When is the right time to talk about the apocalypse?
Katie Mack, a theoretical cosmologist at N.C. State University, was pretty sure it wouldn’t be during a global pandemic.
But something about her work — the study of how existence itself might unravel in a big crunch or in a heat death or entirely some other way — seemed to strike a chord.
In the past year, Mack’s book, “The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking),” a detailed look at the physics behind the likeliest ways the universe will ultimately be destroyed, has been lauded nearly everywhere for its ability to convey complex and abstract concepts in digestible nuggets.
The book, mostly written inside of Jubala Coffee on Hillsborough Street, was named a best book of 2020 by The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Economist magazine. And her thoughts about the terminal nature of space have even gotten her name-checked in a song by the Irish singer Hozier.
“When the book came out, there was this kind of apocalyptic vibe going on,” Mack said in an interview with The News & Observer while sitting on N.C. State’s campus.
“People were dealing with a lot of big, difficult things in actual life,” Mack said. “And the idea of thinking about the universe and something much bigger and more destructive, but in a very separate way, was appealing to a lot of people.”
But the book is funny, too, and perhaps that is why Mack, 40, has gained a following of hundreds of thousands on social media. That’s no easy feat, especially when writing about physics, the laws of gravity and subatomic particles. But there’s humor hidden between lines or in footnotes that make the reader laugh out loud.
Paul Huffman, the head of N.C. State’s physics department, said Mack is adept at shepherding readers through some of the most complex topics in physics, making her work approachable for nearly anyone.
“Scientists really take a very fact-based approach,” he said. “It’s hard to convey that to the public, and I think she does a very good job of conveying real facts, and in a way that people can understand.”
Randall Munroe, the cartoonist behind the web comic XKCD, said Mack’s light touches help the book avoid reading like a boring textbook and help it become something people actually engage with.
“Humor helps people not only engage but share,” Munroe said. “It’s what gets someone to go from reading something and then deciding to send it to a friend.”
For her work to elevate the understanding of science and make it more accessible, Mack is The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Month, which honors people who have made significant contributions to North Carolina and the region.
A curious mind
Mack grew up in a scientifically curious household in Southern California.
Her family used to take her to the mountains outside of Los Angeles, above the light population of the city, to watch meteor showers and look at the stars. They’d take her to public lectures on cosmology and constantly read science fiction from magazines like Asimov’s and Analog.
She was always analyzing the world around her, said Carol Mack, Katie’s mother.
As a cosmologist, that inquiring nature now extends past the confines of the Earth, studying everything from the universe’s beginning to its end.
Mack is a theoretical cosmologist — a strain of cosmology focused on proving or breaking theories that explain how the universe works, like finding explanations for the mysterious substance dark matter. She has written several papers, for example, on why the two most popular methods for measuring how quickly the universe is expanding give different answers — a problem called the “Hubble Tension.”
Before she got to N.C. State, Mack’s scientific education took her all across the world. After stints at Caltech and Princeton, she spent time at Cambridge University as a postdoc, working in an office underneath the famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking.
Hawking, who had been a hero of hers growing up, even attended one of her talks at a lunchtime seminar, a surreal highlight of her life. The talk was on primordial black holes, an idea that Hawking helped put forward.
But, during the talk, Hawking’s voice synthesizer kept going off, saying things like, “No!” or “maybe.” She thought he was heckling her, but it was just the machine thinking he was trying to talk while he ate.
Carol said she isn’t surprised at all to see her daughter gain a following. She always has had confidence in herself to share her opinion and try to win people over.
“She’s always known her mind,” Carol Mack said.
“When she was seven, I put a roast chicken on the table, and she said, ‘Mom, that used to be alive. I can’t eat that,’” Carol recalled. “And from that day on, she was a vegetarian. She’s now vegan.”
But her daughter wasn’t just sure of herself. She was persuasive. She convinced the entire family to go meat-free.
She was initially discouraged from even writing a book this early in her career. Some viewed it as a distraction on her quest to get tenure, Carol said. But she always has craved challenges.
For one, she has always wanted to become an astronaut. Despite not getting into the astronaut program after applying multiple times, Mack said she is still training for it.
Lately, that’s meant spending time in the clouds, using her down time in the pandemic and money from her book deal to earn her pilot license. “One of the things that improves your chances is to be a pilot,” she said.
Last year, like most of us, Mack couldn’t travel any more, and with her lease temporarily up in Raleigh, she settled in Western Massachusetts for a time, living near a small airport that offered flying lessons.
“There’s just something amazing about there being no other people within 4,000 feet of me in any direction,” Mack said.
The social science
Mack is part of a new generation of scientists, who are both adept at using social media and have built a large following.
It’s created a new avenue for scientists to directly engage with people on Twitter, YouTube, TikTok and other platforms rather than being limited to research papers, speaking engagements or attempting to write a best-selling book.
Her Twitter account is followed by more than 398,000 people with almost 13,000 more on Instagram and 10,500 on TikTok. On Twitter, she is willing and able to put trolls back in their place — and break down complex theories for a general audience.
“I think it’s actually really great, because there are so many scientists who are directly talking to the public,” she said. “I think it is hugely important, because I think one of the most valuable thing for scientists to do is be more available to the public so they know what we’re doing and why.”
She recently pointed out a poll on her Twitter account that she found discouraging. Only around 64% of U.S. adults now say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in science, compared with 70%, when Gallup originally issued the survey in 1975. Among Republicans, though, the drop was even more severe, falling from 72% to 45%.
She’s worried that every issue of importance is now being politicized and that scientists are now completely misunderstood for the most part.
Take climate change, for instance. “There are people who honestly think that scientists are making up stuff for the grant money,” she said. “That is not how grants work.
“And nobody is getting rich from being a climatologist. The way you get rich, with a geology, or a geophysics degree or an atmospheric science degree, is you work for an oil company.”
Huffman, the head of N.C. State’s physics department, said science organizations are starting to recognize the importance of outreach. In fact, one of Mack’s main roles at N.C. State — and a big reason she took the job there — is to do outreach. She is a member of NC State’s Leadership in Public Science Cluster, an initiative designed to recruit faculty that can engage the general public.
The position, where she only teachers in the spring semester, allows her the space to do her research and take time to figure out ways to engage people with astrophysics, like writing her book.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there on everything, including science,” Huffman said. “You know, respect for science, in general, has degraded over the last 10 years or more. A lot of politics is involved in sort of trying to discredit science.”
It can also illuminate the fact that not every scientist is a straight, white male, and there are women like Katie Mack creating a following. Mack’s book mentions several women, including Vera Rubin — instrumental in the theory behind dark matter — who probably should have won a Nobel Prize in physics but did not.
“It’s very important for people to see anyone who doesn’t look like Albert Einstein, or Doctor House, or Sheldon Cooper, you know,” she said, citing both real and fictional researchers. (House was a genius doctor on the Fox TV show, “House,” while Sheldon Cooper was a genius scientist on CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory.”)
“I mean there’s this very pervasive stereotype of, like, the genius scientists,” Mack said. “It has to be a man, has to be a white person, and they have to be somebody who has no social skills and doesn’t care about anything but their work.”
That’s harmful, she said, to anyone who doesn’t match that description. “People who don’t see themselves in that image, think that they can’t be scientists … which is absurd,” she said. “It could prevent (science) from having viewpoints that we need to hear and specifically hurts people who could be great scientists.”
But even more than protecting the reputation of science or providing a diverse viewpoint to the field, Mack sees her job as getting people to think about their place, not just in the world, but the universe.
It’s something she herself is still grappling with — how to deal with the fact that ultimately the universe is likely to destroy itself and that humanity’s story will some day end altogether.
The epilogue of “The End of Everything” contains probably some of the most powerful passages of the entire book, as she asks the scientists from around the world the same question: What does the end of the universe mean to you?
Mack has long pondered it. She even briefly spent time in theology school, though it didn’t stick to a mind that had been trained to prove existence with math.
“I find the concept of faith very difficult, because faith is all about not having empirical evidence,” she told Russell Brand on the Under the Skin podcast. “I have never figured out how to do that. How to believe without evidence.”
For her part, Mack said she is still torn about the question she asked those scientists — how she feels about the end.
“I still find it hard to find a reasonable position to take on the ultimate destruction of everything,” she said. “It’s such a troubling idea that every time my brain tries to go there, it kind of comes back. I have not quite found that sort of calm, acceptance, that some of my colleagues clearly have.”
But she said it is a worthwhile thought to ponder.
She thinks maybe, if you are able to zoom out your perspective billions of years to the end of everything, it could provide something similar to the Overview Effect — a realization that many astronauts get the first time they look at Earth from space.
From above, Mack said, you can’t see national boundaries. You can only see a fragile, floating blue dot in a great expanse of nothingness, and the competitions between nations and individuals on Earth seem less important.
“I think there’s a similar effect that can happen when you think about cosmology,” she said. “You think about the universe and the beginning of time and the end of time and how we fit into this much bigger picture — this cosmic story.
“If you can conceptualize that, then our life on Earth, and the ways that we can relate to one another, is much more precious and much more special.”
She hopes her book can maybe provide that perspective.
And she is still hoping to maybe one day get that view of the Earth from way above.
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate