Professor Kenneth Lang talks stars, space and the unknown in upcoming book

Professor of Physics and Astronomy Kenneth Lang has not only worked on groundbreaking research on the sun for the last 20 years, but has also written prolifically. Lang is currently working on his 22nd book, “Star Struck,” which focuses on the movements of the universe and the role of faith in understanding it. The Daily sat down with Lang to discuss his research.

The Tufts Daily: So what kind of research are you working on right now?

Kenneth Lang: Mostly I write books. Lots and lots of books.

TD: Do you primarily teach classes and write books?

KL: For about 20 years I got more than $3 million of research grants here at Tufts to study the sun. So we used the largest radio telescope in the world in New Mexico to study how the sun explodes, how it sends out high energy particles to the space between the plants and the earth. And we studied that for about 20 years, both with a telescope on earth and in space.

But then you keep doing the research game [and] you realize that any of the research we all do is just a little drop in the bucket. Most of it is confined to the dust bins of history. That shouldn’t discourage you — every once and a while we see something totally unexpected. It’s worth doing because of that. But writing books can result in something that might have a longer and broader implication: more readers, and perhaps lasting decades longer than recent research.

TD: How did you get into publishing?

KL: My first book was this book called “Astrophysical Formulae” (1974) — two volumes that have been translated into Chinese and Russian, and the English version is used in Europe. But that’s about 2,000 formulae and several fundamental references to formulae over the centuries. So it’s a history of astrophysics with reference to original sources.

One of my motivations for that was that physicists often take credit for ideas that are not their own. They become rather pompous and self-important about their concepts. My motivation was to track down and see where these concepts originated, why they originated, and what were the … important papers that came before and after. So, at the time I was spending summers at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England. And that was a very good place to begin this work.

I wrote [“Astrophysical Formulae”] primarily because I was interested in learning all about all of astrophysics, and it is all about astrophysics. A spin-off of that: a few years later I met this guy on an airplane, a Harvard professor, and he knew about this astrophysical formula book — it had become pretty well know — and he knew history went into the book. So we decided together on the airplane to write another book. It’s [from] Harvard University Press on the history of contemporary astronomy, essentially.

TD: What kind of things have you written about?

KL: I’ve written about the sun, the planets, the solar system, astrophysics … the formula behind astrophysics, the equations that go into it. “The Life and Death of Stars” (2013) was my most recent book; it came out two years ago. Now I am working on one … first I called it “Cosmic Faith,” but now I call it “Star Struck.”

TD: What is the overall topic of “Star Struck?”

KL: I wanted to talk not only about the generation of ideas and their interdependence over the eons, but also the fact that the large number of the people who made those discoveries had strong faith and belief in God. Starting with Newton for example — the subtitle of the book is called “the lives, findings and beliefs of great astronomers.” So it … mixes not only these concepts, but it also [considers] what were these [people’s] lives? What were they like? What did they believe? Many had a strong belief in God.

TD: What kind of things are you talking about in “Star Struck?”

KW: Well, right now, today — this morning actually — I am writing a chapter called “Dark Places.” And it points out that the vast extent of space is dark. For example, if you go out in space and look down on earth, it’s dark. All you see is a few lights. And if you look out into the sky, the stars occupy an infinitesimal amount of the space out there.

The dark spaces between the stars account for most of what is there and it’s largely unknown — we don’t know [what’s] out there. Ninety-five percent of the universe we don’t know anything about except that it has a material counterpart, the mass counterpart, that we don’t know anything about. Not the kind of mass that we see — it’s invisible. There’s an energy called dark energy, which is propelling the expansion of the universe, which we don’t know anything about besides that it’s invisible and we see its consequences.

So astronomers are looking at things they don’t know about, like stars, and are inferring a much vaster quantity of energy that they know nothing about. And that’s what I’m writing about now. The whole section of that book is about movement. Everything moves. You moved to come in here. You get out of bed and moved this morning. The earth moves, it spins. Stars move. Galaxies move. There’s nothing we know about that doesn’t move. And so why they move is the big question. How they move is what astronomers study. They study the way that plants move around the sun, the way stars move around our galaxy, the way the galaxy is receding — expanding out from earth — they study how they move but when you get to the ultimate cause of why things move, we don’t know. Some say God’s responsible.

TD: How did you come up with the idea for the book?

KL: I was intrigued by things that moved. I wanted to integrate the picture of motion through the universe from the earth to stars to galaxies. The other thing that intrigued me was change. Everything changes, that’s the second part of the book. That starts with humans — they start out babies, then teenagers, then they get older. Everything on the earth changes and that’s of interest.

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