Monday, April 17, 2017

Astronomy on Tap: Black Holes and Exoplanets!

Astronomy on Tap hit two very different topics tonight: black hole simulations, and observations of our nearest exoplanet, Proxima b.  Starting us off, Maria Okounkova, discussed the history of numerical relativity simulations of how black holes behave when interacting and merging, and made this easily understandable by comparing it with the television program The Great British Bakeoff.  Numerical relativity has enabled such recent discoveries as the LIGO gravitational wave detection of 2015.

After Maria, we had a talk by visiting scientist, Dr. Devin Silvia, who described the recent discovery of Proxima b, an exoplanet orbiting the closest star outside of our solar system.  With a bit of humor, he covered why it's important to have discovered this planet, and the possibility of us ever visiting it in our lifetime!

Thanks to everyone for the great turnout, and good job to all participants in a very difficult quiz.  See you next month!


Friday, March 31, 2017

Lecture & Stargazing: Why Stars Shine

Our lecture topic this evening covered the seemingly-simple question of "Why do Stars Shine?"  Our speaker, Dr. Robyn Sanderson, was able to effectively explain the history of our knowledge about stars and how they work to a wide audience made up of people of all ages.  She even incorporated a music video from They Might Be Giants on Why Stars Shine, as well as an activity where children from the audience acted like atomic nuclei in the Sun's core, bouncing into each other until they fused.  Check out this video capturing their activity:

There's also the They Might Be Giants video on youtube here.  As well as the applet she used to showcase the change in color of stars with their increased temperature (and mass) here.

Overall, the talk was well-attended and well-appreciated by our large audience.  Great job, Robyn!

Afterwards, we had both stargazing (not pictured) as well as a Q&A panel to answer audience members questions on a variety of topics.  This discussion got into a lot of non-astronomical topics including climate change, and chemical bonding in plants.  Well done, team!


Monday, March 13, 2017

Astronomy on Tap: Gravitational Lensing, Galaxy Evolution, and Social Justice

Our March Astronomy on Tap, on the day before Pi Day, was one for the ages! Dr. Rachael Livermore, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, happened to be visiting the area, so she began by explaining the fundamentals of gravitational lensing and showing how galaxy clusters can bend light on cosmological scales. Rachael founded the Astronomy on Tap chapter in Austin, and her experience showed as she wielded science and the stage in a masterful and informative way!

The intermission featured a surprise musical interlude, led by Dr. Gary Blackwood, the manager of the NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program. In what was the Galactic Premier of his song 'The Exoplaneteers,' Gary sang about the basics of the primary exoplanet detection techniques and introduced his new verse about the fascinating TRAPPIST-1 exoplanet system --- all in rhyming meter, no less! With everyone in a singing mood, we subsequently sang happy birthday to Cameron Hummels, who is the founder of the Pasadena Astronomy on Tap chapter and who was in attendance!

Our final speaker was Dr. Jorge Moreno, a professor at Cal Poly Pomona who will soon make the exciting transition to a professor position at Pomona College. In his Astronomy on Tap debut, Jorge taught the crowd about how galaxies collide and merge and the computer simulations he and other astronomers write to help understand the underlying physics. To conclude, Jorge gave a second talk regarding diversity and social justice within astronomy specifically and the United States more generally. Jorge is Chair of the Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy, and gave a riveting speech about the under-representation of several demographics within astronomy, and what individuals can to do promote awareness and change the culture from within.

Thanks to Rachael, Gary, and Jorge for a wonderful program, and to the packed crowd of astronomers and non-astronomers alike. We look forward to seeing y'all again at the next 
Astronomy on Tap event on Monday, April 17th! Tell all your friends and family!


Friday, March 3, 2017

Lecture & Stargazing: Hot Jupiters

We hosted famed Professor Konstantin Batygin tonight for a lecture on his theory for the potential origin of Hot Jupiters, a class of massive exoplanets found near their host stars.  Professor Batygin is famous for his work with Mike Brown on Planet 9, that there is an undiscovered planet in the outer solar system influencing the dynamics of massive Kuiper-belt objects, but tonight he talked about exoplanets instead.  Professor Batygin gave a really engaging, but pretty advanced talk on how Hot Jupiters, *could* form in situ without the need for migrating inward as the popular paradigm currently dictates.  It was thought-provoking and well-delivered--thank you, Konstantin!

Afterwards, we were able to observe on the newly renovated athletic fields near Cahill, and the athletics department even turned off some of their stadium lights for us.  Great views of the heavens tonight!

Finally, we had a Q&A panel that covered a large number of question topics ranging from exoplanets to the origins of the cosmos.  Thanks to everyone who stuck around for a question!


Monday, February 13, 2017

Astronomy on Tap: Galaxies and Pulsars Explained

Astronomy on Tap this evening was blessed with two very effective speakers: Dr. Louis Abramson, a postdoc at UCLA, and Anna Ho, a graduate student at Caltech.  Louis used a particularly novel means of describing how galaxies form, evolve, and die by comparing them to how humans are born, live our lives, and die.  This analogy held particularly well in talking about how the environment in which one lives affects one's overall life, whether it's in a big city (galaxy cluster) or in a rural area (void).  

Anna talked about pulsars, the end point of massive stars, and how we detect them with a variety of instruments.  She discussed the history of these exotic objects, and how they were initially thought to be alien signals!  Overall it was a great talk followed with lots of questions!

We had our usual quiz afterwards, and I guess I made the quiz too easy, since we had 6 people get 10/10!  I had to use a tie-breaker question to narrow down the winners to give adequate prizes.  Thanks, everyone for coming!


Friday, February 3, 2017

Lecture & Stargazing: The Science of Star Trek

   Tonight was a unique talk topic targeting the science of the fictional Star Trek universe given by Mike Wong, a planetary science superstar graduate student.  He even created his own poster for our event, which is without a doubt better than the one I produced for it!

   Mike touched on all sorts of Star Trek lore and its basis in our own understanding of science and astrophysics throughout the show's history.  He described the Drake Equation, the principle governing how many intelligent civilizations may exist in our Universe today, and what it meant for the premise of having a Federation of Planets by Gene Roddenberry.  Mike discussed the premise that in the future our society won't be driven by the acquisition of wealth, but on more altruistic goals.  He touched on the twin planets of Remus and Romulus and how realistic these worlds are, now that we have some understanding of planetary evolution.  Overall, this was one of the best talks we've ever had, and it was a pleasure working with Mike.
Photos courtesy of Bob Paz (

Afterwards, we hosted a Panel Q&A made up of not just scientists, but scientists knowledgeable (and fans) of Star Trek.  So there were a variety of questions regarding the Star Trek Universe in addition to our normal scientific questions.  Our panel was made up of current and former graduate students in the Planetary Sciences department, who were able to handle all of the questions well, in addition to injecting humor.  It made for a very entertaining evening!  Thanks everyone for coming!