As a planetary geoscientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., Matt Siegler could have consigned himself to a job analyzing space probes and robotic lander data. Instead, as a producer (and cameraman) for the YouTube series PhDetours, Siegler goes out and meets science students to learn about their adventures in the field, from studying lava flows in Hawaii to traversing glaciers in Norway where “The Empire Strikes Back” was filmed. Siegler also is a science consultant for the reboot of the late Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, hosted by astronomy guru Neil DeGrasse Tyson and executive produced by Seth McFarlane of Family Guy fame and Brannon Braga of Star Trek renown. We spoke with Siegler about his various science-y gigs and where they have taken him.
What exactly do you do for NASA?
Some people work on planets’ atmospheres or surfaces – you know, the top millimeter or so. I mostly work on the top 20 feet of the planet, trying to figure out what is just underground that we can’t see. I’ve worked on finding ice underground on the Moon, Mars, and Mercury. A mission I’m working on, called InSight, is going to land on Mars in 2016. It will measure the heat coming out of the ground and it’s going to have a seismometer to measure earthquakes. With that sort of information we can tell a lot about the deeper structure of the planet.
How’d you get involved with Cosmos?
It was one of those things where you have skills that are seemingly useless otherwise and then the right opportunity comes along. When I was an undergrad I did a double major in physics and film – sort of an odd combination. The main science advisor on Cosmos had worked with someone who had worked with someone who knew my PhD advisor. Through some random chance, they ended up asking him ‘Hey, do you know anyone who would be good to work on this?’ It’s sort of amazing that a chance thing like that can lead to something that you feel like you’ve been preparing for your whole life. I got into the type of science I study probably because of the old Cosmos series, and Star Wars movies. When I was little, they made going to another planet seem like a reality, so it wasn’t a big step to then work on a Mars mission.
Between the science experts and Hollywood producers, what’s it like behind the scenes?
When I first got involved, the production was based out of Seth McFarlane’s animation studio. I come in and there’s Family Guy and The Cleveland Show staffers. They sat me down in a cubicle and there was a computer in there. They said “Oh, let’s get that out of there. That has all the original animations from Ted. Like, that was the junk laying around filling up my cubicle. I finally met Seth at the premier party. It was a real Hollywood party in the W Hotel in downtown Hollywood. Last week, we had a premier at the Griffith Observatory. Bill Nye was there, in addition to Neil and Ann Druyan [Sagan’s widow and Cosmos executive producer]. It’s just neat to randomly meet these people and share these spaces with all these projects, especially because I never really thought I would be much involved with this kind of thing.
You’re a big outdoors person but live in LA. How do you make do?
Los Angeles has been a city with a huge amount of opportunity and a mecca of the science community, especially for astronomy stuff. But it’s also this amazing, untalked-about wilderness. You can drive 20 minutes form JPL and hike and climb around in beautiful mountain landscapes.
Where’s the most exotic place you’ve been?
My wife is a field geologist and did work for her PhD in Mongolia. One summer, I tagged along as her field assistant. We drove across Mongolia for about a week and a half. You know that Mongolia has no roads? Outside the capital city, everything is just a dirt path. It’s incredibly bumpy. We stopped by some farmer’s. He raised these birds to kill foxes and bring back the fur! After Mongolia, we went down to the Olympics in Beijing, and we went all the way through China into Vietnam. That was a fun adventure.
How does being a scientist inform your experience in the great outdoors?
I think science can make the adventure a lot deeper. You’re not just climbing up a rock face, but climbing up a part of the history of our planet. You go out on trips up into the mountains, you go “Well, these mountains behind L.A., the San Gabriels, they’re the fastest growing mountains in the world because of the San Andreas fault.” Someone else might go to Yosemite Valley and think “Oh, that looks pretty.” But a scientist goes there and thinks about “Oh, 20,000 years ago there was a giant glacier filling this canyon.” It’s simultaneously an adventure for your body and your mind to really understand the history and the processes that have made a place look the way it does.