Marvelling at the cosmos, one star at a time

Dr Roberto Trotta, theoretical cosmologist talks to Jasmine Jerald about the universe, cosmology, and life on other planets

Published: 06th March 2017 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd March 2017 10:11 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

I t’s not every day that we come across a cosmologist who takes it upon himself to explain, in layman’s terms, the Big Bang theory, dark matter, dark energy, the destiny of the universe, and its fundamental reality so that we can keep abreast with the world around us. Dr Roberto Trotta is the author of The Edge of the Sky, a book on the latest discoveries and mysteries in modern cosmology using only the thousand most common words in the English language without using words like ‘universe’ or even planets! “The goal is to learn more about the history and nature of the universe, by using cosmology as a universe-sized laboratory for particle and high energy physics,” he explains.

The theoretical cosmologist, who is a Reader in Astrophysics at the Imperial College, London is relentless in his research on cosmology, and analysing and interpreting his observations. He’s also a science communicator and actively participates in numerous public engagements from science festivals to radio broadcasts. He’s the Director of Imperial’s Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication. He’s also an STFC Public Engagement Fellow and is currently running a public engagement programme, The Hands-On Universe.

To add to his impressive résumé, he also offers statistical consultancy and custom-made data analysis solutions for a broad variety of clients. He works as a scientific consultant with museums, writers, film-makers and artists, providing the help and support they need to make their artistic creations scientifically sound. We caught up with Dr Trotta while he was in the city for a lecture on ‘Measuring the Expansion History of the Universe’ at IIT Madras recently. Excerpts:
Where did the interest in cosmology arise from?
I studied Physics at University because I was interested to know how the universe works, so when it came to specialisations, I knew I had to pick cosmology. It was the natural choice because it deals with the biggest questions, the origin of the Big Bang theory and the composition of the universe. While I was pursuing my doctorate, I realised that it brings together the theoretical ideas and observations. Unless we have data and measurement, we can’t make progress. I find both to be equally important.
What are your thoughts on commercial interplanetary travel?
Projects like Elon Musk’s SpaceX would be very exciting if they can make it happen. I believe that aiming to do what NASA and others are doing, but at a fraction of the cost, is extremely ambitious, yet I doubt if this will be possible. Space travel is no easy feat, so to achieve that at a commercial level while addressing safety concerns is quite challenging. Having said that, a few years ago, India launched Mangalyaan without spending too much. It is encouraging to see people take an interest in space exploration. But commercial interplanetary travel is too risky to take lightly.
Do you believe in life on other planets?
From a biological and theoretical point of view, chances are that life outside Earth exists. Personally, I think it’s not just possible, but probable. The big question here is whether we can confirm it. The Milky Way has about fifty billion stars and 50% of the stars have planets around them and only about one-seventh of these are presumed habitable, which in itself is a huge number. And that’s just our galaxy. Imagine the rest of the galaxies in the universe. Just doing the Math makes you wonder. But even current technology may not be enough to find life out there.
How do you consult for movies?
I want people to understand the science in a movie that has astronomical content. People want to tell a space story and I help them make it scientifically sound. I believe that it is more important to make people think about the endless possibilities the unknown holds. As long as people don’t drastically alter scientific facts about space in their movies, we should encourage sci-fi flicks like Interstellar and the like.
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