Saturday, August 20, 2011

August 19: Of Starquakes and Supernovae

Torrential rains and violent forks of lightning couldn't stop the die-hard Astro Fans from coming to outreach Friday night. Jennifer Weston treated us to a talk concerning neutron stars, the complex and mysterious cousins of black holes. Jennifer spoke of their extraordinary density ; so dense Mount Everest could fit into a teaspoon! Neutron stars exist as an epic battle between the forces of gravity and quantum mechanics, and Jennifer was quick to point out that these extreme conditions introduce a host of mysteries concerning the stars' composition. The talk finished by discussing pulsars: rapidly spinning neutron stars that emit focused jets of light like cosmic lighthouses. The soggy patrons could have used a spin cycle, but we're not sure Neutron stars are what they had in mind: A star the size of Manhattan completing a rotation in under a second is quite a step up from your average Maytag appliance.

After the lecture, Cameron Hummels was on hand to give tours of the observatory while Yuan Li treated visitors to our 3D Wall. Back in the lecture hall Munier Salem and Josh Schroeder hosted a game show centered around the question "How big is the Universe?" The answer involved a surprising number of soccer balls. While mysteries surrounding the cosmos remained, we're happy to report one thing had been cleared up by the end of the evening: The sky!


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

August 5: Practical Astronomy

While we're sad that summer is ending, this happily means the return of our lecture series! We started off on an unique and interesting note with Dr. M. Ryan Joung giving a talk on how astronomy can have practical uses or in his own words, "on the usefulness of 'useless' knowledge." Ryan used many examples to highlight the advances astronomy have spurred in other fields. Did you know that your GPS system uses quasars to calibrate the positions of its satellites in the sky? Or that they rely on Einstein's theories of special and general relativity for accuracy? Ryan also pointed out that taking and processing images have been the forte of astronomers for decades. Their work with CCDs have helped make modern cameras possible. Also, image processing techniques that astronomers use to study structures in galaxies are now successfully being used to identify cancer cells. While focusing on the practical aspect of astronomy, Ryan concluded by reminding us that astronomy is beautiful and we truly do it to understand our place in the universe.

After the lecture, we were lucky enough for the clouds to stay at bay and had our first public observing session of the new semester on the roof. Munier Salem, Josh Schroeder and Christine Simpson showed people the Moon, Saturn and Albireo. Meanwhile, Jana Grcevich led people on a "Tour of the Cosmos" using the 3D wall. Finally, some remained in the lecture hall to listen to presentations about JWST and Kepler from Lauren Corlies and Yuan Li. Overall, it was a great start to the semester.