DIANA MAZZELLA: It’s dark. It’s the kind of dark found in places where you have a
neighbor who lives miles away. On a clear night, the sky has more than one shade
of black and you can see the stars that are just barely visible.
It’s quiet here.
Except for the sound of my footfalls and some kids talking as they head in for the
There are a lot of rules here. With good reason.
I walk past the gate that marks the line of what is allowed outside and what is not
allowed inside. No digital cameras. No cell phones. No cars that aren’t diesel-powered.
There is no cell service in the area. I’m kicking myself for not bringing a flashlight
and I find my way by keeping to the asphalt road. But my sacrifice is for science,
and besides, I’m almost there.
By this point, I’m a few hundred feet from the Green Bank Telescope within the Monongahela
National Forest of West Virginia. All you can see of the 328-foot form of the telescope
is the red lights at the top to warn aircraft. The rest is just an absence of stars.
But I’m looking for a much smaller telescope along the road, the third one on the
left. It’s 40 feet tall. I can see light coming from the door. And I’m hoping to
hear the voices of teenagers.
When I open the door, the group named Team Taylor is trying to use what remains of
their 30 minutes to search for galactic hydrogen.
TEEN VOICES: Let’s say whenever this reaches 30 seconds, OK? 10 seconds and then
I’ll start the metronome. OK. Press the first mark whenever I say start. Alrighty.
[Unintelligible] Start. [metronome sounds.] Eight, nine, ten.
MAZZELLA: I’m Diana Mazzella and this is Sparked, a podcast from West Virginia University
Magazine about the people who are working for Appalachia’s future. This is part
one of a series about West Virginia’s relationship to deep space.
It’s the week of the Fourth of July, and about 40 high school students and a few
teachers from around the country are at the Green Bank Observatory as part of a
program that teaches teenagers how to search for a kind of star called a pulsar.
MAURA McLAUGHLIN: So my name is Maura McLaughlin and I am a professor in the department
of physics and astronomy at WVU. I'm an astronomer. I mostly use large radio telescopes
to study stars called pulsars, which are compact remnants of massive stars that
have exploded in Supernova explosions.
So they're the most extreme state of matter that want to can actually study. So there's
a ton of things we don't understand about what they're made of, the process through
which they're formed.
The other reason they're interesting is that you can use them as physics laboratories.
So pulsars are basically very accurate cosmic clocks. So they rotate extremely
precisely, so it's like taking a very accurate atomic clock and putting it in space.
MAZZELLA: McLaughlin is a radio astronomer, which means that she uses large radio
telescopes, with massive white dishes, to collect radio signals from the universe.
Scientists are seeking more pulsars as tools in their research. For McLaughlin, that
means using them to examine gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime,
that were predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
So pulsars are important. And it’s a good idea to get some help in finding more.
McLaughlin co-founded the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, which is hosting this week’s
camp. In 2007, she and her colleague and husband Duncan Lorimer, both professors
at West Virginia University, collected 300 hours of data on the Green Bank Telescope
as it scanned the sky. Then with Sue Ann Heatherly at the observatory, they trained
hundreds of high school students to comb through the plots to look for pulsars.
At first the students were just from West Virginia, and now they come from across
During the observation at Green Bank, they’re starting with a known target hydrogen
to learn the process of using a radio telescope. They’re looking for galactic hydrogen,
which is most often found in the plane of the Milky Way. But since it’s evening
in the northern hemisphere in the summer, the largest stretch of hydrogen in the
sky is hidden behind the Earth.
That night, I meet Team Bell, who happen to be named for Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the
scientist who discovered Pulsars.
First they have to move the telescope. And it takes a lot of time.
While this is happening, Anthony Jeffrey, from Huntington, West Virginia, and who
wants to become a chemist, is thinking this.
ANTHONY JEFFREY: Don't break it, because if we put it below 30 degrees then it will
literally run into the ground and that's a lot of money that I don't have to replace
Peter Decker from Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, wants to go into astrophysics and computer
science. He’s thinking this:
PETER DECKER: Um, just how am I going to get this done in the maximum amount of time?
It takes five minutes to pan 30 degrees. I'm not going to be able to finish all
my measurements in time. I was just worried so much about it.
I’m going to start right at 1525 so five seconds. [Juliette Arteaga counting] 8,9
mark. [metronome sound].
The telescope was built in 1961, so the technology is of that time with dials and
buttons on giant machines that direct the telescope’s movements. The radio waves
intercepted by the telescope at the set frequency are recorded on a machine that
draws lines using little pens on a piece of chart paper. The team’s mentor Anika
Rowe, who recently graduated from WVU with a chemistry degree, goes over the results
JEFFREY: That’s it.
ANIKA ROWE: Something weird happened. … So did we do the calibration right? When
we calibrated were the drives on?
But we should talk about this for one second. It’s not blank. What did you guys expect
when we decided not to point the telescope directly at the galactic center? Did
you expect to see hydrogen?
TEENS: Not a lot. Less. If there’s a star or nebula… There’s definitely hydrogen
there, just not as much.
MAZZELLA: Colby Winters, who is from Boyd County, Kentucky, wants to become an astronomer
or go into aerospace for NASA or somewhere like Green Bank. He is all business
during the observations, but inside, he is super excited.
WINTERS: It just was like, okay you're doing this. This is actual research, like
people have done this but this is a little bit different. This is our information
that we collected as a team. And that's just something that really made you think
like if I could do it anybody can.
MAZZELLA: Juliette Arteaga, is from Whittier, California, and is leaning toward a
degree in biology or astrophysics. To her, just being at the telescope is awe-inspiring.
ARTEAGA: I thought it was really exciting though because already from a distance
I could see though the huge Green Bank telescope I've heard and read about and
also like these other telescopes surrounding it I could always see. It’s just everywhere
you look there's like so much science at work here and I think that's like
the most amazing thing is actually being where it really does happen.
Sean Morton, is from Hurricane, West Virginia, and wants to go to culinary school.
He loves being at the observatory and has been to the camp before.
SEAN MORTON: Of course I am rather interested in finding a pulsar, but it's not the
desire to find a pulsar isn't so much what keeps me going. It is something I'm
interested in and I do strive for. I think what keeps me going is my general interest
in pulsars and anything related to science at all really. I found science unlike
quite a few other fields is an ever-expanding area. So there's always something
new to learn.
MAZZELLA: As their precious 30 minutes ticks on they seemed incredibly driven. No
small talk. Instant debate about mistakes. Lots of reminders. And more reminders.
And the constant knowledge that they have limited time.
And then on the last plot. This happens.
TEEN VOICES: Press down and we’re going to...woah! We just ripped our data. Are you
kidding? It’s still usable. Anyone have tape. Welcome to science where we have
two tape dispensers and no tape and we have an entire building full of wires but
we can’t set it so it marks itself.
MAZZELLA: In removing their new plot from the chart machine, they tore the paper.
They’re in a hot room with no tape. Meh. That’s science, they say.
ROWE: All right guys, the next group is coming in so let’s wrap it up and give them
DECKER: C’mon, you guys have three more minutes before you need to be here. What
are you doing?
JEFFREY: Let’s get out of Dodge.
MAZZELLA: Team Bell goes back to the dorms to figure out what they’re going to say
in the morning. New teams arrive. The poor souls with wake-up times around 5 a.m.
still have to observe. They offered for me to tag along. I declined. Then all the
teams gather in the science center’s auditorium.
In the debrief for Team Bell, Colby makes the time on the telescope sound calm and
WINTERS: So our right ascension was about 1510, so we were like, OK the galaxy the
plane of the galaxy will be below the horizon. Can’t see it okay. So where should
we point next? We found at the lowest declination that we found that had the strongest
pulse of hydrogen, but it wasn’t right at hydrogen. It was slightly blue-shifted
with a higher frequency.
Heatherly is intrigued with their finding when the telescope was positioned at 0
HEATHERLY: They got a taller peak at zero than they got at negative 28. Huh. That
is interesting to me, actually.
MAZZELLA: And she keeps coming back to it.
HEATHERLY: Because you got some weird data. Like when we were at zero over here when
you said zero you got to higher spike than you did when you thought you were closer.
There are high velocity clouds. There's clouds being lifted out of our galaxy and
raining back down and stuff like that. You might have hit a high velocity cloud.I
don't know. So excellent work everyone.
MAZZELLA: In 2009, a high school student from Clarksburg, West Virginia, was at home
on a weekend on the computer. He’d looked at more than 2,000 plots of the pulsar
data from the Green Bank Telescope. He looked at one more.
It was probably interference. But he sent it along anyway. When McLaughlin and others
examined it, they found it wasn’t a pulsar -- it was rarer than that. It was only
one of about thirty rotating radio transients that had been discovered up until
that time. The transients are less predictable than pulsars: neutron stars that
send out a radio pulse irregularly, with sometimes hours between each event.
Lucas was honored for his discovery at the White House.
Now, McLaughlin brags about him to the group.
McLAUGHLIN: Oh, by the way, Lucas is now he’s in medical school so he’s becoming
a doctor. I recently heard from him. He’s married and he’s becoming a doctor and
I felt really old, because he’s actually not even…
MAZZELLA: In the decade since his discovery, students in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory
found seven pulsars, some at home, one particularly celebrated find during the
week at Green Bank. It’s that electric possibility that permeates the camp.
But within the exciting haze is another possibility that’s maybe less exciting right
now. McLaughlin pulls up a paper from the Astrophysical Journal: the May 1, 2013
It’s titled “The Pulsar Search Collaboratory: Discovery and Timing of Five New Pulsars.”
There are 71 names at the top. After the names are the places the scientists work.
Like West Virginia University.
ASTRON: The Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy.
Then there are about 20 locations that are different.
James River High School. Lincoln High School. Broadway High School. Pocahontas County
High School. Sherando High School. Hedgesville High School. Central High School
of Westosha. Strasburg High School. Independence High School. Roanoke Valley Governor’s
School. Nicolet High School. Nicholas County High School. Rowan County High School.
Wilmington Middle School. James W. Robinson Secondary School. Spring Valley High
School. Blacksburg High School. Elkins High School. Trinity High School. Tolsia
High School. George C. Marshall High School. Morgantown High School…
McLAUGLIN: What I want to point out is the names here. So these are all students.
Matt and Ashley, Megan Weaver, Alex Snyder, Casey Thompson, all these students
here, all these names are students, and so they’ve got on this actual astrophysical
journal paper which is a pretty cool thing to do as a high school student…
MAZZELLA: So I know there’s something you’ve probably been thinking this whole time.
It occurred to me, too. This camp is a great exercise. Looking for pulsars at home
is exciting. But is it the same thing as “real” science? The students haven’t even
graduated from high school. Some can’t legally drive. They have a curfew at this
camp and have to let the instructors know when they want to go for an early-morning
McLaughlin is going through that paper, the one with all the high school students.
And she talks about a study of the results from both students and professionals.
McLAUGHLIN: …Part of this survey. So for this survey we took 20 percent of the data
and gave it to the PSC and 80 percent and gave it to professional astronomers.
The past time though two years ago, the data you’re looking at that’s all yours.
There’s no astronomers also looking. It is all your data. The cool thing about
this though is we analyze the accuracy of the high school students and the astronomers
and they were just about equal like the PSC students did not miss anything. They
found just the same ratio of pulsars as the astronomers.
MAZZELLA: Just about equal.
McLaughlin moves on to other things. I’m still stuck on “just about equal.” So if
some high school students, and sometimes middle school students, can accurately
analyze data and discover a star in the same way as professionals, then this camp
is not about them becoming scientists. It’s about them being scientists.
After the debrief, I meet up with Team Bell. They’re waiting for Colby. He’s been
looking for one of the faculty for the last day. And he’s finally gotten some time
to talk with her. Colby is from Kentucky, and he’s the only student from the state
at camp this summer. In the sessions, he was one of the students who asked the
When I talk to Colby, I find out that he is intensely interested in astronomy. I
ask him if he can do this kind of work back home.
WINTERS: In rural Eastern Kentucky, there's very minimal resources that we actually
get offered that we can use to come do things like this. Sciences and a lot of
it is not looked upon. It's something that's most people like you don't need that.
It's just part of the culture I guess is very overlooked and unimportant.
The reason I joined the Pulsar Search Collaboratory is thanks to one of my teachers
who came and told me about it, and he was like ‘We have a school club but it's
no one hears about it. No one talks about it. There's only one person in it and
now, well, he graduated.’ So now me and with just nobody interested in it really.
MAZZELLA: But Colby is still taking this path because he believes that a career in
science is right for him.
WINTERS: It is important and that's something that we as people really like we have
that curiosity and then we think ‘Oh, that sounds hard,’ so just don't necessarily
go for it, but it's definitely important for us as a society.
MAZZELLA: At the end of the group debrief, Heatherly pointed out that the ideas the
students bring forward to explain their data are fairly recent. Decades ago, humans
didn’t have the names for what they were looking at. They just had questions.
HEATHERLY: But you know if you had been here in 1955, and we had had the same discussion
with this data that you have collected you'd be on your way to being a very famous
astronomer because this was not even thought through not known we didn't even know
hydrogen emitted radio waves until 1955.
So if you think about that, you think that's a long time ago, but in the scheme of
scientific knowledge, that's not very long ago at all. So you are doing some pretty
high-powered thought here and thinking about the way the Milky Way's put together.
And scientists are still doing it.
MAZZELLA: Months after the campers have gone home to Pennsylvania and California
and Kentucky and their towns in West Virginia, I think about the lives they live
when they’re not being treated like scientists but are still doing science.
Some are in magnet programs and pulsar clubs.
Maybe like Sean, they want to go to culinary school. Maybe like Peter, they want
to be astrophysicists. They’ve definitely settled on chemistry like Anthony. Or
like Juliette, they’re keeping their science options open.
Others, like Colby, are an hour away from the state science academy, with themselves
and a computer. They’re the only one.
I think about when they’re alone at the computer screen. They log on to the website.
And look at plot. After plot. After plot. After plot.
Not this one. Not this one. That’s radio frequency interference. Not this one. Maybe
that one? Not this one.
Thank you for listening to Sparked, a podcast of
West Virginia University Magazine. This episode was recorded and produced by
Raymond Thompson Jr. and me, Diana Mazzella.
A big thank you to the Green Bank Observatory and the entire Pulsar Search Collaboratory,
particularly Maura McLaughlin, Sue Ann Heatherly and Team Bell.
Help others find our podcast by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts. And let
us know what you thought of this episode by contacting us through our website:
magazine.wvu.edu, where you can also subscribe to our newsletter. Also on the website,
you can watch a really cool video Raymond made of the pulsar search collaboratory
a few years ago.
Sparked is a production of West Virginia University, located in Morgantown, West
RAYMOND THOMPSON JR.: Tell me a story.
MAZZELLA: So there are these things that are going in the air around us every few
seconds and the crazy part is that we have absolutely no idea what they are.
THOMPSON: When were the signals detected?
MAZZELLA: So they were actually detected here at West Virginia University in 2007.
THOMPSON: You mean like literally at the University, like in the cafeteria or something
or the Coliseum.
MAZZELLA: No. So the signal was recorded in Australia but then that data was looked
at by a student but he brought it to his professor and the professor was like,
hm, this looks different. They found this new type of signal.
THOMPSON: New type of signal? Like a television signal? Cable signal? What do you
mean, new type of signal?
MAZZELLA: So we know that the radio waves are coming from somewhere in space. Um,
but what they’re coming from is pretty unclear at this moment and that is what
makes it really exciting.
THOMPSON: I thought you were going to tell me a story about a microwave. I’m lost.
MAZZELLA: So microwaves do appear in this story and it’s pretty fun in a really unexpected
way. So stay tuned for our next episode.
On a dark summer night, teenagers tromp down a road that disappears into the trees. It’s actually a terrible time to do what they’re going to do, because the Earth is mostly blocking the plane of the Milky Way. That makes it all the more challenging. They walk into a bunker beside a radio telescope from the 1960s, and they start telling it what to do. They want to collect radio signals of galactic hydrogen in their 30 minutes of glory. But this is just the exhibition. The real work happens at home.
A student stands in the doorway of the control room for the 40-foot Telescope at
the Green Bank Observatory. (Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.)
The students are at the Green Bank Observatory in the National Radio Quiet Zone.
There is no cell service. The teens are there because they are in the Pulsar Search
Collaboratory, a group that has seen hundreds of kids who for more than a decade
have been looking for a type of star called a pulsar.
This kind of star is believed to be made of the remains of another star. After a
star goes supernova, the remnants can coalesce and form a neutron star that sends
out regular pulses of radio waves – a pulsar. Maura McLaughlin, Eberly Distinguished
Professor of Physics and Astronomy at West Virginia University, co-founded the
Collaboratory. She says that pulses from these stars are cosmic clocks that help
scientists measure distances and explore space.
Professor Maura McLaughlin works with students from the Pulsar Search Collaboratory
at West Virginia University during a visit to the astronomy labs. (Photo by Jennifer
This visit to camp deals with the question of where do the teenagers who want to
become scientists live? It turns out some of them live in Appalachia. And let’s
be real, there are lots of programs that we have kids doing today that are more
about the aura of science than training to become scientists. You’ll find out how
this one holds up in the episode.
[SPOILER] You should really listen to the episode right now. No, really. Go listen
to it and then read this.
Colby Winters presented a paper on a visit to West Virginia University. He's from
rural Eastern Kentucky where he says there isn't a lot of opportunity for this
kind of hands-on science at his age. (Photo by Jennifer Shephard).