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SciShow Talk Show is back! Hank talks to Jimmy Henderson about project MINERVA, or is it the MINERVA Project? Special Guest Jessi Knudsen CastaƱeda introduces two red eyed crocodile skinks!
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Hank: Hello, and welcome to Sci Show Talk Show, that day on Sci Show where we talk to interesting people about interesting things. Today joining us is Jimmy Henderson of ah.... of "Project MINERVA".

Jimmy: You got it "Project MINERVA"

H: Oh man, it's either no one's quite sure if it's "Project MINERVA" or "The MINERVA Project."

J: Well when they started out it was just MINERVA which is actually an acronym that I can tell you what it means in a minute.

H: Of course it is.

J: So it's you know it's capital MINERVA - all caps, and some people call it "Project MINERVA" and some people call it "MINERVA Project", so they eventual decided I think on " Project MINERVA" because like you said earlier "The MINERVA Project" sounded kinda like a mad scientist thing.

H: Yeah the it's like the the subtitle of an X-Men movie.

J: Yes.

H: Yeah.

J: Yeah, and it fits in with, like, Roman mythology so it would be perfect for a...

H: Oh absolutely. We should say first now that we've talked about the name of your project for a while what you are actually working on because I didn't actually say anything about what you do.

J: Right.

H: At all.

J: So the "MINERVA Project", I'll tell you what the acronym means but it doesn't really mean much to most people because it's really boring astronomy stuff. Um, it's ah MIN is all from the same word. 

H: Ah.

J: It's very poorly done acronym.

H: It's not an acronym at all.

J: Yeah, it's not technically, it's not a legit acronym, it's part acronym it's MINiature Exoplanet Radial Velocity Array.


J: So, like I said, I can tell you what it means but it probably doesn't mean much to the average....

H: But, we've got exoplanet in there which is exciting.

J: Yes, so exoplanet is a really nice "red button" word for a lot of people interested in science.

H: So you're looking for planets that aren't in our solar system?

J: Yes, so the express goal for the MINERVA project is to find hopefully earth-sized planets around near by stars specifically...

H: Did you say the MINERVA Project?

J: Yes

H: Not Project MINERVA

J: Project MINERVA is all...


J: I told you the names are so confusing, so Project MINERVA, its goal is to find earth-like planets around near by stars.

H: To me, when I think about exoplanet research I think about Kepler, which is the space telescope. Kepler finds planets using the transit method where between us and the star the planet happens to be crossing, which it could be doing a number of other things but it happens to be crossing, it dims the light of the star a little bit and then we can say there is a dimming and it happens multiple times and we can learn things about the planet that way.

J: Absolutely, so the nice thing about the transit system is it's fairly easy to do; you just need a telescope that is precise enough to notice like a one percent dip in brightness and luminosity which is not that hard.

H: But there's other ways.

J: There are other ways.

H: And one of them is one of the letters in MINERVA.

J: Yes.

H: That's my guess.

J: Two of the letters.

H: Two of the letters?

J: Radial Velocity.

H: OK.

J: RV those are two of the letters in Project MINERVA, um and what that is is that's a lot more complicated; it requires more expensive equipment and it's... it involves a lot of kinda complicated physical principles but most importantly one principle that isn't complicated, that you know, everybody understands, which is when you hear an ambulance coming through town for example, and it's coming towards you it sounds really really high-pitched right? When it's right in front of you, it's the actual pitch that it's making, and then as it's going away it sounds lower because of the Doppler effect.

The Doppler effect happens with sound and with light and with any kind of wave, what it does is it increases the frequency of the waves that are being thrown at you. With light when it moves towards you, it shifts the spectrum of the light towards the blue, um because it's higher frequency, or if it's moving away from you it shifts the spectrum of the light towards the red which is lower frequency, lower energy. So basically the idea is if you take a prism or any type of light separating device and you break light up, you know you see that nice rainbow? But from stars because they have gas in their atmospheres, certain discrete wave lengths of light, depending on what elements are in the atmosphere of the star, get absorbed and so what you see is instead of like a nice rainbow, like a rectangularized rainbow, you see a rainbow but with little black spots on it. And those black spots are Absorption Lines that has been absorbed by the stuff between us and the star.

H: And that's in the stars own atmosphere?

J: Yes and the, yes the gaseous clouds around the outside of a star, and as well as the material inside of the star, because photons from stars have to travel from the core of the star which takes forever by the way. Um so what we do when you're doing your radio velocity measurements is its very indirect. You watch... you take a spectrum of the light that you're seeing, and you look for those black lines.

Now if you use the same kind of elements that are in a star, like hydrogen is a good one, that we use a lot, hydrogen lines because it's everywhere, we know exactly where it should be on the spectrum but for stars that we take spectrum .. take spectra for far away in outer space, those lines are shifted because of the Doppler effect. The black line will move to the blue if it's moving towards us, and the black line will move to the red if it's moving away from us, pretty simple.

So what you do is you use the amount of shift to figure out the velocity of the star towards you or away from you, and then you plot these velocities and what you get is a kind of sinusoidal curve, like a wave. And based on the period of that curve and the dip of that curve, you can figure out that there is a planet around that star, and how big the planet is, and how far away from the star the planet is because you have it's orbital period.

H: So Kepler is a space telescope.

J: Yes, it is not on the Earth anymore.

H: Which is nice for Kepler. But your telescopes are Earth telescopes.

J: Yes, so, Project Minerva.

H: And you can still do all this amazing stuff?

J: We can. We can't do it as well as Kepler could. But the thing about Kepler is, and missions like Kepler - just like Hubble Space Telescope, once you send it into outer space, it's really really - I keep saying outer space; it probably sound like a little kid, but it's the funnest word to say! Once you send it outside of our atmosphere, it's really hard to get back to it to do upgrades, or you know, fix them?

H: Right, yeah. Yeah, it's just like watching new horizons like arrive with a ten-year-old camera and I'm just like "Oh!. My camera is so much nicer than the camera on..."

J: Everybody's. That's what people don't understand.

H: Yeah, yeah.

J: That's... yeah. You have more impressive technology on your phone than we had when we launched Hubble Space Telescope. So that's kind of the benefit to ground-based telescopes the, you know, the biggest detriment of ground-based telescopes is atmosphere - because you have to look through atmosphere which distorts light like crazy.

Project MINERVA's telescopes are located on a very dry mountain in southern Arizona, about 30 miles from the border to Mexico, just outside Tucson.

The mountain is basically a huge observatory and there's more missions than just ours there, and actually Harvard-Smithsonian owns the mountain, and Harvard University is one of the universities on project MINERVA and, so all of our telescopes are there on that mountain, thanks to Harvard. Thank you, Harvard!

We are one of the schools for the project MINERVA, obviously, then Harvard, like I mentioned, and there's also Penn State has one of the telescopes and University of New South Wales in Australia,is one of the other telescopes, and we also have a new, kind of step-child addition, to the project, in the MINERVA family and it's called MINERVA Red and those, that's being run by people from UPenn.

It's kind of a related, similar but slightly different project. So all of our telescopes are actually on the same patch of ground down in Arizona. And they are all point seven meters, which doesn't mean much to the average person, but when I hear point seven meters I'm all like, "Ooh!"

"Point seven meters, you say?"! They're big telescopes for such a small school to own. The whole thing cost, between all the universities, probably between right around five million, maybe between five and ten million for all the telescopes. all the camera (sic), all the construction that had to be done to put the telescopes there, the computer equipment that we had to buy, so it sounds expensive but that's actually really incredible to be able to do that kind of science for so cheap. 

It's because we bought those four telescopes instead of buying one big one that we're able to do it so cheap.

H: So, they sort of all work together to become a big telescope?

J: Yeah. So it's rather communist-y, I think. I mean basically everybody's like "OK, now we're all gonna go on in equal telescopes", and then we did. Because scientists don't bicker. As much. We don't bicker as much.

H: So how, uh, have you started to have good data be released, or...?

J: So, basically up to this point we broke first light with all telescopes on the mountain earlier this year and since then we've just been collecting a ridiculous amount of data. I mean terabytes of data.

H: So you just like go from star to star to star...

J: Yeah. I mean every night that you can take pictures, and we did that, and summertime's gonna be coming around, and it's gonna be monsoon season, that'll give us plenty of time to analyze data, so now we're kind of sitting on top of mountains and mountains of data that we're currently working on.

We did do data analysis on one set of data that was a known planet but its mass was really iffy, we weren't sure what its mass was and we got a much better constraint on its mass and it's actually a giant, Saturn-sized planet. Basically a hot Saturn around a star.

H: Cool.

J:Around some un-named star.

H: Uh-huh.

J: That's the other thing - stars don't all have cool names like "The Sun". (Hank laughs) Or like Rigel, or Sirius. A lot of stars are called, like, HD1109 and stuff like that so, yeah.

H: I love the ones that have great names, though. 'The Sun' is the best name.

J: He has 'The' in his name! You wouldn't call... Rigel isn't 'The Rigel' or 'The Betelgeuse' 

H: As a human, I appreciate all the hard work the sun does.

J:Yes. And fusion is hard work. We aren't very good at it here on earth, so...

H: But the sun, I feel like "Hey, it's got a lot of advantages when it comes to fusion". Just having this massive...

J: Well, that brings up the question of these interesting people , you know, sell naming rights to stars for people's birthday. There's like, totally a chance that there's a far more intelligent civilization than humans. And we're like, "Oh, this dude named it after his dog, Fluffy, so that's what we call your parent star that sustains life on your far-away and ancient planet".

H: You know, I bet... do you think "The Sun" has another name?

J: Oh, I'm sure, I'm sure of that! 

H: At least a serial number.

J: I'm one of those people, I mean a lot of scientists are apprehensive to say it, that's there's probably life somewhere else in the universe. I mean, the statistics are pretty astounding. 

H: There's somebody out there. 

J: There's definitely some kind of life somewhere else in the universe, almost certainly.

H: Yeah. The question is are they here to kill us?

Jimmy laughs. 

J: Are they here to kill us? Well...

H: Answer that question for me first!

J: OK. Well, let me just dig out all the info I have on mankind and our tendencies to kill other creatures. (Hank laughs) I think that probably, if we ever do, and that new mission SETI was just... the new installment of SETI anyway was just approved for funding which is, it's just a giant mission to find life somewhere else. I think that if we do find life somewhere else, or if life from somewhere else finds us, chances are they'll probably have a more peaceful, hopefully, kind of civilization.

H: Good. 

J: Cross your fingers for, like, Third Rock From The Sun-type thing.

H: They probably have named The Sun after someone's dog.

J: Maybe! After somebody's whatever-they-have-instead-of dollars on that planet, whatever they've domesticated.

H: Of course they domesticate! If they have, if they have, you know, space telescopes...

J: Maybe they've given up on domestication, maybe they'll all vegans now

H: Well, but you don't, you don't have to be eating them... cuddling with them and naming other stars after them.

J: Right. That's true. Not everybody eats their dogs. 

H: Quote:let's put that on...

J: You can quote me on that.

H: Put that on your lower third.

J: I've had several dogs that I never ate, so...

Everybody laughs

J: And I am not ashamed to admit it. Yeah. 

H: Excellent. Tell me though, what kind of pets have you had?

J: What kind of pets? I have...

H: I'm segue-ing.

J: My family has had dogs and cats. The only pet that I ever had that was my own pet was a lizard, a gecko. 

H: Do you like geckos and lizards and...

J: I do, I love reptiles.

H: Do you wanna meet a reptile?

J: I would love to meet a reptile.

H: OK, let's do that. Good segue, we never have a good segue.


H: Poof! You appeared! 

JKC: You were talking about...

H: ...reptiles.

JKC: No, you were talking about pets that aliens might have.

H: Correct. 

JKC: Are they called aliens? Can I call them aliens?

H: Yeah! No..

J: Extra-terrestrials, I think, is the PC term.

JKC: Oh gosh. You're already offending them! 

J: Yeah, that's right.

H: You're the first to go.

JKC: Oh. So you thought maybe they had dogs but what if they domesticated dragons?

H: Yeah, that would be cool.

JKC: Do you wanna see a dragon?

H: Does it breathe fire? Is it very large? Can it hurt me?

JKC: I've not seen them breathe fire, they're very small, and yes, they can hurt you.

H: Oh well, very sma... I feel, how badly can it hurt me? 

JKC: It can bite your finger.

H: OK, then we can see it. 


H: Aw, it's adorable! Why is your head so big? 

J: He does have a large head.

H: What's this?

JKC: This is a red-eyed crocodile skink. 

H: OK. It does have a real dragon head.

JKC: It does. 

J: Very Skyrim.

H: Yeah.

JKC: So, these guys are crocodile skinks because they look like a croc they have those big scales on the back there, and there's 8 species of crocodile skink, but red-eyed crocodile skink...

H: It does have a red eye...

JKC: It has a red eye. Yeah. These guys are actually pretty rare, you don't see them a lot, and they're very rare in captivity. Research is really, really limited on everything about them. 

H: Where are they from? What do they do?

JKC: Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands area. They hide very very well . We have a tank, about a forty-gallon tank for them to live in with lots of hides and I can, frequently, not find them.

H: Mhmm.

JKC: Even though I know they're in there. 

H: How many are there?

JKC: There are two. Would you like to meet the other one?

H: Oh, there's another one in there?

JKC: Do you wanna try and hold one?

H: Well you did tell me that it could hurt me.

JKC: Yeah, so what they'll do for their defense is, you know, they'll squeak, which is actually pretty darn cute. But it's because they're not happy, um, the other thing is they'll freeze which he's kinda doing right now. He's not super freaked-out, because he's not squeaking and he's not trying to bite me and he is not defecating all over me.

H: OK.

JKC: So I know that he's fairly, not too stressed out. So you hold him, just put your finger out, rest his hand on your finger, and then put your hand on his back. 

J: So is there any chance for planned breeding to make them larger like dragons? 'Cause that would be pretty cool.

H: We could do that and then when the aliens come they'll be like "Those people have dragons, so let's leave them alone."

J: Don't mess with earth.

JKC: Dragon-riders... 

H: You look like, I mean, kinda like a puppy-dog-eyed face, such big eyes and a big head 

JKC: See the crest on the back of their head there? It looks just like a dragon

J: It does really look dragon-like. 

H: Um, it's cold, as these creatures tend to be.

JKC: Uh-huh. Reptiles. So you know what makes a skink a skink?

H: No idea. In fact I would not have said this is a skink because of how it looks like a lizard.

JKC: Well, skinks are lizards.

H: Oh, OK.

JKC: They are lizards, but they're this, it's difficult to study skinks because they're, are so, such a large group and they come in all different shapes and sizes. 

Mostly what defines them is that is they have a cylindrical body, short legs and their tail can often fall off.

H: OK.

JKC: So, these guys, if you pull on their tail and they're very worried they will drop their tail. And it can grow back, it doesn't look very pretty. But yes, skinks are all across the board. A lot of skinks are gonna be more burrow-y, these guys are more arboreal which means up in the trees.

And they hang out up in trees, and they have these long back toes there, which usually indicates that they're...

H: Tree animals?

JKC: Yep.So we have a male and a female and... is she alright?

H: Yeah, she just started looking at something. Me, maybe.

JKC: That dark spot over there? Looks like a nice spot to run and hide?

H: Yeah, don't go there.

JKC: Males are territorial. You can tell the difference between the male and the female because the males have these little raised pores on their back toes here and they...

H: Oh wow, that's very specific.

JKC: Yeah, otherwise they look very similar.

H: Yeah.

JKC: They have a little bit of difference in their... are you falling asleep

H: Ah! Ah-ha.

J: He's the opposite of falling asleep.

H: Nope, nope, nope.

JKC: Good? 

H: Yeah, it's OK. Yes

(Jessi says something inaudible)

H: You are surprisingly strong. I always feel that way about animals.

JKC: Stronger than you think?

H: Yeah, especially reptiles, where I'm just like "You're tiny! Why are you so able to...?" Nope. Oh, you're cute. 

J: She's too used to the freedom, she doesn't wanna...

H: Ah, there you go.

JKC: She just didn't want to be restrained any more.

H: I understand. I wouldn't want some giant thing holding me, staring at me...

J: You and me both, sister.

JKC: ...talking about you.

H: Yeah.

JKC: So these, the pores there though, the males, they think, that are actually marking their territory with scent. 

H: OK.

JKC: Which is pretty cool.

H: Little foot scent-glands?

JKC: Yeah.

H: Sure, that's how I do it (wipes hand on Jessi's knee)

JKC: Bleurgh, you're mine!

All laugh.

JKC: (to J) Let's see you do it.

J: Yeah, just rub your feet on another person!

All laugh.

J: Number one, number one way to keep a partner faithful - rub your foot-stink on 'em.

JKC: You guys'll get along just swell.

J: (points to Hank) He's my wing man.

All laugh.

JKC: Alright, well, I'm gonna put him back because this looks to me like he's freezing, just trying to disassociate, so I gonna put him back. We always wanna make sure that when we do bring an ambassador out, that it's a positive experience, so they want to do it again. 

H: Thanks, Jessi, for coming on. If you want to see more of Jessi and her animals, she has her own YouTube channel at, and I'm really excited to learn more about your (Jimmy's) research and to have that be published and I'm sure we will talk about it on SciShow when you've got lots of stuff to share which I'm sure's coming up.

J: That's a lot of pressure, but hopefully, yeah, that'd be nice.

H: Well, thank you for sharing your knowledge which was quite grand and really exciting.

J: Absolutely, aw shucks.

H: Aw, shucks

J: I'm flattered.

H: Thanks to all of you for watching this episode of SciShow Talk Show, which is one of my favorite things we do here on SciShow.

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