Science Educator and Astrobiologist
Photograph courtesy British Council Hong Kong
Brendan Mullan explores innovative ways to communicate astronomy to the public and inspire a new generation of scientists. He won the 2012 U.S. FameLab competition and is a recent Ph.D. graduate from Penn State, where he teaches and develops curriculum for astronomy courses.
Brendan Mullan thinks scientists should reach out—to schoolchildren, college undergraduates, folks in the neighborhood, curious Web browsers, and everyone in between. His research tackles some of astrobiology’s most complex questions, but his public outreach efforts bring astronomy and astrobiology out of the ivory tower to make science more accessible, engaging, and entertaining.
“Astronomy is like the gateway drug of the sciences,” says Mullan. “Many people are already fascinated by the night sky, space missions, and colorful photos of planets, galaxies, and swirling clouds of interstellar gas. Human beings fundamentally want to connect with some cosmic context greater than themselves. I want to give them that chance.”
He believes that inspiring this new generation of scientists is crucial. “The 21st-century problems we face—climate change, sustainability, disease, you name it—can only be ameliorated with 21st-century ideas, aka science.”
Mullan’s distinctive flair for communicating science made him the 2012 U.S. winner of FameLab. The prestigious global competition encourages scientists to communicate their work to society as a whole in more effective and universally understandable ways. FameLab competitors must explain complex topics in just three minutes. Mullan caught the attention of the judges with quirky analogies blending pop culture and pure science. He compared gamma ray photons to fraternity brothers hurtling toward a party, giving cosmic fist bumps that turn energy into mass, and explained the absence of aliens around us through the perspective of a disappointed realtor trying to sell the Earth.
“The real winner at FameLab is science. It made me very optimistic about the future to see so many amazing people invested in science education,” Mullan says.
“We need to battle the stereotype that science is nerdy, boring, and not relevant to people’s lives. I’m glad to see astronomers and science communicators using Twitter and other social media to more directly engage with people.”
Mullan's blog posts for NASA celebrated the Curiosity rover as it landed, saying, “The first grainy, hazy, low-resolution thumbnails are coming in and they’re the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen. Pack your bags. We’ve got a long exciting journey ahead of us on the Red Planet.”
Mullan puts his passion into action at Pennsylvania State University. He is developing a course that challenges undergraduate students to consider issues like sustainability and humanity’s long-term survival via stories about a future universe where those problems are pushed to the extreme. The astrobiology summer camp he leads lets middle school kids perform experiments to look for life on distant worlds, hunt for planets around other stars, and try to figure out why we haven’t been contacted by aliens.
“I try to bring in guest stars to reflect how diverse the scientific community really is—men and women of all ages and ethnicities—not just a bunch of white guys with beards," he says. "From sliding on 3-D glasses for a tour of our Milky Way galaxy to playing games that show how habitable planets are formed, the kids really respond.”
Outreach efforts at Penn State also include a four-night AstroFest that lures the public to stargaze through rooftop telescopes, enjoy planetarium shows, make their own comets and craters, check out cloud chambers and gravity gyms, and operate real-world astronomy tools.
Mullan’s academic research is considerably more complex than planetarium and 3-D shows. He studies how stars form in the interstellar wreckage of colliding galaxies. Another project sends him hunting for alien civilizations, testing an idea that advanced beings might efficiently harness the energy of distant suns for power, causing their home galaxy to appear dim in optical light but shine brightly in infrared. He helps other astronomers pore over infrared surveys of galaxies to identify any anomalies (in galactic glow).
“With trillions of worlds in each galaxy, one might think there should be at least one civilization out there among the millions of galaxies we’re looking at that can spread out and use all that free energy. We’re taking a first step toward finding things that don’t look quite right, things we should continue to observe to see if they are artificial in nature.”
Mullan's had stars in his eyes since he was ten years old. “I went on a school field trip to a planetarium. The lights dimmed, all these bright pinpoints appeared overhead, and I learned about how stars are born, evolve, and die; the mystery of black holes; violent supernovae explosions. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world and decided right there I wanted to know how it all works. I was so fortunate to have access to resources like that; I want to pay it forward to the next generation. What could be more fun and meaningful than sharing the majesty of the cosmos with everyone?”
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If we can get people excited about astronomy, they’ll use that passion to become not just astronomers, but the innovative biologists, chemists, physicists, and engineers that build the foundations of our modern society.
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