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)