Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures
The Copernicus Complex: Are We Special in the Cosmos?
Dr. Caleb Scharf (Columbia University)
Listen (mp3 file, 28.3 MB)
Is humanity on Earth special or unexceptional? Extraordinary discoveries in astronomy and biology have revealed a universe filled with endlessly diverse planetary systems, and a picture of life as a phenomenon intimately linked with the most fundamental aspects of physics. But just where these discoveries will lead us is not yet clear. We may need to find a way to see past the mediocre status that Copernicus assigned to us 500 years ago. Dr. Scharf helps us to come to grips with the implications of some of the latest scientific research, from the microscopic to the cosmic.
Monster Black Holes: What Lurks at the Center of Galaxies?
Dr. Chung-Pei Ma (University of California, Berkeley)
Listen (mp3 file, 27.9 MB)
Black holes are among the most fascinating objects in the cosmos, in part because they can grow to monstrous size, swallowing the mass of millions or billions of suns. Dr. Ma describes recent discoveries of record-breaking black holes, each with a mass of ten billion times the mass of the Sun. New evidence shows that these objects could be the dormant remnants of powerful “quasars” that existed in the young universe.
Lifting the Cosmic Veil: Highlights from a Decade of the Spitzer Space Telescope
Dr. Michael Bicay (NASA Ames Research Center)
Listen (mp3 file, 36.9 MB)
As the infrared cousin to Hubble, the Spitzer Space Telescope was launched in 2003 to study the cool universe with waves that are invisible to the human eye. It can probe the birth and youth of stars and planetary disks, and study of planets orbiting other stars. Dr. Bicay describes the long road leading to Spitzer’s launch, and presents highlights from the mission’s first decade of discovery.
Exploding Stars, New Planets, Black Holes, and the Crisis at Lick Observatory
Dr. Alex Filippenko (University of California, Berkeley)
Listen (mp3 file, 37.2 MB)
Lick Observatory, the first remote mountaintop observatory in the world, has had a remarkable record of discovery spanning 126 years. (Its first Director also founded the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.) Lick continues to be a vibrant research facility, especially for projects that require large numbers of nights on modest-size telescopes. Dr. Filippenko discusses the research areas in which Lick remains a world leader. However, the University of California Office of the President has decided that the university’s funding for Lick will be terminated by 2016-2018. Find out, from the President of the Lick Observatory Council, what is being done to try to keep Lick open.
Black Widow Pulsars: The Vengeful Corpses of Stars
Dr. Roger Romani (Stanford University)
Listen (mp3 file, 22.2 MB)
NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has revealed a violent high-energy universe full of stellar explosions, black hole jets, and pulsing stars. These cosmic objects are often faint when observed with visible light, but glow bright with gamma rays. Dr. Romani describes the quest to discover the true nature of the most puzzling of these gamma-ray sources. Several turn out to be a kind of bizarre star corpse called a ‘black widow’ pulsar.
The Chelyabinsk Meteor: Can We Survive a Bigger Impact?
Dr. David Morrison (SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center)
Listen (mp3 file, 26.4 MB)
In February 2013, a rocky projectile entered the Earth’s atmosphere and its explosion, at an altitude of 14 mi, released energy equivalent to a couple dozen Hiroshima-sized atom bombs. About two minutes later, the shock wave reached the ground in Chelyabinsk, Russia, breaking windows and injuring about 1500 people from flying glass. Has this event served as a kind of cosmic wake-up call for planetary defense? NASA recently announced a “grand challenge” to find all asteroids that could threaten human populations, and to figure out how to deal with them. David Morrison, a nationally-recognized expert about asteroids, discusses the Russian impact and evaluates ways we might meet the grand challenge to protect our population from space debris.
How the Universe Went from Smooth to Lumpy: The Modern Origins Story
Dr. Eliot Quataert (University of California, Berkeley)
Listen (mp3 file, 33.9 MB)
Dr. Eliot Quataert provides an overview of the modern understanding of our origins in astrophysics. The story begins in the infant universe, which we now know was remarkably smooth compared to what we see around us today, with only tiny differences in its properties from one part to another. By contrast, in the present universe there are enormous differences in the properties of matter in different locations. Dr. Quataert describes how the universe has evolved to its current state, emphasizing how gravity reigns supreme and builds up the planets, stars, and galaxies required for biological evolution to proceed.
Being a Mars Rover: What It’s Like on the Surface of Mars
Dr. Lori Fenton (SETI Institute)
Listen (mp3 file, 25.1 MB)
The complex, yet flawless landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars in August 2012 led to worldwide acclaim. What has NASA’s youngest robot been up to since then, and what has it discovered? Where on Mars did it land and why was that site chosen above all others? Dr. Fenton gives an overview of the rover’s capabilities, accomplishments, and plans on Mars, and describes what it’s really like on the surface of the red planet.
Free-floating Planets: When You’re Just Too Small to be a Star
Dr. Gibor Basri (University of California, Berkeley)
Listen (mp3 file, 34.4 MB)
The least massive star is six times heavier than the most massive known planet. In between is the realm of the mysterious “brown dwarfs.” The first of these was discovered only in 1995, the same year astronomers found the first planet beyond our solar system. Since then we have found hundreds of each, and new techniques are giving us even more power to probe the properties of these enigmatic bodies. Dr. Basri, one of the discoverers of brown dwarfs, summarizes the progress we have made in understanding the domain of cosmic objects that don’t qualify as stars.
Astronomy from the Stratosphere: NASA’s SOFIA Mission
Dr. Dana Backman (Director of Education & Public Outreach, SOFIA Project, NASA Ames Research Center)
Listen (mp3 file, 28.1 MB)
Why did NASA buy a used passenger airliner, cut a 10′ x 10′ hole in the fuselage, add a roll-back door, and install a 17-ton telescope inside? Dr. Backman introduces us to the engineering marvel called SOFIA — the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. This remarkable airborne telescope began scientific research flights in 2010 and is already returning exciting discoveries about the birth of stars, interstellar chemistry, the atmospheres of giant planets, the environment around supermassive black holes, and other branches of astronomy.