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I Went to the 'Contact' Radio Telescope with the Astrophysicist Behind Twitter's All-Time Sickest Burn

Most scientists famous for talking about science are men who became celebritized well into their careers. Not Katie Mack.

Katie Mack is walking around the Plains of Saint Agustin, looking up at the antennae. The sky is blue and the wind is high. Free-ranging cows can block the road at any moment. And the cosmic radio waves that funnel into the telescope don't care about any of it.

There are 27 antennas here at the Very Large Array in New Mexico. They grow like metal mushrooms, listing in the direction of something far away, working together to form one giant radio telescope ("the telescope"). Mack, an American astronomer who currently lives in Australia, is a fan of this place. It's where Jodie Foster's character in Contact picks up the pings of alien life. Mack smiles at the radio dishes, the mountains looming reddish and strangely familiar at the edges of her hemispherical view.

"Kept thinking the distant hills reminded me of someplace else," she had recently tweeted of this desert geography to her 100,000-plus followers. "And then I realized it was Mars."

Over twelve-hundred people "liked" Mack's tweet. Over a hundred retweeted it. It was an expression of a feeling that another planet is like home, the idea that she's inhabiting two worlds.

Mack, it turns out, has something of a preternatural knack for describing and conversing about the universe in a way that resonates with non-scientists. She knows how to not just communicate with but engage with the public—even trolls—online. These skills are forging her social media path to science celebrity, though Mack herself recognizes that it's unusual for a postdoc astronomer like her to enter the public eye. That's a space generally reserved for mid-career men, whereas Mack's career isn't made yet—when I caught up with her in February, Mack was in the middle of applying to faculty jobs.

The way some subset of other scientists see it, Mack hasn't yet paid her research dues. She should be spending her extra time doing more science, writing more papers, these scientists say—making her career the traditional way, rather than spending her time on The Public. This opinion, though not universal, isn't uncommon in male-dominated fields like hers, which can be prone to viewing social media as a trifling pursuit.

"Becoming famous for talking about science is considered self-promotion," Mack says, "even if you're promoting science."

*

I met Mack earlier that morning in the lobby of a motel in Old Town Albuquerque. She was fresh off an invitation-only retreat in Santa Fe called Renaissance Weekend. This self-proclaimed "grand-daddy of ideas festivals" is a gathering of diplomats and spies and entrepreneurs and astronauts and also, apparently, her.

When the retreat was over, Mack told me, she hit the laundromat near her hotel. The windows there were pocked with bullet holes; the glass shrugged in on one side and puffed out on the other. She described touching their edges, feeling aesthetic pleasure as she had as a child when doing the same thing. "I felt more at home at the laundromat," she said, "than I did at the conference."

"I felt more at home at the laundromat than I did at the conference."

Being thrust into rooms of important people is alien for most astronomers. But this particular astronomer will likely be spending more time at such fancy Thought Leader gatherings. Mack, who has spent the past four-and-a-half years living in Australia, is a theoretical astrophysicist who studies dark matter, black holes, wowfully powerful radio bursts, the early universe, the space between galaxies, and other things you wish you knew more about. But that's not the sole reason she gets such speaking invitations. She gets such speaking invitations because she's a public-facing scientist who writes popular articles and has amassed 123,000 followers on Twitter, as of late March—a few orders of magnitude more than most researchers.

Mack, in other words, is a budding Carl Sagan-type. Except that Sagan—who authored Contact, the sci-fi novel in the mid 80s, and who died in 1996—and most scientists famous for talking about science, including Twitter star Neil deGrasse Tyson, became celebritized well into their careers. Mack, on the other hand, is really just starting hers. And her life is an experiment into whether internet fame can breed success in academia, rather than just the other way around.

The pursuit of that success has brought Mack back home to the US on this trip, for a monthlong mix of conferences, public lectures, personal visits, and job interviews that perfectly encompasses her scientific existence as what she "academic nomad." Or, as many others know her: @AstroKatie.

But today Mack is heading someplace else entirely, and she's allowed me to tag along. From Old Town, we head out in her rental car toward Socorro, the last town before the Very Large Array.

Keeping her eyes on the road, Mack begins telling me how she came into professional being online. And the story begins—where else?—on Twitter.

*

Mack signed up for Twitter seven years ago. Back then, the platform was lower-stakes, smaller in scope. And in that sandbox, she practiced. She practiced talking about science to non-scientists. She practiced being short. Funny. Clear. Aesthetically pleasurable. "It's a literary form," she says.

And in literary form, Mack tries to be both a role model and a human. "I want to be an example of a scientist who's a real person and not solely focused on doing research," she says, "who has concerns and a life."

On February 23, the concern was nuclear war. The week before, she'd let followers know that she'd missed the birth of her twin nieces by just hours. In between were rocket launches, exoplanetary discoveries, and contrail science, all adding together to demonstrate not just what science is but also who this scientist is. 

Mack's science, in the words of her own website, "focuses on finding new ways to learn about the early universe and fundamental physics using astronomical observations, probing the building blocks of nature by examining the cosmos on the largest scales." She researches the most basic basics of the universe by investigating the long-ago and far away. That understanding helps us understand how the present cosmos became the way it is, and why. Mack publishes papers like "Known Unknowns of Dark Matter Annihilation over Cosmic Time" and "21 Centimeter Forest with the Square Kilometer Array."

And her followers would appear to love it all.

Mack acknowledges her popularity, staring straight ahead as we drive along, but then she goes silent for a second. "I don't like talking about being good at things," she says. And then she deflects, speeding toward external attributions for her internet success.

As she phrases it, "There have been some big nonlinear events."

Whenever someone adds her to a list of "Twitter scientists," she sees a spike in following. And on August 15, 2016, Mack fired off a Tweet that would cause a really big spike. "Honestly climate change scares the heck out of me and it makes me so sad to see what we're losing because of it," she wrote.

In response, a user said, "Maybe you should learn some actual SCIENCE then, and stop listening to the criminals pushing the #GlobalWarming SCAM!"

Mack chuckled to herself as she walked down the hallway after writing this reply: "I dunno, man, I already went and got a PhD in astrophysics. Seems like more than that would be overkill at this point." She didn't think anyone but That Guy would notice.

But, uh, J.K. Rowling noticed.

"The existence of Twitter is forever validated by the following exchange," Rowling tweeted to her millions of followers, along with a screenshot of Mack's burn. The internet went wild. Mack made headlines at The New York Times, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Mashable, BuzzFeed, Bustle, Yahoo, GOOD, and Upworthy, among others. Her followers doubled, from 40,000 to 80,000 in a week. "That's a phase change," Mack admits.

But with that positive attention for Mack came negative attention for he who shall remain nameless. "For a couple of days, massive segments of the internet were laughing about how stupid he was," Mack says, referring to the commenter who'd egged her on. She tried to calm them. But you've met Twitter. That didn't happen.

"It was so big, and I had no control," Mack says.

She said she knew how bad That Guy must feel, because not long before, she'd found herself on the business end of negative internet attention. In 2014, a European Space Agency scientist wore a shirt plastered with pinup girls to an international broadcast of a spacecraft landing on a comet.

"I don't care what scientists wear," Mack tweeted. "But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn't appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in STEM."

The men behind Gamergate came after her and her feminism. Their response was so threatening she asked a friend to read through her mentions and block people. She reported one mention—a death threat—to the police.

But the potential of inciting mobs, and having mobs incited at you are inherent risks of the internet, Twitter specifically. And most of the time, for Mack, the rewards outweigh them. Mack likes explaining science, and the way her brain works makes her anomalously good at it. Physicists, especially theoretical ones, often lead with math: They route the listener through equations, believing the calculations will make the concept blossom in the brain. "That's never been the way my mind worked," Mack says. "I've always been more visual and conceptual and less mathematical."

If you know anything about people who are not theoretical physicists, it's that, on average, they respond better to imagery than to blackboards full of variables.

Mack knows she's skilled at talking up things like black holes without talking down to people. And it relaxes her—to do something she knows she's good at, in front of people who want to learn, whether the audience be digital or physical.

"A lot of people are afraid of public speaking," she says. "I'm the opposite. I'm afraid of private speaking."

The rules, there, seem smeared to her, whereas the rules of the universe—and the rules about talking about the universe—are crisp and clear as point sources.

We've pulled onto a small highway now, and begin winding up from 4,600 to 7,000 feet in elevation, from Socorro to the Very Large Array, through a gap in the Cibola National Forest. The mountain peaks we'd been staring at for dozens of miles were finally next to us.

Array Mountains

Photo: John Fowler/Wikimedia Commons

It's an apt visual metaphor for a postdoc's—Mack's—place in the science career path.

To become a scientist, one must endure the undergraduate years plus those of a PhD. After that come the temporary appointments, the three-year gigs at whichever institution, wherever in the world, says yes. Taking a single one of these gigs used to be the norm, and after that, scientists passed into stable employment. Then, two postdoc positions became standard. Now, at least in Mack's field, three is pretty average.

That's nearly a decade, post-PhD, of prep for professorship. By the time an astrophysicist can have the job they've been training for, they are in their mid-30s. Finally, the mountains they've been trudging toward are right in front of them. Beautiful!

But while many would-be scientists make it to that long-sought trailhead, few make it to the peak: a permanent, tenured research position.

Mack, who is finishing up an extension of her second postdoc, is climbing. And she's got something most postdocs don't—that public face. That's appealing to some universities, especially smaller schools that could use a name-drop here and there. A celebrity scientist could boost a smaller school's visibility, making the department in which that scientist works more competitive and lucrative. It happened at the University of Manchester, when physicist Brian Cox became a TV personality. Today, it's harder to get into Manchester's physics department than Oxford's. And the surge in applications has a name: The Brian Cox Effect.

But "Give me a few years, and I'll be your Brian Cox," isn't exactly something that can bullet-point in a resume. Especially when you're not yet a Brian Cox, and your research hasn't peaked, either.

"I haven't discovered an amazing thing," Mack told me. "I haven't reached a stable part of my career. I've not gotten to the point of being an authority. In my own field, I think I'm influential, but I'm not a big-shot."

Basically, based on her science, she doesn't deserve to be famous. (People said the same thing about Carl Sagan.)

"The general idea about Twitter is that it's totally frivolous."

And so some colleagues suggest that she should spend her extra hours working extra hard toward big-shot scientist status, instead of writing public talks or columns for COSMOS magazine or—god forbid—tweets. "The general idea about Twitter is that it's totally frivolous," Mack said.

She recalled a recent lecture she gave at a university in which the person introducing Mack led with her research and academic pedigree, which includes Caltech, Princeton, Cambridge, and the University of Melbourne. "And then he said something like, 'She's also big on Twitter,' in a slightly mocking tone of voice," she said.

Mack felt deflated.

"It was like, 'And she makes balloon animals."

*

She does not make balloon animals. But she is big on Twitter and does work on the boundary between particle physics and astrophysics, mainly investigating dark matter. She also keeps up a variety of side projects, including helping Australia build its first space telescope and finding a subterranean home for a dark matter detector called SABRE.

SABRE, Mack told me, as we made our final approach to the telescope, lives in a gold mine. A developer for that mine, looking for new underground uses, contacted Mack about the subterranean real estate after she did an interview with the Economist. "That's an example of how outreach can come back to you," she says. "Like, a literal gold mine."

But her name didn't go on the SABRE grant. Finding the mine wasn't enough. And so her contribution to the project's birth remains in un-resume-friendly anecdotes. Which is too bad, because grant-credits and number of research papers—not necessarily impact on the world—are the metrics by which scientists judge each other, and judge each other worthy of permanent jobs.

If Mack didn't find a job this trip around the Sun, she was planning to veer from the academic track. She didn't want to flit across the world for another fleeting postdoc gig in another mystery city, solo.

"I've dated people at every stage of my career and left at every stage of my career," she says. "I've had five or maybe six relationships that were good relationships that ended with me leaving the country."

It's not that she necessarily wants to settle down. House, partner, kids, one spot—she's not sure what permutation of those she is or is not after. "It's just that I want a hope of anything I could keep," she says.

Up

Mack at the Very Large Array. Photo by author

A little while after this trip, when I am back home and Mack is who knows where, she lets me know some good news: North Carolina State University offered her a permanent professorship position in the physics department. She'll work on the usual research and teaching but also public science stuff: "public engagement, science communication, citizen science, the study of how effective all that stuff is," she writes. And, importantly, the job is a thing she can keep, accompanied by the hope of all that other stuff she could have and hang on to, if she wants.

She also was named, around the same time, the 2017 Women in Physics lecturer by the Australian Institute of Physics. They'll send her on a three-week tour around Australia to speak and visit schools.

"Weird how sometimes," Mack closes her note, "everything just suddenly starts coming together all at once, huh?" 

*

When we finally arrive at the telescope, and Mack finishes smiling at the antennas—which are arranged in a perfect Y shape like some robotic marching band—we go on a technical tour: computers, control rooms, servers, servos, correlators, feed horns. But as soon as that's over, Mack heads straight for the antennas themselves.

She pulls a pair of headphones from her bag and hands me her camera.

"Will you take my picture?" she asks.

She sits down in the middle of the road that runs between the antennas, pulls the headphones over her ears, and mimics the deep-listening pose Foster did in Contact, right in this very spot. I snap a few shots, and then do the same with her phone, so she can post one to Twitter.

Later that day, I check Mack's feed. She has, indeed, uploaded a shot of herself staring off into the universe, the antennas behind her doing the same. One follower's comment stuck out: "My daughter would like to be you."