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The Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures


Audio Recordings of Recent Non-technical Talks by Noted Astronomers



Founded in 1999, the Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures are presented on six Wednesday evenings during each school year at Foothill College, in the heart of California's Silicon Valley. Speakers over the years have included Nobel-prize winners, members of the National Academy of Sciences, the first woman in history to discover a planet, an astrophysicist who is an award-winning science fiction writer, and many other well-known scientists explaining astronomical developments in everyday language.

The Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures Podcasts logo

The series is moderated by Foothill's astronomy instructor Andrew Fraknoi and sponsored by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the SETI Institute, NASA's Ames Research Center, and the Foothill College Astronomy Program.


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If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can sign up to receive advance e-mail notification of each lecture by clicking here.

Thanks to the creative work of DeAnza College Broadcast Media Production Supervisor Marty Kahn and David Manzo of Bejaw Video Productions, video versions of a few of the current lectures can now be found at: Once you launch iTunes, you will see the option of the Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures in the DeAnza iTunes library.

YOU can help us post more lectures on this page and support the cause of improving science literacy.  Make a tax-deductible gift today.

Lectures Currently Available as Podcasts:

Anthony Aguirre

Dr. Anthony Aguirre (University of California at Santa Cruz) "Multiple Universes and Cosmic Inflation: The Quest to Understand Our Universe (and Find Others)"
May 18, 2011

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 24 MB)

Our improving understanding of the cosmos points to an early epoch during which the universe expanded at a stupendous rate to create the vast amount of space we can observe. Cosmologist are now coming to believe that this "cosmic inflation" may do much more: in many versions, inflation goes on forever, generating not just our observable universe but also infinitely many such regions with similar or different properties, together forming a staggeringly complex and vast "multiverse". Dr. Aguirre traces the genesis of this idea, explores some of its implications, and discusses how scientists are seeking ways to test this idea.

Chris McKay

Dr. Thomas Berger (Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Lab) "Our Explosive Sun: New Views of the Nearest Star and the Largest Explosions in the Solar System"
April 20, 2011

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 18.2 MB)

Recent satellite missions are giving scientists dramatic new views of the Sun and the huge magnetic explosions in its outer layers that cause flares and the ejections of huge masses of superheated gas. Dr. Berger takes us on a beautiful tour through our Sun's atmosphere with images and movies from these missions.

Chris McKay

Dr. Chris McKay (NASA Ames Research Center) "Saturn's Moon Titan: A World with Rivers, Lakes, and Possibly Even Life"
March 9, 2011

headphonesListen (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.

Natalie Batalha

Dr. Michael Brown (Caltech) "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had it Coming"
January 19, 2011

headphonesListen (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.

Natalie Batalha

Dr. Natalie Batalha (San Jose State University): "Catching Shadows: Kepler's Search for New Worlds"
November 17, 2010

headphonesListen (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.

Gregory Laughlin

Dr. Gregory Laughlin (University of California, Santa Cruz): "The Ultimate Fate of the Solar System (and the Music of the Spheres)"
October 20, 2010

headphonesListen (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.

Alex Filippenko

Dr. Alex Filippenko (University of California, Berkeley): "Hearts of Darkness: Black Holes in Space"
May 19, 2010

headphonesListen (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.

David Morrison

Dr. David Morrison (NASA Lunar Science Institute & SETI Institute): "A Scientist Looks at 'Doomsday 2012' and the Rise of Cosmophobia"
April 21, 2010

headphonesListen (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.

Helen Quinn

Dr. Helen Quinn (Stanford University): "The Many Mysteries of Antimatter"
March 10, 2010

headphonesListen (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.)

Seth Shostak

Dr. Seth Shostak (SETI Institute): "The Search for Intelligent Life Among the Stars: New Strategies"
January 20, 2010

headphonesListen (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?"

Lynn Rothschild

Dr. Lynn Rothschild (NASA Ames Research Center): "Life at the Edge: Life in Extreme Environments on Earth and the Search for Life in the Universe"
November 11, 2009

headphonesListen (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.

Paul Kalas

Dr. Paul Kalas (University of California, Berkeley): "Hubble Breakthrough: The First Photos of a Planet Orbiting Another Star"
October 7, 2009

headphonesListen (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.

Dr. Patricia Burchat

Dr. Patricia Burchat (Stanford University): "The Dark Side of the Universe: Dark Matter and Dark Energy"
May 20, 2009

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 19.4 MB)

In the last decade or so, astronomers have been forced to accept two mysterious observations. About a quarter of the universe is made of "dark matter," which attracts things with its gravity, but is otherwise invisible. And roughly two-thirds of the universe is composed of "dark energy," which causes space itself to expand at an ever-increasing rate. That means only a small fraction of the universe is made of ordinary matter -- the stuff we understand! In this non-technical presentation, Dr. Burchat explores the evidence for the dark side of the cosmos, and the experiments that are being developed to investigate it further.

Dr. Margaret Race

Dr. Margaret Race (SETI Institute): "Planetary Protection and Hitchhikers in the Solar System: The Danger of Mingling Microbes"
April 22, 2009

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 20.2 MB)

Scientists searching for life elsewhere have to worry about avoiding harmful cross contamination during the exploration of planets and their moons. We don't want to take Earth microbes to Mars or bring back alien microbes to Earth. In this timely talk, Dr. Race gives a behind-the-scenes view of "environmental management" planning for solar system missions, and explains the role of the Outer Space Treaty and other related national and international policies in planning our hunt for life-forms out there.

Dr. Stephen Beckwith

Dr. Stephen Beckwith (University of California): "The Dawn of Creation: The First Two Billion Years"
March 4, 2009

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 26.4 MB)

All the great islands of stars got their start in the first billion years after the beginning of time, the Big Bang. Every deep picture of the sky reveals thousands of these galaxies, each made up of billions of stars like the Sun. Modern instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope have made it possible to look back to a time when the universe looked very different that it does today. Dr. Beckwith discusses some of the deepest images of the universe ever taken and shares recent discoveries about the early days of the cosmos.

Dr. Anthony Colaprete

Dr. Anthony Colaprete (NASA Ames Research Center): "Prospecting for Water on the Moon: The Upcoming LCROSS Mission"
January 21, 2009

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 16.8 MB)

In 2009, NASA will purposely crash two spacecraft into one of the Moon's polar regions. The impacts should raise huge plumes of material, visible even to smaller telescopes on Earth. Dr. Colaprete, the Principal Investigator for this intriguing mission, fills us in on why scientists believe there is water in deep craters at the Moon's poles and how the LCROSS mission plans to look for it in the plumes.

Dr. Mark Showalter

Dr. Mark Showalter (SETI Institute): "Saturn's Restless Rings: Latest Results from the Cassini Mission"
November 12, 2008

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 20.7 MB)

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has entered its fifth year exploring the planet Saturn, its rings, and its moons. Dr. Showalter, a key member of the Cassini science team, shares some of the marvelous results from Saturn and recent discoveries from the mission. His special focus is Saturn's complex and beautiful ring system (which shows a variety of surprising phenomena, including "jets", "propellers", "wisps", "spokes", and "braids") and the remarkable interactions between Saturn's rings and moons.

Dr. Leonard Susskind

Dr. Leonard Susskind (Stanford University): "The Black Hole Wars: My Battle with Stephen Hawking"
October 1, 2008

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 20.2 MB)

Black holes, the collapsed remnants of the largest stars, provide a remarkable laboratory where the frontier concepts of our understanding of nature are tested at their extreme limits. For more than two decades, Professor Susskind and a Dutch colleague have had a running battle with Stephen Hawking about the implications of black hole theory for our understanding of reality -- a battle that he has described in his well-reviewed book The Black Hole Wars. In this talk Dr. Susskind tells the story of these wars and explains the ideas that underlie the conflict. What's at stake is nothing less than our understanding of space, time, matter and information!

Dr. Jill Tarter

Dr. Jill Tarter (SETI Institute): "The Allen Telescope Array: The Newest Pitchfork for Exploring the Cosmic Haystack"
April 23, 2008

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 24.5 MB)

Dr. Tarter is the leader of the main project looking for radio signals from alien civilizations (she was also the model for the character Jodie Foster played in the movie "Contact.") She updates us on the latest tools and plans in this quest, as digital technologies make possible huge improvements in our search systems. The Allen Telescope Array, being constructed in Northern California, will be the most powerful tool for finding SETI signals ever built. It is an innovative radio telescope assembled from a large number of small dishes, using consumer off-the-shelf technologies whenever possible to minimize costs. In the next decade, this new instrument will enable exploration that is 1000 to 10,000 times more sensitive than in the previous decades. This may just be enough!

Dr. Geoff Marcy

Dr. Geoff Marcy (University of California, Berkeley): "New Worlds and Yellowstone: How Common are Habitable Planets?"
March 5, 2008

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 21.1 MB)

Astronomers have now discovered more than 250 planets orbiting other stars. Hear the scientist who has discovered more planets than anyone else in the history of the world discuss what kinds of planets we have found so far, and what a new generation of telescopes might find in the future. Could discoveries of planets that resemble the Earth spark a new era when we could someday begin communication with alien life? Dr. Marcy won the Shaw Prize (one of the highest honors in science) in 2005 and was Discover Magazine's Space Scientist of the Year. He and his co-workers pioneered the technique for finding planets around other stars without seeing light from the planet (by looking for wiggles in the motion of the star each planet orbits.)

Dr. Jeff Moore

Dr. Jeff Moore (NASA Ames Research Center): "New Horizons at Jupiter (and Some Saturn News)"
Nov. 13, 2007

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 17.4 MB)

In February, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft swung by the giant planet Jupiter on its way to Pluto. Its instruments recorded winderful images and other data about Jupiter's wild weather, its ring, and its giant moons. Dr. Moore, who was Leader of the Imaging Node for the encounter, shows the new photos of the Jupiter system and discusses some of the discoveries made by New Horizons. He also talks about one of the most exciting discoveries of the Cassini mission around Saturn -- the new understanding and exploration of water geysers on the moon Enceladus.

Dr. David Morrison

Dr. David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center): "Taking a Hit: Asteroid Impacts and Evolution"
October 3, 2007

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 18.9 MB)

Asteroids have hit the Earth many time in the past, and they will continue to hit in the future, whether we are prepared or not. Collisions with our planet over 4.5 billion years have profoundly influenced the evolution of life. (In fact, were it not for the impact of a 15-km wide asteroid 65 million years ago, it is likely humanity would not be here.) Dr. Morrison, one of the world's experts on the study of asteroid impacts, discusses the past and the future of these catastrophic hits, and explains how, in the last two decades, we have learned (in principle) how to defend ourselves. Unlike other natural hazards, we now have the capability of removing most of the impact risk within the next generation. However, the government still does not have a plan of action for when an asteroid is discovered heading our way or when an impact happens without any warning. (We recommend you listen to this podcast holding hands with someone you love.)

Dr. Dana Backman

Dr. Dana Backman (SETI Institute and Astronomical Society of the Pacific): "A Ringside Seat to the Formation of Planets"
May 23, 2007

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 19.8 MB)

Astronomers have discovered dusty "doughnuts" of cosmic raw material around many younger stars. In some cases, astronomers can see tantalizing hints in the rings that planets may be forming or may already have formed from this material. Dr. Backman explains how new kinds of telescopes and observations are making it possible for us to detect the birth process of planets around nearby stars. He concludes by previewing future observations of these intriguing dusty rings with upcoming telescopes, particularly the SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) Project in which NASA has outfitted a 747 plane with a telescope that can observe heat-rays from distant objects.

Dr. David Grinspoon

Dr. David Grinspoon (Denver Museum of Nature and Science): "Comparing Worlds: Climate Catastrophes in the Solar System"
April 11, 2007

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 22.3 MB)

Take an entertaining and enlightening journey with an astronomer and popular author through the history of our solar system, discovering runaway greenhouses and snowball planets. Compare the evolution of Venus, Earth, and Mars over the years. And learn how studying the evolution of other planets can help us understand and predict climate change on Earth.

Dr. Janice Voss

Dr. Janice Voss (NASA Ames Research Center): "A Scientist in Space" and "Searching for Earth-like Planets: NASA's Kepler Mission"
March 7, 2007

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 17.5 MB)

Dr. Voss, who has logged 49 days in space (traveling almost 19 million miles in 779 Earth orbits) discusses her work in space and what it's like flying on the Shuttle as a scientist. She then talks about NASA's upcoming Kepler mission, which will use a telescope in space to search for "transits" -- when a planet orbiting another star moves in front of its star and blocks its light. Although a planet might only block a tiny fraction of the light from a star, that decrease in brightness is enough to give a clear signal that the planet is there. With this mission, scientists hope to be able to find not only Jupiter and Saturn-sized planets, but also those as small as Earth. At the end, Dr. Voss answers a number of audience questions about both aspects of her work.

Dr. Bruce Margon

Dr. Bruce Margon (University of California, Santa Cruz): "Glimpsing the Edge of the Universe: Results from the Hubble Space Telescope"
January 24, 2007

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 24 MB)

The Hubble Space Telescope has circled the Earth 15 times every day for more than 16 years. Dr. Margon, who was until recently the Associate Director for Science for the Hubble, describes the most important discoveries made with the telescope and how it can show us new details of the universe from the solar system to the most distant reaches of space. In addition, he briefly discusses the future of the Hubble and some interesting public reactions to it.

Dr. Dale Cruikshank

Dr. Dale Cruikshank (NASA Ames): "The Planet Pluto: Maligned but Not Forgotten"
November 8, 2006

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 20.3 MB)

Dr. Cruikshank reviews what we knew about Pluto (including its atmosphere, of which he was the co-discoverer), why Pluto was re-classified as a dwarf planet in the fall of 2006, and what the New Horizons spacecraft may reveal about this distant world in the next decade.

Dr. Alex Filippenko

Dr. Alex Filippenko (University of California, Berkeley): "Dark Energy and the Runaway Universe"
October 4, 2006

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 24.7 MB)

In 1998, observations of very distant exploding stars provided intriguing evidence that the expansion of the Universe is speeding up with time, rather than slowing down due to gravity as expected. Today, new and completely independent observations strongly support this amazing conclusion. Over the largest scales of space, our Universe seems to be dominated by a repulsive "dark energy," stretching the very fabric of space itself. Dr. Filippenko, who is a leader in the group that has made some of these remarkable observations, gives us a progress report on our "runaway universe" and then answers a host of audience questions about the overall behavior of the universe.

Dr. Nathalie Cabrol

Dr. Nathalie Cabrol (SETI Institute): "The Mars Exploration Rover Mission: A Year of Exploration and Discovery"
May 19, 2005

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 18.3 MB)

Dr. Nathalie Cabrol is a planetary geologist who is a member of the Science Team for the Mars Exploration Rover mission. She specializes in exploring regions of Earth that resemble Mars (including Licancabur, the highest lake on our planet). She was instrumental in the selection of one of the landing sites for the Mars rovers and is busily analyzing images and data from the mission. In this 2005 lecture, she gave an early progress report on the work of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and some of their discoveries about the red planet.

Dr. Frank Drake

Dr. Frank Drake (SETI Institute, University of California, Santa Cruz): "Estimating the Chances of Life Out There"
April 20, 2005

headphonesListen (mp3 file, 16.9 MB)

In 1961, Dr. Drake proposed an intriguing method of estimating the number of intelligent life-forms out there that we might communicate with, now called the Drake Equation. In this talk, Dr. Drake provides a modern update on estimates for the existence of "E.T." He draws on new ideas and new observations (including the discovery of surprising planets around other stars), which have helped astronomers refine both the targets where they search for life and the methods they use.

The Recordings:

Although as many as a thousand people have attended each lecture, we believe that the potential audience for these popular-level talks is far greater. Thus we are beginning an experiment to record the audio portion of each program and make it available on the Web, with the kind permission of the speakers. (We would like to thank Palo Alto audio-visual engineer Douglas Bassler for his help in recording the lectures and Perry Thorwaldson of Thor Audio Solutions for the use of recording equipment.) We are also recording the lectures in video (as funds become available).


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