Who made the Witch Head Nebula?

by Celine Semaan Vernon

A while ago I received an email from Amy Mainzer from NASA about the Witch Head Nebula.


After a few emails with Amy I learned that she was the one who discovered this Nebula. How cool is that?

I asked if I could interview her, she agreed and put me in touch with another astrophysicist who discovers as part of his job nebulas and stars. I fell off my chair I was so excited!


We talk about Art, Science and the beauty of this world! 

This is the first in a series of interviews with astrophysicists who have discovered the Nebulas we print.

Our interview.

Celine: When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Amy: I wanted to study astronomy from when I was 6 or 7. Kids love science, and a lot of my colleagues knew they wanted to be scientists starting when they were children. Children are natural scientists because they are curious, resourceful and want to experiment. These are exactly the characteristics you need to solve technical problems. A lot of times kids have to be taught not to ask questions. Yet this is the thought process of science, methodically taking apart problems to understand them.

Design and science have so much in common. A lot of what we’re doing as scientists is designing new experimental systems so we can learn something.

Celine: How did you get into astrophysics?
Amy: My interest in astrophysics started with an encyclopedia. Paper encyclopedias are antiques now! Before the Internet, we didn't have access to information so easily, so we went to the library, and I was very interested in Greek mythology. When I looked up Greek mythological characters like Andromeda, the encyclopedia gave the story about the character, but on the other page it showed the image of the galaxy. What really pulled me in were the images – their strangeness and beauty.

Celine: Were you good in math?
Amy: I was pretty good in math when I was kid, and I liked it. Math was an interesting puzzle, and it was almost calming. Algebra is about sorting things, moving things from one side to the other. If you do it right, you can move everything in a sort of an orderly way that makes sense – it’s meditative. A lot of people have a bad experience with math, but they then discover later in life that they love science. Math is the language of science; it’s just a way of making sense of things using symbols. Part of the difficulty of learning math is that it’s very sequential - it builds up from one step to the next, and if we get lost in a class, we can't go back easily. For example, we need to learn to add before we can multiply. A lot of times people fall off the track and they get lost, and not everyone learns the same way. I wish there was a better way so that more people could be comfortable with math and science, since they underpin everything around us. What I would love is for more people to make science an everyday a part of their lives.

Celine: These images are obviously very much about beauty. Talk about Art and Science and what goes on in your head when you create them.
Amy: Art can be a human reaction to beauty, whereas science is the understanding and appreciation of nature. To me, science is another medium to appreciate beauty. Art can help you interpret the world around you through feelings. They are very much the two sides of the same coin.

Celine: Is it magic? How do you make them?
Amy: My mother is an artist, and I've loved to draw all my life as a hobby. As a scientist, I'm interested in how things work, and images are one of the best tools we have to study astrophysical phenomena. Since the project I work on right now is focused (no pun intended) on taking infrared pictures of the sky, a big part of the job is sifting through the images to find the asteroids that we're studying. I love finding beautiful images that tell an interesting story, so when I stumble across one, it's tempting to spend a little time playing with it! I use a few different programs to download the images, register them correctly, and display the colors and scale properly.

Celine: Is this what the Universe really looks like?
Amy: The universe looks vastly different depending on the wavelength of light you use to observe it. The light that we see with our eyes is only a tiny fraction of all the different colors that are out there, ranging from X-rays and gamma rays to radio waves: these are all light. Because astronomers often collect images of the sky at wavelengths that can't be seen by the human eye, such as ultraviolet or infrared, we have to assign these invisible wavelengths to ones we can actually see in order to view them. Each wavelength reveals something unique about the physical processes and conditions in stars, asteroids, and galaxies, so how you translate the invisible colors to visible light tells a different part of the story of what's going on out there. For example, the infrared wavelengths used by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission are about 6-20 times longer than the wavelengths the human eye can see. Since infrared radiation is heat, and since the hottest flames are blue, we typically represent the shortest wavelengths with blue colors, and the longest infrared wavelength gets translated as red. So when you look at an infrared image from WISE, the stars typically appear blue, since they're thousands of degrees, and cool gas (like the Witch Head Nebula) glows green and red. Infrared images allow us to measure temperatures of these distant objects. As humans, we actually have a fairly limited range of colors that we can see. Many birds and fish have much better color vision and can sense ultraviolet light; also, their reds look redder and blues look bluer. The world must look so gorgeous to them! But we’re better off than a lot of other mammals in terms of our color vision. So why do human eyes see only visible light? The answer lies in physics: we evolved around a yellow sun that emits a lot of its energy at these wavelengths, and our vision is adapted to take advantage of it. You might wonder what we would have been like if we grew up around a red dwarf – maybe we would see infrared light instead, on a planet with red and orange trees!

Celine: Do you think there is life out there?

Amy: One thing that we have learned fairly recently is that planets are ubiquitous...they are everywhere! There are lots of planets, big planets like Jupiter with atmospheres full of poisonous gas, smaller Neptune-like planets, and even some Earth-sized ones have been found. We now know that there are countless planets in the universe.

Of course everyone wants to find out if there is life on other planets, but space is very big, almost entirely empty, and if there is life somewhere, it's not going to be easy for us to go there. The reality is that we’re a long way from Star Trek-like transportation. Astronomy gives you a sense of perspective. We are here on this planet, and we are not leaving anytime soon. If you spend time looking into the Universe, you quickly realize that most everywhere is inhospitable in the extreme: filled with poisonous gases or hard vacuum, too cold, blasted by radiation, or too hot. All this makes Earth such a valuable place, such an amazing place. When we look at the Earth from space, it looks so peaceful and calm from up there. I wish we could learn to all live there, peacefully.

Celine: "Amen" Do you think there is a correlation between being exposed to these kinds of magnificent beautiful images and our mood? Do they make us more optimistic?

Amy: Images have tremendous power to shape our thoughts and feelings. As basic tools of science, imagery helps us to understand some of the fundamental questions about our world that science gives us a framework to answer. Finding answers gives people a sense of certainty and comfort.

The power of images of the natural world is that they can inspire people to care about it. The more you learn about something, whether it’s stars or plants or animals, the more you love it. Of course that means you’re upset when you see it being destroyed because of lack of care. Learning makes you feel more appreciative that what’s around us in nature is irreplaceable. 


Celine: What is happiness to you?

Amy: One aspect of happiness is learning about the world around us. The joy of learning makes me happy, but how that knowledge is applied is even more important.

Celine: What would be your words of wisdom to young girls wanting to go into this field?

Amy: Science is for everyone, and I love being a scientist. It makes me very happy. Working to understand nature gives you a lot of freedom in answering questions and affecting the world around you. Science benefits from having a lot of different people solving all different types of problems in many ways. We need everyone's brains to solve humanity’s toughest challenges.


Filed under: science life