From UC Santa Cruz: Women in STEM-“Leading the charge for change” Amita Kuttner

UC Santa Cruz

From UC Santa Cruz

March 08, 2019
Peggy Townsend
gwenj@ucsc.edu

Alumna Amita Kuttner, a current graduate student in astrophysics, is running as a Green Party candidate for a seat in Canada’s House of Commons in order to make policy around climate change—a quest sparked by a devastating loss.

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Alumna Amita Kuttner, current Astrophysics graduate student & Green Party candidate for a seat in Canada’s House of Commons.

Amita Kuttner was away at boarding school in 2005 when the mudslide hit her parents’ home outside of Vancouver, Canada.

Tons of rocks, soil, and trees swept through her parent’s hillside house, killing Kuttner’s mother, Eliza, while she slept and tossing her father, Michael, who was in the bathtub, into the maelstrom. He survived but suffered permanent brain injuries, according to Kuttner.

The slide came after several days of extreme rain, and while Kuttner, a Ph.D. student in astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, said she can’t specifically blame the disaster on climate change, she’s seen the devastating effects of recent wildfires, hurricanes, and floods that have been sparked by the Earth’s warming. She couldn’t just sit by, she said.

Today, Kuttner, 28, is not only finishing her Ph.D. thesis but also running as a Green Party candidate for a seat in Canada’s 338-member House of Commons in order to help make policy for the changes we are facing.

Her platform includes a push to have municipalities prepare better for disasters, to strengthen social safety nets for people whose jobs are eliminated because of automation, to establish a guaranteed livable income, and to create policy to deal with the changes coming because of leaps in artificial intelligence technology.

“I love to do astrophysics,” she said by telephone from her home in a suburb of Vancouver, “but right now we have to save the planet so that we can do astrophysics.”

Kuttner said she has been fascinated by the universe and the nature of time since she was a young girl and that she pointed herself toward the sciences early on. She was 14 and attending the private Mount Madonna School in the hills above Watsonville, Calif., when the slide struck her home. If she hadn’t been away at boarding school, she said, she would most likely have become another victim of the slide.

The disaster left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression, she said. Yet, she graduated from high school and eventually landed at UC Santa Cruz, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in physics in 2013 and received a master’s in 2016.

According to the College Nine grad, her time at UC Santa Cruz not only led her to a study of black holes, which is the focus of her thesis, but also birthed her activism.

“The climate of the university is such that we are encouraged to not take the world for what it is but to challenge the status quo,” she said.

Kuttner led the Women in Physics and Astronomy group on campus; learned about pushing back against outdated institutional policy; and spent hours in conversation with her adviser, Professor of Physics Anthony Aguirre, on big-picture topics that ranged from climate change to artificial intelligence. Aguirre is also associate director of the Foundational Questions Institute.

Then, according to her, Donald Trump was elected president and she felt she could no longer focus only on her science.

“I was sitting in my adviser’s office, crying because I felt so powerless, and never before then had I ever wanted power,” she said. “But when I felt powerless to do anything I thought, ‘I can’t stand this. I can’t see something unjust and not want to change it.’”

Kuttner went north to work on her Ph.D. and announce her Green Party candidacy. She will defend her thesis in May. The election is Oct. 21.

“It’s very easy to feel hopeless about the magnitude of the problems we face and how much we’re heading in the wrong direction,” Aguirre said. “But if you give in to that despair there’s no way those problems will be solved. Amita has taken that truth to heart, and chosen to be motivated rather than devastated. That’s a wonderful thing to see and gives me hope as well.”

Kuttner said her campaign is very people centered. She believes that municipalities need to better prepare for the extreme weather that is coming by making sure people are ready, that communities can be resilient. She also believes government must address the root causes of people’s inability to make a decent living and also provide a guaranteed livable income, especially as jobs are lost because of automation.

Advances in artificial intelligence also make government policy changes necessary, she said. She plans to set up a think tank centered on issues around AI.

But whether she wins the election or not, Kuttner said, she will continue to work on these issues.

“The intention is bigger than the means,” she said. “In the end, it doesn’t matter how things get accomplished. I’ll just try another way.”

See the full article here .


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UCSC Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft)

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UCO Lick Shane Telescope
UCO Lick Shane Telescope interior
Shane Telescope at UCO Lick Observatory, UCSC

Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

UC Santa Cruz campus
The University of California, Santa Cruz, opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

Lick Observatory's Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building
Lick Observatory’s Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow
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The NIROSETI instrument saw first light on the Nickel 1-meter Telescope at Lick Observatory on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Hatch) UCSC Lick Nickel telescope

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego who led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by UC Berkeley researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

NIROSETI will be fully operational by early summer and will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.

The NIROSETI team also includes Geoffrey Marcy and Andrew Siemion from UC Berkeley; Patrick Dorval, a Dunlap undergraduate, and Elliot Meyer, a Dunlap graduate student; and Richard Treffers of Starman Systems. Funding for the project comes from the generous support of Bill and Susan Bloomfield.