Astrophysicist Jeff Hester on The Poetry of Science, Hot Yoga, Bertrand Russell, and His Upcoming Visit to Changing Hands

Bearded nerd-bohemian Jeff Hester is a space case -- in the best possible way.

Dr. Hester started out at Rice University, getting first a degree in physics, followed by his Master's and PhD in Space Physics and Astronomy.

But it was when he signed on at California Institute of Technology in the 1980s that things got interesting. Hester was part of the team of scientists responsible for the first camera that flew on the Hubble telescope, resulting in some of NASA's most iconic images of deep space [above].

Hester came to Arizona State University in 1990, working as a professor in the Department of Physics for 20 years before taking early retirement at 51 years old.

After dabbling in guest lectures, textbook authoring, and commercial acting for Irish hard ciders, Hester returns to the public eye with Adventuresome Minds, a science conversation series in Tempe. 

After two successful nights at Studio Vino, the event arrives at Changing Hands Bookstore on April 11 with "From Big Bang to Big Brains," a program which Hester describes as equal parts physics and philosophy.

Here are just a few thoughts Hester explained when he sat down with Jackalope Ranch last week:

Why Conversation > Lecture for Learning Physics

"It's kind of like the difference between going and hearing a symphony or orchestra and going to a rock concert. Symphonies are fine, but what makes the rock concert fun, what makes it memorable, is that it's participatory. And people's brains do better when they're active. It's just more fun to be part of a conversation.

"[Adventuresome Minds] is bridging that gap. [...] You go see a science fiction, and I like science fiction movies too, [but] the reality of what's out there, the mind-blowing, head-spinning, philosophically daunting reality of what's really out there is accessible. It doesn't have to hide behind words. And what makes it fascinating is that it is accessible, that it is everyday, that it is related to our experiences."

On the Art of Science

"The poet says, 'You are stardust,' but that's not [just] poetry. That's literal truth. We're living in a universe that began in an event, The Big Bang, which had no cause. What does that mean? To say that the universe itself has no cause? That's a fascinating question to try to wrap your head around.

"If I tell you that my job is to look around me and look for patterns in the world that I think are meaningful and then to find a way to express those so that other people can see the meaning in them as well, am I scientist or am I an artist? Fundamentally, there is no difference...

"Internally ... science and art are the same damn thing. And one of the things I care about deeply is conveying that vision, giving people an understanding, letting them see those ideas about the universe [...and] showing them the beauty in that, the elegance."

On the Limitations of Physics, Even Today

"Isn't there a contradiction between, on the one hand, saying we know a tremendous amount, and on the other hand, acknowledging that there's a lot that we don't know?"

"Once you say you're certain, the game's over. You don't know a damn thing. It's by confronting your ideas, challenging them, looking for their weaknesses, being open to new evidence that might come along and make you reassess, it's by doing that that you build reliable knowledge of the world.

"Think about it. If there's an idea that you really care about, that really matters to you, that you really want to be true, do you want to work to show that it's right, or do you want to challenge it to see if it can withstand the challenge? I hope the answer is that you challenge it. I would prefer not to hang my hat on an idea that can't withstand that kind of scrutiny."

Personal Motivations for Adventuresome Minds

"Not many people know an astrophysicist. So [Adventuresome Minds is] an opportunity for somebody to come in with all of those questions ... and to sit down with an astrophysicist and have that conversation. And to have that astrophysicist be someone who's not an ivory tower type, because Lord knows I'm not an ivory tower type. But instead, have that astrophysicist be someone who takes pleasure in seeing people come alive to those ideas. I think that's unique." 

"I took early retirement from ASU a couple years ago ... fundamentally because of something a wise man once said to me: 'If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right.' And I was no longer having fun.

"It was time to do something different. I love doing the science and all that, but my real passion is for communicating that vision of the world with a larger audience -- an audience that might not be that familiar [with astronomy or astrophysics] are only peripherally aware of this stuff.

"The reason I'm doing this is that over my career, the times that really stand out [are] the times ... when people were completely open to the universe, if you want to put it in those kinds of terms. There's a childlike component there, where you're just in awe and wonder at the universe. [Such moments] didn't happen in classrooms. They didn't happen at scientific conferences. Rather, they happened when, usually by chance, you had a group of people together who were interested in the world, a pleasant setting that's informal and comfortable -- if there's wine flowing, all the better. But you had a fascinating topic, and you had the opportunity to just let that run with itself.

"And so what I'm trying to do with Adventuresome Minds, fundamentally, is see if there's a way that you can ... arrange for those times to happen."

Tickets for Hester's two-hour conversation are $30 and can be purchased online or at Changing Hands. More info here

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Tye Rabens