Category Archives: lectures

The history of the universe in ten minutes

As communicators of science our job is often to take huge amounts of complicated information and condense it into something understandable. Scientist, composer, and author Glenna Burmer recently took on a monumental task: explain the 13.8 billion year history of the universe in a ten-minute movie.

Glenna Burmer

Glenna Burmer talked during a presentation at the Museum of Flight about her process for creating her movie “The Big Bang.” Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“There are some challenges being an amateur filmmaker and trying to condense this much information into a movie,” Burmer understated. She did it, though, and you will be able to see her work as part of the Origins: Life and the Universe multimedia concert that will be held Nov. 7 at Benaroya Hall. Burmer is one of eight composers whose work will be featured at the event. She and UW professor Matt McQuinn spoke at the Museum of Flight last Saturday to explain the Big Bang and preview Burmer’s film.

Burmer is a scientist; a molecular pathologist and expert in immunohistochemistry.

“As a passion, I have always loved astronomy,” she said in explaining her involvement in the project. Though a scientist, Burmer comes from a family of artists and musicians.

“Consequently, I’ve always wanted to try to synthesize science, art, and music, and this concert gives me the first-time opportunity to really do that,” she explained.

Among the challenges in doing a film about the Big Bang is that there’s no existing footage of the event, so creating visuals relied in part on particle animation technology. Burmer admits to being thrown off a bit by tensor calculus, membrane theory, and string theory, but she got enough understanding to help animators create a sequence demonstrating a Big Bang based on ekpyrotic theory. The animation shows two 3-D universes.

“They approach each other, they leak gravity, and they bud off our universe,” Burmer explained.


UW astronomy professor Matt McQuinn explained the evidence for the Big Bang during a talk Oct. 17 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Her film also uses pieces of many of the computer simulations McQuinn, a theoretical astrophysicist and cosmologist, used in explaining the Big Bang. He started out with an account of the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, the signature of the Big Bang. Our coverage of a recent Seattle lecture by Jim Peebles tells this tale as well.

McQuinn noted that the best evidence for a hot Big Bang is that there is way more helium in the universe than could have been created by fusion in stars. The explanation is that, soon after the Big Bang, hydrogen fused much more easily in the hot, dense new universe. Astronomers have built models based on the measurements of the radiation in the cosmic microwave background and how much helium such conditions would produce.

“The predictions from the hot Big Bang model just fall perfectly on the measurements,” of what is actually out there, McQuinn said. “This, coupled with the fact that we have seen the cosmic microwave background, makes it almost indisputable that there was a hot Big Bang. No respected scientist questions this picture any more.”

McQuinn explained that galaxies eventually formed because of fluctuations in the density of mass and energy. An as-yet undetected particle called the inflaton may be the cause.

originsposter“This particle seeded these density fluctuations,” McQuinn said. “The predictions of this model are in striking agreement with what we see, so people think that this is the answer for the source of energy fluctuation.”

“From studying the cosmic microwave background radiation, we’ve come to these profound conclusions,” McQuinn concluded. “We’re able to explain the universe down to planetary scales.”

The “Origins” concert is part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy at the UW. The concert will feature the work of eight composers and accompanying celestial photography. It is a benefit for the scholarship program at the University of Washington Astrobiology Program in the Department of Astronomy. Tickets are $32, $22 for students, and are available online or by calling the Benaroya Hall ticket office at 206-215-4747.


Meteor shower, dueling talks highlight week’s astro calendar

The Orionid meteor shower peaks this week, and the scheduling gods are forcing astronomy buffs to choose between two interesting talks on Wednesday evening. These are the highlights of this week’s astronomy calendar in Seattle.


The Orionid meteor shower peaks in the wee hours of Thursday morning, October 22. Though the Moon is in a waxing gibbous phase, it will set around 1:30 a.m. on Thursday, putting it out of the way for the prime meteor-viewing hours. As per usual, it’s best to get away from the city for the best chance to view the most meteors. has a good primer on the Orionids.

Take a peek at Sky & Telescope magazine’s This Week’s Sky at a Glance for other observing highlights for the week.

The Big Bang and Beyond

The University of Washington Department of Astronomy is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and among the festivities are a series of lectures titled The Big Bang and Beyond: Four Excursions to the Edges of Time and Space. The talks are sponsored by the UW Alumni Association.

Andy Connolly

Andy Connolly

The first of these will be held at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 21 in room 120 of Kane Hall on the UW campus in Seattle. UW professor Andy Connolly will give a talk titled Unraveling Our Own Cosmic History. Connolly will discuss how, using the latest technologies, astronomical surveys like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Large Synoptic Sky Survey Review produce some of the deepest optical images ever obtained. These images allow us to look for flashes from the most energetic events in the distant universe and dramatically extend our cosmic reach.

The talk is free, but preregistration is required. Our post from August gives the schedule for other talks in the series.

Where to go next

saslogoThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at that same hour Wednesday, gathering at 7:30 p.m. in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building. Guest speaker Van Kane, who writes about  planetary exploration for the Planetary Society and on his own blog, will talk about the five finalists for the next NASA discovery-class mission and what each could tell us about our solar system.

Public night at TAS

taslogoThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will offer one of its popular public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 24 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. TAS students will put on a special Halloween presentation, and the club will have telescopes out for observing, weather permitting.

Keep an eye on the Seattle Astronomy Calendar for advance notice of upcoming events.


Science and art meet in planetary nebulae

The next time someone tells you that science and art don’t mix, point them to the work of the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble images are the inspiration for a multimedia concert, “Origins: Life and the Universe,” coming up at 2 p.m. November 7 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Astronomer Bruce Balick and composer Nan Avant explained during a talk last week at the Museum of Flight how one segment of the concert was created.


Prof. Bruce Balick, in front of a slide depicting Galileo, talks about science and art at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Balick, professor emeritus in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington, noted that science is, to a great extent, the result of our unique human ability to recognize patterns.

“Science is observing the world around us and describing the pattern, typically with mathematical forumlas,” Balick said. “After that we puzzle over what these patterns might mean. We use the patterns as a means to gain insight into the way in which the natural world works.”

While Balick has spent his career studying planetary nebulae, he also loves the incredible images of those celestial objects that Hubble has returned to Earth.

“I want you to appreciate what I hope Nan has found in these pictures, namely glorious natural patterns that inspire music,” he said. “These objects are simply beautiful.”

Nan Avant

Composer Nan Avant gestures while talking about her creative process on “Bijoux.” Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Avant, a composer from Ballard, said the photos spoke to her.

“I was so inspired by what I’d seen with these brilliant colorful images,” she said. In addition, she was influenced by conversations with Balick about the Orion Nebula and the Carina Nebula, the two objects that are featured in her multimedia composition, “Bijoux.”

“There’s so much going on in the nebula I wanted to continue this into my concept of the music, so I created many themes or melodies to represent the nebula,” Avant explained.

Avant said her last year, working on the project, has been “astounding.”

“As a composer, I’ve learned about the nebula, the universe. I had conversations with a distinguished scientist of the nebula. I collaborated with a filmmaker,” she said. “And finally, I composed an orchestral work about the universe. I grew so much as an artist, a composer, and an orchestrator.”

The title of the piece, “Bijoux,” is French for “jewels.”

“When I was looking through these breathtaking, stunning images and the music was unfolding into rich melodies and textures, I wanted to find a word, just one word, that expressed the music and images all in one idea,” Avant said of the choice.

originsposter“Scientists, musicians, artists, all of them have so much in common,” Balick marveled. “We love pattern. We appreciate pattern. Pattern says something to us. It may be visceral, it may be scientific. It comes in the form of music, it comes in the form of art.”

The “Origins” concert is part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy at the UW. The concert will feature the work of eight composers and accompanying celestial photography. It is a benefit for the scholarship program at the University of Washington Astrobiology Program in the Department of Astronomy. Tickets are $32, $22 for students, and are available online or by calling the Benaroya Hall ticket office at 206-215-4747.

Another chance to preview one of the pieces in the concert is coming up at 2 p.m. next Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Museum of Flight. Professor Matt McQuinn of the UW Department of Astronomy will take a close look at how our universe was formed and how small fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background grow into galaxies with stars and planets. Glenna Burmer, who composed a piece entitled “The Big Bang,” will discuss her musical and visual interpretation of the 13.8-billion-year history of our universe, exploring the process that composers and filmmakers use to bridge science and art. The talk, titled “Origin of the Universe and Everything in It,” is free with museum admission.


Simonyi shares space experiences at UW

Your Seattle Astronomy correspondent has at least one thing in common with software executive and billionaire philanthropist Charles Simonyi: neither of us expects to be able to receive spousal clearance for a flight in space. Simonyi has a couple of legs up, having already taken Soyuz flights to and from the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009.

Simonyi spoke about his experiences during a talk titled “Practicalities of Orbital Space Tourism” last week at the University of Washington. It was the first of a series of lectures scheduled this fall celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the university’s Department of Astronomy.


Space tourist Charles Simonyi spoke about his experiences during a lecture Sept. 29, 2015 at the University of Washington. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Simonyi acknowledged that the cost of going into Earth orbit is prohibitive for almost every individual. Speculation is that he shelled out $25 million to go on his 2007 flight and another $35 million to return to the ISS two years later. On top of the financial cost, he spent eight months training for the first flight, learning the spacecraft, studying Russian, and going through a dizzying and often invasive series of medical tests and examinations. His second flight took just three months of training because he already knew a lot.

Would he go again?

“Now I have a family to think about,” Simonyi said, smiling at his wife seated in the second row of the lecture room at Kane Hall.

“I would have to do eight months training again,” he said, because the Russians are using a different spacecraft. “I think I’m getting too old for that. It’s not easy and that would be a big obstacle.”

Still, the draw is great.

“Let’s assume the price didn’t go up, they didn’t require training, my wife lets me go,” he said to laughter. “I would do it!”

Simonyi said a big reason he wanted to fly in space was to support space exploration. Space tourists pumped more than $100 million into the Russian space program at a time that it was strapped for cash. He also did it to popularize science, he said, though interestingly he’s a bit skeptical about sending humans to space to do science because of the enormous cost. The believes simple wanderlust is a great reason to go into orbit.

“A tourist is a very honest broker. The tourist says, ‘Send me to space and I will pay you,'” Simonyi noted. “I think space tourism will be a major factor in promoting space travel because of this self-justifying property that it has.”

Soyuz TMA-14

This Soyuz capsule TMA-14, which took Charles Simonyi to the International Space Station in 2009, is on display at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Some astronauts get a big thrill at the moment of launch into space, but Simonyi found it to be fairly routine to be sitting in the capsule at blastoff.

“It’s not as dramatic as you think from the inside,” he said. “From the outside it’s incredible; I’ve seen it. From the inside it’s like being in an elevator and somebody pushed the button.”

It’s hard to say when space tourism will fall into the price range of those of us whose net worths are less than Simonyi’s $1.4 billion. He noted that these days it costs about $10,000 to send a kilogram of mass into orbit. If the price could be driven down to about $100 per kilogram, then a space tourist might get to orbit for $100,000, which Simonyi called a “reasonable ticket.”

“That’s what the suborbital people are basically pricing their services at,” he noted. “It’s a lot of money, but if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience I think people would consider it seriously.”

“Those numbers are not here, and they’re not going to be here for quite a while,” Simonyi said. “That is the bad news.”

Further reading:


Dark matter killed the dinosaurs


Physics professor Lisa Randall is the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University. Photo:
Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer.

The sudden death of the dinosaurs is one of the great whodunits of science. Harvard particle physicist Lisa Randall has a new theory, and will be at Town Hall Seattle Nov. 2 to talk about it. The title of Randall’s new book gives a hint to her theory; it is Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (Ecco, 2015). The book is scheduled for release Oct. 27.

Randall draws a connection between the Milky Way and the dislodged comet that smashed into Earth 66 million years ago. She’ll describe the ins and outs of this idea, explain what historical galactic events have to say about the present, and, perhaps most importantly, instill a greater appreciation for the interconnectedness of the universe we live in.

Randall’s talk will be in the Great Hall at Town Hall Seattle beginning at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2. Tickets are $5 and are on sale now. You can pre-order Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs and and order Randall’s other books by clicking the images below.


Total lunar eclipse, Astronomy Day, Journey to Mars highlight week’s activity

A total lunar eclipse, a big birthday party, and a journey to Mars highlight the next 10 days on the Seattle Astronomy calendar.

Eclipse of the Moon


The Moon in August, 2010. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Europe and the Americas will be treated to a total lunar eclipse on Sunday, Sept. 27. For us on the U.S. west coast, the Moon will be partially eclipsed when it rises just before 7 p.m., and we’ll see the start of the total eclipse at about 7:11. Totality will last an hour and 12 minutes, and the Moon will begin to emerge from Earth’s shadow at 8:23 p.m. The partial eclipse will end at 9:27 p.m.

Sky & Telescope magazine has a good article about the eclipse, and also check their Sky at a Glance feature for other observing highlights for the week.

Happy Birthday MOF

50_MoF _blue_finalThe Museum of Flight is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, and one of the main events of the observance will be a gala party at the museum on Saturday, Sept. 19. Admission to the museum will be just 50 cents that day—the original price in 1965—and the day’s activities will include a 50th anniversary scavenger hunt, 60s throwback costume contest, a paper plane workshop, mini-missions in the Challenger Learning Center, and fun surprises and giveaways.

Journey to Mars

marssThe Museum of Flight will host the traveling NASA exhibit “Journey to Mars” for one week only, Sept. 22-27. The interactive exhibit looks at NASA’s current robotic expeditions to the Red Planet, and how humans will someday set foot on Martian soil. The week’s events also will include visits from astronauts Mike Barratt and Jeannette Epps.

The Museum will host two public discussions on Thursday, Sept. 24. At 1:30 p.m. Barratt and several others will talk about the life support, habitat, materials, and propulsion needs for a human mission to Mars. Then at 3 p.m. Boeing Company historian Mike Lombardi and Chris Crumbly of NASA Space Launch System Office will talk about the lessons learned from Apollo that will inform a future mission to Mars.

Epps will meet with museum visitors from 10 a.m. until noon on Saturday, Sept. 26.

Check the museum’s website for a full schedule of events for the week.

Star parties on Astronomy Day

astronomydaySaturday, Sept. 19 is Astronomy Day, and two area astronomy clubs will host public star parties on that date.

The Seattle Astronomical Society will host its free monthly star parties at Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Both events begin at 7 p.m., weather permitting. The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights beginning at 9 p.m. at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. An indoor presentation will cover “The Reason for the Seasons,” and telescopes will be available for observing if the skies are clear.

Astronomy on Tap

aot7Astronomy on Tap Seattle will hold its monthly confab at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23 at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard. Hosted by graduate students in astronomy from the University of Washington, AoT features beer, trivia contests, cupcakes, and quick talks about the cosmos. This week’s speakers will be Dr. Breanna Binder, who will discuss “Sibling Rivarly in Giant Stars” (no doubt a reprise of a lecture given in August to the Seattle Astronomical Society) and Pheobe Upton Sanderbeck, who will cover “Taking the Temperature of the Universe.”

Astronomy on Tap is free, but please register here.


Predicting some big astronomical kabooms

X-ray binaries are out in the universe making gravitational waves, and Breanna Binder says we may well be on the verge of being able to detect such waves generated in distant star systems. Binder, a recent University of Washington astronomy Ph.D. who did her dissertation about the evolution of X-ray binary systems, gave a talk on the subject at the August meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Dr. Brianna Binder gave a talk about X-ray binary systems at the August meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dr. Brianna Binder gave a talk about X-ray binary systems at the August meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Binder noted that it’s a bit of a longshot for an X-ray binary system to form. They start out as a pair of stars ten times or more massive than our own Sun.

“Almost all massive stars are born in binary systems,” she said. “Not only that, massive stars are more likely to be born with massive companions.”

However, these massive stars live relatively short lives and ultimately explode in supernovae. The more massive the star, the more rapidly it evolves, and so the larger of two massive stars in a binary system will be the first to expand into a blue giant. The more it expands, the weaker its gravitational pull on its outer atmosphere will be, enabling the smaller companion to steal some of its mass.

Eventually the larger of the pair goes supernova and leaves behind a compact object: either a neutron star or a black hole. This is often the end of the binary system, as only about one in 10,000 pairs remain gravitationally bound after the supernova. If they do stick together, that’s when the fireworks really get going. The sibling star, having siphoned off some of its companion’s mass, also begins to grow into a blue giant.

“As this happens, material flows from the giant star onto the compact object,” Binder explained, “and when this happens the system starts to heat up. All that material funneling onto the compact object gets incredibly hot and begins to glow in X-rays.”

These are easy for us to spot from Earth.

“These objects will emit X-rays at levels that are tens of thousands to millions of times above what a normal star like our Sun does,” Binder noted.

This high-mass X-ray binary phase doesn’t last long in astronomical terms, perhaps just 10,000 years or so. Eventually the second star goes supernova.

“If the system survives the second supernova explosion, which is a big if, you end up with two compact objects in orbit around each other,” Binder explained. While two neutron stars is the most likely formation, it can also be two black holes or one of each, she said.

With two neutron stars in a system they spiral rapidly around each other, creating powerful gravitational waves. Eventually the two objects merge, creating a big explosion that we can see as a gamma-ray burst. This is the aftermath of the merger of two neutron stars, and it’s also where the new science comes in.

“In the very near future, we’re hoping to be able to detect neutron stars in the process of spiraling into each other before the gamma-ray burst occurs,” Binder said. We will do that by actually detecting gravitational waves using LIGO—the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

The challenge with LIGO is that there’s a lot of noise out there. Anything that moves through space generates gravitational waves. In its first runs LIGO in Richland was able to detect motion from ocean waves breaking on the Washington coast. So scientists have been busy modeling and tweaking, and expect to make the first science runs of a new version of LIGO some time this fall.

“If we’re going to detect gravitational waves, it’s going to happen as soon as we bring advanced LIGO on,” Binder said. “It could easily be within the next year that we are able for the first time to directly detect gravitational waves from the source.” That will give us some early warning about where to look to spot future gamma-ray bursts.

Ultimately the study of these systems will help us better understand stellar formation and evolution.