April 11, 2021

Casiana Muñoz: “Knowing the origin of the universe is not a utopia, but a challenge”



Casiana Muñoz Tuñón is deputy director of the Instituto Astrofísico de Canarias (IAC). His mother was the director of a school in his hometown (Campo de la Verdad, Córdoba) and his father, a Renfe engineer. It was that environment, without a doubt, that sowed in her the seeds of intellectual restlessness. He says that he was interested in everything and that he could have studied anything, but he decided on physics and astronomy came by chance. She hadn’t planned it but already, at that time, the universe was waiting for her. For her, unraveling the secrets of space is not an unattainable dream, it is a challenge she works for every day.

Were you always clear about what you wanted to do?

It was always clear to me that I was going to study, but it was not clear what. In my family it was taken for granted that we were all going to study. I chose science because it somehow seemed attractive to me as a personal challenge. The physics of the 20th century was wonderful, there were many advances. I think I could have studied almost anything because any career ends up being something very beautiful if you dedicate time and give everything you can of yourself. Science, in my case, has a lot of potential and offers many aspects. In addition, in science you work in a team, discoveries are not achieved in isolation and women have an extraordinary ability to work in teams. I don’t know if for educational reasons, but it is more difficult for men to share achievements, recognitions, put things in common, while women are more collaborative and, in that sense, women are excellent group leaders. I think they have a management capacity that, in some way, is not studied but has more to do with your life approach. The woman is very gifted to work in a team.

There are few women in the scientific field …

There are always more men than women. When I studied in college we could be four in the class but now it is not like that. What happens is that, as professional time progresses, women fall behind for different reasons, that is the famous gender inequality, the glass ceiling … I think they are social reasons. Somehow we have already overcome the barrier that women can do science careers. That is already something that falls within what is considered normal, before it was not like that. In that sense, society is freer.

But the investigation requires a lot of dedication …

In these careers it is very common that when you finish you consider continuing in research, and that means that you have a very long professional career ahead of you. Many of those who finish a science degree opt for teaching, so that soon, at about 25 years old, they find some stability. But when you do research that soon does not exist, in fact you can planted yourself in your forties and still continue to stumble. That is what conflicts with that social model that we still have. In man there is a pure vocation, so to speak, where the rest of life will revolve around that. But in the case of women, there is not so much because society is not designed so that everything around you follows you. In addition, in women the family point of view, at least for a few years, has a very leading role, which is when they decide to have children, for example. You are encountering certain pitfalls that lead you to make a pragmatic decision. So women, many times, end up having a very important role in a field of research but without going as far as they could because of their potential. Undoubtedly, to be a scientist of extraordinary relevance, I believe that you have to be almost monothematic, dedicated to research exclusively. That scheme, in women, is not usually given. Today man continues to have that social cushion that favors him in this aspect that we are talking about.

“The images of the Grantecan are not pretty, but their information is extraordinary”

And how did you come to the world of astronomy?

Well, I arrived by chance. In the early ages it is easier to know what you do not want to be. Most people do not have an extraordinary vocation for something but it is determined throughout life. Science careers require a lot of time for dedication. People who are not clear about it, do not get into that mess. I knew I wanted to study, I love learning new things, I am very restless and it is one of the things that makes me happy, as well as many others, of course. Challenge me is an incentive. Learning is a challenge that you set yourself and that renews you. For me, science has a lot of incentive intellectually because it forces you to think, and thinking is not only good for understanding a mathematical, physical or chemical problem but it also helps you reason in life.

And did that concern lead you to the Canary Islands?

It was a set of circumstances. When I finished my degree, I went to London with a scholarship from the British Council. While there, a professor of mine from Granada sent me an email telling me that there had been some international scholarships in the Canary Islands to do a doctorate at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias. At that time, I was not sure what I wanted to do. My approach was to end up in London and then see. However, I submitted my resume, they liked it and they took me. When I got here I knew absolutely nothing about astronomy because I had seen a little in a subject of the degree but something very theoretical.

Some notion would have, right?

I remember going up to the telescope; These teams have a movement that once you know it is trivial, but I did not know anything. They move in two directions. Inside the dome there were a series of levers to direct it by hand, and I remember my thesis supervisor telling me from the control room: ‘move in right ascension’ (this movement is what the sun makes when it goes from east to west ) and inside the dome I thought that where I had to play because I had no idea. By this I mean that there is no need to be afraid. I immediately told my director that I had no idea what he was talking about. If I had had to pretend that I knew that for so long, we would have both suffered a lot and, furthermore, I would have thought I was stupid because I didn’t pay any attention to it (laughs amused). In the doctorate the specialty was made then. Now it is different.

And what can be seen from the Gran Telescopio de Canarias?

It is ten meters long, that is, the primary mirror that collects the light has that measurement of diameter. As it has a very large surface, it is able to see things that are very far away. Objects in the sky emit light that is usually very dim. For example, when a galaxy that was very far away or close to the big bang stretched, at the beginning of the universe, the light that reaches you is like that of a light bulb, that is, it reaches you very little because it emits light at all times. directions, as if it were a sphere, but if you look from an angle a small part reaches you because the rest has gone where your eye does not look. We look for galaxies that are very far away because the further away they are the closer they are to how they formed, and one of the things we want to understand is how the universe was formed and, in particular, how galaxies like ours formed. But for someone who was to see it, with the naked eye, it is very disappointing because it is usually pointed to a very small space in the sky. Those spectacular images that we sometimes see can be made by smaller telescopes that, after processing the images, make a mosaic, which is what they teach us. But the image of a telescope like Grantecan needs us to explain the importance of that image and what it is telling us. The image itself is uglier than you can see with a small telescope. From an aesthetic point of view, the images we have are not pretty, but from an information point of view, they are extraordinary.

“I chose a science career because somehow it seemed attractive to me as a personal challenge”

It is that talking about the Big Bang, black holes … they are things like a movie almost, at least for the laymen in the field …

Astronomy has an advantage and that is that the objects in the sky are very beautiful, very inspiring. When we see a starry sky, we all wonder where all this came from. The beauty that we find in those moments links with essential questions of the human being. But, on the other hand, the units we have, in which we measure, are millions of millions of millions and that makes disclosure very difficult. One ends up overwhelming. That is a little problem that we have, that we do not know how to communicate it so that it is simple and understood. Scientists have to learn to communicate. Our arguments have to be strong enough so that people in general, even if they cannot defend them in detail, can take them up, if it is not too elitist a science.

It was recently reached Mars. How relevant is this fact?

This experiment has put the development of space technology to the test, that is, reaching Mars, landing, that the device does not break, that it works … from a technological point of view it is a marvel. But now, in addition, geology is going to be done, that is, we are going to have samples that can be analyzed. We, in astronomy, the observation that we have is from the atmospheres of the stars, the images and the light they emit, but we cannot go to catch a piece of a star. With the Perseverance mission, a tremendous world opens up for on-site research. I believe that this opens the race for companies to do their own experiments, sometimes with scientific and other commercial interests that, in turn, will have to be legislated because outer space is infinite but it also has to have its laws to that not everything is worth.

What challenges do you have now.

On the one hand, I work on how galaxies are formed and a topic that seems very important to me is to know how in galaxies like ours, which is considered old, and in other nearby ones, it seems that there is still a material that was at the beginning of the great explosion, from which everything was formed, which for some reason has remained in the form of diffuse filaments and has not become a star. The stars are formed of a primordial gas and within them all the elements that we know are formed, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen … with which the gas that we have now has undergone numerous transformation processes but it seems that there could still be structures that we know as cosmic network that were part of that primordial gas that did not become stars. Now I also share my research time with the IAC deputy director. In this aspect there is an issue that seems very important to me and that is the protection of the sky. We are working on the problem of light pollution, seeking to use blue lights that do not pollute the spectrum or the quality of the sky and also with the issue of mega-constellations of satellites that are going to be launched, which can be very disastrous. We are working to get legislation so that these satellites are only launched when the test is done. In outer space we are in a period similar to when in the 70s it was built without the need for environmental impact studies. I believe that in heaven, currently, we are at that moment of not having to regret 20 years from now. You have to legislate now. I am very interested in promoting actions through the United Nations to protect outer space from contamination. Let us know that what is released will be limited time in the atmosphere and then it will be destroyed.

“When we see a starry sky, we all wonder where all that came from”

Is knowing the origin of the universe a utopia or a challenge?

I think it is a challenge. What happens is that we always speak with a time scale. If we think 20 years from now, it is a utopia. But if we forget that, I think it is possible to get to know it. Remember the scholastics whose thought revolved around the relationship between truth and faith. If it is about seeing that the hypothesis we have is valid, I will tell you that it is. The extreme approach of the hypotheses is the typical problem, therefore, the hypothesis of the big bang, of the fractional universe, of the cold dark matter that originates the structures, and they are more and more realities than conjectures. Therefore, I do believe that at some point its origin will be known.

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