Monday, December 10, 2012

November 30: Galactic Neighborhoods

On November 30th, about 100 people joined us to hear Columbia Astronomy Professor Jacqueline van Gorkom talk about how galaxies are influenced by their surroundings. Professor van Gorkom is a radio astronomer and does extensive research on galaxies. She showed us how strikingly different galaxies look in dense clusters of galaxies compared with fields. She explained that when a galaxy enters a galaxy cluster filled with hot intra-cluster gas, the cold gas inside the galaxy gets stripped out of it and thus star formation is quenched, which changes the color of the galaxy from blue to red. The audience raised a lot of interesting questions about galaxies and gravity.

After the talk, some people went to see the 3D movies on the 13th floor shown by Columbia undergraduate student Gladys Velez-Caicedo. Unfortunately, the sky was not clear on Friday, but Columbia Astronomy graduate students Adrian Price-Whelan and Jenna Lemonias gave a telescope tour to a group of people on the roof of Pupin. In the lecture hall, graduate student Yuan Li presented a slide show on spiral galaxies and Dr. Jana Grcevich talked about the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe.

Join us on December 14th for the last event of this semester: a panel discussion on Life, the Universe, and Everything!


Thursday, November 29, 2012

November 16: Living with the Stars

Dr. Helena Uthas's talk was of a different strain than most of our previous outreach events. She shared her experiences of the three years she spent as a support astronomer on the beautiful and isolated Spanish island of La Palma, off the coast of western Africa. It is one of the prime spots for astronomy in the world today, having the best “seeing” available on our little blue planet (seeing is how much the atmosphere perturbs the images of stars as seen through a telescope).

In this personal narrative, Dr. Uthas walked the audience of ~180 people through her time at the Swedish Solar Telescope (SST) and the Nordic Optical Telescope (NOT) and the life of an astronomer in such a remote location. We were shocked and impressed by the difficult loneliness that such a job requires, yet there also was a sense of lusting for the introspection afforded being in one of the most beautiful and untouched natural vistas in the world. After this captivating mix of science, nature, and self, the majority of the audience went up for observing. We had almost 200 people on the roof throughout the event, and our telescopes were pointed at the extremely bright Jupiter, along with the Pleiades star cluster and the Andromeda galaxy. Several people stayed in the lecture hall for a slideshow on galaxies. The evening wrapped up around 9 pm leaving attendees having played astronomer over the skyline of New York City and vicariously experiencing the life of an observational astronomer through Dr. Uthas.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

October 19: The Universe is My Lab

On October 19th, graduate student, Or Graur from the American Museum of Natural History, addressed a question always asked of astronomers - "What exactly do you do?"  Or walked an audience of 70 people through the process taken to publish his most recent work on supernovae - from forming the hypothesis to testing it with telescopes and equipment to finally creating the scientific plot of merit.  It was a great inside look at how we practice astronomy today.

Unfortunately, the weather was less than stellar and roof observing was not possible.  However, our 3D movie wall provided entertainment after the talk.


Monday, October 15, 2012

October 5: X-ray Spectacular!

On October 5th, over 175 people came to Doug Thornhill's talk on the newly launched X-ray telescope NuSTAR. NuSTAR was assembled at the Nevis Laboratories of Columbia University and Doug worked with the NuSTAR team for almost four years as an undergraduate student at Columbia since the beginning of the project. He provided a clear and thorough explanation on how x-ray telescopes work, with a physical demonstration on how light is detected by the telescope. Doug then showed how NuSTAR was built and discussed the scientific goals of the telescope including the survey of super-massive black holes, supernovae remnants and compact objects, as well as the study of the energy transport of our sun.

After the talk, some people stayed in the lecture hall to enjoy the movie "High Energy Vision: The Chandra X-ray Observatory," which is another NASA X-ray telescope launched more than a decade ago. 

As it was a fairly clear night, many people headed up to the roof to view the night sky through the telescopes. Additionally, Columbia undergrad, Bryan Terrazas, showed 3D movies on the 13th floor. 

Join us for our next event on October 19th, when we will hear from Or Graur on how astronomers use the universe as their laboratory.


Friday, September 21, 2012

September 14: The Moon in 3D

On Friday, we kicked off a new season of lectures and stargazing with a talk by cartographer Jeffrey Ambroziak. He spoke about a unique map projection technique he helped develop, called the "Ambroziak Infinite Perspective Projection." This technique allows image data and topographical data to be combined into a single 3D map which appears undistorted regardless of viewing angle. During the talk, Ambroziak shared his beautiful and unique three-dimensional map of the Moon. He also shared a series of anecdotes, including the story of how he befriended the famous science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who wrote the forward to his book "Infinite Perspectives: Two Thousand Years of Three-dimensional Map Making." Generously, Ambroziak provided every audience member with a full sized poster of his impressive 3D map of the Moon and red/blue glasses with which to view it. You can find more information about his projection at

Unfortunately due to weather we were unable to observe, but audience members had the option to tour the rooftop observatory, view a 3D wall presentation by Bryan Terrazas, or listen to a slideshow on the moons of our Solar System presented by Rohan Sawhney. Thanks to our outreach director Summer Ash and all the volunteers that helped make the night a success.

Join us for our next Lecture & Stargazing event on September 28th at 8pm, where we will host a talk and book signing about black holes entitled "Gravity's Engines," by Caleb Scharf.


Monday, July 9, 2012

June 29: Transformers 3

On June 29, 2012, approximately 70 people came to see "Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon" in our third installment of our summer science fiction film series. The movie has most of the main cast return from the previous movies with Optimus Prime leading the way. The plot involves a government cover-up dealing with the real objective of the Apollo Moon missions and the space race with the Russia. In the movie, we find out that evidence that we are not alone is cemented in the Apollo 11 mission where they (implausibly) travel to the "dark side" of the Moon to examine an alien crash site. Once the Autobots find out that their long lost leader from the Cybertronian War crash-landed there, Optimus goes to revive Sentinel Prime, and as the plot ensues, finds out that he was betrayed by Sentinel to take over the Earth and use humans to restore Cybertron through slave labor. To accomplish his goal, Sentinel deploys a set of teleportation devices he created called "pillars" around the world with the help of the Decepticons. However, at the last minute, Optimus Prime and others are able to stop Sentinel and save mankind from eternal enslavement.

After the movie, PhD candidate in Astronomy, Duane Lee, talked about two scientific theories related to the movie: tidal-locking in relation to the origin of the Moon, and teleportation in the context of current research and future technology. The attendees enjoyed the movie and had many questions about tidal-locking of the Moon's orbit.

Join us for our next event when we screen "Waterworld" on July 13th followed by a discussion of the science of global warming.


Friday, June 22, 2012

June 15: The Right Stuff

Last Friday, June 15th, we screened "The Right Stuff" for a dedicated audience who stuck around for all 3+ hours of the film which chronicles the evolution of the U.S. Space Program from its origins with the early test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base through the first class of astronauts selected for NASA's Project Mercury. The film is an adaptation of the book by the same title written by Tom Wolfe in 1979. Spanning the years 1957 to 1963, the film begins with Chuck Yeager's historical flight of the X-1 during which he was the first man to break the sound barrier. Soon after, the Russians launch Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, and the space race begins. NASA put out the call for astronauts and heavily recruited test pilots from Edwards for their ability and desire to push the flight envelope. 

The film highlights the initial milestones of the first astronauts: Alan Shepard's suborbital flight as the first American in space and John Glenn's orbital flight consisting of three complete orbits to become the first American to orbital the Earth. [Unfortunately, both men had been beaten to being the first man to accomplish either feat by the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin.] The discussion afterwards focused on the accuracy of some of the events portrayed in the film as well as the current state of the experimental X-plane program. Of note was the controversial loss of Gus Grissom's capsule, Liberty Bell 7, during recovery. Subsequent analysis shows no evidence for any wrongdoing on Grissom's part and an expedition was even mounted in 1999 to raise the capsule from the ocean floor. Lastly, the discussion also touched upon the recent news of the X-37B, which recently landed at Vandenburg Air Force Base after 469 days in orbit. 

Be sure to join us for our next event on June 29th when we'll be screening "Transformers: Dark of the Moon". 


Saturday, June 2, 2012

June 1: Star Trek - First Contact


On June 1, 2012, 50 people came to see "Star Trek: First Contact" as the first film in our summer Science Fiction Film series. The movie stars the cast of the television show "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and its plot centers around a group of cybernetic machine-human hybrids attempting to assimilate humanity in a grab for galactic domination. These alien "Borg" go back in time to stop the event called, "First Contact" where human beings first contact alien life forms after inventing faster-than-light travel.

After the movie, PhD candidate in Astronomy, Joshua Schroeder, described for the audience three scientific ideas related to the movie: the Copernican Principle, the Drake Equation, and General Relativity in the context of time travel to the past. The attendees generally reported enjoying the movie and had many questions about Schroeder's critique.

Friday, May 18, 2012

May 11: The Immortal Quantum

Our final speaker of the spring was PhD candidate, Cameron Hummels, who traced the path of energy through the Universe from the Big Bang to everyday processes here on Earth. In his usual enthusiastic style, Cameron reviewed the different forms energy can take using both himself and an array of props to demonstrate his points. Laying down the gauntlet for future speakers, Cameron capped his discussion of the conservation of energy with the legendary physics pendulum demo in which he released a x pound weight, attached to the ceiling of the lecture hall, and shut his eyes tightly as it swung away and then back to within millimeters of his chin. A great time was had by all 250+ audience members.

The skies mostly cooperated for visitors to observe some familiar targets such as Mars, Saturn and the Mizar and Alcor star system in the handle of the Big Dipper. Back indoors, graduate student Yuan Li led a discussion on brown dwarfs in the solar neighborhood and graduate student Jana Gcrevich ran our 3D Astro Wall.

On a closing note, Cameron is one of the founders of our outreach program. It's his blood, sweat, and tears that got his fellow graduate students and members of the department motivated to share their knowledge of the Universe with the public, teachers, and students of New York City. Unfortunately for us (but fortunately for the world of astronomy), Cameron is graduating this summer and leaving Columbia for the southwest where he will begin a post-doc at the University of Arizona on galaxy evolution. We wholeheartedly thank him for all his hard work and wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors.

Our summer event series kicks off Friday, June 1st. Stay tuned for more details…


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

April 27: How is a Hubble Image Made?

The beautiful pictures of our universe provided by the Hubble Space Telescope are some of the most inspiring in Astronomy. This past Friday, PhD student Christine Simpson explained to attendees how these images are made. Explaining the basics of the telescope, CCDs and the color-assignment process, everyone could walk away with a deeper appreciation of these images.

In response to requests from several audience members, Christine has provided the following links related to her talk: Hubble’s Hidden Treasures contest and contest submissions to date; a nice explanation of the meaning of color in Hubble images; and an article from Sky & Telescope that describes Hubble image processing.

After the talk, some stayed to hear about Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. The cold weather also provided clear skies for observations on our roof. Columbia students helped visitors observe Saturn, the Moon, and the Mizar-Alcor star system in the Big Dipper's handle. Visitors were also able to experience our 3D wall. Our next lecture of the semester is May 11th. We hope to see you there!


Monday, April 16, 2012

April 13: History of Astronomy and Navigation

On April 13, 260 people crowded a lecture hall in Pupin Physics Laboratories to hear Brandon Horn, graduate student in the Department of Astronomy, gave a lecture on the history of astronomy, navigation, geodesy, and photometry. Wowing the crowd with a zooming presentation, Brandon gave us a tour of major astronomical discoveries starting with the size of the Earth and moving all the way up to the expanding universe. People stayed after the talk to ask questions and explore the universe of Astronomy Picture of the Day in the lecture hall while others headed up the roof for a beautiful, clear view of the heavens.

On the roof, five volunteers helped visitors look at Mars, the Moon, the globular cluster M3, and the Orion Nebula. We were very fortunate to have such a clear view of the night skies and the huge number of visitors seemed to attest to how exciting it was to be able to use the observatories to their fullest capacity. Additionally, visitors who wanted to avoid the crowds could catch a show in our 3D theater where graduate student Yuan Li showed some videos about black holes and pulsars that the audience enjoyed. In all, a fun time was had by all.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

March 30: Space Rocks in the Neighborhood

During our last public outreach night, Columbia Astronomy Professor, Greg Bryan, took a break from his normal schedule of simulating the processes of cosmic galactic evolution to inform us about objects a little closer to home. In his talk entitled, ''Space Rocks in the Neighborhood: The Dangers of Near Earth Objects,'' Prof. Bryan discusses the forces governing the orbits of near-earth objects (NEOs) and how many have impacted the Earth in the past. He explained that there are different types of NEOs depending on whether they cross the Earth's orbit or circle just inside or outside of it. What makes these objects dangerous is that for many asteroids and a few comets larger than a 1 kilometer (~.6 miles) across, real catastrophic damage can be done, with many global causalties.

Prof. Bryan also described the ranking system for potential threats by NEOs which is based on the size of the approaching object and the "projected" distance from impacting Earth. He pointed out that the key to adverting disaster by impact is to know the orbits of all concerning NEOs well in advance of a potential impact. If the orbits are known, then various efforts can be utilized to nudge the object out of an impacting trajectory towards Earth. While new telescopes and surveys have greatly expanded our knowledge of these potential "doomsday" rocks, only a complete survey of these objects, with multiple snapshots (to determine orbits), can help us prepare to deflect them out of harm's way.

Finally, Prof. Bryan pointed out different methods that can be used to deflect the objects in orbit ranging from painting the rock in a highly reflective coating such that photon pressure from solar rays can slowly push the rock away to detonating a nuclear warhead next to it to give it a more pronounced and immediate impulse away from a harmful trajectory towards Earth. You can read about NASA's Near Earth Object Program at their website and explore the near Earth environment for yourself, virtually of course, at the Minor Planet Center.

It seems that many people are concerned about our ability to track and advert a catastrophic impact, considering we had 260+ people in attendance. Even though the weather wasn't cooperating that evening, many people remained to enjoy our post lecture activities by either staying in the lecture hall and discussing the science in Astronomy Picture of the Day images, led by undergrad Jose Montelongo, or watching 3-D astronomy shows, run by graduating grad student, Jana Grcevich.

Our next public outreach lecture is on Friday, April 13th and is entitled "Where the Ocean Meets the Sky."


Saturday, March 17, 2012

March 16: Our Galactic Neighborhood

On March 16 at 8 pm, 190 visitors joined us in Pupin Hall to hear from Dr. Gurtina Besla, an expert in predicting the past and future trajectories of galaxies interacting with our own Milky Way galaxy with special emphasis on the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. She showed us results from her research that have yet to be released indicating the exact manner in which the Andromeda Galaxy and the Triangulum Galaxy will interact and merge with our own galaxy eventually forming a new galaxy: "Milkomeda". Attendees were wowed by the ability for theoretical astrophysicists like Dr. Besla to predict the future of our galactic environment up to 8 billion years from now.

After the amazing lecture, visitors were treated to glimpses from our 3D Wall, a discussion of Astronomy Pictures of the Day, or a tour of our rooftop telescope facilities. Unfortunately, the clouds and haze prevented us from having a view of the heavens this week, but we cross our fingers for future Public Observing nights, the next one scheduled for March 30. Join us then!


Thursday, March 15, 2012

March 2: To the Moon on a Budget

On Friday, March 2nd Columbia Professor Arlin Crotts discussed the history and status of the exploration of the moon. Starting with robotic and manned missions in the 1960's, Prof. Crotts explained how America's space program was a symbol of national pride and a major "battlefield" in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In the 1970's and 1980's, after the Apollo program was shutdown, there was a long lull in lunar exploration, leading to major scientific questions, which are only beginning to be answered now due to a resurgence over the last decade in the number of robotic missions to the Moon. Prof. Crotts proceeded to give the current status of NASA's investment into lunar science, as well as the status of some private ventures to send robotic missions to reach the Moon. The talk concluded with some of the ideas from Prof. Crotts's upcoming book on lunar exploration, about how future lunar missions may not only be scientifically beneficial but also profitable.

The lecture was followed by some excellent questions from the 85 attendees, especially by several keen younger audience members. Unfortunately, the weather did not permit observing with our telescopes, but we gave tours of our Rutherford Observatory, showed 3D movies with our 3D projector, and showed Cosmic Collisions, an astronomical movie put together by the American Museum of Natural History.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

February 27: Harlem Sidewalk Astronomy

Five members of our department ventured out on a beautiful, clear evening into neighboring Harlem last night. We brought with us two small telescopes and loads of NASA bookmarks and posters to give out to interested participants. Setting up on the Federal Plaza at 125th street and Adam Clayton Powell (just down from the Apollo Theater), we pointed our telescopes towards some of the highlights of the sky this season: Jupiter, Mars, and the first-quarter Moon. Many curious passersby stopped to see what we were doing there and to take a glimpse of the heavens. Some individuals just wanted a chance to see the sky, while others wanted to discuss something astronomical they read in the news or heard from a friend.

In the end, the clouds came up to block our celestial viewing, and the wind shook our telescopes and made it unpleasant to stand around. We returned home, satisfied to have reached out to around 120 people over the course of the night. Great work, Bryan, Jennifer, Jose, and Marcus!


Saturday, February 18, 2012

February 17: Life in the Universe

Last night, we had a very successful outreach event headlined by PhD student Maureen Teyssier discussing where to look for Life in the Universe. She outlined the various components we understand to be necessary for life to exist elsewhere in the Universe including appropriate elemental materials, liquids, energy and stability. Furthermore, she pointed out the various ways in which we humans are searching for life, both in and out of the Solar System. If you want to know more, Maureen's talk was inspired by "The Search for Life on Other Planets" by Bruce Jakosky.

There were excellent conditions for observing, so attendees who went to the roof got to catch a glimpse of Jupiter and its moons, the Double Cluster, and the Orion Nebula through our telescopes. We also the 3D Astrowall demonstrations of educational astronomy briefings. In the lecture hall, there was discussion of recent astronomical news of observations and modeling of galaxy collisions and a Q&A period with graduate students and postdocs from the department. In all, we had about 200 people come join us.

Our next event is Friday, March 2nd, hope to see you then.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

February 3: Top 11 Astronomy Stories of 2011

Last night, graduating grad student, Jana Grcevich, kicked off our Spring lecture series by recapping the "Top 11 Astronomy Stories of 2011." Some of the highlights included: the most massive galaxy cluster found, a possible detection of the Higgs boson, a possible detection of a supermassive black hole devouring a star, the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics going to three astronomers, and the discovery of over 3000 new exoplanets.

Jana ranked the new planet discoveries as number one on her list and many people would agree. Understanding and determining the available real estate for life to grab a foothold in our galaxy, let alone the rest of the Universe, ranks as one of the top 3 questions asked by humanity since humanity could ponder its own existence. Jana explained how the discoveries were made, by the Kepler space telescope, by stating that it measures the dimming of light from a star to determine the nature of the object causing the dimming due to occultation (the object passing in front of the star). She then focused on some of the gems from this exciting database of planets which included the discovery of a super earth-massed planet (roughly 2.5x) orbiting around its star in the habitable zone - an object known as Kepler 22b. Afterwards, she pointed out some planets orbit around binary stars, giving a shout out to the fans of Star Wars who recall Tatooine’s planetary system. Last, but not least, she displayed the best determination for many planetary systems’ orbits and configurations which showed us that planetary systems similar to our own are actually common place and not rare as previous thought based on the planetary systems discovered before the Kepler mission.

Many good questions were asked from the 140+ attendees last night, proving that a recap of the LAST year’s exciting discoveries was a great way to start off THIS year’s lecture series.