Exploring the Cosmos to Find Health Equity

Today I want to talk about space. I love space. You’re wondering how that relates to health equity? Well, you’ll just have to hang in there with me.

I’ve always been captivated by the idea of space. What’s out there? What does it tell us about ourselves? We’re all stardust after all. I always day dreamed about going in to outer space. I’m an avid sci fi reader. I love pictures from our amazing space probes and telescopes. I get daily eblasts from NASA on my home email. Seriously. It’s bad over here in geek world! And while I think the whole question of intelligent life on other worlds is fascinating, it’s not exactly at the heart of my fascination. Although I’m with one of my favorite movie lines on this topic: “it’d be an awfully big waste of space” and as an adopted person with no personal sense of cultural heritage, I have often referred to outer space as where “my people” are. If you’re interested in new musings on extraterrestrial life, set a google search for KIC 8462852. I’m reasonable sure this is where Elon Musk’s tech is coming from.

Really I love the science and technology embedded in all things space – big and little - the quantum and particle physics, the cosmology, how we might survive in it, how things travel through it, the way it all seems to me to tell me something about my life in a way that I can’t quite articulate, it’s just off over the horizon of my inner peripheral vision…

Lately Harvard physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall has been popping up everywhere. She’s just published a new book with the tantalizing title Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe. She’s also been on all my favorite interview podcasts in the past two weeks: Tim Ferriss, Krista Tippitt, to name a couple, and Maria Popova, whose marvelous BrainPickings has been a favorite for some time (please consider supporting her to continue her work), wrote her very first New York Times Book Review on Randall’s book.

In the book, Randall proposes a new theory about dark matter having caused the meteor that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. What’s dark matter you say? Well, it’s basically like ordinary matter, all around us and in us but we simply cannot see it. It doesn’t interact with light. Scientists agree it exists and comprises 85% of the matter in the universe. We just can’t see it.

And being humans, if we can’t see it, it ain’t there, right? Well, maybe… more on that in a minute.

Think about this. 85% of all matter. All around us. Passing through both of us right now as I write, as you read. It’s in your coffee. It’s in my tea. It just doesn’t interact with light so we don’t see it. What is it doing? What’s going on? Don’t tell me you’re not intrigued and filled with fantastical ideas about what’s happening with 85% of the universe? If someone doesn’t write a great sci fi book based on this, well, I may have to just go on sabbatical and take up the charge.

In some of her interviews, Randall suggests we really should rename dark matter as “transparent matter.” Absolutely. I am so with her! #transparentmatter! Words and names matter. Even when we are talking about things so complex that using words at all is like using a hammer to split an atom. The words still matter. We are trying to accurately identify something in a way that we can share with each other and in the absence of telecommunication abilities, words are a key means of doing so. Words are a way we observe. Even that which we can’t otherwise literally observe.


Maybe the curiosity that killed the cat was the scientist’s?

Randall also said something I found deeply moving, in her interview with Krista Tippett on her wonderful On Being podcast. She said:

“that’s the beauty of science is that we can go beyond these prejudices, if you like, these intuitions that we have built on our ordinary everyday experience, and understand what’s going on in regimes that we don’t usually deal with. And that’s the beauty of mathematics. That’s the beauty of science [is] it allows us to think about things that seem obviously wrong. They’re not obviously wrong, they’re just not obvious to us.

And I think there’s just important lessons to be learned. I mean, I think we very often think that what’s obvious is correct, and forget that what’s obvious has to do with our senses, has to do with how we perceive the world. And it’s not just a lesson for science.

I'd say it’s also a lesson for social interactions, too. We’re familiar with our social groups and we forget that other people’s experiences are different. Or if we remember, we just find them unfathomably difficult to understand, as you would say. But they’re not unfathomably difficult, we just have to make a little bit more effort.”

So, as it turns out, I’d say Lisa Randall is also a crusader for health equity. Score one for space!

And just in case you’ve been thinking about whether little things matter and whether you can take a small action today and if it will have any effect, consider the idea of “spooky action at a distance,” it’s not just a fun name, it’s a fact!  #geeks4healthequity!

See you in space!