"Out of This World"

Out of This World

Kimberly Small ’97 is the planetarium director in Upper Dublin Schools. The former Ursinus physics major talks about cataclysmic variables, black holes and if we really are alone in the universe.

You majored in physics at Ursinus and then earned a master’s degree from Ball State with an emphasis on astrophysics through a NASA fellowship. What drew you to physics in the first place?

I loved physics from the first time I took a class in high school. It is such a logical science because it explains how things work. While studying at Ursinus, I would go look at stars a lot at the observatory (The Marstellar Observatory on the roof of Pfahler Hall). I became really interested in a type of star called cataclysmic variables—they are stars that flare up. Their brightness becomes more magnified sometimes. I wanted to figure out why they did that. In graduate school, I continued to study them.

Why do these types of stars flare up?

Cataclysmic variables are binary stars, which means that they have a secondary star. Actually, most stars in our universe are binary or are in multiple star systems, not single stars like our sun. In the case of the cataclysmic variables, one star releases material onto its partner. The other star literally has a temper tantrum and returns it back to the first one causing a flare-up in system. This back and forth causes the additional brightness. While in graduate school, I did research at a national observatory in Arizona, and I was lucky enough to actually catch a flare-up happening.

What is a national observatory like?

Dark and intense. It is on top of Kitt Peak in the Quinlan Mountains in the Arizona desert, close to 7,000 feet up. We weren’t allowed to have any light up there at all—even when you go outside to use the bathroom and can encounter tarantulas and scorpions. We were there for about a week at a time, working all night, and sleeping during the day. We worked in a trailer looking at computer screens connected to the telescopes outside.

What is the Upper Dublin Planetarium like?

It was fully renovated in 2008, so it is mostly up to date on the latest technology. It has a 30-foot diameter dome and 50 permanent seats. Like many of the planetariums in our country, it was originally built in the 1960s during the Cold War as part of an initiative in getting the public interested in the space race and beating Russia to the moon. Through a space grant consortium, school districts were offered money if they would build a planetarium. Many schools in Pennsylvania, as well as Indiana, took the government up on its offer.

Kimberly Small standing in the Planetarium.Kimberly Small at the Upper Dublin Planetarium.

As a planetarium director, what is your most important skill?

I think it is my ability to communicate often difficult, or hard-to-wrap-your-mind-around concepts, to everybody from a 5-year-old to a 75-year-old. I need to connect them to the world here on Earth and beyond.

What is your most important tool in the planetarium?

The actual projector. Because projectors are digital now, it has really opened up what we can do and show. Before digital technology, we could only show the night sky from an Earth-bound view. Now we can show it from the perspective of Mars or from anywhere else in universe. We can also use the facility for other things besides astronomy, such as exploring the ocean.

What are the most common questions you get asked about space?

People love to learn about black holes. When I explain black holes, I explain how they are dead stars that suck things in. Albert Einstein theorized that if you go into a black hole, perhaps it would take you into a tunnel to somewhere else, or back in time, or forward in time. This hasn’t been proven because black holes are too far away to explore. But if I really want to blow students’ minds, I’ll tell them it is possible that in another universe, there is a black hole. And in this black hole, the things that are getting sucked in are coming out another side called a white hole. And maybe, just maybe, that is what we are—we are the white hole of another universe’s black hole.

Mic dropped.


Is it hard to think about such big universe questions, then go home and make dinner?

I have more difficulty when I catch scientific things that are wrong in everyday life. For instance, in the recent version of the Cinderella movie, the climactic scene is when Cinderella is running to her carriage at midnight. In this scene, they show this beautiful lake and on the horizon is a full moon. The full moon on the horizon at midnight is entirely impossible. Come on, Disney.

Do you think there are aliens out there?

Yes. Most people who study astronomy believe there has to be something else out there. The universe is huge, and there are billions of other galaxies. The chances that Earth is the only planet that has the right conditions for life is just ignorant. We can’t be that special. The reality is, that if other life is out there, they are far away. So unless they are much more advanced than us, we’ll never see them. And if they are that much more advanced than us? We better hope they are friendly, because otherwise, we are in trouble.

By Ellen Cosgrove Labrecque ’95