How an idea is born

Today is the International Day of Women in Science. It’s a special day, celebrating the enormous progress we have made to make it possible for women to work in science. I’m incredibly grateful for the many opportunities we have to make our dreams come true. In March 2021, I was awarded the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science prize in Sweden for the VASCO project, which I feel incredibly honored for. This prize belongs to everybody in the VASCO project, as it’s a common endeavour we embarked upon.

In the light of this day, I have decided to open up a bit about myself and finally answer a question that I frequently have received since I started my first searches for vanishing stars: ”How did you come up with the idea to search for vanishing stars?” I have kept the details for myself, even though I mentioned it sometimes. Nevertheless, telling the details might illustrate how the mind process behind a scientific idea works and how an idea might appear ”out of nothing”.

The idea goes well back in time. When I was younger, I used to write a bit in my free time. In Swedish. Small things: short stories, poems, nothing particularly serious, nor things I normally ever share. I did so also in the end of my undergraduate studies and the beginning of my PhD times. It was also in this time period, when I was working on a small fable about a quasar that was pondering about his cosmic life. Nevertheless, eventually came the moment in the fable when the poor quasar fell through a macroscopic wormhole and ”vanished”. After reaching the end of the story writing, I just could not let go of the thought: had any scientist ever searched for objects that vanish?

Some months after this, I decided to make a Skype call to one of the leading persons behind a major astronomical survey. I asked if the survey could make a second round of photometry and get spectra of the entire sky so that I could have perfectly homogenous data for looking for vanishing objects. The professor smiled at me, and explained it was a major undertaking that most likely would not happen for some time. So I let go of the idea of looking for vanishing objects, but I could not forget it.

Sometimes, all what one needs is the right moment. A few years had passed when I learned about the existence of the US Naval Observatory Catalog (USNO), which had mapped the sky in the 1950s. I immediately saw the opportunity to perform the study I was interested in: the search for vanishing objects, as crazy as it seems. I still wondered about the possible existence of wormholes and undiscovered new physical phenomena related to vanishing objects. Soon, however, I learned that there were serious astronomical efforts, rooted in serious astrophysics, to look failed supernovae. Failed supernovae can be found by looking for a star that vanishes. It was also at that moment I understood the possible connection to searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

This little bit describes how a simple idea was born out of nothing. Today, with the VASCO project, we focus on looking for everything that makes an object observationally ”vanish” – or just go subluminous. We know what we are looking for, but we will always be careful with conclusions when we find an interesting anomaly, because in the end, many anomalies have mundane explanations.

Finally, for the curious reader, I give away a small bit of myself and attach the untitled fable at the bottom of the blog post.

How an idea is born

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