Friday, May 20, 2016

May 13 - The History and Future of Black Holes

Last Friday, NSF Fellow and future NASA Einstein Fellow Dan D' Orazio gave us an engaging tour to the long history of the most exciting and mysterious astrophysical objects. Black holes are objects with very strong gravitational pull, that nothing can escape from them. John Michell was the first to suggest the idea of such a "dark star", in the late 18th century, although this idea went almost unnoticed at the time.

The story continues in the beginning of the 20th century, when Albert Einstein conceived the general theory of relativity, a revolutionary theory to describe gravity. Dan described the early advances of the theory, including the first solution of Einstein's equations for a spherical non-spinning black hole by Karl Schwarzschild, and the skepticism that followed, mainly driven by the famous British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington. Dan later discussed General Relativity's golden era (the 60s), with several significant contributions by many great physicists, among which the solution of Einstein's equations for a spinning black hole by Roy Kerr and the suggestion that under specific circumstances black hole can emit radiation, the so-called Hawking radiation. Dan also mentioned the history of the term black hole, which was coined in one of NASA's centers, above Tom's Restaurant in our own neighborhood.

By the early 70s, astronomers acquired the first observational evidence for astrophysical black holes with X-ray telescopes. For instance, the X-ray binary Cygnus X-1, in the constellation of Cygnus hosts one of the most nearby black holes. Earlier in the 1950s, astronomers had discovered radio galaxies with very extended jets, which later realized that can only be powered by supermassive black holes, i.e. black holes with a million to a billion times the mass of the sun. A supermassive black hole resides in the center of our galaxy as well and was discovered by detailed observations of the motion of stars in the close vicinity of the galactic center. Dan finished this exciting journey of discovery by describing the most recent breakthroughs, such as the numerical solutions of Einstein's equations 10 years ago and the first direct detection of gravitational waves of two merging black holes by Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO), just 3 months ago. Even though, so far we had strong evidence for the existence of black holes, the LIGO event serves as the first direct confirmation of black holes.

Unfortunately, due to bad weather stargazing was not possible. However, the audience had a chance to join tours of the Rutherfurd Observatory on the roof of Pupin, lead by graduate students Steven Mohammed and Steph Douglas. Additionally, undergraduate student Richard Netherlander, guided the audience to the majesty of the cosmos through the projections of 3D movies, while, at the lecture hall, Andrew Emerick presented a mini-lecture on reionization and showed a mesmerizing movie about the end of Dark Ages.

-- Maria Charisi (graduate student)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Apr 29 - Explosive Origins of Our Elements

Every single thing we encounter on Earth exists because, at one point, its atoms were processed through stars. This week Sarah Pearson took us through a tour of the origin of the elements, from hydrogen and helium, through every element in our bodies and the world around us. The real stars of tonight's lecture were supernovae, the beautiful explosions that both produce and distribute elements throughout the universe.

Shortly after the Big Bang, the universe consisted almost entirely of hydrogen and helium. At this point, we had a long way to go before enough elements were produced to give rise to the rich chemistry that governs life here on Earth. As Sarah explained, within the first stars, and in every star since then, nuclear fusion smashed together hydrogen and helium to form increasingly heavier, and more complicated elements. However, these elements would still be trapped within the cores of stars if it not were for a weird quirk of physics. As Sarah showed, once iron is produced within stars, they enters its death throws; quickly collapsing then suddenly exploding with tremendous energy....

Sarah showed images observations of supernova remnants, the hot gas left over after a supernova explosion. This gas expands and mixes with its surroundings, carrying elements produced inside the star with it. Over time, after many explosions, these elements mix throughout a galaxy, eventually ending up inside new stars where the cycle continues.

After the talk, we discussed recent updates to the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Lauren Corlies gave an overview of the instrumentation of the JWST, the replacement to the Hubble Space Telescope. Andrew Emerick talked about the science goals of this upcoming mission, from observing exoplanets in the Milky Way to the first stars and galaxies formed near the beginning of the Universe.

-- Andrew Emerick (graduate student)