bit. The idea is that, depending on how much heat the star’s putting out, there’s kind of a magic distance from that star where you can have liquid water. And, of course, the Earth sits smack-dab in the middle of that zone. We’re very interested in planets that inhabit the habitable zone.

Q. What else should people know about the show and your appearance in it?
One thing: the graphics are amazing — the CGI images of the galaxies. It’s visually stunning. I can say that because I haven’t had anything to do with the visual stuff. If you’ve got HD, it’s definitely worth trying to see it in HD.

Q. But you’re not yet on the Carl Sagan trajectory in terms of television.
For now, I’ve got some more pure science to work on. People in my generation, we went into science because we saw Cosmos when we were kids. Probably more science has been done because of Carl Sagan than anything else. Whereas the previous generation was inspired by Apollo, I think my generation was inspired by Carl Sagan.