Minding the Gap of Knowledge
Sharing the knowledge of scholars (e.g.; astrophysicists) with non-scholars is difficult. Astrophysics scholars have spent years obtaining a foundational understanding of the dynamics of our universe that is not obviously known to the public. They also have a working knowledge of special terms, acronyms, and highly cited authors. This creates a chasm with scholars on one side, who are advancing human knowledge, and non-scholars on the other side, unaware of the progress and activities of those in the field.
As scholars tend to be focused on their work and the work of their peers, it is rare to have a scholar attempt to bridge the chasm and help non-scholars have access to the secrets that have been uncovered and the challenges to be overcome.
Dr. Rebecca Smethurst, or Dr. Becky as she is known on her YouTube channel, is one of those rare scholars who is diligently immersed in sharing new knowledge and discoveries in astrophysics with the public as she actively participates in furthering our understanding of it. In her new book, Space: 10 Things You Should Know, (2019) Dr. Smethurst continues to inform and enlighten us about what humans know and don’t know about the development of galaxies and the stars within them.
Review – Space: 10 Things You Should Know
Category: Nonfiction, Science, Non-Textbook
UK/Europe Release: 5 September 2019 by Seven Dials Publishing
North America Release: Summer 2020 by Ten Speed Press
[Formats: Hardcover, Audio]
Dr. Smethurst has written multiple scholarly articles; however, this is her first book. It is a short, easy-to-read work of 10 chapters. Each chapter reveals information about our universe that may not be part of public awareness.
The book is written in conversational language, not scholar-speak. It provides a basic knowledge of what we know about the formation of the universe, galaxies, and planets (including the Earth.) Amateur astronomers likely know most of this information, but Dr. Smethurst provides nuggets of new information that make the book worthwhile to read.
She begins with a view of how gravity is critical to how the universe functions. Because her work deals with supermassive black holes, Dr. Smethurst discusses what we know about black holes and theories of how supermassive black holes impact the galaxy they’re located in.
Dr. Becky also discusses Dark Matter, why scientists believe it is real, and what it means in the grand scheme of the universe. Two other chapters talk about the hunt for planets outside of our solar system and the practicality and current limitations of human space travel.
This book could serve as a unit in a middle or high school science class, but it is just as functional as a broad-based survey of current astrophysics knowledge for adults who can read above a sixth-grade level. As a first book by a doctorate-level scholar for consumption by the general public, it is brilliant.
As one might expect with a book of this nature, the subject matter is fleeting. As Dr. Smethurst states in her preface, “…science moves quickly…” Though this is not a textbook, it encounters the same problem as most textbooks in that research and discovery move forward while the printed book remains unchanged.
My projection is that the half-life of this is about seven to ten years. After that, about half of the information will become less relevant as new discoveries push astrophysics forward. That said, this book is certainly not a wasted effort and the need to persevere with updated information is critical.
If this book were a second or third book by this author I would expect to see a more expansive book and more visually stimulating. Both Carl Sagan and Brian Cox have used television and print to ignite a passion for science in the minds of the public. Their books are filled with images that help the reader to see science as a living entity filled with wonder and adventure.
Dr. Becky uses imagery extensively on her YouTube channel so it is likely that we can expect future books to have a greater visual element.
Still, as a first book, coupled with her YouTube work, Dr. Smethurst has built an impressive bridge to reach out to the public. As an active researcher, she offers a unique opportunity for non-scholars to access scientific information from a knowledgeable source rather than the entertainment-based news media.
Dr. Rebecca Smethurst is the one to keep a telescopic eye on.
Dr. Becky’s Astrophysics Work
Understanding The Life and Times of a Galaxy
In the last 100 years, our ability to visualize the stars has vastly improved but the galaxies we see today have changed very little in the past 10,000 years. Changes in the shape and location of a galaxy take millions of years to occur so what astronomers see today isn’t that much different than what they could have seen thousands of years ago.
What astrophysicists do know is the relative age of a galaxy. When we image a galaxy that is ten million light-years away we are seeing how it looked ten million years ago. By using the relative age of a galaxy and the characteristics of that galaxy, astrophysicists can identify group traits of similar galaxies and begin to understand how galaxies develop and eventually die.
The work of Dr. Smethurst has been to increase our understanding of the role of a galaxy’s core black hole (supermassive black hole) in the development of a galaxy and of its ability to establish new generations of stars. The current theory is that as the galaxy matures the core supermassive black hole sucks much of the free hydrogen out of the galaxy. Without an adequate source of hydrogen, the fuel for the formation of new stars is depleted and the galaxy becomes inactive.
Dr. Smethurst’s Scholarly Astrophysics Linage
Dr. Smethurst’s advising faculty for her doctorate program was Dr. Chris Lintott. Since 2013, Dr. Lintott has been a co-presenter for the BBC’s enduring documentary astronomy television program, The Sky At Night and is a co-founder of Galaxy Zoo, an online crowdsourced project to engage the public in helping to categorize millions of galaxies for research purposes. Dr. Lintott’s advising faculty included the highly published and cited cosmologist Dr. Ofer Lahav.
Dr. Becky earned her Master’s degree in Physics with Astronomy at the University of Durham and her Doctorate degree in Astrophysics at the University of Oxford. Currently, she is a Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church College at Oxford University. Her focus is on studying galaxies and their interactions with their core supermassive black hole.
In 2014, [23 April 2014] Dr. Smethhurst was asked where she saw herself in five years. Her response was, “I’d look to reach the most amount of people as possible…to spread the word about the amazing things that people have no idea about.”
…to spread the word about the amazing things that people have no idea about…
Dr. Rebecca Smethurst – 23 April 2014
Dr. Becky Smethurst
Dr. Becky on:
Sample of co-authored published work:
- Galaxy Zoo: Evidence for Diverse Star Formation Histories through the Green Valley
- Galaxy Zoo: Evidence for rapid, recent quenching within a population of AGN host galaxies
- Galaxy Zoo: The interplay of quenching mechanisms in the group environment
- Supermassive black holes in disk-dominated galaxies outgrow their bulges and co-evolve with their host galaxies
- SDSS-IV MaNGA: The Different Quenching Histories of Fast and Slow Rotators
- SNITCH: Seeking a simple, informative star formation history inference tool
- Other published articles