What’s it like to be an astronomer?

A comedy set from ReclaimingSTEM 2020

Below is the script from my first ever comedy set, as part of ReclaimingSTEM 2020’s fundraising show, hosted and guided by the incredible Kyle Marian. This was my first attempt at writing a stand-up comedy script, so I wanted to preserve it!

Hey y’all, my name is Briley, and I’m an astronomer who works on exoplanets. An astronomer, who HATES STAYING UP LATE. Seriously, I am a 70 year old woman inside and I need to hit my 10pm bedtime or I turn. To. Dust. This seems like a bit of a problem for my job, where, you know, everything — all the planets and all the stars they’re orbiting around — is up at night. Everything’s up… just not me. Thankfully, telescopes do all the work for me nowadays, so no need for my eyes to be open at night! There are actually a lot of misconceptions like this that people have about my job as an astronomer, so let’s chat about a few.

Like, what is UP with people and their questions about aliens? It’s like, I’ll sit down on an airplane, trying to get comfy — you know, get your book out, stick your little water in the way-too-tiny seat back pocket, go to get our your headphones so you can watch some downloaded Netflix — but then I get stuck with one of those chatty seat mates. When we get to questions about my job, *exasperated sigh* I just know what’s coming.

“So, what do you do for work?”

“Uh, I’m actually an astronomer.”

“Ohmygod so you know where the aliens are!! Is Area 51 real?? Like, there’s totally life out there there has to be life out there tell me what you know. One of my cousins saw them once and so I totally know they’re real and they’re hiding them from us but like you must KNOW.”

Like, why does everyone think I’m living the X-files? They’re not even astronomers, they’re federal agents! I haven’t even seen that show but I know about it because SO many people have mentioned it! I’m actually shockingly poorly versed in sci-fi about aliens. Good rule to live by when looking at science news: it’s probably not aliens. It’s pretty much never aliens.

I did have my own close encounter of the third kind once though…I was out at Palomar Observatory, deep in the mountains near San Diego for some data collection, staying up WAY past my bedtime, and I ended up dozing off for a nap. When I woke up, I was in an uncomfortable chair, sitting in a room with bright white walls and fluorescent lighting, surrounded by computers. Still dazed, I heard voices near me, speaking a language I had never heard before. It was…it was two of my co-workers speaking Swedish to each other, and my sleep-deprived brain just had no idea what was going on at first. What did I tell y’all, it’s NEVER ALIENS!

Hate to break your heart but….no, I do not have any security clearance, and I doubt anyone’s hiding anything. *gets close to screen, whispering* Astronomers can’t even keep secrets.

If you look on Twitter, ALL the gossip is right there for the taking! Like a few weeks ago, the news about phosphine and possible life on Venus was supposed to be a secret until the day the press releases and news articles came out. Everyone has ONE job, to KEEP THEIR MOUTHS SHUT before this day. Of course, someone accidentally posted about it the day before, and then it was the biggest drama on science Twitter for the moment. (At least that was a welcome change from the other drama that’s been going on recently.)

But for real, I don’t think people get how hard it’s gonna be for astronomers to really confirm “aliens” — scientists are going to bicker for YEARS about their data. One person will say “hey y’all I think I found signs of aliens!” and then everyone else will be like “uhhhh, really though? That data reduction looks kinda sus. I’m not so sure.” And that will go on and on since science is really just a really long process of people taking their time to be extra certain they’re right.

That isn’t a great sales pitch for science, huh? “Come join us — you can argue about minor details and take a lifetime to make progress! YAY! FUN!” You know, I’d say a lot of us, including (especially) myself have actually been CATFISHED into this job!

Now, okay, hear me out.

My research is to find new planets outside of our solar system. So, think of a New York Times article about a newly discovered planet — focus on the photo that’s at the top. It’s a black expanse dotted with points of bright light. At the forefront is a massive globe, a beautiful world covered in glistening blue, with brushstrokes of white and glimmers of green land. Next to it, there’s a second world, this one with stripes of swirls of mustard and maroon and violet. Gorgeous, right?

Well, when I find a planet, it’s 4 tiny sad bright pixels that I’m looking at on my laptop, squinting like *smudging over computer webcam, squinting* “Is that it? That’s it, right? Not a smudge? Ok that’s it.”

It’s like this planet’s profile picture was Chris Hemsworth dressed up as Thor, but what showed up to our date was two kids in a trench coat pretending to be an adult, like Vincent from Bojack Horseman! This is not the quality I expected! I’ve been SCAMMED. Instead of exploring new worlds like I’m on the Starship Enterprise, I’m sitting at my laptop trying to figure out what this file type of this planet data is and how in the world I can open it.

But for real, as a first gen grad student, I used to buy all the misconceptions and sci-fi stereotypes about being an astronomer. I thought I’d be staying up all night looking through telescopes out in the wilderness, taking beautiful photos of space, and exploring new worlds as easily as stepping through a Stargate. I was very wrong. It’s still a desk job. Even though being an astronomer might not be as glamorous as I had once thought though, wouldn’t you love your desk job too if it meant you got to find planets?

That’s my time, thanks y’all for listening!

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Briley Lewis

astronomy graduate student, dog & plant mom, person who always says “this is the year I write my novel” [she/her]