By: Don Mock firstname.lastname@example.org
For UF physics alumnus Dr. Ethan Siegel (PhD ’06), there is no daily commute, no office across town, no boss to please, no staff to supervise, no grants to write, no peer-reviewed papers to publish. Welcome to the world of a free-lance writer/journalist, where your time is your own, but the source and size of your next paycheck can be quite variable. How well Dr. Siegel lives and eats is based on his ability to turn complex scientific concepts in astrophysics, such as gravitational waves or cosmological expansion, into expositions that are found to be lively and engaging by the masses. In the process, he finds joy in sharing the sense of awe and wonder he experienced from pondering the universe from an early age.
Growing up in the Bronx as the son of a postman, unimpeded views of the night sky were at a premium. What with urban haze and an overabundance of light pollution, you were lucky to see twenty or thirty stars on a cloudless night. But family trips to the Catskills opened up a whole new world to young Ethan. He vividly remembers lying on a lawn, staring up at hundreds upon hundreds of stars on a clear, cool night, feeling that he might fall up into that vast abyss of space – so much so that he tightly gripped the grass at his sides to keep himself securely tethered to the Earth. “What was out there? Where did it come from? Where is it going?”
To help answer those questions, Ethan majored in physics, classics, and the integrated science program at Northwestern University. After stints of teaching high school in Houston and LA, he found himself “in a job I liked but didn’t love.” So, he applied to seven graduate schools where he could study theoretical cosmology. While visiting the University of Florida as a prospective doctoral student, Professor James Fry came up and introduced himself and asked if he’d like to come back the next day (a Saturday!) and chat. That discussion involved some cosmological speculations on Ethan’s part that led Dr. Fry to ask him, “Well, do you want to work it out?” They even started doing some calculations together. That sealed the deal as far as Ethan was concerned: “This is the person I want to work with.”
Over the next five years at UF, Ethan is remembered as someone who was always willing to challenge the status quo in cosmological thinking. After attending a seminar on gravitational waves, he felt that there could be other scenarios that could yield the same effects. Dr. Fry encouraged him by telling him to go talk to the speaker about it. Afterwards, Fry said “Sounds like a paper – go write it up.” Ethan did; they made a few changes; and it got published. According to Ethan, “Jim never got frustrated with me over what I was struggling with, even if it was for the fifth time. He knew some of my ideas were old or bad, but he wouldn’t tell me – he’d help me work it out.” Not only is that a good way to learn, but sometimes a young mind will find a new way through to validate a previously rejected theory. In 2006 he received his doctorate with a dissertation on Cosmological Perturbations and their Effects on the Universe.
Photo: Ethan as Captain Morgan for Halloween at UF (2005).
After graduation, Dr. Siegel taught at the University of Wisconsin before landing a postdoc at the University of Arizona. However, he soon began to feel a big change was needed. “I decided that I would focus on using outreach and education to help as many people as possible learn about the wonders of cosmology.” He moved to Portland, Oregon, and began teaching physics first at the University of Portland and later at Lewis and Clark College. With this as a secure base to pay the bills, Ethan started his quest to reach out to the general public. In early 2008, he created an online blog, called Starts with a Bang, with a tag line of “The universe is out there, waiting for you to discover it.” The blog has featured a series of articles on current topics in cosmology, including black holes, parallel universes, dark matter, cosmic epochs, and, of course, the big bang. The popularity of Ethan’s blog has grown over time. By 2011 it had received over two million page views and won the best blog award from IOP’s physics.org. Today Starts with a Bang features several guest writers, a regular podcast, and is hosted at Forbes.com. It now gets 500,000 pages views per month. That’s a lot of outreach! For those aspiring to follow in Ethan’s footsteps, it’s useful to know that Forbes pays by the article’s length and by how much web site traffic it generates.
Ethan has also published two books, Beyond the Galaxy in 2015 and Treknology in 2017, to very positive reviews. He’s now working on his third opus, Before the Big Bang. The royalties from these works are enough that he was able to quit his teaching job and move with his wife to Toledo, WA (pop. 725) to enjoy the country life. In his spare time, Ethan loves cooking, baking, hiking, and camping. But his real passion is cosplay – dressing up as a character from fiction, often for Halloween – with recent examples being Zangief from the video game Street Fighter II, and, more improbably, Princess Elsa from the movie Frozen. “Kids and even adults get a big kick seeing me, a big burly guy with a beard and moustache, playing their favorite Disney princess.” As it turns out, for Dr. Ethan Siegel, there is more than one way to inspire awe and wonder.