Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Feb 9th - The Zoomable Universe

Our speaker this week was Caleb Sharf, a research scientist at Columbia University and Director of its Astrobiology Center. Caleb is a prolific writer with contributions in publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired, and Scientific American in addition to highly regarded scientific journals. He has also written a textbook on exoplanets and three popular science books on various astronomical topics.

In his talk Caleb gave an overview of his latest book, The Zoomable Universe. In it, he explores phenomena that cross the vast range of physical scales, from the very largest we can observe (the entire diameter of the observable Universe, about 10^27 meters) to the smallest (the Planck scale, 10^-35 meters, where the fabric of spacetime stops obeying known laws of physics).

Caleb uses this vast range - a factor of one hundred trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion, of which the human scale is conveniently close to the middle - to illustrate the incredible diversity of phenomenon in the Universe. Starting with the mysterious dark energy and the large scale structure of dark matter that makes up the skeleton of galaxy formation, we zoomed in repeatedly to examine the Local Group of galaxies, the birth of a solar system, the surface of a planet, and continued down to our own DNA and eventually the structure of spacetime. An illustrated version of this journey can be found here.

After his talk, Caleb fielded questions in the lecture hall while Columbia undergraduate Richard showed presentations on the 3D Wall while graduate students Steven and Aaron gave tours of the observatory. 

- David Hendel (graduate student)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Nov 10 - Going out in style: Nebulae at the end of a sun-like star’s life

Our speaker this week was Rudy Montez, an astrophysicist at the Chandra X-ray Center of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, MA. Rudy studies "planetary nebulae," the ghostly shells sloughed off by dying stars.

Rudy began by showing a gallery of beautiful Hubble Space Telescope photographs of planetary nebulae, explaining how the various colors tell us about the composition of the layers of each nebula. He noted that astronomers always expected planetary nebulae to be spherical, because they're believed to form as the outermost layers of a giant star expand away in all directions from the hot core.

But that's not what we see! Real-life nebulae display amazing, complex structure, including dumbbell-shaped bi-polar lobes. Rudy explained that the leading hypothesis to explain the formation of these lobes is that a donut-shaped ring of dust surrounding the dying star blocks the star's outer layers from expanding in certain directions, forcing them out at the opposite openings of the donut hole. The origins of this ring of dust are not quite clear, but they may be leftover debris from a pair of binary stars orbiting each other at the center of what will eventually be the nebula.

Rudy then discussed his area of particular expertise: X-ray observations of planetary nebulae from the Chandra space telescope, which give us a window onto the hottest, densest central regions. He showed beautiful composite images of Chandra, Hubble, and Spitzer data, which illuminate, respectively, the innermost, middle, and outermost regions of planetary nebulae. Three windows onto these extraordinary objects.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Oct 27 - Cosmic Mergers & Acquisitions: Mergers and Black Holes and the Growth of Galaxies

Our speaker this week was Dr. Jenny Greene, a Professor of Astrophysics at Princeton University.

Much of Jenny’s research concerns some of the most mind-boggling objects in the Universe: the supermassive black holes that exit at the centers of most galaxies. Millions to billions of times more massive than the Sun, these huge black holes are thought to play a crucial role in the development of galaxies.

Jenny began by reviewing what a black hole is: an incredibly dense object. She used the visual of compressing the Sun to the size of Jupiter, then the Earth, then Manhattan; as it gets smaller, the speed you need to escape its gravity gets larger and larger until it exceeds the speed of light. Since nothing moves faster than that, nothing can escape from a black hole.

Even though we can’t see black holes directly, Jenny showed us evidence of the supermassive black hole in the center of our Galaxy. Careful observations of the Galactic center reveal stars moving at phenomenal speeds. Measuring their positions over decades, astronomers can reconstruct their motions and show that they must be orbiting an incredibly dense but invisible object: a black hole.

Astronomers can’t directly see stars moving in other galaxies but their collective motions can be measured very precisely and it is clear that almost all galaxies require a supermassive black hole in their centers to explain these observations. Interestingly, it seems like the black holes’ sizes ‘know about’ the galaxy that they live in: the mass of the black hole can be predicted if the mass of the galaxy is known. How is this possible? Galaxies grow mostly by merging with other galaxies. This process brings in lots of new stars and gas. The gas both forms new stars and feeds the black hole, but as the black hole eats it forms an ‘accretion disk’ of very hot gas that heats up the remaining gas, eventually causing both star formation and its own growth to stop. In this way the size of the galaxy and the size of the black hole can become related.

If this picture is correct we should also see evidence of pairs of black holes, since each galaxy should have brought one along with it. Jenny described one way she and her students have been looking for these binary black holes. When they get close together, they will be orbiting each other at very high speeds — probably thousands of kilometers per second. The light from their accretion disks will be shifted to redder and bluer colors periodically due to the Doppler shift; if we can observe these color-changing black holes it would be good evidence in favor of our cosmological picture. So far the observations haven’t found anything but astronomers are still looking!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Sept 29 - Galactic Archeology

Our speaker this week was Keith Hawkins, a Simons Postdoctoral Fellow based in the astronomy department here at Columbia. Keith is a Galactic Archeologist. He searches for clues to the past of our galaxy, the Milky Way, similar to the way an archeologist seeks to learn about ancient civilizations and cultures. 

Keith started by telling us about the "fossils" he uses to study the galaxy - stars! Stars are fossils in two ways. First, at the great distances involved on the scale of the Milky Way, we see stars not how they are but rather how they were up to hundreds of thousands of years ago, before humans even evolved on the Earth. This is because light moves at finite speed and needs time to reach us from the distant galaxy. Second, many types of stars live for hundreds of millions or billions of years and so their composition provides clues to what was going on at the time when they formed.

Next we learned about the tools used in galactic archeology. We heard about the methods used to measure distances, chemistries, and velocities of stars: parallax and spectra. Keith demonstrated parallax by having the audience hold up a finger and close each eye in sequence; the finger appears to move relative to the background. This is analogous to how astronomers measure distances, except observations taken on opposite sides of the Earth's orbit, 6 months apart, replace winking. The amount the star appears to move relates to its distance from us. Spectra, obtained by splitting a star's light and measuring how bright it is at different colors, contain a wealth of information. Dark bands in the rainbow are often visible. These bands correspond to light being absorbed by different elements in the star's atmosphere, so examining their pattern can tell an astronomer which and how much of the elements are in the star. The specific chemical signature of a star can pinpoint its place of birth or prove association with other stars. The bands in the spectrum may also be shifted to redder or bluer colors than normal; the direction and amount of shift is due to the Doppler effect and indicates the velocity of the star relative to us.

Keith finished his talk by describing his research's goal: a complete map of the Galaxy containing information on the positions, motions, and chemical content of millions of stars. He believes this "chemical cartography" will be key to deciphering the history of the Milky Way. 

After the lecture and a lively question and answer session, undergraduate students Briley and Harrison showed 3D astronomy animations on the 13th floor while graduate students Steven, Aleksey and Haley pointed the Rutherford Observatory's telescopes at the Moon, Ring Nebula, and the double star system Albireo.  

-- David Hendel (graduate student)

Friday, March 17, 2017

Mar 3 - Las Atmósferas Estelares

(This was our 3rd Annual Spanish-Language Lecture)

Turns out the Sun has an atmosphere, albeit very different from Earth’s. Alejandro Núñez, a graduate student at Columbia University, unveiled what is known about this gaseous envelope, layer by layer. He further described how a flotilla of space probes is helping scientists clarify some remaining mysteries by continuously gathering data from all angles and wavelengths. The most vexing of these unsolved questions is how the corona -the outer layer of the Sun’s atmosphere- can be hundreds of times hotter than the photosphere -its visible surface-, reaching temperatures in excess of a million degrees Celsius. While a detailed description of the heating mechanism still needs to be developed, it seems to be linked to the complex interaction between the Sun’s magnetic field and its atmospheric plasma.

Turns out the Sun is also a star. Thus, we can extrapolate what we learn about the Sun to other stars. As Alejandro explained, we need to do so with caution, for different stars can have diverse levels of magnetic activity. He illustrated this with a discussion on how the red dwarf at the core of the recently discovered multiple planetary system Trappist-1 seems to be much more active than our Sun, and the consequences that this could have for the habitability of the planets orbiting it.

This was the Spanish public lecture of this season, and the audience had the opportunity to stargaze at the Rutherford observatory on Pupin Laboratories’ roof after the talk. The night was cold and partly cloudy, but we managed to get a glimpse of some objects like the Moon and Mizar through some clearings.

-- Jose Zorilla (graduate student) 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Feb 3 - Earth in Human Hands

On Friday night, author and astrobiologist David Grinspoon shared his new book, "Earth in Human Hands", with us. He claimed we are entering a new era on earth called the Anthropocene - the age of humanity. For better or worse, we are reshaping our planet, and we have the capability to be aware of and intentional about the changes we enact. He also told us about another species living 2.5 billion years ago that caused catastrophic climate change: cyanobacteria learned to generate O2 through photosynthesis, which changed the composition of atmosphere and that destroyed many other bacteria that thrived on the previously methane-rich atmosphere. He also made the distinction between inadvertent vs intentional changes in climate. For example, when we began driving cars on a wide scale, we didn't initially understand the environmental impact that would have. However, in the 70s, the world responding to ozone depletion by banning chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), intentionally working to recover that protective layer between the Sun and us. Finally, Dr Grinspoon believes we can positively affect future climate, even beyond reversing the effects of humans on the climate - we could avert a future ice age, for example, since we know those happen periodically even when the Earth is left to its own devices. 

After the lecture, Dr Grinspoon signed copies of his book, and then undergraduate Erin took the audience on a brief tour of the other planets in our solar system. Upstairs, undergraduates Richard and Cierra showed movies on the 3D wall, and graduate students Aleksey and Daniel led roof tours. 

-- Stephanie Douglas (graduate student)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Dec 16 - How to Hold a Dead Star in Your Hand

Our speaker, Kimberly Arcand, didn't come from an astronomy background. She began her science career as a biologist studying deer ticks, then moved into computer science before joining the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC), where she is now the visualization lead. Her job is to take the data and turn it into interesting and useful pictures. The data is beamed down from the telescope to NASA and then sent to the CXC as a lot of 1s and 0s. This is cleaned and assembled into black and white images; part of Kimberly's job is to determine how best to color these images to make them informative. Often, Chandra images are colored by the X-ray energy range or the dominant chemical/element.

Color has meaning. Kimberly spends part of her time studying responses to different color schemes, and choosing the right color scheme based on the audience for an image. Scientists think of blue as hottest, but culturally most people associate red with heat. Because Chandra images are important for outreach to the general public, her team picked red for the hottest parts of an image, rather than the blue that the scientists wanted.

Kimberly also told us about her work on visualizing the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant. Chandra (along with the Spitzer infrared telescope and Hubble Space Telescope) has observed this expanding shell of gas over many years, and you can actually see the gas moving outward in images taken several years apart. There is enough data that her team could use software borrowed from brain imaging to make the first 3D model of a dead star. She showed us a movie where we flew through the Cas A remnant. They also made a 3D printed model of the remnant - you can download the free file here if you want to hold your own dead star in your hand.

After the lecture, undergraduate Richard took us on a tour through all the scales of our universe, undergraduate Briley showed short astronomy movies on the 13th floor, and graduate students Alex and Aleksey led tours of the roof. Myself and graduate student Moiya also helped facilitate in the lecture hall.

-- Stephanie Douglas (graduate student)