Words by Kaylee Dugan, Photos by Nicholas Karlin
Emily Martin works at one of the most popular museums in the world. She doesn’t give tours and she doesn’t curate exhibits. She’s a real scientist who spends her days researching, writing and trying to figure out explanations for some of the weirdest things happening in our Solar System. She’s one of many scientists who works out of the labyrinthine halls of National Air and Space Museum and you’ll be able to meet her on Saturday when we take over Air and Space for our Found In Space After Hours. Get your tickets now and get ready to dive into the world of icy satellites, ocean worlds and other deeply weird science stuff. We’ll let the expert take it away…
Can you tell me about the first job you ever had?
The first job that ever paid? So I was a cashier at a local grocery store for probably five or six years. The rule in my family was once you turned 16, you had to be able to put gas in your car. And so they were like, you have to go down to the grocery store and you have to tell them that you want to work on Sundays because Sundays is time and a half. And I was like, okay. So I just started working as a cashier. At one point I went full time which was actually kind of fun ‘cause you work with like grownups.
Were you into science when you were in high school?
No. I was not into science. I was into getting into college. And my understanding was that in order to get into college you gotta do all of the subjects throughout high school. So even though you really only had to take like, earth science and biology, I also took chemistry and physics. We had a really strong science program, we had a really strong English program, so I got into college and I was like, now what do I do? So I was kind of like doing it all over again once I got to college to find out what I was interested in. Um I tell people sometimes it’s my dirty little secret. I wasn’t into science as a kid. I wasn’t into space stuff as a kid. Most people have been into this their whole lives. Which is kind of inspiring and intimidating.
So what interested you first? Was it geology and then that lead to moons and space? Or did you get into space and that kind of fed into the geology aspect?
So I got into it in college and I had taken a ton of classes like biology, anthropology, archaeology… Mostly -ologies. And I was doing French Lit. and I thought maybe I was gonna be a French Lit. major for a while… Your freshman year you kind of have to take a bunch of different stuff. There’s not a lot of spaces for electives, they just kind of like plunk you into different classes. I got into this astronomy class, Intro to Astronomy, all about the solar system and I was like, well that was kind of a cool class. There’s a second class in the series, maybe I should take it and see what that’s like? And that was all about the universe. I was like, gosh, this astronomy stuff is really cool, I’m in college I should be able to pick whatever I want. Why not pick astronomy? I was in a small enough school that they didn’t have a designated astronomy department. It was sort of the physics department that had astronomy. I was taking more physics classes and I got an internship. So I was working at this internship at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff and I was like, wow I’m gonna get to do real astronomy. This is what astronomers do.
And I was like, this is not what I thought it would be… I really was excited about those really beautiful Hubble images. Those really colorful, sort of abstract, artistic looking images. I wanted to stare at those all day. It turned out that’s not what your average astronomer looks at all day. I was kind of bummed out about it, and I was kind of… I wasn’t inspired by it, but I learned so much from that internship, including that it wasn’t for me, but I was still interested in space sciences.
When I went back for my senior year, I had an undergrad professor who said, “I need somebody who’s gonna work on this project with me on Ganymede,” which is a moon of Jupiter. Largest moon in the solar system actually, it’s bigger than the planet Mercury, which is a super fun fact. And I was like, see now I get to look at cool pictures all day.
Right, right. That checks off one of the boxes.
That checked off a big box for me and because it was my senior year… I was like, I don’t have a lot of time to pursue this. So I decided to pursue it in grad school, but to pursue that route… it wasn’t astronomy as much as it was geology. So I went on this physics, astronomy, and geology route. I got plugged into a geology graduate program, so I had a little bit of catching up to do because we didn’t have a geology program at my undergraduate institution. It was this kind of windy road to get there, but I was like, well some people study space stuff as a career, why can’t I do that? I could do it. And so I just picked it. I said, “I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna pursue it, and we’ll just see what happens.”
What do you do on a regular basis? You roll into work, like 9 a.m, I’m sure like most people, and what are you doing until 5:30/6:00 when you go home?
If my hours were that regular that would be awesome. I’m still at a point where I kind of dictate my own hours. You try and do the 9-5, 10-6 thing just because you’re part of the Smithsonian community and people wanna ask you things. They need to come into your office and ask you a question or email you or actually have you answer something at a reasonable pace. I usually check my email first thing when I get to the office. My boyfriend and I are both scientists, we’re both geologists, but totally different kinds of geologists. We try really hard to not work when we’re at home because we’re not at home very much. I’m not a devoted bullet journaler, my bullet journal is not pretty at all, it’s just a really easy way to organize my to-do list. I usually take an assessment of what I need to get done today, what I need to get done by the end of the week, and it’s usually a combination of writing. There’s SO much writing. People don’t tell you that scientists spend most of their time writing. You’re either working on a paper, or you’re working on a proposal to do more research to get more funding to do more research to write a paper. It’s a lot of writing. It’s a lot of reading. Google Scholar has transformed science, in my opinion, in a big way, just because you’ll think, “I have this question, I don’t know what’s been done, I don’t know if anybody’s asked it before,” and you can go to Google Scholar and you can get a really good survey of what’s out there, and sometimes you’re like, “Why hasn’t anybody asked this question yet?” and oh look, still nobody’s asked this question yet.
There’s a lot of work that I’ve been doing with one of my colleagues in Iceland. We’ve been trying to finish up some of that data processing to kind of figure out whether we were right or not about our idea. It’s always a lot of different things. The Cassini finale was crazy, there were a lot of blog posts getting done.
So you write that kind of stuff as well?
I’ve written some blog posts. I love getting to talk about icy satellites with people because I just think they’re cool and exciting and really engaging. Everyone has seen a picture of the Moon, and I think the Moon is spectacular, but then when you show them a picture of other moons they’re like, “Holy crap! What the hell is that?”
So I wanna talk about what you wanna talk about, and by that I mean I want you to tell me about Enceladus. Give me a little run down on the fun facts, your favorite fun facts, about Enceladus.
Oh my god, I don’t even know where to start. Enceladus is the size of Washington State, so it’s tiny. Tiny things cool off really quickly, but Enceladus is still warm enough to have liquid water underneath its crust. On the Earth, our crust is made out of rock, but out there, the crust is made out of water ice. So it’s this crust of water ice, this liquid layer of salty water, and then a big rocky core. Our core is metallic – iron, a little bit of nickel, there’s probably some other things in there – but it’s mostly rock on Enceladus. So it’s tiny, it should have cooled off really quickly because it’s tiny and it’s really cold out there. It still has liquid water on it, and liquid water is 0 Celsius right? It’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have liquid water somewhere, you’re pretty much – there’s a few complications in there, you can add some salt and that changes things – but generally speaking, if you have liquid water it’s gonna be at 32 degree Fahrenheit, which means that somehow you have something out there that’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit. You gotta maintain that somehow. And it’s kind of hard to figure out how to do that. We have a few ideas on how Enceladus stays warm, but it’s hard to make it that warm.
They don’t complete the picture.
Right. It’s hard to make it that warm for that long… And that long is 4.6 billion years. We know how it generates some of the heat, but it’s really hard to do it. The ways in which we generate that heat in Enceladus are symmetrical between the North Pole and the South Pole, but Enceladus’s South Pole is very young. It’s got these big cracks in it called the “tiger stripes”. The tiger stripes are these great big cracks in the South Pole that are emitting water, think of a giant Old Faithful in space. It varies a little bit on a daily cycle, but it’s just constantly shooting out. And all that material, some of it falls back onto the surface, and some of it goes into orbit around Saturn and creates Saturn’s e-rings. A lot of the material comes back onto the surface, that’s why Enceladus hasn’t withered away into nothing. The North Pole is older, we know that because it has a lot of craters. When you think about planetary science, anything that has a lot of craters is older than anything that has not a lot of craters on it – that’s the general rule. So on Enceldaus, the South Pole, pretty much no craters and the North Pole, tons of craters. There’s these features that I’ve been doing a lot of work on called pit chains, which are chains of pits, I didn’t name them, but it’s very descriptive, there’s these pit chains, they form a lot of different ways across the Solar System, but on Enceladus, we think they form due to Saturn pulling on Enceladus.
And so these things, I think, are really really young, and you don’t see them in the South Pole but you see them sort of really close to the South Pole. These things go up and over the North Pole, but the North Pole still isn’t shooting water anywhere, it doesn’t have big cracks on the surface. It’s got cracks, but they’re not the same kind. The cracks up there are really young, but they haven’t evolved the way they have in the South Pole. So Enceladus is not only small and hot and active, which already makes it weird and unique in our system. Even just the hot and active part, there’s Earth, there’s Enceladus, depending on who you’re talking to somebody might argue Venus, but I haven’t seen the smoking gun yet for Venus being active. There’s Titan… It’s not hot but it’s active… I mean it’s a small club, it’s a pretty unique club.
You can count them on one hand.
Yeah, and for Enceldaus to be part of that club is pretty surprising. Then you have this dichotomy, right? The North Pole just isn’t really doing anything and the South Pole is just going gangbusters. Everybody’s been trying to figure this out, and there’s only a handful of models that people have developed that can actually make the North Pole do something different than the South Pole. Are they right? I hope so, but it’s still really hard to say. So that’s not really a list of fun facts.
No all of those were very fun facts!
To me, that’s what’s so intriguing about Enceladus. Cassini did such a good job in the Saturn system, we saw crazy diversity, we found out Enceladus is spewing water around Saturn. It’s taught us a lot about what we saw with the Galileo mission around Jupiter and has even made going back to Jupiter, and looking specifically at Europa, even more of a priority. I think we can interpret what we know about Europa now even more because we’ve seen so much stuff go on around Saturn. Even though Europa and Enceladus aren’t perfect analogues for one another, we now have so much more context for what we know about Europa because of what we’ve seen on Enceladus, and some of the other moons around Saturn. Going back to Europa now is perfect timing. So it’s just like crazy strange alien places, and they’re doing such crazy things that we just never thought a planetary body could do. Our imaginations start running wild with what these places could be, and I think part of the reason we’re allowed to do that now is we’ve seen most of the satellites in our Solar System and they’re SO WEIRD. I think with exoplanets now, we have even a better context for the kinds of crazy – plus Pluto?! Don’t even get me started on Pluto. Now that we’ve seen how awesome Pluto is and it’s how many billion miles away from Earth? And it’s got an incredibly young surface! Some people think there’s boiling nitrogen ice on the surface. Knowing how far away Pluto is and how still crazy active and dynamic it is gives you even a better context for these exoplanets. I think that icy satellites are giving us a better viewpoint into how crazy the universe is in terms of planetary systems.
It must be cool to be dealing with the weirdest stuff right now.
Oh my god the weird stuff is so cool. I mean it’s why people like Portland right? People just want to keep Portland weird. I think that’s what the icy satellites do.
They’re the Portland of the Solar System.
This is my new one. I made this one up for my latest lecture. I said that icy satellites keep the universe weird. Oh and lesson one is that all the cool kids call them “ocean worlds” now… Lesson four, I don’t remember what two and three are because I wrote this lecture like two weeks ago and it’s a lot that’s happened since then, but lesson four is that ocean worlds help keep the social system weird. Yeah, I came up with that all by myself.
Ocean world sounds like a theme park and I’m very into it.
Doesn’t it? Ocean world is actually what they’re calling them now because Congress, essentially, when the Europa mission got funded, Congress also wrote language that said that NASA needs to start an ocean worlds program, and so all the cool kids are calling them Ocean Worlds now.
Okay, last two questions, both of them kind of verge on the silly. Would you ever want to go to space?
Yes. I get terribly motion sick though, so I think I would be not a great passenger?
So you’re not first draft.
I like to think I would be first draft material, but honestly I get airsick on planes. I was on a boat last weekend and every time somebody got on the boat my inner ear would just do this dip thing and I would have to grab onto somebody and be like “Did the boat just move? Because otherwise I have a problem.” So I get motion sick, but I love the idea of it. I would like to do it, but no guarantees.
What’s your favorite science fiction film, TV show, or book? You can pick one or go all three. It’s all you. Or none.
This is one of my dirty secrets too… I’m not a science fiction person! I’ve been trying really hard to get better at at least seeing most of them. I mean, Star Trek original series, that’s just spectacular. I haven’t watched the whole thing, I couldn’t tell you my favorite episode, I couldn’t quote it, but that show is just a spectacular thing.