Chatting Astronomy with Kai Staats

By: M J 12/05/2014 1:18AM
Category: People

What Caused You To Leave The Business World And Begin Studying Mathematics?

If when I was at the University or even my first few years out, you had asked me what I would be doing in the 2000s, I would have never guessed Linux OS and High Performance Computing systems. In 1995 I started a graphic design firm which evolved to offer website development services. Through the construction of Linux-on-Mac web servers (and a story I wrote which found its way to the home page of Apple.com) I found myself launching a Linux OS company in 1999. A half-decade later "Yellow Dog Linux" was a house-hold name (well, in the houses of computer geeks and Linux users).

Those were an amazing ten years, the successes and failures instrumental to who I am today. While the goal was always provision of a quality product and service, the part I miss most was meeting with scientists, researchers, and engineers of creative companies across the US and around the world to work in collaborative problem solving.

However, as our client base grew to include larger players, my enjoyment of the client interactions was reduced. Less driven by collaboration, more by rules and constraints; less trust and relationship building, more scrambling to meet the demands of people with whom I would never shake hands. I no longer enjoyed my work.

I sold Terra Soft Solutions in 2008-2009 and vowed to return to research not as a sales person, but as one trained in the sciences. After business consulting for a few years, I returned to my childhood passion for film making with an emphasis on documentaries, science outreach and education. Now I am working on an MSc in Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town through the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences with intent to gain hands-on experience in the scientific process such that I am better equipped to deliver stories of science discovery to my audience.

What Is The Biggest Surprise You Have Have Had Since Doing This?

In returning to an academic life after more than twenty years, I knew there would be challenges. That was not a surprise. However, I am learning how I learn all over again. The challenge of research is for me not comparable to running a business, but it is a very different psychology. What's more, I am 15-20 years older than most of the students with whom I work. While I have a broad experience in varied fields, my former areas of expertise mean little in this field. That is not easy.

My joy is in building new skills coupled with new experiences and proving that I can in fact continue to grow, even to excel.

Tell Me About The Sony PS3 Cluster In A Semi-Trailer?!

That is a fun, short story. Former client and friend, Prof. Gaurav Khanna is an astrophysicist at U Mass Dartmouth. He is the recipient of some 400 Sony PS3s which were part of the much larger 1600 PS3 supercomputer built by the U.S. Air Force in 2010. This cluster was my last sale, just as my company was transitioning into ownership by Fixstars.

Two years ago Gaurav came to me, asking for a means by which he could, with very little budget, build a supercomputing room. I suggested a used refrigerated semi-trailer. He bought one, loaded it with meat racks, and the cluster runs perfectly. I am pleased to see the PS3s granted a second chance at supercomputing.

Why Do You Feel So Passionately About Astronomy Education?

In my experience, astronomy is unique among the sciences in its ability to directly engage the imagination. In the very nature of looking up we lift our eyes and see our own place in the cosmos from a different point of view. What's more, astronomy and cosmology immediately engage discussion of physics (birth of stars, quantum gravity, limits of space and time), chemistry (spectral emission lines, interstellar dust, and the search for exo-planets), and biology (amino acids found in the tails of comets, original of life on or off this Earth, and evolution of our own species as we move to the stars). All sciences offer exciting, engaging thought processes, but astronomy seems to have a jaw dropping effect for in its very nature we become time travelers, our imaginations challenged to conceive millions and billions of years (when we struggle to remember what we did just yesterday).

My passion is amplified by the fact that our population is growing, far too quickly. As we continue to electrify the planet, we will improve the quality of life for those who yet cook over wood or coal. This is imperative (ideally employing renewable energy), yet at the same time we will further dim the night lights of the cosmos. Sadly, we run the risk of returning to an era in which people believed we live inside a celestial sphere. If we spend our entire life beneath an artificially lit sky, never seeing but a handful of stars, how can we see our place in the greater cosmos?

What Do You Think Physicists And Business People Could Learn From Each Other?

Physicists are driven by a quest for knowledge, for the sake of knowledge. They work to learn how the world around us and into the greater cosmos functions, as far as instruments, skills, and experience enable. Business, in general, could benefit from a little less monetary drive and a little more fundamental motivation. Granted, there are selfish physicists and CEOs who strive to do good, but on a whole, more cross-pollination wouldn't be a bad thing.

At the same time, the project management employed by some (not all) businesses does enable a lot more to get done in a very short time. Academia, by nature, works with relatively long time frames, granting freedom to explore ideas which may or may not prove a valid demonstration. But there are some best-practices in seasoned businesses that might improve the efficiency of some academic explorations.

In my experience, the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) is an example of a large-scale physics project done right. At roughly five hundred million dollars over the course of some twenty years, you would be hard pressed to find a corporation that would be better equipped to push the very boundary of real-world physics, invent the field of quantum optics, and at the same time engage more than 900 scientists and researchers worldwide in some of the most fascinating astrophysics of our time.

How Did You Get To Shoot The LIGO Documentary?

First, I need to tell you how I came to be a filmmaker.

Over the years, I had the repeat pleasure of working with my brother Jae, an award winning videographer and filmmaker before me. In the spring of 2011 I was uncertain how to reshape my professional life. I tired of business consulting and craved a creative outlet, and interaction with scientists again. I recall a moment in which it became clear that through science outreach, I could spend days, weeks, even months with some of the best and brightest minds in the world, helping them to tell their stories. But I needed to improve my skills and build a portfolio.

I sold most everything I own, including my house, furniture, and car. I gave away half my clothes and much of what I owned. I was free to travel the world with camera in hand. This was, for me, a return to a core passion for storytelling and affirmation of a life-long affinity for work in film.

My new career begin with "The Explorers,” a film about astronomy and what we have discussed in this interview. I traveled across the United States, to Hawaii, Tanzania, and South Africa (where I now reside) to capture the stories of amateur and professional astronomers. In 2012 I produced two dozen short educational films for Ron Spomer, one of North America's leading wildlife conservationists. What I learned was invaluable, both about the wild world, and about film making.

In the summer of 2013 I returned from five months in East Jerusalem and the West Bank of Palestine where I was engaged as a photo-journalist and filmmaker. Gaurav Khanna (as we discussed earlier) knew I was seeking film projects, and introduced me to his associated Gabriela Gonzales at LIGO.

While "The Explorers" yet sits on the editing table, the trailer was well received by my associates at LIGO. We assembled a proposal for the first film, and in just a few weeks, it was funded by Caltech and the LIGO Collaboration. Having lived alone for most of six months on an isolated ranch in the Rocky Mountains, I packed what remained of my belongings and the first two weeks of December 2013 shot “LIGO, A Passion for Understanding” at the LIGO Hanford Observatory.

We partnered with Space.com for the launch, which was a total success. The second film was funded by the National Science Foundation just shortly thereafter and will launch mid January 2015.

Can You Tell Us A Bit About Your Children?

In 2007 I was working as a volunteer in an orphanage in Nakuru, Kenya. There I met Lindah and Bernard, then thirteen or fourteen years of age. Each had spent the better part of their lives in that orphanage and school, withing the walls of a small compound. In 2008 and 2009 I returned to Kenya, visiting them each time. It is difficult to explain, but we gradually became family. In 2010 Lindah asked if I would help her attend school. I did. She graduated from Egerton University with a B.S. in Economics in December of 2013. Bernard has another year to go with his degree in Community Health.

People often ask if they are legally adopted. No. But the English language does not have a word for what we share. I am not just their financial sponsor, nor are they simply friends. We are a kind of family such that we support each other, reach out at least once a week (if not every day) and see our futures shared. My mother (“grandmum”) and I are working hard to find a Masters program for Lindah. We never realized how difficult it is for someone born of one culture to find her way into another. We too easily take for granted how easily the middle, white class of the U.S. calls the world "home". Lindah and Bernard are the only children I have at this point in my life. I will always do what I am able to help them have a better life. In turn, they have promised that when I am old and fragile, they will take care of me. It seems I have unlimited ugali and salted khale in my future!

Why Is Colonizing E.G. Mars Important?

The answer to this is an interview in and of itself. In brief, when a child leaves home, she is given opportunity to not only become herself, independent and unique, but to also look back on those things she desires to retain and improve. When she returns home again, after some time away, those things which were once the norm are new again. This provides the potential for a kind of self-awareness which is imperative to the long-term growth and capacity of an individual.

We are a migratory species. In many thousands of journeys across mountain ranges and deserts, and over tremendous distances by sea we have frequently left the comfort of home only to start again in a new world. When we come back to where we, or our ancestors were born, we recognize how we have changed. What's more, both parties are stimulated by the interaction.

Science fiction is a beacon to science reality, but without seeds in experience it can not grow.

As some 90% of the population now lives in ever increasing, high density urban sprawl, I fear we will stagnate by the very nature of our having no further places to explore. The technological revolution is yet dependent upon the momentum of the industrial revolution before it. With dwindling resources, food, and space, we are running out of time to leave for a new, distant shore.

It is now recognized by anthropologists that much of our agricultural and technological evolution was the result of cross-pollination of trading societies, separated but for those instances of exchange. When we venture to Mars and return to Earth, even just a few years later, the interaction between our explorers and those who remained behind will stimulate the imagination and technological evolution in order that more may follow. Many generations later, we will only read about our species as having once had a single planet to call home as we prepare for the next leap, to a moon of Jupiter or a nearby star.

What Are Your Plans For The Future?

I never think too far ahead (it hurts when I do!). I am not much one for long-term planning, as there are too many unexpected opportunities that might be missed. At the same time, I will not waver from a path of learning in order to share with others what I have gained.

I learn for the sake of learning, and at the same time, learn to help others. I hope my work in the sciences and filmmaking (perhaps once again in product development) will leave a small legacy for the next generation--the gift of inquiry or motivation or stimulated imagination that causes someone to ask "Why?"

The more I understand the world around me, the better equipped I am to reconcile the beauty and the pain that coexist in all humans. Living in South Africa is a daily reminder of these two extremes, for the stunning landscapes contrast deeply with the harsh reminders of a society split between wealth and poverty. It will be some combination of faith, social change, healing, and sciences to understand and then improve our patterns of behaviour in order to invoke true change.

If I will be a part of that, in some manner, then my future is planned.

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Posted on: 12/05/14 1:18AM
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M J View profile

Founder and President, Fiat Physica, Inc.

#MakePhysicsHappen @fiatphysica

“Fiat Physica shall hand the steering wheel of scientific innovation to the public, allowing them to contribute to science, communication, and discovery directly.”

Szabolcs Marka

Chair of the Education and Public Outreach Committee, LIGO and Associate Professor of Physics, Columbia University
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