Everybody's Gone To The Rapture: Interview with Katherine Collins

To mark the fifth anniversary of Everybody's Gone To The Rapture the developers of the game The Chinese Room are re-releasing some of the archived blog posts that coincided with the release of this award-winning title.

To mark the fifth anniversary of Everybody's Gone To The Rapture the developers of the game The Chinese Room are re-releasing some of the archived blog posts that coincided with the release of this award-winning title.

The following text was first published in summer 2015 on a now defunct 

Authored by the Creative Director of The Chinese Room Dan Pinchbeck 




You’re listening to LA Transit Radio, I’m Bob Maywood and this is Science Hour, where over the next couple of weeks we’re lucky enough to be joined by two of our most prominent researchers from the School of Physics and Astronomy right here at the University of Eastern Los Angeles. They are here to talk about some of the key issues and ideas in their field. As you probably already know, the School has garnered international attention for recent research work, and these two rising stars have been right at the centre of that.

This week, we’re joined by Doctor Katherine Collins, who heads up the Deep Light Radioscopy research group in the school – and if, like me, you have no idea what that means, then buckle up and get ready for a ride that is literally out of this world.

BM: Dr Collins, first up thanks for joining us. You’re a theoretical astrophysicist - so for our listeners who may not be scientists, can you tell us what that means?

KC: It’s a branch of cosmology that is really concerned with things we can’t access through normal observation or experiments.

BM: Whoa there Doc! Let me get this straight, so you’re saying it’s basically all about stuff we don’t even know exists?

KC (laughs): Kind of, I guess, yeah. So there’s things in the Universe it’s easy to see, hear, observe, record – like the moon, say, or another planet in our solar system. And from what we’ve observed, we’ve developed theories, models – the rules you’d need in order for this stuff to be what it is. From that, you can see that this other stuff must exist if you follow those rules – it’s just it’s much more difficult to observe.

BM: So it’s guesswork?

KC: Educated guesswork. Highly educated guesswork. And remember that a lot of the things we take for granted began that way. Einstein was a theorist.

BM: So do you get to look at a lot of stars? How do you do that?

KC: The actual looking at stars is only part of the picture. We’re also using more modern techniques like radio telescopy.

BM: What’s a radio telescope – it sounds very different to the normal kind our listeners may be used to?

At root, they are actually very similar to a conventional radio. On your radio, you have an antenna, and it picks up radio signals. A radio telescope is really just the same, only it’s pointed out in space and it’s picking up radio waves from there. The sun, for example, emits a lot of radio waves, and so do other stars and lots of different types of objects. It’s a different kind of data, but it means we can find out about things that you can’t see using a conventional, optical telescope.

BM: So I guess we should ask the big questions – just how old is the Universe, and how do you go about figuring something like that out?

KC: Well, according to our current models, we’d put the age of the Universe at somewhere around 12 billion years old. The way we work it out is from the Big Bang – there’s a thing called Cosmic Background Radiation, which you can think of like an echo from the Big Bang. We’ve measured how much background radiation there is, and we can work backwards from that to the event. So the existence of this radiation is strong evidence that there was a Big Bang and also gives us clues as to when it happened. That’s a really good example of theoretical astrophysics – we can’t observe the Big Bang but we can build a theoretical model of it from the evidence we do have.

BM: And the Big Bang- can you explain that? Does that mean you’re looking for a place and time where everything kicked off?

KC: Time, yes, place no. The Big Bang happened everywhere simultaneously. It’s hard to explain that without getting very technical.

BM: I’ll trust you on that one then! Now, as most of our listeners know, our sun is also a star. Is it a typical star? Are there many types?

KC: Plenty – so our sun is a G-class star, a yellow star, somewhere in the middle of the range in terms of size and brightness. It’s a baby next to the big ones though, you can get hypergiants which are hundreds of times larger than our sun and much more bright, and then you’ve got dwarf stars which are comparatively tiny and dull – red and brown dwarfs. Stars vary in size and luminosity as they age as well, with some eventually going supernova or exploding, others getting smaller and smaller and more and more dense until they end up compacted into something like a neutron star. Imagine something with the mass of our sun, but only a few miles across.

BM: That sounds pretty exotic! What other weird stuff gets your attention?

KC: The Universe is full of amazing things – it’s one of the reasons I love doing what I do. There’s a type of neutron star called a pulsar, which spins around like a lighthouse, so it’s like a blinking light out there in space. You can get binary star systems, when two stars orbit together, or stellar streams, or there’s even some scientists talking about stars that travel so fast they can escape the gravitational pull of galaxies, although we’re going to have to wait and see about that one. Then if you want to get really weird, you’ve got dark matter, strings and branes – and then you are into multiple universes and eleven-dimensional topology and the fun really starts.

BM: Mind-blowing stuff. I guess a field like astrophysics moves pretty fast – what do you think is going to happen in the future? What’s the next big discovery?

KC: I think if we knew that, then astrophysics would be a whole lot easier! There’s so many different angles to it at the moment, it’s hard to know where it’s all going. Personally, I’ve been always been involved in what’s called superstring theory. It’s pretty exciting, there’ve always been problems with quantum anomalies in the field, but there’s a new wave of research coming out that’s getting us past that. For a theoretical physicist, that’s incredibly exciting.

BM: Well, I don’t understand a word of that, but the idea we live in a universe made of string is just plain amazing. After this track, we’re going to move on to talk in more detail about some of those exciting ideas Dr Collins started talking about. So if you want to know your white dwarfs from your quasars, keep listening. And to get you into a cosmic frame of mind, our first track tonight is from the incomparable Pink Floyd – so lie back, close your eyes and get ready for a flight into the stars…






BM: Welcome back to the show. I’m joined by Dr Stephen Appleton, a Brit who joined the University as a doctoral student but is now a senior technician at the Radioscopy Unit and whose latest paper, titled Approaches to Empirical Observations of Superdensity and Singularities, left me… well, let’s just say I think I understood about seven words in the whole thing! Dr Appleton, welcome to the show.

SA: Nice to be here Bob.

BM: Dr Appleton, last week we spoke to your colleague – she was your PhD mentor, is that right? – Dr Katherine Collins. You two are married as well? Is that strange?

SA: We’re a team, professionally as well as personally. I don’t think that’s relevant though. I thought you’d want to talk about astrophysics not my personal life.

BM: My apologies. Let’s get right into it then! Last week, Dr Collins was telling us all about black holes – that’s your area of expertise as well, right?

SA: In a way yes. I study extreme forms of cosmological objects that tend towards singularity. My work deals with how we move from theory to practical observation and study of these kinds of objects.

BM: So what’s a singularity – is this different to a black hole?

SA: A black hole is a kind of singularity, a gravitational singularity. The concept isn’t just cosmological though, you can have singularities in other areas of study, notably mathematics. The core idea is one of limitless mass, which creates a superdense object that may or may not be classified as a black hole. Mostly this stuff has always been theoretical. You predict the properties of a singularity because you can’t get at it experimentally. That’s where I come in.

BM: You recently published a paper about what you call the Penrose region of black holes. We probably all saw the Disney movie, but can you explain what a black hole actually is?

SA: Well, it’s just like I said. A black hole is an object so dense it bends spacetime in such an extreme way that light cannot escape it. That doesn’t mean it’s a singularity as it might not actually be infinite, it’s just that we can’t tell experimentally if it’s actually infinitely dense or just that the deformation of spacetime is so extreme we can’t see its limits.

BM: Are you saying it can actually trap light? So what would we find at the centre? Would it be possible to travel there or live there?

SA: That’s not a valid question. As you pass the event horizon, whether it’s a singularity or not, matter gets stretched to a line that approaches infinity in temporal as well as spatial dimensions. So concepts such as travel and life simply don’t have meaning, just as the laws of physics we take for granted start to break down at the quantal level. Ideas like ‘centre’, ‘travel’ or ‘live’ are just not relevant. And like I said, it’s not like we can experimentally get anywhere close. I’m working on a way of being able to get empirical data from further into the spacetime distortion of singularities than we’ve managed before. If my calculations are correct, we might be able to peer behind the curtain, even just a little.  

BM: Your current research then is all about trying to find a black hole and study it in more detail. So are you telling me we’ve never actually seen one of these things?

SA: Yes, that’s right. So far it’s only theoretical.

BM: But you can predict where they are?

SA: Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying.

BM: And that means, I guess, you can use one of your telescopes to actually take a closer look, so to speak?

SA: Yes, exactly. Well, not exactly, that’s a gross simplification. That’s more Disney than science. But essentially, yes.

BM: Dr Collins has been critical of this idea in the past. Does that cause you problems as a married couple?

SA: Listen, we’re scientists. We’re grown-up enough to have a healthy debate about our work without it being a problem in our marriage. Kate is a theorist, she works in ideal forms, in maths and then applies it outwards. I’m an empiricist. For me it’s about what you can actually do – get the data and derive the theory from there. Kate calls it hands-dirty science, she thinks what she does is a purer form. But for me, empiricism is practical, it’s about the world we live in, not some idealised form.

BM: You’re leaving us shortly to head back to England, is that right?

SA: Yes, that’s right.

BM: Why England?

SA: We’re predicting an alignment of some key cosmological events in a few months, sometime in June, and basically, LA is going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can’t pass up an opportunity like this, so Kate and I will be based at a radio observatory in England for the summer, and then probably the rest of the year as well as we collate and examine the data.

BM: Well, we hope you can make it back one day to tell us more about it – and the very best of luck with your research. Another break for some music now, after which we’ll be talking to both Dr Appleton and Dr Collins in the final part of our interview. This is Bob Maywood, this is Science Hour – and these are the cosmic riffs of Deep Purple…






BM: In our final interview with astrophysicists Katherine Collins and Stephen Appleton we take a voyage into the unknown, a talk about the possibility of living on other worlds and – the million dollar question – whether we’re all alone in this Universe.

BM: So I guess Dr Collins, the first question for you – do you think we’ll ever leave our home planet and colonise the galaxies.

KC: We’re going to have to. Not just yet, but in about 4 billion years the sun will swell and engulf the world, so we’d better be gone by then. Whether we can reach other galaxies… that’s more difficult. You have to get your head around the sheer distances involved. You can’t move faster than light, and it takes light over four years to get here from Proxima Centauri, our closest neighboring star – and that’s travelling at nearly two hundred thousand miles each second. If you were travelling at the same speed as Apollo when it went to the moon, it’d take you nearly a million years. Galaxies, let’s see, well Andromeda is two and a half million light years away. That’s a long flight! So I’d say it’s a tall order, but then four billion years is a long time to figure that one out.

BM: And what about other life – what about someone reaching us? Isn’t it possible that an alien race with some kind of advanced science might be able to cross those distances?

SA: No

KC: Yes

(They laugh)

SA: It’s entirely possible that life exists out there, but intelligent life is a completely different thing.

KC: There’s a famous problem called Fermi’s Paradox. It basically says that the Universe is so big, it’s hard to believe that intelligent life hasn’t evolved someone out there. Assuming they have, then like us they’d probably try and find other life, and they’d also be emitting signals – our radio and TV signals are already out there and expanding – so why haven’t we heard from them?

SA: Because they don’t exist

KC: Right, but that’s the paradox – it’s inconceivable in a near infinite volume, statistically speaking, that they don’t. But this is where you have to factor in time. When we look at the universe, we’re looking back in time, right? So they may exist, but we may never hear them because their signals haven’t reached us yet.

SA: So for argument’s sake, if there are little green men –

KC: Or women

SA: Or women, right, or women, broadcasting from Andromeda tonight, we wouldn’t get the signal for another two and a half million years.

KC: Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

BM: We talked last week about black holes with you Stephen. You said nothing, even light or time, could escape from a black hole. That sounds to me like they could be like huge cosmic bank vaults then, like giant libraries. Would it makes sense to go looking for signals there?

SA: I told you, nothing can escape from a black hole. Once you cross the event horizon, that’s it. There’s no coming out.

KC: Unless you are thinking about white holes. Theoretically, if black holes are connected to white holes, then you have an exit point.

SA: Theoretically. But it’s just speculation really.

KC: It’s a mathematically viable theory.

SA: Yes, it might be, but that doesn’t mean they actually exist.

BM: But what do you think life might be like if it existed in these amazing unknown regions. That’s a possibility, right? If you believe Fermi – and it would explain why we’ve never found it.

SA: That’s the stupidest idea I’ve heard all week.

KC (laughs): Well, it is a little far-fetched, but yes, it’s theoretically possible. But I’d have to say, to survive in such an environment it would have to be very alien. So alien that we might not even realise it was intelligent at all. We might not even recognize it as life. We’d have to redefine the term.

BM: So you’re not expecting any invitations to discuss science on an extra-terrestrial radio station broadcasting out of a black hole anytime soon then?

(They laugh)

KC: I won’t be giving up the day job, put it that way. But a good scientist should never close their mind off to anything until all of the evidence is in.

BM: Coming up next, we’ll be discussing the practical ways in which we’ve been listening for ET – the SETI project and the plans for a bold new initiative called META. But first, more space-inspired hits from the last two decades, and coming first is another Brit, the incomparable David Bowie…



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