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Education, Outreach, & Diversity
In 2017, a big year for science, we learned from cosmic discoveries
January 11, 2018
The big event of 2017 was the collision of two neutron stars in a relatively nearby galaxy, 140 million light years away. Such events are commonplace, happening many times a day, yet this was one was special because for the first time, the National Science Foundation's Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detected tiny ripples in the fabric of space-time that the cataclysmic event created. LIGO alerted astronomers, and GW170817 became the most well-studied astrophysical event, viewed with radio, infrared, visible, x-ray and gamma-ray "eyes."
Here is but one thing we learned: most, if not all, of the heaviest elements in the periodic table, e.g., gold and platinum, were made by colliding neutron stars.
Of course, LIGO thrilled us in 2016 with its announcement that it had detected gravitational waves from colliding black holes; this past December, three American scientists (Barry Barish and Kip Thorne of Caltech, and Rainer Weiss of MIT) were honored with the Nobel Prize for that discovery.
Closer to home, in October we were surprised by the first interstellar asteroid ever seen. We are used to asteroids - debris left over from the formation of our solar system - visiting us. In fact, the PanSTARRS1 telescope on Haleakala that discovered Oumuamua (for "scout"), as it is now officially known, searches for near-Earth objects that are potentially Earth-threatening. Oumuamua is not bound to our sun; it flew in from the direction of the Lyra constellation, passed between Mercury and the sun, and flew out again in the direction of the Pegasus constellation.
As large as an aircraft carrier and similarly shaped, Oumuamua reminded us that we are connected to the rest of the cosmos. Our solar system likely has shed asteroids and even planets that have flown by other stars with planets, and four NASA spacecraft - Pioneers 10 and 11 and Voyagers 1 and 2 - have left our solar system. The Voyagers carry the Golden Record of sounds recorded from Earth that Carl Sagan and his team put together to introduce us to the larger Universe.
It has been more than 20 years since we discovered the first exoplanets (planets orbiting around other stars). NASA's Kepler satellite has been the exoplanet workhorse, having discovered more than 4,000 exoplanets and 600 planetary systems. Astronomers have identified around 10 exoplanets in the habitable zone. Last year's big news was the discovery of the TRAPPIST 1 system, seven terrestrial-like planets orbiting a red dwarf star about 40 light years away. Five of the seven planets are similar in size to Earth and three are in the habitable zone, the sweet spot where liquid water - and hopefully life - can exist. We are well on our way to answering a very big question: Are we alone?
Moving to the far reaches of the Universe, the most distant quasar seen yet was discovered last year. The light we see began the journey to us when the Universe was only about 700 million years old. It presents us with a mystery: How did the billion-solar-mass black hole that powers this quasar form so early in the history of the Universe? (All galaxies, including our Milky Way, have massive black holes at their centers and go through an early "quasar phase" when their black holes shine brightly because of infalling matter.) LIGO and other gravitational-wave detectors coming on line in the future should shed light on this question.
While the great American eclipse of 2017 was not a surprise and did not lead to any startling discoveries, millions of Americans including me - were awed by it as the path of totality traversed the United States from Oregon to Georgia. In this amazing natural phenomenon, the moon nicely fits over the sun and blocks its light, allowing us to look directly at the sun without being blinded and view its - beautiful corona.
The corona of the sun is much hotter (millions of degrees) and wispier than its surface, extending many solar radii beyond the disk of the sun. The corona is responsible for much of the sun's activity that impacts our planet, including solar flares and coronal mass ejections, and how the corona works is still a mystery. Later this year, NASA will launch the Parker Solar Probe, which will orbit the sun on a highly elliptical path that will take it inside the sun's corona - really! - more than 20 times to make measurements that could solve some of mysteries of the corona.
Science is now a global activity that the United States no longer dominates. But as these discoveries illustrate, we continue to lead. Our success has involved three critical elements: thinking bold, throwing deep and sticking with it.
The LIGO Nobel Laureates were bold enough to think that you could detect a change in distance of one-thousandth the size of a proton between two mirrors separated by four kilometers. The NSF threw deep when it invested close to $1 billion over 25 years to build LIGO. And NASA stuck with it when Hubble had initial mirror problems, and more recently when it found a work-around to keep Kepler producing science after two gyros failed at the end of its four-year planned mission.
Certainly, cosmic discoveries help us to understand our place in the Universe, but they also inspire and awe us, young and old.
Michael S. Turner is a theoretical cosmologist who coined the term "dark energy" in 1998. He is the Bruce V. and Diana M. Rauner Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, and is the former assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences for the National Science Foundation.Learn more >>
Gravitational Waves Events
October 13, 2017
FIRST, On Monday, October 16th at 09:00 CDT, the National Science Foundation will host a press briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., bringing together scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Virgo collaborations, as well as representatives from some 70 observatories. This will be live-streamed and we will set up a live viewing with some of the involved University of Chicago scientists in the lobby of ERC, as well as in room 201 of the Physics Research Center.
The press briefing will begin with an overview of new findings from LIGO, Virgo and partners that span the globe, followed by details from telescopes that work with the LIGO and Virgo collaborations to study extreme events in the cosmos.
The discovery of gravitational-waves by LIGO opened a new window to the Universe and involved several UChicago scientists. This year's Nobel Prize in Physics recognized three scientists for their contributions to the LIGO detector and the first observation of gravitational waves.
SECOND, there will be a special, more technical colloquium on the topic Monday, October 16th at 4:00 p.m. CDT in ERC 161, featuring University scientists Daniel Holz and Joshua Frieman, followed by discussion and comments by Holz, Frieman, Hubble Fellow Dan Scolnic, University Professor Wendy Freedman, and students and postdocs involved in the new findings. Following the discussion there will be a reception in the atrium.
THIRD, there will be an event on Tuesday, October 17th from 5:00 - 7:00 p.m. in Kersten Physics Teaching Center (KPTC 120), consisting of about 5 short presentations by graduate students and postdocs and a Q&A/discussion. This will be geared more to the general public and university undergraduates.
I encourage you to join us for any of these special gatherings.
Dean of the Physical Sciences
The University of Chicago
Eclipse reflects sun's historic power
August 16, 2017
These rare astronomical events have helped explain the world around us -- from ancient Mesopotamia, where they were believed to foretell the deaths of kings, all the way to the 20th century, when they helped prove Einstein's theory of general relativity.
Such interest hasn't dimmed. People across the United States will have an opportunity on Aug. 21 to witness the first total solar eclipse from coast to coast in 99 years. UChicago faculty and students are among the hordes of enthusiasts traveling across the country toward the area of "totality," the 70-mile-wide stripe stretching from Oregon to South Carolina in which the moon will fully block the sun.
Ahead of this historic event, UChicago News asked scholars in fields ranging from theoretical cosmology to Islamic studies to discuss eclipses and their power.
The eclipse that proved Einstein was right
Michael Turner, Bruce V. & Diana M. Rauner Distinguished Service Professor in Physics
"Astronomers have learned a lot from eclipses, including one in 1919 that proved Einstein was right.
At the time, only a handful of people were aware of general relativity; Sir Arthur Eddington was one of them. He led an eclipse expedition into the Atlantic to find out whether gravity would bend starlight, as predicted by general relativity. What you want to do is look at stars very close to the sun, and see whether the light coming toward us is bent by the sun's gravity. With the moon blocking the sun, you can get that measurement, and it was exactly what Einstein predicted. The scientific community was agog. It instantly put general relativity on the map, and made Einstein a rockstar.
We're still learning things from eclipses. One thing people will study during this event is the corona of the sun, which is the glowing aura of gases that surrounds the sun. There are still things we don't understand about it -- such as exactly why it actually burns hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun itself.
A few years from now, NASA will launch a probe named after UChicago's own Eugene Parker that will explore the sun's corona -- closer than any probe has ever come to the sun."Learn more >>
Tiny scientists mobilized to study solar eclipse
July 26, 2017
On Tuesday morning, he found himself advancing science in a place it doesn't frequently go: sitting on a too small chair in a basement classroom with the lights dimmed.
"Who's ready for an eclipse?" he asked a group of 4- and 5-year-olds sitting around a table at Bright Horizons at Lakeview, a preschool.
The youngsters didn't exactly squeal "Yes!" in unison, but they at least cast their attention in his general direction. Henning proceeded, using a small model Earth, moon and, as a light source, a lamp with a dinosaur base.
"Does anybody know how you make night and day?" asked Henning. "Does anybody remember?"Learn more >>
Space Explorers Program Evaluation and Experiments Featured at the 2017 National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Meeting Los Angeles, CA
June 14, 2017
Randall H. Landsberg presented "Space Explorers: 25 Years of Inner-city Students Out of School Time Explorations" as part of the "mission possible" thread at the NSTA national conference. The talk included data on how students in the program are out preforming their peers and exemplar, hands-on, inquiry based experiments. The experiments both involved measurements but in very different realms: the size of the universe and the response rates of rods compared to cones in the human eye.
Space Explorers Compared to Chicago Public Schools.
Undergraduate First-Year STEM Majors National Data Comparison.
Since 1991 Space Explorers has offered first generation, low income inner-city students and university astrophysics researchers the opportunity to explore together (with over one hundred contact hours a year). An external evaluation probed the impacts of this program on the hundreds of students and instructors involved. We will examine the evaluation findings, which map well to the recent NRC study on out of school time programs. We will also explore some of our favorite lab activities, hear about taking students to Yerkes Observatory for residential science institutes, and discuss best practices for university and community based organization partnerships. Take home new ideas for student labs and partnerships.
Space Explorers Careers
(respondent 4 years past high school graduation n~100).
The Event Horizon Telescope's historic quest
April 13, 2017
Deflategate: Cold Wet Footballs, Ideal Gas Laws and Accusations of Cheating
February 8, 2017
Twenty-eight (28) high school students in KICP's Space Explorers program put these arguments to the test. Over the course of two weeks, students critically evaluated over a dozen arguments made by both sides, ranging from court documents, to college lectures, to tweets. Despite the strong opinions, contradictory claims, and often factually incorrect information found in these arguments, the Space Explorers managed to identify the critical questions that needed to be resolved to determine if Deflategate could be caused by purely innocuous physics and designed an experiment to address them. Their experiment revolved around measuring the effect that wetness had on the rate at which cold footballs warm up and increase in pressure.
To date their results are inconclusive. One trial found nothing suspicious about the pressure drop, and a second could not explain the low pressures in the Patriots' footballs. The Space Explorers themselves are split down the middle about how to interpret their results and will debate the best way to resolve this difference at the pre-Super Bowl Saturday class.
On MLK Day King College Prep Cosmology Club Explores Dark Matter
January 16, 2017
Space Explorer Naa Ashitey is the Quest Bridge Finalist for the University of Chicago
December 12, 2016
QuestBridge is a nonprofit program designed to assist high-achieving, academically motivated students from low-income backgrounds apply to top colleges around the nation. The program features the National College Match, in which students rank and apply to up to eight of QuestBridge's partner colleges. Students who are matched receive a generous four-year, no-loan scholarship.
Chicago high school students visit to experience "A day in the life of a scientist"
November 15, 2016
As part of her activities, Professor Freedman recently arranged for students to visit the Eckhardt Research Center for a discussion and tour of the KICP and Astronomy & Astrophysics labs and the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility. Students visited the PNF and the KICP labs of Professor Erik Shirokoff (where Associate Fellow Peter Barry described the lab equipment and activities), and gathered in Professor Stephan Meyer's lab to see a camera that will be used in a balloon-borne experiment to detect cosmic ray showers. Professors Meyer and Freedman also spoke to students about various aspects of their research and their lives as scientists.
Professor Meyer explains Extensive Air Showers to the visiting students.
Stephan Meyer showing the visitors around his lab.
Associate Fellow Peter Barry explaining a piece of apparatus in the Shirokoff lab.
PFC member Daniel Holz discusses Gravitational Waves on PBS' The Good Stuff
October 13, 2016
Learn more >>
Congratulations to Matthew Richardson, PFC Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program participant!
October 10, 2016
"Through a careful analysis of data collected by the MIDAS detector installed at the Pierre Auger Observatory, Matt has established the best limits on microwave emission from Extensive Air Showers induced in the atmosphere by Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays (UHECR). His results, an improvement by more than one order of magnitude over previously published limits, place strong constraints on the prospects of this technique for UHECR detection."
- Paolo Privitera
Matt has received a position of Postdoctoral Research Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.
2016 Yerkes Summer Institute: Spy vs. Spy
August 16, 2016
The 2016 Yerkes Summer Institute (YSI) was filled with secrecy, deception, and espionage. At YSI, high school students in the Space Explorers program played the role of 20th-Century spies to handle secret information: revealing, concealing and distorting information. Through three day-long lab activities, the students explored connections between spying and science. In the "Secret Photos" lab, they studied angular size, resolution, and the film-development process in order to effectively gather information on "enemy operatives" using 35 mm cameras. In the "Radio Beams" lab, students designed, built, and tested a system to transmit audio via an amplitude-modulated (AM) laser, which allowed them to secretly communicate across long distances. Lastly, techniques to securely communicate were examined in the "Codes and Ciphers" lab, which also served as an introduction to modern cryptography. After cycling through these three day labs, the students broke into three new groups and took one of the labs a step further: one group doctored photographs to spread false information, another built AM radio transmitters and receivers, and the last created treasure hunts using codes and ciphers for the clues. Nighttime activities included: observations with the Yerkes telescopes, astrophotography, explorations of the constellations which focused on what current research can tell us about them (e.g. most know exoplanets were found by Kepler in the constellation Cygnus); and bad weather activities that included examinations of the veracity of viral internet photos, and stories of famous spies. The week's spy-themed activities not only introduced the students to the importance of privacy in the digital age, but also to the concepts and skills that are integral to any modern STEM career.
Prof. Michael Turner's May 5 lecture at Adler Planetarium to be simulcast nationally
May 5, 2016
Kavli Fulldome Lecture
Is the universe part of a larger multiverse? What is speeding up the expansion of the universe? Turner will address these and other mysteries that inspire modern cosmologists. His talk will stream live simultaneously at 15 other institutions across North America. This dome-cast will allow audiences across North America to immerse themselves in the live presentation and ask questions, and will include institutions like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Pacific Science Center in Seattle and the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia.
A theoretical astrophysicist, Turner is the Bruce V. and Diana M. Rauner Distinguished Service Professor and director of its Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. Turner helped to pioneer the interdisciplinary field of particle astrophysics and cosmology. He has made seminal contributions to the current cosmological paradigm known as LambdaCDM, including the prediction of cosmic acceleration. Turner has received numerous prizes and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Current list of institutions participating in the dome-cast:
Physics in your future: Brittany Kamai
May 2, 2016
Learn more >>
526th Convocation Address: John Carlstrom - "Our Expanding View Of The Universe"
April 14, 2016
Learn more >>
Michael Turner discusses LIGO & the detection of gravity waves
April 12, 2016
Learn more >>
TCN Panel on Space: Wendy Freedman and Angela Olinto
April 1, 2016
If you can't see it, you won't be it. Future women leaders need examples.
In that spirit, The Chicago Network recently gathered an audience of young women and Network members to hear from four of the world’s foremost astrophysicists - all Network members - to demonstrate the tremendous impact women are making in STEM and the possibilities that lie ahead for the next generation. Young scientists left feeling energized by the program moderated by Adler Planetarium President and CEO Michelle Larson, and ready to take on the challenge of studying even the most profound universal mysteries.
According to Michelle, panelists Wendy Freedman, Vicky Kalogera, and Angela Olinto illustrate more than an exploration of the universe in this program, they demonstrate what it is to discover your own individual capacity for leadership:
The panelists in this program take us on a journey through the Universe, and provide inspiration through their life stories. You will hear about measuring the age and size of the Universe, probing current mysteries like dark energy and dark matter, and opening a new observational era with the discovery of gravitational waves. As you take this journey, also listen for the words passion, people, and perseverance - all play an important role in their success. Finally, listen for the number of times you hear these women say "I led" or "I lead." These panelists are amazing leaders, and each of them is certain you could be too. What a great endorsement of your potential - run with it!
- Michelle Larson, President and CEO, Adler PlanetariumLearn more >>
Life Long Learning program
March 9, 2016
Young women learn that not even sky is limit in STEM careers
February 24, 2016
"We all run into difficulties, but with guys, something is wrong with the test or with the professor or something else, but women internalize it. They say 'I can't do it,'" said Wendy Freedman, an astronomy professor at the University of Chicago.
Freedman was a principal investigator on the Hubble Space Telescope Key Project and also founding chairman of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization, dedicated to building a massive telescope to see 20 million times what a human eye can.
Freedman was one of three panelists who spoke to an audience of 150 Girls Scouts, other middle- and high school-age girls, and members of The Chicago Network.
"I remember a high school teacher of mine once said, 'This is too technical, the girls don't have to listen,'" Freedman said. "At university, someone told me that girls belong in the kitchen. We all run into difficulties, but don't give up. Perseverance is critical."
Freedman was joined by Northwestern University's Vicky Kalogera and the University of Chicago's Angela Olinto. The three women spoke about overcoming difficulties as well as the science they've been working on.
"To have the opportunity to share this with the younger generation is important. I know peer pressure is intense to move girls away from science and math, and I know there are not a lot of role models," Kalogera said. "It would have been amazing for me, when I was young, to meet a grown-up scientist and to have a discussion with them and hear from them."
Kalogera is an astrophysicist who worked on the recent discovery of gravitational waves in the universe, which confirmed part of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. She is interested in the interaction of compact objects within binary systems, in which two stars orbit each other. She also is the director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics at Northwestern.
Kalogera told students about her work in astrophysics in addition to discussing the difficulties she has faced along the way, from receiving a 60 percent on her first test in college to trying to balance being a mother of two and working on her career today.
Angela Olinto studies ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, which aren't well-understood. To study these rays, Olinto is leading the U.S. collaboration to send a cosmic ray telescope to the International Space Station. The project, however, has faced many roadblocks.
"We have the device; we just need a ride there," Olinto said.
She encouraged the young women in the audience to diversify their lives, because other smaller tasks help get you through the day: "I do a lot more than just build telescopes," Olinto said, who also has a passion for music and is a professor at the University of Chicago.
The panel, moderated by Michelle Larson, CEO of Adler Planetarium, provided examples of what women could do with a STEM education.
"Our girls have big dreams about the future, but are unsure about what is out there for them," said Karissa Dewey, troop leader of the Highland Middle School Girl Scouts of Highland, Ind. "Bringing them into the city and introducing them to women in science and technology, they were absolutely floored."Learn more >>