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Dark Energy, the Universe and Bridging Local Tech with Astronomy: a Conversation with UCSC’s Ryan J. Foley

Dark Energy, the Universe and Bridging Local Tech with Astronomy: a Conversation with UCSC’s Ryan J. Foley

by Cat Johnson

According to his UCSC bio, Ryan J. Foley is an assistant professor of Physical & Biological Sciences in the university’s Astronomy & Astrophysics Department. The title is slightly intimidating and I’m not entirely sure what it means.

When I ask Foley what he says when someone casually asks him what he does for work, he jokes that it depends on whether or not he wants to talk to the person.

“If I want to talk to them, I’ll tell them I’m an astronomer,” he says with a laugh. “If I don’t want to talk to them, I tell them I’m a physicist.”

Foley admits he typically refers to himself as an astronomer and may add that he’s a professor. When he talks about his work, he usually says he works on exploding stars. 

“That’s pretty all-encompassing,” he says.

Regardless of how he introduces himself, Foley is compelling, and he’s really good at what he does. In 2016, he was awarded a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering. The Fellowship gives him $875,000 over five years to support his research on dark energy, which makes up 70 percent of the universe but was only discovered 20 years ago.

To put that into perspective, Foley points out that 70 percent of the earth is covered with water.

“Imagine if only 20 years ago we discovered water,” he says. That’s the place where we’re at.”

The Astronomer Next Door

Foley has a boy-next-door, California vibe, which feels—incorrectly, of course—at odds with who you might consider a world-class astronomer/physicist to be. He challenges expectations and stereotypes and inspires people to rethink their place in the universe.

He's long been interested in astronomy, but didn’t consider it as a career until college. He was good at math and “pretty nerdy growing up,” so he went to college planning to become a mathematician. His junior year, he took an astronomy class and decided to switch career paths which, Foley adds with a laugh, “turned out to be a good decision.”

“The questions are so much better in astronomy,” he says. “Math is pretty abstract—and that’s coming from an astronomer. Math is all in your head and it’s often hard to bring it down to something that’s tangible.” He adds, “With astronomy, anyone can look up at the sky and night and, immediately, they’re an astronomer. They’re doing the same kind of things that professional astronomers were doing only a couple hundred years ago—just looking at the stars.”

Foley’s enthusiasm for exploring our universe is apparent and contagious. In talking with him I can’t help but want to pick up an astronomy book or revisit some of the Hubble photographs. The humanness of what Foley does, and his excitement over seeing people excited about astronomy, is at the heart of our conversation.

“I don’t know a single person who has seen an image from Hubble and doesn’t have an immediate reaction,” he says. “When I was trying to figure out how to spend my life, I just felt like that was such a better way to connect to society—to understand the universe around us.”

Foley’s humanness extends beyond philosophical questions into existential ones that help chart a course forward.

“Knowing we are a small speck in the universe dramatically changes the way people view the earth,” he says. “It affects environmental policy and climate change. We are really special—the earth is really special. There’s one Earth and, if we have any hope of surviving if the Earth doesn’t survive, it’s going to be really hard.”

Studying Dark Energy

One of the main focuses of Foley’s work is to further our collective understanding of dark energy.

We know very little about dark energy. We know roughly how much there is and some basic properties: it’s everywhere; it doesn’t cluster up; it causes the expansion of the universe to speed up with time.

The analogy Foley uses is that, if you throw a ball into the air, dark energy is like a little engine on the ball that pushes it faster and faster, rather than having gravity pull the ball back down to earth. This is outside the standard model of physics which, as Foley explains, “has been incredibly successful in explaining all sort of things in physics.”

“We know the model is wrong in some way because it does not predict dark energy,” he says. “Dark energy is such a huge part of our universe that is so obviously there but we still don’t have a very good theoretical understanding. That’s sort of the big puzzle. We need to figure it out. That’s one of the things we’re doing.”

Foley’s group is relatively small—just a dozen people. But they’re taking a fresh approach to studying data that’s been being gathered since the 1980s and could potentially have a bigger impact on dark energy research and understanding than all the other programs—with teams of hundreds of people working on them—combined.

“So far, it’s been an exceptionally positive experience,” Foley says. “I work with the best people around. They’re just fantastic. They’re incredibly nice and hard working. It’s been a lot of fun and the science has just been spectacular. It’s been better than anything we predicted.”

Foley would like to see more collaboration between the university and the local tech community. He’s aware of all the local talent—and the fact that academic salaries tend to be significantly lower than private sector tech salaries. But astronomy is producing extremely large data sets of data that are free and publicly available. He sees this data as a useful way to bridge tech and academia.

“There’s a lot of overlap between astronomy and tech,” he says. “We try to work with people both in town and in Silicon Valley and I hope we can improve that even further. But there is a giant gulf between how much the university can pay people and how much those people can make in private industry.”

Foley adds that people who are going to be paid by the university have to want that lifestyle, or want to contribute to society in a different way.

“Maybe they prefer to work on solving the mysteries of the universe rather than how to make somebody buy a particular product,” he says.

Foley would like to figure out projects where companies can contribute to the work on dark matter and also see financial benefits. 

“There are all sorts of possibilities I’d love to see more of,” he says. “If people have ideas, they should reach out to me. I’m all ears.”

Ryan J. Foley is the 2018 NEXTies “Wildcard” honoree. The event, which celebrates “the area’s best and brightest doers,” takes place Friday, March 23 at the Rio Theatre. More information and tickets here.