Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures
Saturn’s Moon Titan: A World with Rivers, Lakes, and Possibly Even Life
Dr. Chris McKay (NASA Ames Research Center)
Listen (mp3 file, 19 MB)
Titan, Saturn’s largest satellite, is the only moon with a thick atmosphere. In many ways, Titan is a cold twin of the Earth, with liquid methane playing the same role there as water plays on our planet. Life on Earth is based on liquid water; could there be life on Titan based on liquid methane? Dr. McKay (co-investigator on the Huygens probe that landed on Titan) discuss the new picture we have of this alien world, with its lakes, its rivers, and its rocks made of water ice.
How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had it Coming
Dr. Michael Brown (Caltech)
Listen (mp3 file, 19.9 MB)
Dr. Brown shares the inside story of how he discovered “other Pluto’s” out there beyond Neptune, including Eris, which is now known to be about the same size as Pluto. He named that new world for the goddess of discord, because, as he describes with his characteristic humor, its discovery resulted in a private and public controversy that led to a redefinition of what a planet is.
Catching Shadows: Kepler’s Search for New Worlds
Dr. Natalie Batalha (San Jose State University)
Listen (mp3 file, 16.9 MB)
NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, launched in March 2009, is a mission designed to survey a slice of the Milky Way Galaxy to identify planets orbiting other stars. Kepler has the advantage that it can find planets as small as Earth in or near the habitable zone of each star. Dr. Batalha introduces the quest for planets elsewhere, describes the techniques used by the Kepler team, and shares some of the mission discoveries to date.
The Ultimate Fate of the Solar System (and the Music of the Spheres)
Dr. Gregory Laughlin (University of California, Santa Cruz)
Listen (mp3 file, 19.1 MB)
The long-term fate of the planets in our Solar System has intrigued astronomers and mathematicians for over 300 years. Although the planetary orbits are often held up as a model of clockwork regularity, the Solar System is in truth an extremely complex and chaotic system. Dr. Laughlin explains how recent advances in computing technology have finally given us a solution to the problem. He also shows how the delicate gravitational interplay between the planets can be interpreted as a true “music of the spheres”, and auditions the unsettling compositions that can result in the event that the planetary orbits go haywire in the extremely distant future.
Hearts of Darkness: Black Holes in Space
Dr. Alex Filippenko (University of California, Berkeley)
Listen (mp3 file, 26.5 MB)
Black holes are regions of space where gravity is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape! No longer confined to the imaginations of science-fiction writers and theoretical physicists, black holes have recently been discovered in large numbers by observational astronomers. Learn about the remarkable properties of these bizarre objects from one of the finest explainers in the field of astronomy.
A Scientist Looks at ‘Doomsday 2012’ and the Rise of Cosmophobia
Dr. David Morrison (NASA Lunar Science Institute & SETI Institute)
Listen (mp3 file, 19.8 MB)
Many people have heard the rumors that the world will end in 2012 — and that some astronomical event or alignment is to blame. Dr. Morrison discusses the public fears and how they have been enflamed by the media. He sets our minds at ease, showing why there is no reason to worry more in 2012 than any other year.
The Many Mysteries of Antimatter
Dr. Helen Quinn (Stanford University)
Listen (mp3 file, 17.7 MB)
Antimatter is just like matter with all its properties reversed. Scientists think there may have been equal amount of matter and antimatter in the early universe, and yet today we have lots of matter and very little antimatter. How and when that imbalance developed is one of the great mysteries in understanding the underlying properties of the universe. Dr. Quinn, Professor of Physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator and co-author of a popular book on antimatter, discusses the history of our understanding of antimatter and how we use the little bit of antimatter around today to study some of the highest energy processes among the stars and galaxies. (This talk is a bit more technical than our usual lectures, but well worth exploring if you are interested in some of the most exciting frontiers of physics.)
The Search for Intelligent Life Among the Stars: New Strategies
Dr. Seth Shostak (SETI Institute)
Listen (mp3 file, 20.5 MB)
A half-century ago, astronomers began trying to “eavesdrop” for radio messages from nearby star systems. However, today, SETI researchers continue to point their telescopes at individual stars, on the assumption that technically advanced societies will inhabit a watery world like our own. Seth Shostak describes these searches, but then discusses some novel ideas for how we might pursue the hunt for “cosmic company” and why it’s possible that we might find evidence of sophisticated intelligence out there within only a few decades. Seth Shostak is Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, in Mountain View, California and hosts the syndicated radio show called “Are We Alone?”
Life at the Edge: Life in Extreme Environments on Earth and the Search for Life in the Universe
Dr. Lynn Rothschild (NASA Ames Research Center)
Listen (mp3 file, 20.6 MB)
Astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild has gone from the Bolivian Andes to the Rift Valley of Kenya searching for the hardiest of organisms in the most extreme environments for life. By getting to know life forms on Earth that can occupy the most hostile niches, we can begin to understand the survival requirements for life in general. She describes her quest for “life at the edge” and how such discoveries will shape our search for life in the Solar System and beyond.
Hubble Breakthrough: The First Photos of a Planet Orbiting Another Star
Dr. Paul Kalas (University of California, Berkeley)
Listen (mp3 file, 15.4 MB)
Paul Kalas was the leader of the team who managed the long-sought feat of actually taking a photograph of a planet orbiting another star. Before this, all the planets outside our solar system were found by indirect means. He describes how they achieved the breakthrough, using the Hubble Space Telescope, and discusses the wide range of planets out there that astronomers are discovering.