Aliens Again!

We’ve got some awkward news to share, folks: The producer of Orbital Path is claiming he’s been abducted by space aliens.

So this week, we’re dusting off the theremin and returning to one of our favorite early episodes — “Must Be Aliens.”

Dr. Michelle Thaller talks with Phil Plait — AKA the “Bad Astronomer” — about the Kepler mission to find planets circling other stars … and why we humans are so quick to ascribe the unknowns of the cosmos to aliens.

In the two years since this episode was originally produced, however, the universe has not stood still. So Michelle has an update on the Kepler project — and a discovery that, once upon a time, had certain astronomers murmuring the “A” word.

Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. “Must be Aliens” episode produced by Lauren Ober. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

Time and Space in the Kingdom of Bhutan

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan avidly guards its traditional culture. Bhutan is a nation that — instead of looking to GDP or debt ratios — measures success by an index of “Gross National Happiness.”

In this episode of Orbital Path, Dr. Michelle Thaller describes her recent adventures in Bhutan — including a climb to a Buddhist monastery perched on the face of a cliff. In that rarefied air, Michelle was confronted by a link between the thinking of contemporary astrophysicists and old-school Bhutanese monks: a challenging concept of Time.


Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.


Photo credit: Michelle Thaller

The 11 Dimensions of Brian Greene

We live our lives in three dimensions. But we also walk those three dimensions along a fourth dimension: time.



Our world makes sense thanks to mathematics. Math lets us count our livestock, it lets us navigate our journeys. Mathematics has also proved an uncanny, stunningly accurate guide to what Brian Greene calls “the dark corners of reality.”



But what happens when math takes us far, far beyond what we — as humans — are equipped to perceive with our senses?  What does it mean when mathematics tells us, in no uncertain terms, that the world exists not in three, not in four — but in no fewer than eleven dimensions?



In this episode of Orbital Path, Brian Greene, director of Columbia’s Center for Theoretical Physics and a celebrated explainer of how our universe operates, sits down to talk with Dr. Michelle Thaller. Together they dig into the question of how we — as three-dimensional creatures — can come to terms with all those extra dimensions all around us. 


Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.



Photo credit: World Science Festival / Greg Kessler.


For more, visit briangreene.org

Minisode 5: Scary Math

In a scary time, in a scary world, in a scary universe, NASA astronomer Andrew Booth says one of the things that frightens him most is math.

Specifically, the power of mathematics to describe the universe.

That’s because, beyond the comforting world of Newtonian physics, math gets mind-bendingly weird. So from the relative safety of their backyard hot tub, Dr. Michelle Thaller and Booth (who happen to be married) try to sort out what it really means to live not in just three dimensions, but in eleven — as mathematics now tells us we do.

Join us in the hot tub as we turn on the jets, get wet, and weird…and just a little freaked out.

Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

Photo: To see Michelle and Andrew in hot tub please use dimension 5.

Episode 22: Journey to the Sun

Locked up on the Greek island of Crete, Icarus and his dad made wings out of  beeswax and bird feathers. They soared to freedom — but Icarus got cocky, flew too close to the sun, and fell into the sea. 

A few thousand years later, NASA is ready to do the job right.

The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to fly in 2018. The spacecraft has a giant heat shield, tested to withstand 2,500-degree temperatures.

For something so basic to all of our lives — and fundamental to the science of astronomy — the sun remains surprisingly mysterious. To learn more, Michelle meets up with Nicky Viall, a NASA heliophysicist working on the mission. She describes how direct measurements of the sun’s super-hot plasma, and solar wind, may dramatically enhance our understanding of the star at the center of our lives.



Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

Photo credit: NASA

Minisode 4: Hot Tub Physics!

After a full day in a clean suit, there’s nothing like …
a dip in the hot tub.

NASA astronomer Andrew Booth spends his days working with lasers, developing some of the word’s most advanced telescopes. When he gets home from work, he loves to pour a glass of wine and slip into the hot tub.

And ponder some of the weirder aspects of astrophysics.

Orbital Path host Dr. Michelle Thaller (who happens to be married to Booth) rather avidly shares this enthusiasm.

For Orbital Path’s first adventure in Hot Tub Physics, the topic is: The weirdness of light. And something called interferometry. And telescopes that don’t work unless a single particle of light can be two places at exactly the same time.

Which raises the question: Are we living in a parallel universe?

Join us in the hot tub as we get wet and weird (the water’s just fine)!

Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

(You didn’t really expect a NASA photo this time, did you?)

Episode 21: First Light

There was a time before planets and suns. A time before oxygen. You could say there was time, even, before what we think of as light.

Back in 1989, the Big Bang theory was still in question. But that year, a NASA team led by cosmologist John Mather launched a mission to probe the earliest moments of the universe.

Mather won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). This work dramatically confirmed the Big Bang theory — and, as part of it, Mather and his team took a picture of the very first light escaping into our universe.

In this episode, Dr. Thaller visits Mather to talk about these discoveries, which transformed scientific understanding of the universe. We also hear about Mather’s current project: an orbiting space telescope twice the size of the Hubble. It promises to capture the first light of galaxies and stars, and even distant planets not unlike our own.

Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

Photo credit: NASA

For more, here’s a vintage 1989 video on the COBE project.

Episode 20: Holy Sheet!

NASA is relying on hi-tech lasers — and some vintage U.S. Navy hand-me-downs — to learn about the polar regions of a remarkable, watery planet. It’s located in the Orion spur of our galaxy. NASA scientists have detected mountain ranges completely under ice. But the remaining mysteries of the ice here are profound, and what the science tells us could have dramatic impact on human life.

In this episode, Dr. Thaller visits with two key members of NASA’s IceBridge mission — Christy Hansen, Airborne Sciences Manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and Joe MacGregor, Deputy Project Scientist for Operation IceBridge.

Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman and edited by Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler. Hosted by Michelle Thaller.

Photo credit: NASA