Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Michelle Thaller

Q. Why do you love being an astronomer?​

A. For me, I’ve always loved the stars. I’ve never been able to get them out of my head. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t strangely fascinated by the night sky. Even as a child I would look up at this beautiful, pristine dark sky with sparkling stars and was completely mesmerized by it. You’re confronted with something so vast, so huge, that the human brain can’t even try to comprehend it. And yet it’s not just cold emptiness. There’s a story there. And the story turns out to be the best story ever. It’s the story of why you’re here. It’s about how the Earth formed, how the universe formed, and in many ways, what the meaning of your life is. To me, there’s nothing as magical as astronomy, and the profound thing about the magic is that it’s real. I think that has profoundly changed me. I don’t view it as technical and something cold, but as something that filled my life with awe and connection, and as far I can see will continue to for the rest of my days.

Q.  What intrigues you about going on tour with a small group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers?​

A.  I think a lot of people wish that the fun parts of education would continue through the rest of their entire lives. On a Smithsonian Journeys tour you have the opportunity to stand back and learn something new. Maybe it’s something you didn’t even know you were interested in—but just sounded like a fun thing to do, to spend some time with a lecturer and with other people who are interested in learning, and delving into something new. And all of a sudden you may have a new interest, maybe a new hobby, maybe even a new passion. When it comes to astronomy, you think that it would make you feel very small. We’re tiny, tiny little things compared to the sun or the galaxy. But you are part of that. You’re intimately connected to the Sun, the galaxy, the Big Bang. There is no separation between us and the universe. Just think of yourself as part of that whole. You might feel a bit challenged about it all, but it adds to the adventure, to the journey. So just step back to learn. Come along for the story... it’s your story.

Q. Tell us about the Northern Lights. ​

A. Iceland is an ideal place to see the famous Aurora Borealis—the Northern Lights. Not only is this phenomenon incredibly beautiful, it’s a profound way to experience the larger space environment that we live in. The Northern Lights are triggered when high energy particles from the Sun get trapped in the Earth’s magnetic tail, which extends many thousands of miles away from the Earth, blown back by the Sun’s particle wind. Some of these particles get shot back towards our planet, and enter near our magnetic poles, causing different gases in our atmosphere to glow. You may not realize it, but the reason we’re all around today is thanks to our magnetic field. It protects us from harmful solar particles and not all planets have them! So when you look up into the sky and see the shimmering lights, you’re directly experiencing the complex and beautiful magnetic dance of the Earth and the Sun. 

Q.  What do you look forward to on this trip? ​

A.  I think of myself as a host for the entire experience and want to have a conversation with you. I look forward to meeting people who are curious and passionate about things I don’t know about. I want to talk with you throughout the trip. Yes, during sky viewing sessions and lectures, but also at dinner and all along the way. I want to find out what you know and where you’ve been so that I can add to that, to talk about things that might interest you, things that you may never have thought about.