March 2022

Photo of Bryan Mendez in his home office filled with Star Trek and Star Wars memorabilia

Bryan Méndez is an astronomer and education specialist dedicated to sharing the inspirational wonder and beauty of the universe. He teaches astronomy and physics at UC Berkeley; develops educational resources for students, teachers, and the public; and conducts professional development for science educators. 

Your office looks a lot more entertaining than mine. Can you walk me through it?

I wanted my home office to be a place of comfort and joy, so I’ve filled it with things that make me happy to look at. A lot of the items are from my youth, like the Star Wars toys that were preserved in my parent’s basement for years until I finally had a home of my own. My dad was thrilled to get rid of them. I’ve slowly added to the collection. The pandemic gave me a good excuse to actually make a hobby of it.

What is it about shows like Star Trek and Star Wars that appeal to you?

Both of them were actually critical to me becoming an astronomer. I was three and a half when Star Wars came out. It’s my earliest memory. I remember going to see it with my family and feeling the excitement in the audience. I grew up in Northern Michigan in a small town, so we had dark skies. I clearly remember the car ride home from the movie, staring out at the sky and dreaming about all the fun adventures that must be out there. And then, when we got home, I didn't want to go inside. I just wanted to lay out on the lawn and stargaze. The awe stuck with me.

What do you see now when you look up at the stars?

As a kid, it was all spaceships and adventure. Now I think about knowledge and exploration. I’ll look up and think, “Oh, there’s Orion. Hello, old friend.” I’ll look at the three stars in Orion’s Belt, and think about the sword hanging from it, and the middle star being the place where new stars are being born, and yet all the stars that make up the constellation are old dying stars. It’s kind of this cool constellation of the life cycle of the cosmos. We've got birth and old age and death happening all in the same place in the sky.

A majority of the world's population lives in urban environments where the night sky is diminished by light pollution. Do you think that impacts people’s relationship with the universe?

I absolutely think so. My study of astronomy has developed into a kind of cosmic perspective. It’s this idea of where we all fit into the grand scheme of things. Some people walk away from studying astronomy, thinking, “oh, how small and insignificant we all are;” whereas I feel like the cosmic perspective actually sends a different message.

It's not that we're small; it's that the Universe is big. The Universe is just a really huge place, which means there's an endless amount of things to learn and know out there.

But also it's so big, so vast, so filled with a diversity of things that it makes us extremely special. We're completely unique, as far as we know. Realistically calculating, even if there are worlds out there teaming with life, it's extraordinarily unlikely that they're anything like us.

That’s the kind of cosmic perspective that comes from studying astronomy and getting to know the night sky. But we’re losing that now because people don't look up, they don't notice the stars. They have no idea what they see above them.

Whenever I talk about UFO phenomena in my classes, for example, I mention that a lot of the phenomena is due to the fact that people have no idea what's normal

in the sky. People think that completely ordinary things are unusual because it's just unusual to them because they've never noticed what's going on above their head.

The most commonly reported UFO is the planet Venus. Sometimes it appears extraordinarily bright, and because of its proximity to the horizon, its colors will actually shift around because of atmospheric refraction. People will think that it looks like an artificial object hovering and changing colors. But, this planet has been our constant companion for the last nearly 5,000,000 years.

Context matters.

A lot of what I teach in astronomy is about trying to build an understanding of the context in which you're in.

Did ancient cultures tend to have a common view of astronomy?

A favorite phrase is that “different cultures are different.” I mean, yes, there’s one sky and one Sun. But the way that we choose to interpret that is sometimes interestingly different; though there are some really cool similarities, too. There are many stories across cultures about the Sun being an object that is carried across the sky by some form of chariot. Another commonality is the way we keep time. Everyone recognizes a day as a cycle of day and night. That forms the basis of everybody's calendar, but calendars can become quite diverse beyond that.

You’ve studied the works of astronomers throughout history. Do you have a favorite one?

I feel personally inspired by Carl Sagan. He did cultural astronomy in a different, modern way. I really like how Sagan popularized science. I love the fact that he co-write fiction stories with his wife, and in doing so moved areas of research forward. In one of the novels he was writing, he wanted a character to travel interstellar distances in a short amount of time. He knew that was physically impossible, according to our current understanding. But he wondered if there might be some tricks in general relativity like with black holes.

So he called up a colleague, Kip Thorne, at Caltech and asked him, “If I had some super intelligent and technologically advanced civilization that could manipulate black holes, could they turn them into some kind of shortcut through space?” Kip basically said, “no.” Sagan pushed him a little bit and said, “can you think of any way to make this work?” Kip thought about it some more, started doing some research, got some graduate students involved, and they found a new solution to general relativity to create a new kind of what's called a wormhole for space-time shortcuts. How cool is that?