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Blazing a Bold Trail: Umut Yıldız

Umut Yıldız is a scientist who works as a researcher in deep space communication and astrophysics at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). We talked to him about his career journey, which started with observing stars from his balcony at a young age and led him to NASA.

We know that your curiosity for science began at a very young age. While continuing your education in Türkiye, did you ever think this journey would lead you to NASA? In a country where there is still not enough focus on space and astronomy, what was the bravest decision that shaped your career?

My fascination with science and space began in my childhood, but back then, I could never have imagined it would lead me to NASA. During my middle and high school years in Çanakkale, I recall eagerly waiting for the library, where they offered public access to the internet. I couldn’t wait to get an hour and, as soon as that happened, I remember rushing to access NASA’s website. During that period, one of the bravest decisions that shaped my career was my determination to pursue this profession even though I had never seen a physicist or astronomer in my life. Back then, with limited internet access, I had no idea that I could connect with physicists or astronomers from around the world, let alone consider it as a viable career path. I simply loved reading about space and observing the sky. Before even entering university, I had read almost every available book on astronomy and space, and memorized all the stars visible from my home’s balcony. Even though my surroundings didn’t offer much support, I had already dreamed of a future in space and worked towards that goal. I continue to work towards it to this day.

Most scientists have specific methods for conveying knowledge. You, however, seem to follow a different approach with your entertaining explanations and posts. How do you assess the role of your engaging communication in increasing public awareness of science?

Everyone has their own perspective on life, and how you react depends on how seriously you take it. Especially when explaining science on social media, I enjoy adding an element of fun. This is because I consider it crucial for scientific discoveries to be discussed by people who do not make a living from science, which ultimately helps popularise science. Universities and research centres that advance science are supported by the public’s taxes, and I believe it’s essential for the public to know where their taxes are going. The more involved the public becomes in science, the more budgets for science will increase in the country, leading to further advancement in the field. As science advances, the well-being of the public also increases. Wealthy countries do not create science; it is a cyclical process where countries that excel in science become wealthy, and as they become wealthier, they engage in more expensive science.

Do you believe that humanity can establish a new life beyond Earth? If so, will this life continue in its current form, or do you think humans will evolve into a new form?

I do believe that humanity can establish a new life beyond Earth. However, whether it will be accomplished by humanity as we know it or by more intelligent cybernetic organisms that come after us is uncertain. One of our major goals at the moment is to establish a permanent station on the Moon, enabling researchers to travel to and from the Moon regularly, and to send the first human to Mars. I believe we may witness these achievements in our lifetime. But creating cities and civilizations on other planets like Earth is likely to be something that only our descendants’ descendants will see. Earth has been around for 4.6 billion years, whereas we, Homo sapiens, have only been here for the past 200 thousand years. Many different species have come and gone before us, and 99% of species have become extinct. Unlike other species, we feel special because we have developed intelligence. However, it’s highly probable that we, too, will eventually become extinct, and we will hand over our place to

a smarter form of intelligence. I can’t say “to other living creatures” because, in my opinion, once intelligence arises in the universe, it won’t disappear again; it will somehow perpetuate across generations.

In the field of astrophysics, what do you consider the boldest step that needs to be taken?

In astrophysics, we have two significant questions. One is whether there is extra-terrestrial life or intelligent extra-terrestrial life. The other is how the universe and celestial objects formed, both in terms of their temporal and spatial origins. To answer these questions, astrophysicists use all scientific methods fearlessly, and challenge past assumptions completely to make new discoveries. For example, in the 1920s, the debate was whether there was only one galaxy in the universe or thousands of galaxies. Today, we know that there are over 400 billion galaxies, each containing billions of stars and trillions of planets. Fearlessly answering these questions requires us to build the world’s largest telescopes, and every answer we receive not only leads to new questions but also shows that some of our previous assumptions were incorrect. The beauty of science is that we can say something is true today, but if new data comes in, we can immediately change our stance and update our knowledge.

Where are we in terms of the future of space exploration? Is there a major discovery we can expect in the near future?

We sent a rover the size of a car called Perseverance to Mars, landing it in an area where we knew there used to be a lake. We hoped to find some signs of past life in the area where there used to be water. However, we haven’t received any data for the past two and a half years. On a different front, the James Webb Space Telescope recently discovered that galaxies in the universe appeared almost as soon as the universe itself was formed. This discovery could change our understanding of the universe’s origin. These are exciting times in space exploration.


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