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Konstantin and his colleague accomplished something that only a handful of people in the history of man have done. They reshaped our solar system. Using advanced math and predictive modeling, they discovered planet 9. A yet unseen member of our solar system
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Dr. Konstantin Batygin: A Man That Reshaped Our Solar System
Welcome back, listeners. We have Konstantin with us. Konstantin, please introduce yourself.
My name is Konstantin Batygin. I am a professor of Planetary Science at California Institute of Technology as well as what is commonly referred to on the streets as a Van Nuys Page Scholar at Caltech. It’s my pleasure to be here.
You achieved something pretty incredible. In fact, in the history of man, it’s only happen a handful of times. What did you do that got you so much attention?
First of all, thanks for saying it’s cool. I think it’s cool. I’m always surprised when other people find it’s cool. We discovered a planet in the solar system through gravitational influence that it exerts upon the distant orbits.
We all believed there were nine planets in our solar system. Then your lab partner decided that Pluto wasn’t a planet and demoted it, and then received the rage from thousands of children who were crying about it and wrote him letters asking him why he hates Pluto. Realizing that there was something that didn’t make sense with the way that all the planets in our solar system moved, you and your partner theorized that the only explanation for this was that there was actually a ninth planet but it doesn’t travel in the same circles as the rest of them. Is that right?
That’s exactly right. Your understanding of this is pretty much as deep as it comes. If you go to the most distant realms of the solar system beyond Neptune, what you’ll find is that there is this big cloud of icy debris. Icy asteroids type objects.
Is this the Kuiper Belt?
That’s right. This is the Kuiper Belt. Each one of the constituent objects is not very big. They’re only about 50 to 100 kilometers across, not too much bigger than LA. What’s interesting is that if you look at their collective orbital structure, if you draw the orbits that they follow, then beyond a certain point, if you go far enough out, all of them start to cluster. It’s as if somebody took those orbits and carefully arranged them to be in this uniform elliptical pattern. As it turns out, the only explanation that works for why these orbits are clustered together is the existence of Planet Nine.
This sounds like some weird sci-fi thing like there’s a hidden planet in our solar system and we’ll call it Planet Nine and maybe there’s life on it. Although there isn’t but maybe.
It’s almost certain that there’s no life on Planet Nine itself. What’s remarkable about this object is that we haven’t yet seen it. We haven’t imaged Planet Nine. We don’t have a photo so to speak of Planet Nine. We know its orbit and we know its mass from the gravitational influence that it exerts, but what it looks like remains elusive. Interestingly, this is actually how Neptune was discovered as well. Neptune was first calculated mathematically and it took about a year for it to be discovered observationally. There’s precedent for this type of thing in the past. My general perspective is that life oftentimes gets a lot of attention, maybe rightly so. When it comes to planetary science, life is more of a contaminant on an otherwise interesting planetary surface.
That’s like referred to a funny person as a defective human because it distracts you from the biology. Jim Carrey, he’s a fine human specimen but that sense of humor is really ruining the experience of studying the biology.
If Planet Nine has moons, which it might very well have, this object is ten Earth masses. It’s much bigger than Earth. It’s probably closer in composition to Neptune. If it has moons, the moons might be tidally heated, which may bring the water temperature on the surface of the moons to something reasonable where it can be liquid. I’m just speculating at this point but I’m just saying it’s a possibility.
What does that mean tidally heated?
If you look at the moons of the giant planets that we know of in the solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, there are few examples where it is the fact that the satellite orbits are not exactly circular which gives rise to some really spectacular phenomena. For example, Io which is the closest satellite of Jupiter has the solar system’s most premier volcanism.
For the rest of us who aren’t brilliant geniuses that have discovered planets, when you say a satellite, you mean any planetary object like a moon or something that goes around another, right?
We have satellites that send digital signals down to Earth, then these are satellites that are just naturally occurring constructions?
Yes. The moon is a satellite of the Earth and just like the moon is a satellite of the Earth, Jupiter has four really big satellites: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Io, in particular which is the closest one to Jupiter itself, gets squeezed by Jupiter’s gravity every orbit a little bit. When that happens, the most beautiful volcanic eruptions occur on the surface. These volcanoes put the Earth’s volcanoes to shame. First of all, they are happening in space. This satellite has no atmosphere and you can see them. If you’re flying by in a spaceship and you look at Io, you can see the explosions because they are 3% or 5% as large as the moon itself. They are truly magnificent.
Like one-twentieth of the planet is literally erupting into space.
If you look at the explosion, it looks basically like a giant pimple on the surface on an otherwise completely barren surface of the satellite. I encourage all the listeners to check out, just look up Io volcano because you will see some amazing things. Along similar lines, another satellite, Enceladus, that’s going around Saturn on the South Pole has these geysers of liquid water shooting out. To be clear, it’s super cold there. It’s way colder than you possibly could have imagined on Earth, so water should be frozen. It is the interior heat of the satellite that is maintaining liquid water that sprays out in this jet, which is pretty cool.
Is there any chance that there is bacterial life there?
Absolutely. People often talk about Enceladus as being a premiere place to look for alien life. There are some concept designs of taking a space mission and flying it through the geyser in and trying to capture a sample of the geyser and analyzing it in institute.
I really hope that when it’s intelligent life, it wouldn’t be viewed as an act of war.
We’ve been broadcasting a very strange version of life on Earth for the last 50 years into space, all the radio signals, all TV particularly back when TV was broadcast to be a radio. All of that has gone out into the universe. If there’s somebody listening, we now have a 50 light year frontier where they might detect our television and be like, “This planet has to go. We’ve got to get rid of it.”
It’s interesting that you say that because that assumes that whatever life form out there would create an electrical-based communication system in the radio frequency range. For all we know, it could literally be a species that seize the world in radiofrequencies, the way that we see in life. It would just see it as like a gloomy day all of the sudden and assume it’s part of weather patterns. The assumption that any life would exist similar to us specifically is a little arrogant.
Indeed, it’s a narrow one. I completely agree with you. I think that this is an important point that you bring up more over. Even we on Earth have stopped more or less broadcast. We still have weird stuff that we broadcast on air, but our communication has largely gone from being broadcast via radio to more of the computational front. You bring up a very good point.
When people hear what you discovered, what’s their most common question?
Their most common question is, “Why didn’t you point Hubble at it? You know that a planet is there, why didn’t you take a picture of it? What are you waiting for?” which is a perfectly legitimate question. The answer is that this thing is so faint and so far away that before you take a picture, you have to know basically the exact coordinates on the night sky of where to point your super powerful telescope. What we are in the process of right now is detecting it with what we call a wide field telescopes; detecting just the light that is reflected off of Planet Nine’s surface so that we can study it in greater detail.
There’s this perception, I believe, that people think that Hubble is the end-all and be-all of technology. How long has it been up there?
Hubble has been up there forever. I think it was launched in the early ’90s like ’91, ’92, something like that.
That means there’s probably more sensors on your cell phone than there were on Hubble?
Absolutely. Hubble, don’t get me wrong, has been a remarkable tool for astronomy. I’m not saying anything bad about it but there is a successor to Hubble which is launching I think next year.
That’s the laureate John C. Mather, right? Isn’t he the person in charge of it?
That’s right. The James Webb Space Telescope and that thing is going to be a revolution. It’s just going to completely once again reshape the way we view things.
When we see photos of space, we are used to seeing these Star Trek-type images of cloudy red and greens and blues and then stars around it, is that what it actually looks like to the naked eye?
That’s what it looks like in false color. Most of the time, when you look into the night sky, it’s just pitch black studded with white stars. A lot of these clouds that we see and the green, red and blue is taking the infrared spectrum, the spectrum part of the light that’s unavailable to the human eye, and then assigning colors that we can see to different parts of the infrared spectrum. It’s what we call false color. It gives you a sense of what this would look like if you were a different species, if we didn’t live around the sun and our eyes didn’t evolve to interpret yellow light as the key ingredient of light.
What you’re saying is that everything we’ve ever seen about the universe is fake news?
Every photo of space is fake. In fact, who knows if this Planet Nine even exists. Konstantin, I think we’ve just destroyed all of astronomy as we know it. In fact, as a byproduct, maybe astrology is a better option.
I’ve gotten a lot of emails from astrologers who said, “I’m so happy that you’ve done this work because now it explains fully why astrology hasn’t been consistent with observations. Why things we predict astrologically don’t ever come true is because we didn’t account for Planet Nine and with Planet Nine, it totally fixes everything.”
I did this big study with my colleague, Moran Cerf, who is a neuroscientist. We were looking at 431 million potential matches on a mobile dating app. Since people log into their mobile dating apps with their birthdays, we had everybody’s birthdays. Then we also knew the likelihood that they would match with somebody based on their birthday.
There are these very clear charts that are provided by astrological science of who would match with who and who shouldn’t. We actually compared them and looked at which astrological signs actually date well, which ones don’t. Two things became very clear. I think it was like nobody should ever date a Capricorn for some reason and then the other was that none of it had anything to do with what the astrological chart said they should. Literally, no relationship whatsoever. I hate to break it to you, even though you’ve known your wife since you were thirteen and you guys are perfect astrological matches, it doesn’t guarantee that you guys will have a good relationship.
You’re such a Libra for saying this.
You want to know the sad thing? I’m such a Libra that I’m more like a typical Leo but we’re not going to get into that. What’s something completely unexpected about reaching this level of notoriety in your industry? It was like Galileo, you guys, and a handful of other people really changed our solar system.
It’s a little crazy because nobody goes into astronomy thinking, “I am going to do something that’s going to get me fame.” Literally, nobody goes into astronomy hoping to get famous.
They’re like, “They’re totally going to be into me when they see my research.”
I think that’s actually the first time that sentence has ever been said like what you just said. I think it’s never been said before in the history of time. It’s been a little bit of a wild ride. I’ve had the fortune, as a consequence of this, meeting extraordinary people such as yourself. It’s been a remarkable journey. The one thing that I guess I’ll point out, something that I didn’t expect is I didn’t expect everybody to have really strong opinions about the outer solar system. Whenever I get stopped on the plane or people knowing who I am want to talk to me about Planet Nine, they always have this super strong like, “I said this fifteen years ago and it’s because.”
Are these your groupies? They’re like following you to the airports tracking you down being like, “Listen to my opinion on the outer solar system”
I guess so, yes. I always like hearing what people have to say about the outer solar system. It’s really wacky most of the time but some of the times, it’s actually really, really interesting how close to just empirical truth people get without having any formal astronomy education. Just like by having human intuition, you can make a lot of progress. That’s been one interesting pattern that I’ve noticed over the last couple of years.
What did they figure out?
There are a lot of people who will ask, for example, “Why are we not looking for the heat that Planet Nine emits? Can we find it using a radio signal? What if it’s a radio source? Could you look for it that way? Isn’t it weird that it’s got this elliptical orbit that’s different from the other planets in the solar system? Did that require a passing star to perturbate?” which is exactly what it requires. People have oftentimes ideas which are on the ball.
For people who are inspired by this, who maybe would want to go into the science, what is some advice you have?
I would say that doing what I do has been incredibly fun. Being a scientist is way more exhilarating than I ever expected it to be. It’s something that you should absolutely do if you imagine yourself doing it for free anyway. If this is something that interests you, then you should absolutely go into it because it’s a wonderful life.
It’s super interesting when I talk to researchers. First of all, research is hard. It’s not sexy. It’s not like an episode of CSI. You’re essentially sitting there with lots of data, trying to cut it different ways depending on what you’re doing. There’s this underlying fear of, “If I made mistake and I make a statement about whatever it is and I’m wrong, then I’m stuck with this on my reputation or I’ve negatively impacted the body of science.” There’s a big responsibility there and it’s not glamorous. Occasionally, if somebody wins the Nobel Prize, it’s glamorous because then people have a frame of reference to congratulate you. You could do Nobel Prize-worthy research your entire life and maybe you achieve some level of notoriety within your industry but unless you know how to describe it in layman’s terms, nobody cares.
That’s true. Nobody gets into science hoping to get famous. You’ve got to do it for the love of puzzles so to speak. If you absolutely love solving puzzles and you like feeling uncomfortable mentally all the time, then it’s for you.
What if you are used to feeling really uncomfortably socially all the time? What does this do to you if you got in?
Then it’s also for you.
If you are socially awkward, then we have the industry for you.
There are some of that. I get the feeling that there’s something wrong with virtually every scientist out there, certainly, myself included. It’s one of these things where you have to harness that anomaly if you will to make progress that way. If you think about what you do, the behavioral science that you’re involved in, there’s no way that the majority of the population will be like, “Great. I would love to be stepped on by bulls every Wednesday.”
The people who say yes, half of them you want nothing to do with. Essentially, what I’ve learned is the litmus test works like this. If I offer somebody a crazy experience, completely outlandish and they say yes, half of the time they’re the coolest person I’ve ever met, half of the time, I need to get as far away from them as possible. I still haven’t figured out how to separate the two groups without spending real time with them. I want to dig into a couple of quick more rapid fire questions. Is there a book that really inspired you?
Yes. This is going to sound silly but I read Narnia when I was seven and I remember just being blown away. I was like, “This is such a feat of imagination.” It sounds silly because it’s not like, “I read Plato or whatever.” When I was a kid, reading Narnia all the way through completely made me rethink like, “What am I doing with my life? Should I think to do better?”
Who would you consider your hero? You can’t say parents. Everybody always says parents.
I would say I’ve been inspired by The Beatles my entire life. It’s a combination of perfectionism and pure imagination. Their music I felt was inspirational. Of course, there is also Dexter Holland, the frontman of The Offspring. The guy is just cool. After having this amazing career, which they continued to make good stuff, he went back to USC and got a PhD in Molecular Biology.
Are you serious?
Yeah. He’s a pretty gnarly dude.
Have you ever had any contact with him?
No, I’ve never talked to him. I’d love to meet him sometime. He has a second career. He has published a good work on HIV research. I find that guy inspirational.
Do you get a lot of random emails and messages?
Yeah, on a daily basis. They’re fun.
First of all, what’s the weirdest one you’ve ever gotten?
There’s a lot of weird to sort through but one that comes to mind is this guy who sent a long outline of, “We know that the Earth was captured from an alien something around the sun, point one. Point two, we know that Jupiter was a star that blew up and was also captured around the sun.” All of this is not true, FYI. It’s just like, “We know the asteroid belt was pebbles that came from God’s wrath.” He went through this set of bullet points and then it just erupted and is like, “Why the fuck are you trying to confuse all of us with your papers?” It just went on to this straight up Craigslist grade rant where some of the letters are capital and some of the other ones are not. He said, “Eagerly waiting for your reply,” signed, some name, singer/songwriter.
I’ll tell you this real quick thing. I once got an envelope in my office. This is a diminishing thing. It used to be that all crazy mail would come via snail mail and with email that’s going away. I got this and it has like a thousand stamps on it. It’s clear that this letter has gone from Romania to Slovenia to Afghanistan. This letter travelled all over the world to get to me. I opened up the letter and just a whole bunch of little tiny pieces of paper fall out. Each one is no more than a square centimeter across. I spent like half an hour trying to put together this puzzle. I was worried that I’m going to put it together and assemble it and it’s going to say, “I’m watching you,” or some creepy thing. It was this guy who had some crazy theory about how the Earth’s ionosphere is a nuclear reactor. It was a crazy amount of work that you put into cutting out things and making a puzzle out of it. In retrospect, that’s the only reason I paid attention to it because usually I just throw these things away, but this one is like, “A puzzle from a crazy person. I should put this together.”
Let’s say a slightly more normal person would have messaged you and asked to meet you for coffee, what would have you accept?
It depends on the quality of coffee.
I often ask my guests to share something very human. Either a really embarrassing moment or maybe a secret that they’d feel comfortable sharing to people and talking about everything from their debilitating anxiety all the way through. Somebody shared how they peed themselves in front of Justin Timberlake. What ridiculous thing or very personal thing would you feel comfortable sharing?
When I was in grad school, I went to France to work with this mathematician for a couple of months. I was terrified of embarrassing myself. I didn’t want him to think that I was dumb but I was super tired when I arrived because I generally don’t sleep on planes. I had this long 36-hour trip before I arrived in France. With me, I had $2,000 in cash, which I wanted to change into euros. We show up to the currency change point and the rate was €0.72 per dollar. He’s like, “How much do you have?” I was like, “I have a couple of thousand dollars.” He’s like, “It’s going to be €1,440.” I was really tired and not thinking straight from the plane. I looked to him and I was like, “Did you just do that in your mind?” Of course, it’s just a matter of multiplying 0.72 by $2,000, which is just not a big deal. I was like, “Did you just figure that out?” He looked at me and he was just like, “Jesus Christ, I hope the rest of our collaboration will not be like this.” It was off to a good start.
Konstantin, this has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for your incredible contribution to the body of knowledge in science. It’s been a real treat getting to chat with you.
Jon, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for having me on.
If people want to find out more about you, where can they find you on the internet? How can they see your work?
Listeners, stay tuned, next is the anonymous interview.
About Konstantin Batygin
Konstantin Batygin, assistant professor of planetary science and Van Nuys Page Scholar at Caltech, has been named one of the 2017 Packard Fellows in Science and Engineering. The fellowship, awarded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, provides each fellow $875,000 over five years to pursue their research. Batygin (MS ’10, PhD ’12) is one of 18 early career scientists and engineers to receive the award this year.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Listeners, now for my absolute favorite part of every episode: the anonymous interview. We have a legend by the name of Matt. Matt, thank you so much for coming on.
Thanks for having me on this wonderful podcast, Jon.
I have to say, I’ve traveled for a long time and your name kept coming up over and over and I was like, “I have to meet this guy and find an excuse to hang out with him.” I’m happy that we got to meet probably more than a year ago at this point, and have you at one of the dinners. Matt, where did you grow up?
I grew up in a very small suburb outside Boston. It was pretty much a generic any town. I spent my whole life there, a very small town. I think at the time when I lived there, there were only about 20,000 people. My graduating high school class was 110, maybe that, so pretty small.
Was there a certain teacher or incident that inspired you to go down the career path that you went?
I actually went to school to be a History teacher because in high school, I really, really fell in love with history and I had this great teacher, Mr. Morrison. I always wonder what he is up to now or if he’s even still alive. He really inspired my love of History. When I went to college, I became a History major. It seemed the right thing to do. Then it’s like, “What do you do when you major in History? I guess you become a teacher.” I went to school to be a high school History teacher because that seemed like the only job I could get with my love of History. Very far from where I am now. I think in some ways I’m teaching people about the world as it is now, not as it was in the past.
What’s something you’re really proud of in your career?
There are so many things that I’m really proud of. I would say that the top two things that I love the most is one is personal. I wrote a New York Times bestselling book, so that’s pretty awesome. The other is starting a charity foundation called FLYTE, The Foundation for Learning and Youth Travel Education. That raises money to send kids from around the US who come from low-income or very rural communities on high school school field trips. If you’re a teacher in middle of nowhere, Montana, who wants to take their science class to say the rainforest to see biodiversity, we help fund those trips because those flyover state kids always get ignored when it comes to grants and stuff. All these work needs are really big city places, so I created the FLYTE as a way that anyone in the US could do it. I’m very proud of that.
To give the listeners a sense of what you look like, who would play you in a movie?
Do you think you would want to bear the ring that masters them all or whatever it is?
No, Frodo didn’t do a good job. I want to be Samwise Gamgee because he was the one that could resist the evils of the ring.
Of all the things that you’ve covered, of all the wild moments in your career, was there one thing that you did on a bet or a stunt that caused your success, something totally out there?
In terms of relating to what I do as a career, nothing that comes off the top of my head. I definitely have done stuff on bets in my personal life. In Thailand, they have on this island on Ko Phi Phi boxing and it’s basically drunk tourists fighting each other for alcohol. On the encouragement, for lack of a better term, of my friends, I went up there into the ring to box this very, very large German guy. I’m not a fighter. I’ve never been in a fight in my life. This guy was twice the size of me, probably weighs three times as much as me. We just duked it out. Of course, I lost but I still got a bucket of alcohol anyway.
Do you still have all your teeth?
Yeah, I do. They pad you up really well. When I woke up the next morning, I was so sore and I couldn’t figure out what did I do last night that made me so sore like, “Why am I in such pain?” Then I was like, “Yeah, because I stupidly fought that large German guy for a bucket of alcohol.” I had bruises on my body for weeks.
Was there a certain moment or experience that made you feel like you had arrived to some degree?
I would say that one of the moments where I felt like, “I’ve really made it,” was when I got invited to speak at Mastermind Talks, their opening year in 2013. That was like, “I’m in the Big Leagues.” Especially going up to Tim Ferriss and introducing myself and saying, “Tim, I really like your blog and what you do. Here’s my website,” and him replying to me going, “I like it. I’ve seen it before. It’s really good stuff.” I was like, “Wow.” These people are beginning to notice me, so I thought that was really awesome. For me, that was a pivotal moment in my blog trajectory because being at that event really allowed me to connect and interact and become friends with people who are at a much higher level than I am and who are way further in their career, way, way, way more than I did. It very much up my business game.
If Tim Ferriss said, “I’m a huge fan of your podcast,” or whatever I did, I’d feel pretty flattered. Mastermind Talks has some of the best speakers around participating. Jayson’s the master curator. Last question, what hint would you give people to figure out who you are?
I would say that I really like the number 50.
Listeners, you have plenty to go on here. I’d be shocked if any of you didn’t figure out who Matt was. Those of you who do can have a chance to win an invitation to me or The Salon Series by Influencers and hangout with industry leaders like Matt and all the other podcast guests. Good luck.