In How to Die in Space (Pegasus, June.), Stony Brook professor Sutter humorously explores outer space perils.
You make a pretty sound argument for staying put.
In general, yes. But Mother Nature is always coming up with creative ways to kill us, even when we’re right here on Earth. You can just ask the dinosaurs.
Would you say humanity’s two biggest vulnerabilities in space are gravity and magnetic fields?
Actually, I’d say the biggest vulnerability is to large objects moving at incredible speeds. Magnetic fields are the surprising danger lurking in every corner of the cosmos.
Everyone is familiar with asteroids, but we have to worry about space dust, too?
Yeah! Even micro-meterorites. It’s not going to be pretty if something traveling at tens of thousands of miles per hour hits you, even if it’s as tiny as a grain of dust.
Black holes are the perennial mystery box. We don’t fully understand them. They’re places where, once you’ve crossed the boundary, you can never, ever come back into the universe again. That’s just begging for exploration.
What would you say is the average person’s biggest misconception about space?
There are two. One is that people think space is easy to travel through. You get in the spaceship and fall asleep, then wake up in a new star system. No. You fall asleep and 10,000 years later you’re in a new star system. The other misconception is just how dynamic space is. We look at the night sky and we think it’s fixed. It’s firm. It doesn’t change. It’s ageless. The universe is a living, breathing creature that changes much faster than we do.
Did anything surprise you in your research?
I wasn’t aware of how hard physicists have been trying to understand wormholes and make them work conceptually for the past 40 years. If physicists couldn’t come up with the simplest explanation for how wormholes work, you would expect that they would just give up and move on to other, more interesting problems. But every few years a paper comes out that really, really tries to make wormholes work this time.
Given your knowledge of space, do you have a hard time watching science fiction movies?
I’m not thinking about grading homework when I’m watching movies. I shut off that part of my brain and enjoy the show. But right now I’m watching The Expanse on Amazon, and a lot of the science is pretty legit. I have to admit that makes it a little more enjoyable to watch.