As the self-described “Lorax” for the stars, Derek Kief has always been driven by an insatiable desire to question everything around him. Now he gets to live out his passion, sharing his love of the Universe with anyone who passes through the doors of Vancouvers own H.R. Macmillan Space Centre. Watch his story Embracing the Unknown, and read the rest of his interview here.
Anything to do with space, that’s kind of where my expertise comes in. I bring forward the content and the day to day kind of knowledge on astronomy and astrophysics, cosmology. When we do program development or talk about creating planetarium shows, I do the coding on the planetarium shows. I build the shows a lot of the time. I do a lot of lectures. I do a lot of teaching. I do a lot of outreach programs where we get to go into schools and talk to kids of all ages and of all demographics about space.
We don’t know the answers to everything. If you talk about someone who deals with something that’s a little bit closer to home, a little bit more concrete, you can have more of those answers readily available. One of the first things that astronomers have to come to peace with is the idea that we don’t know everything and we may not know everything and that’s kind of the beauty of it.
“The sense of wonder and the sense of curiosity is a driving force. It’s a force that enables you to move further as a society.”
To be a scientist, one of the things that I go through is the scientific process, hypothesis, and finding evidence; empirical evidence and proof, going through logic. That’s one of the ways that I live my life.The one thing that frustrates me probably more than anything is the idea that someone is not open-minded to other ideas, and the ability to say, “My ideas are so right and my ideas are permanent that I’m not willing to open my mind to the possibility that something else exists.” That can be frustrating because it’s hard for me to see kids that are being indoctrinated into that. Neil deGrasse Tyson exemplifies the idea that we don’t know everything and there’s a beauty to it. The sense of wonder and the sense of curiosity is a driving force. It’s a force that enables you to move further as a society.
One of the coolest events that we’ve ever had here at the Space Centre, there was a hemorrhaging lunar eclipse. It was a full moon, it had a red tinge to it. It was this really beautiful event. It was a super moon, I think it also was a blue moon; it was this conjunction of all of these things happening at once. We planned for this massive event around it. There were about probably 400 to 500 people just standing around, a massive crowd of people looking up at the sky. It was a moment. When I stopped talking to catch my breath for a second, everyone was looking up at the sky together in awe at something that I love.
We’re so focused down on the Earth, our day to day lives, and our phones. Rarely do we have the opportunity to just look up and wonder and take a moment away from everything. I hope that they have the opportunity to tell someone else to look up and really be inspired to break free of kind of the mortal coil, if you will, of our Earthbound humanity.
Growing up, the people that I really have to attest to who I am today would be my parents. My mom and dad always inspired a sense of be who you are and be courageous with who you are.
My brother was climbing a tree once and he got bit by a bunch of ants. My dad took us out there and he’s like, “Let’s explore these ants and how to respect the world around us.” One of the things that my dad did was he really inspired us to look up in a sense of wonder. My dad and mom were both very intelligent people, but one of the things that they also loved to do was just say, “Experience this, feel this. Rationalize it and understand it, but also just experience it fully.”
My dad and I used to go for a lot of walks at night. It would be our time that we got to connect. We would talk about everything. Often, you know, it’s under the light of the stars and under the light of the full moon. There would often be times where we’d be climbing up to the top of this ski hill. You turn around and it’s just this beautiful view of the night sky and the ground before you and the forest.
“To be an astronomer you really have to be at peace with the fact that you’re viewing something that maybe no one has ever viewed or will ever view again.”
My dad and I did martial arts together. We both studied Aikido. Aikido has a lot to do with connectivity between everything in the world and in the universe. A lot of times we’d have these deep conversations. “What is our place in the universe? What is our directive? Do we teach? How do we learn? What is our purpose?” Often it would end on the top of this hill with us tired after going for a walk with the two dogs and the beautiful night sky. There definitely has always been a pull to the sky and a pull to the kind of celestial sphere if you will, and the universe as a whole. A lot of that was driven by my dad, subconsciously or consciously.
I don’t think anyone truly can comprehend how small we are. When you look at the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away from us, that’s 2.5 million years in the past. That light has been traveling for 2.5 million years. Those numbers are really incomprehensible for us. We casually say, “Oh yeah, the universe is about 13.8 billion years old.” A billion is a number that we as humans can’t really fathom. There is a humbling experience whenever you look up at the nighttime sky.
To be an astronomer, you have to come to peace with the unknown. With not knowing. You know, in Star Trek, they’re boldly going where no one has ever gone before. We’re going to places that no one has ever explored. Yes, we’re going there often optically—we’re going there with our telescopes, whether they be radio, infrared, visible UV. We’re sending our robotic ambassadors to Mars and to Venus and to the moon and to all these other places. It is an extremely exciting time that we live in right now. But to be an astronomer you really have to be at peace with the fact that you’re viewing something that maybe no one has ever viewed or will ever view again.
The beautiful thing about astronomy is that it is a collaborative effort. No matter where you are in the world, if you’re an astronomer, if you’re someone that’s looking up into space, you have a sense of we are Earthlings. We are from Earth. We are all one. When we talk about NASA missions, we talk about ESA missions. They support each other. When we talk about people releasing the images and the data that they have, it’s because they’re sharing it with everyone equally. It is 100% an international effort to push things forward.
The Juno spacecraft is around Jupiter right now. It’s been sending us back amazing footage and some really interesting data. Some of that data has been really startling to us. That’s one of the most exciting things about astronomy. Every time you send a probe somewhere, every time you send a satellite somewhere it’s going to send you back stuff that you didn’t expect. When we sent New Horizons to Pluto, we completely blew our mind with the fact that Pluto has an atmosphere. Pluto has ice all over it’s surface. That its surface is a lot younger than we expected it to be. That’s why we do what we do. That’s why we explore.
We are becoming an interplanetary species. We are going to Mars and we are colonizing Mars. Elon Musk’s plan is to send people by the droves. That’s extremely exciting to me. To be able to say that we will have people growing up on Mars in the next century, that’s crazy. Physiologically, humans will change. The people that are from Mars, the Martians—cause that’s what they will be called—and we will be the Earthlings. The Martians will be physiologically changed by living on Mars. It’s a really exciting time when we’re exploring this different place. We’re starting the seed of, “Okay, now we’re going to be able to go to this new world, this new planet that we can now explore and learn about and see the beauty of in a completely different way.”
I personally believe that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Probably way more intelligent than we are, that has discovered us. That is respectfully keeping its distance until we’ve discovered them. Maybe I’m taking Star Trek a little bit too much to heart, but I do think of the prime directive and the idea that you don’t mess with another species until they’ve gotten warp technology or moved to that point. I think we definitely exist in a world, in a universe with other worlds and other intelligent species.
As told to Tim Smith. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.