Witch Head Nebula

A Witch to the Stars

By Samantha Scibelli

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Science Stories: The Art of Scientific Storytelling
 

Series Introduction by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Science Stories showcases the impressive literary work done by graduate students who participated in the first run of “The Art of Scientific Storytelling,” a new course I taught in Spring 2020 at the University of Arizona. The course, developed in collaboration with my Creative Writing program colleague Christopher Cokinos, was eligible for credit in the new Graduate Certificate in Science Communications offered by the College of Science. Its aim was to inspire creative works that were science-smart, works that might enhance science literacy among readers. The class read contemporary writers who covet the perspectives of science and the personal stories of scientists who write for non-technical audiences. We read memoirs, essays, op-eds, and poetry. We read works inspired by chemistry, astronomy, paleobiology, traditional indigenous knowledge: Primo Levi, Hope Jahren, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Jamie, Alan Lightman, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Maggie Nelson, among others. The students came from a range of disciplines including optical science, astronomy, geography, climate adaptation, hydrology, mathematics, speech pathology, and creative writing. The conversations were rich and the talent abundant. They surprised me each week with their inventive and insightful takes on writing assignments. We offer this showcase of our experiment in the meeting of art and science.

   
My early memories are seeded with visions of myself as a witch. The spell casting, broom riding and potion brewing kind of witch. For five Halloweens in a row I wore the same costume, a black dress draped in mesh with sparkly silver stars and moons, complete with a pointy hat and a silver wand in the shape of a star to tie the ensemble together. I’d find myself wearing this costume all the time, during seasons of green leaves and of bare branches. Ready for any adventure while cloaked in the trance of my costume, I’d play the role of a detective, preoccupied with paranormal mysteries; a sort of Nancy Drew meets Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

Raised in a hundred-year-old farmhouse in Upstate New York, it was easy for me to believe in the supernatural. My home was equipped with secret crawl spaces, narrow staircases, and creaky wooden panels whose nails would often, with great spontaneity, burst up from their resting places, and it was my job to hammer the iron back into place. My mother’s taste for antiques reinforced the spooky aesthetic. Faded glass medicine bottles and wicker baskets lined the windowsills, while two life-size portraits of George and Martha Washington hung low on the wall in the “Blue Room,” their eyes appearing to dart back and forth to meet yours no matter which direction you looked. We even had a black cat, Sylvester, who just showed up one day on our porch eager to be a part of the family. A charming home for a witch to live in, I always thought.

This early fascination with witches was not entirely self-created. My mother named me Samantha after the character of the same name in the popular 1960s TV show Bewitched. Samantha was no typical red-blooded American girl. She had powers and could make anything appear (or disappear) with the twitch of her nose. I would watch reruns of Bewitched frequently, fascinated by the idea of magic and entertained by the silly antics central to the show. Each week the use of magic would inevitably lead to an undesired outcome. From floating bottles of champagne to ears that grew with each lie uttered, we watched an extraordinary housewife navigate being a witch in an ordinary world. But of course, by episode’s end, some semblance of normalcy would return. More than anything, I think the show was an early mold which I casted my own identity onto, one that craved the extraordinary.

Say what you will about 1960s TV shows, but in contrast to programs such as Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show, I’d consider Bewitched to be pretty forward-thinking for its time. Samantha is a strong female character. I remember, during one of the very first episodes of the series, Samantha turns her husband’s boss into a dog after he attempts to sexually assault her. Darrin, her husband, gets angry because Samantha might have jeopardized his job. A more enchanted “silent treatment,” Samantha makes herself invisible, packs a suitcase and leaves, only to return when she gets the apology she’s looking for from Darrin. Out of all the possible namesakes, I’m happy with my mother’s choice.

An even stronger influence than the fictional Samantha was my mother herself, a woman I will forever look to for direction and support. Later I learned that my name Samantha was not only chosen because of Bewitched, but also because the name could be shortened to “Sam.” This strategic move, my mother told with me, was done so that I could put “Sam” on a resume and not be judged based on gender. As one of the only female saleswomen at IBM in the 1980s, my mother faced harsh prejudices. Sent home on her first day for wearing a red suit (not the standard blue or black), she had to fight for equal pay and to make a name for herself as one of the top sellers. She is the strongest person I know. Having my mother as my true role model, I learned to never think I couldn’t do something or be someone, even if that someone was a witch.

Samantha the young witch

 
One summer afternoon, when I was 11 or 12, instead of tuning in for the typical Bewitched episode, another show, The Universe, caught my eye. The first episode I watched was entitled “Light Speed.” The show captured my attention with its promise of seeing “beyond the limits of our existence.” Light. The fastest thing in the universe and a probe into the past, I had no idea it held so much power. Quicker than the twitch of a nose, light’s speed is so fast that it could encircle the earth seven times in just one second. In fact, it takes light eight minutes to travel from the sun to us here on Earth, so we are really seeing the sun as it looked eight minutes ago. How can this be? Well, light travels at a finite speed—the ultimate measuring stick for our entire universe.

Even more remarkable, by understanding exactly how light and space interact I learned it is also possible to measure distances to galaxies. Groups of gas, dust and stars, like our own Milky Way, galaxies are often referred to as “islands” of matter held together by gravity. Just like in the case of a speeding siren here on earth, where sound is heard at a lower frequency when the observer is behind it, galaxies that are moving away from us have their light stretched out or red-shifted. It’s known that the universe is ever-expanding and thus, from measuring the red-shift of different galaxies, we can infer distances. Astronomer Edwin Hubble observed this expansion, discovering that all galaxies are moving away from us at the same rate. The infamous “Hubble constant” says that the greater the red-shift measured, the more distant and older a galaxy is. Not all that different from Samantha’s life in Bewitched, particularly when she travels back in time to the Middle Ages and the Salem witch trials, I realized that by observing the universe, astronomers can look back and reflect on the past.

Back in the farmhouse of my childhood, outside my bedroom window, grew vibrant purple and pink lilac trees. Behind that stood the greenhouse where my father would start from seed the plants later transplanted into our larger garden. As a child, I spent weekend afternoons pulling up weeds and helping my parents in the gardens. I had my own flower garden too, erupting with lilies and bleeding hearts during the spring. Even so, my favorite time was autumn, when the squash and pumpkins were ready to harvest. I’d help make creamy butternut squash soup and carve out Jack-o’-lanterns which, with the help of light, would come alive on the front porch. Perhaps, due to the combination of crisp weather and changing foliage, I felt I had more of an excuse to wear my witch costume and investigate my title.

To this day, every October I watch the movie Halloweentown, my original instructor in “the ways of the witch.” For example, I learned if a witch doesn’t start using their powers by a certain age, then they are lost forever. Every momentous year I brought up the issue with my mother. In high school: “I’m 16 today, if you don’t start teaching me how to fly, I’m never going to learn!” On my 21st birthday: “Mom I can feel it, this is the year. Do I get my powers now?” Eye-rolls and laughter follow, always. My mother and I joke, bonding over my past fixations with witchcraft. Still, what if the year I stop asking is the year I would’ve gotten some answers?

I’ll always be curious about the unknowns in this world, and all the unanswered questions. Maybe I continue to ask about my powers as a reminder to myself to keep asking the expansive questions of my youth. After all, with untamed imaginations, children are natural born scientists. Skilled observers and technicians, even a sandbox becomes a lab bench equipped with the materials to study phenomena such as porosity. Adults are often annoyed at a child’s incessant questioning. Why is the sky blue? How do birds fly? Why can’t I fly? I’ve always wondered why more adults don’t ask similar questions, and when exactly the questioning stops. I plan to keep asking my own questions and to examine the world for answers. Who knows, maybe one day I will learn to fly.

After tuning in for another episode of The Universe, entitled “Dark Matter,” I learned that the world of physics exposes stranger magic than any spell book I’d formerly come across. In this episode, we learn that most of the matter in the universe cannot be seen or detected by current instruments. Not only can we not see it, but also this mysterious dark matter is comprised of particles that don’t resemble anything like our “normal matter.” The protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up everything from grass, insects, people, and water, to asteroids and stars, account for only 4 percent of the stuff in the universe. Dark matter, however, accounts for roughly 25 percent of the universe, while dark energy, an unknown force, makes up the remaining 70ish percent. Think about everything that we can see, not just on Earth but also in the sky. There is six times more of this “other stuff” we can’t even see or feel. Dark matter is streaming through our bodies right now; feel it? Fortunately (and unfortunately), we cannot.

So, how do we know that there is dark matter if we can’t see or sense it? Twentieth century astronomer Vera Rubin made critical observations that led to her discovery of dark matter’s existence. Specifically, she found that galaxies were rotating way too fast than would be expected for the amount of stuff that was observed (i.e., stars and gas). In order to keep galaxies from flinging apart, Rubin estimated that there must be at least ten times more stuff in galaxies that we just can’t see. We now know, from the observations of other rotating galaxies, as well as the interactions with light (stay tuned for more on that!), dark matter is out there. We still do not know, however, what it’s comprised of. What is the dark matter equivalent to our normal matter atoms? I thought it would be so cool to be a part of the team of scientists to discover the first dark matter particle.

Back on The Universe, they discussed an experiment in South Dakota where researchers were searching for dark matter, waiting for the slight chance that a dark matter particle will hit and give off a temperature sensitive signal, particle detectors are placed deep underground in mines, away from the constant bombardment of normal matter particles we experience at the ground level. Not the most glamorous of jobs, with a lone physicist shown walking down in the mines, surrounded by dozens of bats. He checks on instruments periodically, and, when things are slow, plays a solo game of ping-pong with half of the table raised. It seemed like most of the time things were slow. I thought to myself: maybe particle physics isn’t for me.

I’m sad to say, even now, more than ten years later, the illusive dark matter particle has yet to be detected. Sometimes I think of that guy in the mine and wonder if he’s still waiting, passing the time watching a little white ball bounce back and forth from his paddle to the green board, waiting to discover new physics. I can’t imagine being that patient.

The year after starting high school, I begged my father to buy for my birthday this DVD set from the Great Courses, starring physicist Sean Carroll. This lecture series was devoted entirely to the topic of “Dark Matter, Dark Energy.” As if I was getting extra credit or something, I spent hours of my free time watching each lecture, taking my own notes and stashing them away for safekeeping, determined to keep gathering knowledge no one had asked me to gather.

Looking back, perhaps there isn’t that large of a gap between watching 25 hour-long physics lectures for fun and playing single games of ping-pong while waiting for some type of physics that might not exist[1]. In any case, if I wasn’t going to become a witch, learn to fly, or get my powers right away, maybe a career as a physicist could be the next best thing. I later learned that in quantum mechanics there is real “spooky action,” in which two particles can be linked, or “entangled,” in such a way that if you observe the first particle, its entangled pair will “feel” you observe it and change its own properties. Seems like magic to me. Soon I traded in my sparkly wand for pen and paper, switched casting spells for solving equations.

In college, I studied dark matter and formulated a proper research project with an advisor. Instead of searching for particles, I was more interested in understanding the physical properties of dark matter within galaxies. How is it shaped around galaxies? How is its mass distributed? As alluded to, dark matter can be indirectly detected, not just because it holds galaxies together, but also because light knows it is there. As the ultimate measuring stick for the universe, light bends around dark matter, exposing its presence. In a process called gravitational lensing, both dark and normal matter will deflect light. As such, astronomers are able to measure not only the amount of dark matter, but also its distribution and position in the sky. For my research, I combined the two methods, measuring both the rotations of galaxies and the gravitational lensing effects.

Regrettably, in the observable universe there are few examples of nearby galaxies whose rotation is easily measured, nor galaxies that are nicely positioned in front of the large masses necessary for quantifying lensing effects. For my project, I had to create fake or “mock” galaxies to make predictions about the distribution of dark matter. Since these galaxies were created, I knew their inherent physical properties and could test how different assumptions affected, for example, the derived dark matter mass. A great learning experience, I saw how research was done. I discovered what kinds of questions were worth asking, and the methods and tools by which an astronomer goes about getting answers. Still, I couldn’t help but feel removed from what had initially sparked my interest in astronomy and physics. I wanted to observe the real universe, not a mock one. I wanted to witness light’s incredible power first-hand.

Witch Head Nebula
Witch Head Nebula, in the Orion constellation.
Photo by Noel Carboni, courtesy NASA/STScl Digitized Sky Survey and NASA Photo of the Day.

 
As a visual learner, my experiences with science were shaped early on by the tangible world. Growing up, I lived in front of a stone quarry and our driveway was filled with mostly bluish grey pieces of limestone. Every so often, I would find a clear white piece of quartz. What are you doing here, shiny rock? An early memory falls into view; my father and I polishing rocks with a rock tumbler. As the machine slowly (and loudly) churned sharp edged rocks into smooth and polished gems, the green “ON” light continued to wink at me and I smiled back. Next was a forensic kit, equipped with multiple “blood samples” for testing. Then came a small telescope, giving me the ability to point at only a few bright stars and the moon. Science and physics were based in reality, an ocular truth. And so, it was my father who led me to these scientific truths. Yet, I still held onto my witch costume, waiting for my mother to tell me my powers had arrived.

Science and superstition are timeless adversaries. Just try calling any astronomer an “astrologist.” I promise, you will sense their sinking hearts and hear with force their noses expelling air with a sigh. As an astronomer myself, I don’t mind the comparison too much. I’ve learned that through astrology’s veil, people are usually more receptive to learning about my science. “Oh you’re a Taurus? Well let me tell you about the dark clouds I study in that constellation!”

Another big taboo in astronomy is the practice of reading Tarot cards, which I learned to do from my mother’s friend Sandy, a local psychic. Today (some of) my astronomer friends and I host card-reading parties as a way to unwind and have fun. Do I believe that by pulling certain cards I will learn to “resolve my materialistic urges by burning incense and lavender candles”? No. But admittedly, I do enjoy dabbling in the dark arts—clinging onto my witch identity. All of the adventures I had at my childhood farmhouse, whether it was pretending to mix together a flying elixir comprised of soapy water and dirt or polishing unearthed pieces of quartz in my rock tumbler, have each molded me into the researcher I am today. Having a freed mind is important, especially when the world of science can often be stranger than fiction.

In my current role as an astronomer (not astrologist), I spend most of my time looking for complex organic molecules inside dark clouds in space. Continuously fascinated by light, I study the long wavelength version that probes the radio sky. Just like red, blue, and green, radio waves are types of light that are special because they let us look at the “invisible” parts of space that our own eyes cannot see. Just like Hubble space telescope images, which show deep red (7e-4 mm) swatches of gas where hydrogen is detected, if we tune to, for example, the “color” of carbon dioxide (~ 1.3 mm), we can look inside dark clouds of gas that, to our naked eye, are just silhouettes against a starry background.

The radio telescopes I use collect incoming photons 24/7, night and day, as long as the water vapor in the atmosphere remains low. I can sit from the comfort of my home or office while operators on the mountain move the telescope. I give them instructions on where to point and at what frequency to tune, all from my couch. Most of the time, the telescope stares at one dusty spot in our Milky Way galaxy, where stars are about to form, looking for these complex organic molecules, which are thought to be the building blocks for life. I’m driven to find the answers to my questions. What molecule can I detect next? What will this tell us about how stars and planets form, how they evolve over time?

Next to me while I watch data flood out onto my computer screen is my treasured tabby cat Tabatha. She’s my confidant, my resolute companion. Together, Tabatha and I sit, ready to tackle all of the universe’s questions. A nod to my past and beginnings, Tabatha is named after Samantha’s daughter in Bewitched. Now, a witch to the stars, I’ve found my role. I record the universe’s secrets and share them with the rest of the world. I may not be the spell casting, broom riding, or potion brewing kind of witch, but the magic of the universe certainly reveals itself to me every time the telescope scans the sky.

 


[1] In the case of the dark matter experiment I’ve described, these scientists are only looking for one possible dark matter particle candidate, WIMPS, or weakly interacting massive particles. Dark matter could be something else entirely, and would require a different experimental setup to prove its existence.

 

 

Samantha ScibelliSamantha Scibelli is a Ph.D. candidate and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona. She spends much of her time observing with radio telescopes, peering inside dense nurseries of gas and dust prior to the formation of stars. Passionate about science writing, she will be pursuing an additional certificate in science communication at the University of Arizona.

Header photo courtesy pxfuel. Photo of Samantha Scibelli by Elena Greenberg.

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