Derrick Pitts on diversity in space exploration, multiple universes, and what the U.S. defense budget should be spent on

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     Dr. Derrick Pitts, left, henceforth known to Tribble Nation as UniversalTribble, stands with Storm Tribble (Kennedy Allen), Super Tribble (Randy Green), Spider-Tribble (Jason Richardson), and BatTribble (Len Webb) in WHYY's Studio 2. (Jeanette Woods/WHYY)

    Dr. Derrick Pitts, left, henceforth known to Tribble Nation as UniversalTribble, stands with Storm Tribble (Kennedy Allen), Super Tribble (Randy Green), Spider-Tribble (Jason Richardson), and BatTribble (Len Webb) in WHYY's Studio 2. (Jeanette Woods/WHYY)

    This month, your favorite Tribbles kick off 2015 with the conclusion of SPACEHEADS, a December-long , extensive celebration of astronomy and the planetary sciences with a dazzling interview with local astronomer Dr. Derrick Pitts of the Franklin Institute.

    Each month, Philadelphia’s prolific podcasters, the Black Tribbles (winners of the 2014 Streaming Project of the Year award), visit Speak Easy with special reports on everything sci-fi, comic books, movies, video games, cartoons, and other stuff that every nerd needs to know.

    This month, your favorite Tribbles kick off 2015 with the conclusion of SPACEHEADS, a December-long, extensive celebration of astronomy and the planetary sciences with a dazzling interview with Philadelphia astronomer Dr. Derrick Pitts of the Franklin Institute.

    An avid stargazer since his youth, Dr. Pitts quietly holds distinctions such as being a NASA Solar System Ambassador and hosting his own “SkyTalk” here on WHYY. Perhaps best known for his infectious enthusiasm about everything outer space, this educator reaches across generations with a curiosity that invites us all to appreciate our celestial surroundings and the folks who work there. Discussing everything from what’s up and coming at NightSkies, to confirming the long-standing involvement of African-Americans within NASA, to speculating about the existence of multiple universes, the man we call UniversalTribble schools Tribble Nation on what’s new in space exploration.

    What are some of your favorite new developments/missions at NASA and the International Space Station?

    ISS operations are always interesting to follow, particularly since a 3D printer has been put into service onboard.
    Astronauts are really becoming used to the idea of living on ISS for a while.
    Lots of access is provided by NASA to ‘peek behind the curtain’ or follow astronauts via Twitter and Instagram.
    New Horizons‘ upcoming arrival at Pluto will be exciting, especially if the Plutonians decide they’ve had it with our meddling about their planet’s name and blow NH out of orbit!
    The REAL juice is over at SpaceX! Musk’s team is consistently achieving success after success on the road to a financially independent, stable, reliable and successful launch services company. Within the next two years, they should have authorization from the FAA to carry astronauts up to ISS instead of our continued dependence on the Russians to taxi astronauts to low-Earth orbit.

    Can you give us some insight regarding any upcoming celestial phenomena we can see from Earth in 2015?

    Eclipses: Two solar, two lunar; great visible planet observing this spring and summer; I predict more supermoons in our future!

    What are your thoughts regarding diversity in the fields of space exploration and the planetary sciences?

    Whoa. Ya know, if you cut out the diversity in the space sciences, you cut out a tremendous amount of genius, and then you end up in trouble because you didn’t use all of the resources you had available to you. So it is extraordinarily important that the diversity is there.

    If you look at the history of African-Americans in space exploration, it’s longer and deeper than you think it is, because African-Americans have been involved since the very beginning. Since the first rockets were launched, through every program — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Space Shuttles, ISS — we have always been there, as engineers, as mathematicians, everything along the way. So, there’s no denying that we’ve always played a role, although people may not have known about that role, because they didn’t want to talk about us being involved in the program.

    But the fact of the matter is, you can’t avoid having us in the program, because if you want the best brains, you have to include everybody and anybody that can do the job, and do the job well.

    If given the opportunity, would you join an Expedition crew to the ISS? What role would you like to serve?

    Hah! Let me demonstrate the concept of millisecond: That’s how long it would take me to say “YES!” if asked to go. What role? Exterior service tech, of course!

    There’s a great photo of you examining a telescope owned by Galileo Galilei. What are some of the other relics of astronomy that you’ve had a chance to see?

    Galileo’s middle finger preserved in a jar of some clear liquid!
    The actual glass photographic plate E. Hubble used to prove recessional velocities of galaxies and thus the expansion of the universe.
    Spacesuits worn on the moon by Apollo astronauts.

    How many universes do you believe there are currently? Or have been previously?

    So the only thing we can deal with are models, that’s the problem, because we can’t know what has happened in the past in universal history, so we have to use models for what may have been or what might be.

    The most current model that’s available indicates that if our current thinking about how the universe came into existence is correct, and we incorporate into that the role played by dark matter and dark energy, then what that suggests is that there are multiple universes in existence right now. That’s what the suggestion is. The problem is, we have no information about that, and it’s just a model.

    The model I love to use is, if we were in this room, and we had no information about what was going on outside the room, how would we be able to tell what’s outside the room? So that’s the way the universe is for us, and unfortunately, that’s the way the universe absolutely must remain, because expansion of the universe is going so fast that no matter how fast we travel, we can’t catch up to the edge of the universe.

    The universe grows. It destroys and renews itself. It changes and adapts. Would you say the universe is alive?

    Yes. I would say the universe is alive. And the reason why the universe is alive is because, in all of the processes that go on in the universe, the universe has created us — so we are the universe. We always try to separate ourselves from it. We say, “We’re human, and that’s stuff out there.” But we’re all created from the universe. So in a way, we’re how the universe knows itself, and we are an interesting manifestation of the universe, so the universe is alive through us.

    Andrew C. of Facebook asks: Was Mary Poppins really supercalifrgelisticexpialidocious?

    It was all about the umbrella. The umbrella was from a different dimension. That’s why she was able to do all that stuff. She got the umbrella from the same place that Calvin and Meg [of “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeline L’Engle] got all their stuff about how to travel around the universe.

    Lynn-Marie of Facebook asks: In your opinion, how do we cure homelessness and poverty?

    NASA’s budget is currently $18 billion. If you look at the top 20 items in the U.S. budget, NASA ranks 14th or 15th. Hear me straight: The Defense Department budget is $500 billion a year for the stuff we know of — that’s not the black budget stuff — $500 billion a year. NASA’s budget is $18 billion a year. Look what NASA does with $18 billion.

    My belief of what we need to do to correct poverty and homelessness is that we need to cut that defense budget in half. We do need to defend, but we need to assign half of that money always to making sure that everybody has food, everybody has housing, everybody has education, everybody has health care. It’s not rocket science here, folks.

    The other thing that’s critically important is you have to have compassion, you have to have empathy, and one of our problems is once people become overly rich, they tend to lose sight of that stuff.

    If you had to choose a favorite astronaut, who would it be?

    Oh, Bob Curbeam. Easily. The man walks through space like it’s his backyard.

    For a weekly dose of space news, “SkyTalk” airs during NewsWorks Tonight, Monday nights at 6 p.m. NightSkies, a monthly stargazing event, is a great place to chat with Dr. Pitts — I mean, UniversalTribble — one on one.

    Hear this and more from the Black Tribbles on their podcast, “Tribble Nation,” available at iTunes and Pod-o-matic. “Tribble Nation” is a monthly podcast focusing on the geek in every color imaginable, from scientist to author, from comic book artist to comic book collector. Each episode features an interview with a special guest and a review of current topics within his or her field of geek interest.

    The Black Tribbles are: Jason Richardson, aka Spider-Tribble; Len Webb, aka BatTribble; Kennedy Allen, aka Storm Tribble; Erik Darden, aka Master Tribble; and Randy Green, aka Super Tribble.

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