Normally, asking a person, “Why would aliens want to attack Earth?” would result in a bumbling, confused answer. But pose the same question to Randii Wessen, Deputy Manager of the Project Formulation Office at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and you will receive a precise answer: aliens would not bother to attack our puny planet. True, as a consultant for The Exchange, Wessen has had some practice answering that question, but the point is he has taken the time to form a rational answer. He also took the time to answer a few of our own questions about how he became a consultant with The Exchange, why his name is spelled with two i’s, and how experimental economics relates to his work at JPL.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a rocket scientist?
I have always loved science and learning. I was not sure which field of science I wanted to eventually work in, but I was sure it was a science. The class that got me started in space exploration was called “Intelligent Life in the Universe” taught by Dr. Tobias Owen. The class opened my eyes to the majesty and wonder of galaxies, stars, planets, and humanity’s place among them. Because of that class I became an astronomy and physics major.
In my mind physics is the most fundamental science. It is the science of “why.” Why is the sky blue? Why does the speed of sound change in a solid? Why do some planets have rings? Together my work with Dr. Owen and my chosen classes landed me a summer internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on the Voyager Project. At that time, Voyager 1 was just about to reach Saturn. My expaerience with the Voyager Science Team left no doubt in my mind that space exploration was where I wanted to focus my life. But learning and education are a lifelong endeavor.
Once at JPL, I realized that as a national research laboratory most engineers and scientists had advanced degrees. So I went back to school to get a master’s degree in astronautics, the engineering of spacecraft, and a doctorate in operations research. This multi-disciplinary education gave me a much broader perspective for understanding a wide range of complex problems. As an example, designing a spacecraft for interstellar travel cannot be solved with engineering alone. It requires math, physics, chemistry, material science, as well as engineering.
Has anyone asked about the spelling of your first name? We are curious!
Many people have, and it’s a great story. The name came from the fact that I m an identical twin … and an unexpected identical twin. You see my mother did not believe she was going to have twins, even after her doctor told her so. As such my parents were going to name their blessed event either Robb, if it was a boy or Robin, if it was a girl. Well, my twin became Robb but three minutes later out dropped “baby two.” My stunned parents had not even considered a second name so out of desperation they named me after the Remington Rand typewriter the hospital was using to type my supplementary birth certificate. My parents decided on Robb and Rand. And because there were two of us, they added two “i’s” to our names, becoming Robbii and Randii.
How did you become involved with The Science & Entertainment Exchange?
One of my many activities that I am involved with at JPL is the Caltech Management Association. This association is involved with getting guest speakers who interest and challenge our community. One of our recent speakers was a theoretical physicist from Caltech named Sean Carroll, who gave a wonderful lecture on the birth of the universe and the arrow of time. At dinner with him, Sean brought his wife Jennifer Ouellete. At the time, Jennifer was the Director of The Exchange and from this initial contact, I have just kept getting more and more involved.
You have consulted on several projects. Can you give us a couple examples of the types of questions you have been asked? Has your advice always been followed?
I usually get questioned about rockets, space exploration, the solar system, and alien life. Typical questions might range from what a rocket (or spacecraft) might look like to why would aliens want to attack humans. As for this last question, there are no compelling reasons for aliens to attack us. Aliens would have to be so advanced to get to our solar system that there really would not be any resources that they would need from us. They would not want to enslave us. They would not need our water, our minerals, or anything else. In short, there just are not good reasons to pick a fight with our puny little planet. However, that does not make for exciting alien movies. So Hollywood goes forward with aliens attacking Earth, even though it makes little sense.
Moviemakers are often inspired by science and scientific breakthroughs. In turn, how has science benefited from the entertainment industry?
Most of my colleagues first got excited in space exploration because of movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, Star Wars, and so on. It is not unusual to walk into someone’s office and see a stuffed Marvin the Martian doll, a model of the starship Enterprise, a poster of the Klingon alphabet, or a light saber. But more fundamentally, you have to dream before you can design, build, and operate any advanced technology. Science fiction is the dreaming of the possible. There is a wonderful quote by Dr. Robert H. Goddard, who said, “The dreams of yesterday are the hopes of today and the realities of tomorrow.” What we read in science fiction or see in movies can lead to the realities of tomorrow. We also take science-fiction ideas and turn them into reality. A great example of this is from 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Arthur C. Clarke’s book he talked about the Aries 1B lunar carrier and the Orion III spacecraft. Do you think it is just a coincidence that in NASA’s old Constellation Program to return astronauts to the Moon, they called their crew capsule Orion and their launch vehicles Ares 1 and Ares V?
Although Americans are fascinated by space exploration and the possibility of life on other planets, relatively few students choose to pursue careers in your field. What role can the entertainment industry play in encouraging more young people to study science and engineering?
I think the entertainment industry can get the general public excited about space exploration. I do not want them to teach astronautics or magnetospheric physics; I want them to address the exciting issues that we face every day in space exploration. Things like, what happens when we first make contact with an advanced alien species? How about what color would plants be if they were on a planet that orbited a blue rather than a yellow star? Can we as a society consider a human one-way trip to Mars? It would be certain death for the brave explorers but it would definitely make the engineering easier.
Space exploration is exploration of our place in the universe. There are hundreds of billions of Suns in this galaxy and hundreds of billions of galaxies each with their own hundreds of billions of Suns. There is no shortage of worlds to visit and ideas that would seem foreign to us on Earth. It is stories with these ideas as backdrops that can fire the imagination of students and lead them to careers in science and engineering. After all, we do not have to be physicists to know if a story appears to make sense. A movie that handles the science well can be awe-inspiring. Look at the movie Contact. We do not have to be engineers to be excited by the “machine.”
You often talk to lay audiences about your work; how can we encourage scientists to communicate with the general public about their research?
Scientists do not need to be encouraged to talk about their research. They are already excited about what they are doing, are thinking about it constantly, and are discussing it with colleagues. What they need is to get a better understanding of how to communicate it to the general public. However there is an old saying that you can be either correct or clear … pick one. As an example, the real name of the Voyager instrument that made infrared composition measurements on the outer planets was the Infrared Interferometer Spectrometer & Radiometer, IRIS for short. The general public shuts down when they hear too much jargon. Scientists need to learn to say something simpler that still gets the message across. In this case, just call the instrument a heat telescope. It is not exactly correct but it gets the idea across.
Scientists should take classes in college about communicating with the general public. After all, a great deal of their research is paid for by the government, meaning the public. If they cannot communicate the excitement of their research, they may not be able to get their funding from the government and us, the taxpayers.
You have included the social sciences in your research, in particular, the field of experimental economics. What is experimental economics and how is it related to your work at JPL?
Some problems cannot be solved within one particular discipline. As an example, looking for alien life cannot be done totally within biology alone. You need chemistry, geology, physics, as well as biology. When we build spacecraft, sometimes we run into problems of how to build a system for a particular cost in a specific amount of time for a system that has never been built before. An approach that was used to help build the Cassini spacecraft that is in orbit around Saturn was a bidding system. In this case scientists could trade dollars, power, or mass among themselves to solve their individual science instrument development problems. After all, the scientists will not all have the same problem with the same resource at the same time. So if one scientist needs a little more mass but has extra power, she could give her extra power for extra mass from another scientist who needs a bit more power. This way both scientists get their problem solved. The science that was used to design these bidding systems is called experimental economics. It is like a wind tunnel for human behavior. Using experimental economics researchers can model the trading systems in advance to make sure that they will work in real life.
What advice would you give young adults looking at career options, STEM or otherwise?
As I was growing up my dad would say that the two most important things in life is to chose something you love to do as a career … and marry someone who can cook! People say I am lucky because I am working at NASA’s JPL helping explore and discover new worlds. But I am not lucky, just persistent. I found an area of work that I fell in love with and just kept trying to obtain a career in it. When I first began looking for work in this field, I initially received many rejection letters, including JPL! I just did not give up. Life is all about going after your dreams. We all will have adversity in our lives. It is not about how many problems you experience or how difficult they are, it is just about how you handle them. The way you handle them tells you about the caliber of your life. So, follow your dreams and do not give up. You will always come across roadblocks on your path, but do not quit! If you quit, your dreams are over and you will forever wonder what would have happened if you just kept pursuing your dreams. I am not saying that eventually if you try hard enough you will reach your dreams. I am just saying that if you give up, you will most definitely never realize them.