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This article was published 14/4/2018 (1324 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There is not a day that goes by that Samar Safi-Harb’s mind doesn’t shake free of Earth and rocket to the stars.
Out there, in the vastness beyond all human things, the University of Manitoba astrophysicist finds a laboratory of sorts. She can’t see it with her own eyes and she will never visit. Yet what happens there is where her work begins.
For years, Safi-Harb has studied what happens when stars die, ending their lives in spectacular explosions. In the remnants left behind, she finds the building blocks of all things — even the blood in our veins, the oxygen we breathe.
"By studying these explosions, we can find these heavy elements in space and say, ‘Look, we are made of these things,’" she says, calling from the airport en route to a speaking engagement in Washington, D.C.
When she talks to people who aren’t astrophysicists about this work, their eyes frequently glaze over. It’s complex stuff, rich with terms such as "interstellar medium" and "high-resolution X-ray spectroscopy."
Sometimes they come back to her with another question: why? Why does astrophysics matter, when people on Earth are dying from cancer? Why do supernovas need attention, when families here are struggling to survive?
It’s an understandable question, Safi-Harb adds. But what most people don’t see are the connections between the study of out there and down here, the way astrophysics (for example) and human technology work hand-in-hand.
For instance, she points out, the luggage belts she passed in the airport are built, in part, on technology that was developed for space missions. So are many things we use in transportation and in medicine.
"A lot of the technology we use in space is useful in medicine," Safi-Harb says.
"We’re looking for patterns in data, and that’s what they’re trying to do, too.
"For a comparatively small amount of funding, we can bring back these things that also matter here on Earth, including medicine and computer technology."
This is what she wants people to understand, when she speaks today at the March for Science. It is the second edition of the annual gathering, which last year drew more than one million people to events in over 600 cities worldwide.
In Winnipeg, the march will kick off at 1 p.m. and stay at the legislature. It’s not so much a protest, organizers say, but a chance to highlight how science can change our lives, and to advocate for its ongoing support in these times.
Because there is that gap, sometimes. Science has always been whipped by the winds of politics; even during the space frenzy of the mid-20th century, when public excitement for science hit a peak, that was politically driven, too.
In the years since, scientists have often wondered how to recapture that public attention. Social media has offered one avenue: Chris Hadfield’s tweets from space probably did as much, or more, to build interest as any headline.
The problem facing scientists, Safi-Harb says, is multifold. For one thing, scientists are busy, their minds near-constantly occupied by their work. For another, there’s the matter of how to communicate that work effectively.
"When I talk to politicians, sometimes I realize it’s like we’re speaking a different language," she says. "I speak science language, and they speak more about what most people care about on planet Earth. That’s a skill, too."
Learning to speak the same languages matters. Last year, a panel of world-renowned scientists released a painstaking review of Canada’s standing in the fundamental sciences; their final report made key revelations.
Canada ranks well globally in terms of research funding, they found. But federal support had declined over the previous 15 years, relative to other prosperous nations; universities bear research costs mostly on their own.
"Internationally, this is a highly anomalous situation, and it is having adverse effects on both research and higher education across Canada," the report concluded, and offered a slew of recommendations to strengthen research.
Months after the report was released, the federal government issued a new budget, calling for $925 million for the nation’s research-granting councils over five years. That marked a 25 per cent increase from previous levels.
"Things like that (report) make a big difference," Safi-Harb says. "It does look like it’s made an immediate impact."
But that’s at the top of the research pyramid. What events like the March for Science emphasize too is the value of starting at ground level: by connecting people, especially youth, with all of the wonders that science discovers.
In a way, Safi-Harb’s remarkable career is a testament to the power of a solid, early science education.
As a girl growing up in Lebanon, Safi-Harb thought she might become a doctor. Then she took a physics course in high school and the universe opened up to her; after a brief stint in pre-med, she decided to follow that passion.
She went to the United States for her graduate studies, then went on to a two-year stint at NASA. In 2000, she was the first person hired to help launch the U of M’s graduate astrophysics program — an "exciting" challenge, she says.
Over the years, she became a renowned researcher. She sits on a wide array of national and international committees, and in 2007 earned a prestigious Canada Research Chair position for her supernova studies.
But all of those achievements here in Manitoba trace back to the thrill she found in those first high school classes, half a world away. (When the entire universe is your workspace, the Earth is, by contrast, a very small place.)
"You think of physics as a male-dominated field," she says. "That didn’t scare me at all, because it was my passion. I went to the United States from Lebanon, which is a totally different culture, and I remained focused on my mission.
"I became more passionate about science as a result, because astrophysics is so interesting, and so meaningful to me. Now I’m at the stage where I see the benefit to society."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.