Academia Within an Ending Universe: A Conversation with Katie Mack

Art by Ellie Gabriel.

Looking up at a clear night sky and pondering the significance of each individual speck of light forces one to question one’s place in the vast and ever-expanding universe. Though daunting and terrifying at first, there is a strange relief in knowing that even our oldest ancestors have also asked, “How does it all work? What does it all mean?”

Katie Mack, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, theorizes about the same kinds of questions that keep the rest of us up at nightonly now, she is closer to finding the answers. As a theoretical cosmologist, Mack studies everything from the beginning of the universe to the end, researchingwhat it is made of and how it works. Among the many questions in this field to be answered, Mack’s research focuses on the connections between cosmology and particle physics, which leads to aplethora of questions regarding the early universe, when particle physics was different. Lately, her work has focused on the ever-elusive topic of dark matter, which is composed of particles that don’t interact with light and may account for unexplained stellar motions, and vacuum decay, the theoretical and violent potential fate of the universe. Particle physics can also help uncover the fate of the cosmos, which Mack explores in her new book, The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking).

Astrophysics Goes Viral

Katie Mack is a busy person. But when she’s not teaching classes, conducting research, or writing her book, she spends time on her vastly popular Twitter account, @AstroKatie, where she engages her passion for science communication. With over 375,000 followers, Mack has a considerable audience to which she imparts her knowledge of astrophysics and her opinions on topics that matter to her. “At first I was just talking to other physicists,” Mack explained, “but then I found out that it could also be a really good way to talk to non-physicists. And there’s kind of a challenge and a skill to translating a complicated topic to a general audience.” To her, tweets are “a kind of literary form.”

Mack has always enjoyed writing, and she first got into science communication through science journalism in college. Now, rather than writing for magazines like she did in graduate school, she uses her skills to write witty books and viral tweets. This allows more people to access her science, and it has the added benefit of a platform, giving her a celebrity experience within the astronomy community. Her platform has granted her access to a community of talented people with which she wouldn’t have been connected otherwise. “I have a lot of friends who are super, super clever people who have written amazing books or produced amazing art or written amazing music,” she said.

However, being in the spotlight has its drawbacks. While her popularity redeems free advertisements for her book and invitations to conferences, it also means that privacy is harder to come by. “It’s complicated to register to vote if you don’t want your address in the public record on the Internet,” she explained, revealing an unexpected facet to her fame.

Life in Academia

Before Mack was a popular science communicator and theoretical cosmologist, she was an undergraduate physics major pursuing her passion at California Institute of Technology. From there, her infatuation took her around the world with stops at Princeton, Cambridge (in the UK), Melbourne, and finally Raleigh, North Carolina. Over the course of her academic journey, she has “been more than 360 degrees” around the globe. Mack cites this lifestyle as one of the biggest challenges in academia, stressing that each time she moved, she was starting over.

An early career characterized by uncertainty and competition necessitates flexibility and savings, which feeds into the exclusionary culture of academia. “I think the idea that you should move every few years to do the postdoc thing is built around the idea that your wife will come with you and care for your children while you’re at work,” Mack explained, underscoring how academia is historically male-dominated and not structured for family-oriented people of any gender. The constant moves pose great difficulties for those trying to start families and foster relationships. To this Mack added, “That can be hard, and that can be hard on women more often than men as well, on average, because it’s more likely that women are dating other academics and trying to maintain relationships.” As times continue to change, more academics have called for a restructuring of the field. Though it is unclear what reforms will be made, the archaic and unrealistic assumptions woven through academia cannot stand for much longer, especially as the community continues to diversify, Mack said.

Mack is sure to stress that academia is not all that bad. “It’s a really great job in a lot of ways; I get to follow my curiosity, I get to work on really interesting things, I get to think for a living, and talk to a lot of brilliant people, and that’s all really great. I really like that, and I get to travel for free all over the world,” she said.

Amid the restrictive culture of academia and the complications that come with a viral online presence, speculating about things as large as the origin and end of the universe gives Mack a sense of catharsis. In her new book, Mack invites us to consider the potential fates of the universe, ranging from depressing and agonizing heat death to the violent catastrophe of the Big Crunch. Many of us know at least something about the beginning of the universe; CBS’s The Big Bang Theory is even named after it. However, there isn’t much popular literature about its end. “It was definitely a topic that I thought needed to be written about. There’s just not a lot of public understanding of the end of the universe or the future of the universe, in general,” Mack said. While educational, her book also demonstrates a sharp wit, creating many laugh-out-loud moments even about our ultimate demise. Some endings are grim, such as the reversal of the expansion of the universe detailed in the Big Crunch. Vacuum decay could incinerate us at any moment. But you don’t think about being personally ripped in half by the universe while reading about it. Instead, you enjoy reading about ultimate destruction like one enjoys watching demolition derbies. “It’s nice to think about the end of the universe because it’s so separate from the stress of daily life,” she said, “and it’s a totally different scale of things so it can be a nice escape.”