TAEM Interview with Dr. Mark R. Morris of UCLA

Prof. Mark Morris

Prof. Mark Morris

TAEM- The Arts and Entertainment Magazine had recently added a Science section to our publication to add to the subjects that interests many of the college students who follow our magazine. In addition to the articles produced from George Mason University, who became first to offer interviews and articles, we will present articles from USC and UCLA in this issue.

We are highly honored to present Dr. Mark R. Morris of UCLA to all our readers. Dr. Morris, please tell our readers about your educational background.

MRM- Hello, I’m happy to tell you and your readers about my work.  I was trained in physics through my PhD, first at the University of California at Riverside for my BA, and then at the University of Chicago.  Although I had a few courses in astrophysics, I learned most of what I know about astronomy “on the streets”, or simply by reading, or by being assigned to teach it. 

TAEM- What is the field of science that you teach at UCLA, and what do you enjoy teaching?

MRM- I’ve taught astronomy courses at all levels, from the big General Education courses – my favorite is “Life in the Universe” – to graduate core courses in astrophysics.  I’ve enjoyed trying to turn students on to understanding our place in the universe – how we got here, the future fate of our planet, the notion that what happened here to give rise to our benign planet could happen anywhere in the cosmos, so we should really wonder what other life forms might be out there.  And if we were ever to come across life forms that have reached a stage that we would regard as “intelligent”, it would be interesting to learn what survival strategies they adopted as they were on the verge of overrunning their planetary ecosystems, as we seem determined to do.

TAEM- You have a number of interests within this field, the first being The Galactic Center. Tell us about your interest with this.

MRM- The Center of our Milky Way Galaxy is a place of extremes.  For every star in our nighttime sky, for example, there would be a million for someone looking up from a planet near the Galactic center.  So stars are packed quite close together.  Then, there’s that supermassive black hole that is sitting in there, relatively quiet for now, but occasionally producing a dramatic outpouring of energy.  Our UCLA Galactic center group been use the Keck Telescopes in Hawaii to follow its activity for the last 17 years, watching not only the fluctuating emission from the black hole, but also watching the stars around it as they rapidly orbit the black hole.  Eventually, these orbits will provide a test of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

The other thing that is fascinating about the Galactic center is what the gas is doing.  There’s a giant reservoir of interstellar gas there that occasionally forms very massive clusters of stars, some of which have formed quite recently.  The massive stars in the clusters are destined to explode as violent supernovae, and the remnants of these explosions can be observed stirring up the central cauldron of dense gas.

TAEM- Bipolar Nebulae is another topic that you deal with. What research have you worked on with this subject and tell our readers about its importance.

MRM- When stars like the sun reach the end of their lifetimes, they undergo a sequence of curious phenomena.  It is well known that they swell up to become red giant stars, and then expel their atmospheres in a strong superwind, eventually exposing their hot cores which subsequently cool to become tiny white dwarf stars.  But along the way, most of these transitional objects go through an episode in which they eject matter in two opposite directions, creating bipolar nebulae.  Sometimes, the ejections even take the form of jets.  While we have hatched various ideas for why this happens, it is not really well understood yet.  But this phenomenon is likely to be central to understanding how and why red giant stars expel their atmospheres, and what is taking place internally in their interiors.  So we are trying to peer as close to the surfaces of these stars as possible to see what is happening in detail.  For this we use the Hubble Space Telescope and radio telescopes such as the Very Large Array in New Mexico.  Soon, we hope to use the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile for this.  This amazing telescope is nearing completion, and will offer a powerful means of probing this phenomenon.

TAEM- My own interests lay with the Orion Nebula. How does your study of Protoplanetary Disks pertain to this subject and what tools have you used in its research?

Image credit: Dan Birchall
Subaru Observation System Associate
National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

MRM- Because the Orion Nebula is relatively close, it offers a unique opportunity for astronomers to study a region of massive star formation.  This famous nebula, which can be seen with the naked eye, is powered by the tremendous outpouring of ultraviolet radiation from a cluster of massive stars.  Also, there is a giant cloud of molecular gas behind the nebula that is forming new stars.  The embryonic protostars that are rapidly forming there are buried inside the dusty cloud out of which they are forming, so they can’t be seen with visible light, but they can be studied with radio and infrared telescopes.  We recently took an infrared image of the most active site of star formation with one of the Keck Telescopes that shows, for the first time, the surface of a swirling disk of gas and dust around a massive protostar.  Combined with previous radio observations of the imbedded protostar and its immediate environment, we are able to start putting together a nice picture of this star formation in progress.  Massive protostars are rare, and the formation process for massive stars is rapid (astronomically speaking, of course… it takes tens of thousands of years), so capturing a nearby one in the act is really quite exciting.

TAEM- Please tell us about the scientific project known as SOFIA and your involvement with it.

MRM-  SOFIA is the acronym for the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, which is a Boeing 747-SP aircraft (a short version that has not been built for some time) that has been reconstructed with a telescope in the fuselage so that observations can be made at high altitudes.  Because the atmosphere absorbs a great deal of infrared radiation coming in from the cosmos, SOFIA flies at 37,000 – 45,000 feet so that it can minimize that blockage and observe the infrared sky at wavelengths where it is not possible from the ground.  SOFIA is a NASA-sponsored mission, and the science operations are carried out by the Universities Space Research Association.  The aircraft is stationed at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California.  Interested readers can learn a lot more at http://www.sofia.usra.edu.

I contributed to some of the planning and development in the early stages of SOFIA, starting in about 1995.  And I have been privileged to participate in some of the early science with SOFIA, including a mid-infrared observation of the Orion Nebula that showed where in the cloud much of the luminous energy is being produced by buried, massive stars.  Lately, I have been working with a group at Cornell University on the first SOFIA observations of the Galactic center.  Those results will be announced in the second week of January in a press conference at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, CA.

TAEM- You were recently seen on The Science Channel please tell our readers about this event and the subject matter that you dealt with.

MRM-  It was the History Channel, and I contributed to two shows, but that was long enough ago now that it is perhaps not worth discussing.  The two shows were on our Milky Way Galaxy and on “Cosmic Holes”.

TAEM- What team research are some of your UCLA students involved with, and tell us of its importance to science, and what future research projects are you contemplating.

MRM- One of my students is using radiotelescopes to study molecules in interstellar clouds.  She is concentrating largely on ammonia, which can be used as a thermometer for the clouds where it is observed.  Her work involves understanding chemistry, and it informs our understanding of how such clouds can form new stars.   Another student is using powerful computers to make numerical models of the dynamics of interstellar gas near the Galactic center.  The ultimate goal of his work is to figure out how the central black hole is fed, and therefore how fast its mass increases with time.  Since most galaxies seem to have large, central black holes, his research will hopefully contribute to our understanding of how they have grown to their present masses.  It is becoming increasingly appreciated that the energy coming out of such supermassive black holes plays a strong role in determining how a galaxy evolves.

TAEM- Recently another media outlet reported that NASA seems to be ‘Lost In Space’, and that they have no set plans for further space exploration. The report stated that they are looking for guidance from the government and the public in order to set a course for this. What efforts can you, and your University’s students, offer to assist them ?

MRM- NASA is fully engaged with some exciting scientific projects, one of the most notable being the James Webb Space Telescope, now set to launch in 2018.  Another is the Kepler mission, which continues to discover new planets.  Also, we shouldn’t forget SOFIA and the very productive Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, all of which I am thrilled to use in my research.  And there are many other amazing projects under way; just have a look at the pictures being sent back from the Curiosity rover on Mars: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/index.html .  Government budget tightening in recent years has definitely put a crimp in NASA’s plans, so some projects have been prolonged and others cancelled.  It is obviously very hard to plan an ambitious future program when the budget is so severely limited, so we do have to hope for a more propitious fiscal climate down the road.  That said, congress needs to know that the public continues to care about what NASA is doing.  So our job, and that of our students, is to show people just how exciting the science coming back from the myriad missions actually is.  We need to tell the story loud and clear of what it all means, and why folks should want to spend a few dollars more in tax money to take the next steps and learn yet more about our origins, about the structure of the universe around us, and where all of us on Spaceship Earth are going from here.

TAEM- This publication is looking to generate a ‘grass roots movement’ to provide support and guidance for NASA. Would you, and UCLA, like to be involved with it ?

MRM- A movement to generate public, and thus political, support for NASA would be a great things that I would be happy to help promote.  I can’t speak for UCLA, but I’m sure that numerous colleagues in multiple departments on campus would feel the same way.  In terms of guidance, there is a spectrum of opinion on whether NASA should prioritize manned missions to bodies within our own solar system, or rather much cheaper robotic probes and satellites that can explore places where it is still impractical to send humans, or can peer deeply into the universe.  Scientists generally favor unmanned activities, while a segment of the public is more inspired by seeing human feet on the ground of whatever celestial body can be reached.  The debate over how to spend NASA’s money will go on, but it would be important to keep the pubic involved and expressing what they would like to see.

TAEM- Dr. Morris, it has been an extreme honor to have you interview with our magazine, and I know that the many students who follow our publication have gained much knowledge from what we have talked about. We hope that you can share this interview with your colleagues at UCLA and all the colleges students. Feel free to reprint this article with our magazine’s links with your school. We also hope that we can print more articles from your school’s various classes in the near future.


MRM –  Thank you.  My pleasure.