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Aliens, and Other Questions From The Reddit AMA of Filipino Astrophysicist Reina Reyes

On artificial intelligence, habitable planets, and the San Antonio Spurs.
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It’s not everyday that you get to air your curiosities about the universe to an astrophysicist—let alone a Filipino astrophysicist. So naturally, people took the opportunity, when Dr. Reina Reyes, astrophysicist and data scientist, held a Reddit AMA last Saturday, January 6.

In case you haven’t heard of it: The acronym stands for Ask Me Anything, a Reddit thread in the format of a moderated open forum. Senator Sonny Trillanes held an AMA last year, and Pia Wurtzbach did too, the year before that.

Dr. Reyes held her AMA to source and field questions about the universe for a pop-astronomy book that she’s working on, entitled May Alien Ba? And Other Questions About The Universe. Here are some edited excerpts from the thread:

Q: How did you become interested in astrophysics and data science in the first place? As a father of a 15 year old, she has been showing interest in the sciences in general. I wish I knew how to support her. —merdionesmondragon

RR: That’s wonderful! My interest in science started young too. I devoured the science encyclopedia we had at home, got books about space, made dioramas of dinosaurs. I asked my Dad for a telescope—and he obliged. There are many ways to nurture and encourage your daughter’s interest, and supporting her wherever they may lead. If I may suggest a place to start, many resources are online now, but books are still a great way to open new worlds and deepen critical thinking (which is part of the reason why I’m writing one).

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Q: As a science teacher in the public school setting, I’ve witnessed kids with out-of-this-world dreams and wonder for space. My question is: What are the odds of a grassroots kid with such dreams making it to the astronomical scene? —hadisen

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RR: Glad to hear this! If the interest is there, then we're off to a good start. The other important (technical) prerequisite is having good math skills. If a kid has both, then the odds should be very close to 1 (in an ideal society). The gap is what we have to make up for, by helping with access to resources—mentors, scholarships, etc., which are available (if one looks hard enough. Of course, there is a lot of work to be done to make this, at least, less hard. Every bit counts).

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Q: I have this notion na, in order for you to study fields such as astrophysics, you need to have a very high mental acuity. ‘Yung mala-genius level. There are people na whatever how hard they try, they just can’t hack the math and physics of it. My question is, when did you know that you can do it, that your mind can understand these very complex ideas and information? —InevitableGliese

RR: I will push back on that notion. I don’t think “genius-level” intelligence is required to become a scientist. I’m no genius (believe me, I’ve had the privilege of working with geniuses at Princeton) and many scientists aren’t either. But we do have strong analytical and mathematical thinking skills. For me, I’ve always enjoyed Math. It was my favorite subject in elementary school. In high school, Physics became my favorite subject. I think anyone can be good at Math and Physics, if they put it the effort. But I guess for some people, it does come more naturally, and that was the case for me.

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Q: What is your stand on the warning of prominent scientists (Hawking, Musk) that artificial intelligence could turn into something that cannot be controlled, and could pose a danger to the human race? —484F57414C495645

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RR: I think it is useful to think about AI and ethics, which is to say, technology and ethics; and not only for the future, but for today. You can replace AI with "social media" in your sentence—did we think it could "turn into something which can pose a danger to the human race"? Did it? Can we turn it off? (Sharing related recent talk by a science fiction author: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2018/01/dude-you-broke-the-future.html)

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Q: I don't know if may data that is publicly available, but iilan na kayo ang astrophysicists dito sa bansa? Also what is the most common misconception about your job? —chiviamp

RR: Maraming nagsasabing tatlo (ang may Astrophysics Ph.D.)—me, Dr. Romar Sese, and Dr. Jelly Nonesa, but there are also physicists who do research related to astrophysics (like Dr. Ian Vega, Dr. Perry Esguerra at NIP), and amateur astronomers (like Christopher Go) who have co-authored astronomy papers as well. I, myself, am no longer active in astrophysics research, having shifted to the field of computational physics and data science. The most common misconception is that we can tell your fortune.

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"Whether life exists outside Earth is a very interesting question, and the answer is that we don't know...yet. Perhaps we'll find out within our lifetime. Perhaps we won't."

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Q: The Philippines seems to be waaaaay behind [in] science fiction, especially in the mainstream media. Why aren’t we that adept in exploring speculative fiction using the lenses of science and technology? —bleedthrough

RR: I think the assumption that we are "not adept" does not necessarily follow from the first observation—and is dangerous to jump to. It's also true that we don't produce a lot of science books. I've personally been discouraged to write one (or to write at all), because "no one reads." And now I'm discovering the many barriers to creating and distributing work. So I guess I just want to point out that it doesn't mean we are not capable of it now (nor long before now, for that matter)—but perhaps, it's the conditions that are discouraging (and creating barriers) for creators that need changing. (Check out Philippine Speculative Fiction and the short stories of Luis Katigbak, for starters, and support your local authors!)

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Q: Lately, dumadami ang “flat Earthers” (those who believe that the Earth is flat). How can you tell people like this that it is or isn’t true? —catterpie90

RR: I don't know, but I suspect you can't do much (or anything at all) without meeting in person (or at least, face-to-face?) and listening (first) before speaking. My sense is that it's got more to do with "belief" than astronomy. (I haven't met one in person yet, but I have gotten a question from a flat-Earther for the book... So I will have to figure this out soon, too—at least to say something worth saying...)

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Q: How will the universe end, Big Crunch or Big Rip? —Tatlong-Sulok

RR: The current scenario points to Big Rip (acceleration of the Universe is expanding). But we don't know why, so what do we know? (Of course, the next cosmological revolution can tell).

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Q: If the universe is expanding, there must be an edge to it. My question is what is the edge of the universe like? —stardarkexpress

RR: It’s not necessary that the Universe has an edge just because it’s expanding, because space can be curved. A popular analogy is to imagine the Universe as the surface of a balloon being blown up. For an ant on the surface of the balloon, space is expanding, and it sees every other ant on the balloon is moving away. In this analogy, we are the ant, but we live in three dimensions instead of two.

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Q: Do you have a childhood question(s) about the universe that remains unanswered? —ellienn

RR: Black holes remain amazing and mysterious. What happens inside? May alien ba?

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Q: Do you believe that life exist outside our cute blue planet? —PayThemWithBlood

RR: Whether life exists outside Earth is a very interesting question, and the answer is that we don't know...yet. Perhaps we'll find out within our lifetime. Perhaps we won't. We don't have to believe one way or another, but we can think about the question intelligently and ask what the odds are. I will be delving into this question (alien life, the Drake equation, Fermi paradox, Great Filter, etc.) in the book I'm writing.

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Q: Kepler 438b ang may pinakamataas na ESI (Earth Similarity Index). May mga research or technology na po ba na available para mapag-aralan (or better yet, mapuntahan) ito? —agilasigma

RR: Unfortunately, at 470 light-years away, [Kepler 438b] is too far for our telescopes to capture enough light for us to determine whether it has an atmosphere (planets are very faint objects). Interstellar travel is also far out of reach of our current technologies—a light year is a long, long way to go. High ESI (earth similarity index) does not necessarily mean the planet is more habitable. Research suggests that Kepler 438b is probably not habitable because of intense radiation from its parent star. The current approach is to keep building better telescopes and study Earth-like planets that are closer to us. There are plenty of candidates naman.

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Q: Current Spurs lineup, Playoffs Game 7, game winner. Who will take the shot? —dphoenix21

RR: Fan in me shouts Ginobili! But I’m happy to have it be Kawhi or L.A., or anyone Pop would trust.

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Miguel Escobar
Assistant Features Editor for Esquire Philippines
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