Archive for the ‘Science Communication’ Category

Goddard astrophysicist Jane Rigby tells TEDx audience why space telescopes are so amazing

December 1, 2011 1 comment

Astrophysicist Jane Rigby joined Goddard about a year ago; she studies the evolution of galaxies. On Saturday, October 29, Rigby gave a talk about space telescopes to the TEDxMidAtlantic 2011 event in Washington, D.C.

You may have heard of the TED phenomenon. In the organization’s own words, “Speakers at TED events — some of the world’s most fascinating, innovative and influential individuals — are challenged to give “the talk of their life” in 18 minutes or less. TEDx is a sort of franchise of Big TED, known as “independently organized TED events.”

Big TED put out a call earlier this year for auditions for its annual conference in Long Beach. Rigby teamed up with fellow Goddard astrophysicist Amber Straughn to produce a 40-second narrated Keynote presentation as their audition entry.

It worked. Rigby was invited, along with 16 other finalists, to give a 5-minute live audition talk, in a bar in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City on May 24. In the end, Big TED did not choose Rigby for this year’s conference.

But Rigby DID meet a person named Nate Mook, one of the organizers of the Mid-Atlantic TEDx conference. And Rigby gave her talk; here it is.




Three questions with NASA's Michelle Thaller, wherein she comments on our fast and furious expanding universe, mysterious matter in deep space, and 'the whole schmiel'

November 2, 2011 2 comments

Dr. Michelle Thaller talks cosmology.

Yesterday I attended a talk here at Goddard by Michelle Thaller, our Assistant Director for Science Communication. Dr. Thaller trained as an astrophysicist and is a masterful public speaker, mostly because she has devoted her career to public outreach and she works hard at being good at it. She also has a wicked sense of humor and is pretty handy with a light saber.

Yesterday, she merely took on two of the greatest discoveries of modern cosmology: the microwave background “glow” of the Big Bang, and the quickening expansion of space/time due to dark energy.

Research in these areas have won Nobel prizes. Goddard’s John Mather shared one for discoveries made with NASA’s COBE spacecraft (he led the team that built it). More recently, Adam Riess and other scientists used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to make observations that contributed to the Nobel-prize-winning discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe.

(UPDATE 4:30 p.m. — Gogblog sincerely thanks Goddard astronomer Jane Rigby for pointing out an oversimplification in the way I initially described Hubble’s contribution to the discovery of accelerating cosmic expansion. She pointed out that MANY observatories all over the world contributed to the work.)

Thaller had to tap dance pretty nimbly to cover all this ground, while throwing in a discussion of dark matter (which by the way makes up the vast majority of the universe, although we can’t see it much less understand it). Afterward, she kindly agreed to field a few cosmic questions:

gogblog: If you consider all the creative hypotheses bouncing around to explain dark energy, which is the one that you think would be the most strange and therefore the most interesting, if it were true?

Thaller: I’m quite intrigued by the idea that gravity may work differently in different parts of the universe. In college, I believe such theories were called “perverse cosmologies,” so they’ve got to be interesting, right? I’ve heard the words “tame space” and “wild space” thrown around lately. The idea is that gravity acts somewhat differently when you are deep in a gravity well (like we are around the Sun), as opposed to out where there really isn’t any mass around (like between galaxies). Maybe there is a correction factor that we haven’t discovered locally, because it is overwhelmed by other effects, but out in “wild space,” gravity really is weaker, and therefore the galaxies are accelerating away from each other.

gogblog: You mentioned in your talk that you didn’t initially believe the new data from Type 1a supernovae showing that the acceleration of the universe is increasing. Do you recall when you accepted that strange conclusion, and did you immediately grasp the implications of it?


Thaller: I’m still not totally sure I accept the accelerating universe measurement. The thing that sort of got me a bit more comfortable was that the change between the universe slowly decelerating to it beginning to accelerate turns
out to be fairly recent — about 5 billion years ago.

For one thing, I’m totally thankful that the turn-over isn’t right NOW, because that would make me very nervous about the “privileged viewer” problem. At least it happened a while ago. But 5 billion years ago is recent enough that the universe had pretty much the same chemical content, and I can believe that Type I supernovae weren’t very different.

I think Bob Kirschner (co-discoverer of accelerating cosmic expansion) won me over while we were dancing at one of the last AAS meetings. He was wearing old-style cinema 3D glasses at night, for no reason. He must know what he’s talking about.

gogblog: Finally, the God question. Let us stipulate for argument’s sake that there is an omniscient being you could communicate with meaningfully. And this entity grants you one question about the universe. What do you ask?

Thaller: I have to say that I’m very aware that we aren’t anywhere close to even phrasing the right questions. It’s getting fairly obvious that what we humans define as reality (space, time, causality, etc.) is only a small part of the whole schmiel, whatever that is.

Although I hate the term, there is a reason why people are calling the Higgs particle the God Particle. Somehow energy (which is massless and travels at the speed of light) gets turned into matter. HUGE amounts of energy have to coagulate to give you a tiny amount of mass. And think about what the universe is like to a photon — a bit of pure energy traveling at the speed of light. No space, no time, all the universe is sort of lumped together in a point of reality.

How do you get from there to slow, solid stuff like us? I’d really like to know how that works, and really KNOW why e=mc2.

OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

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