Weighing the universe

Astronomers are about to take their best shot at weighing the universe. You might well ask how and why; University of Washington astronomy professor Andy Connolly recently tackled those questions in a lecture titled “Unraveling Our Own Cosmic History.” The talk was the first in a series dubbed The Big Bang and Beyond being sponsored by the UW Alumni Association as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the university’s Department of Astronomy.


Professor Andy Connolly spoke Oct. 21 to kick off the Big Bang and Beyond lecture series celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The why is easy: to try to figure out dark matter and dark energy. The how, according to Connolly, is actually pretty simple, too: they’re going to weigh the universe by looking at it, and not in a carnival weight-guesser sort of way.

To explain the idea, Connolly used an example of a swimming pool with tiles on its bottom. Water refracts light, and as the surface of the water in the pool ripples the reflections of light on the bottom of the pool move. Similarly, if you watch the grid of tiles on the bottom of the pool, the view will change. Connolly noted that by taking precise measurements of the distortion, we could determine the size of the waves and the mass of the water in the pool. Blow that model up to astronomical scale, about six billion light years, and you can weigh the universe.

Connolly looked, and found no grid in the sky, but notes that there are galaxies everywhere which can serve the same purpose.

“If I can measure the shapes of galaxies, and measure how they’re distorted through gravitational lensing, in the same way that I could measure the mass of the waves on the surface of a pool, I can now measure the mass of the universe,” Connolly said. “More importantly, I can measure that structure as a function of the age of the universe.”

The challenge is that while the structures are huge, they’re also spread out and the distortion will be miniscule. Spotting it will take a better telescope, and that’s one of the research reasons that the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is under construction in Chile. The UW is a founding partner of the LSST, which will have an 8.4-meter mirror and a 3.2 billion pixel camera. Its images will cover 3.5 degrees of sky; the Hubble Space Telescope would have to shoot about 3,000 images to achieve the same results.

“This means that (the LSST) can survey half the sky every three nights,” Connolly said. By comparison, it took the wildly successful Sloan Digital Sky Survey ten years to image a fifth of the sky. In other words, we’re in for a big download of data. Connolly said that the LSST will produce a thousand times more data than did Sloan, which revolutionized astronomy by making so much data publicly available.

The possible discoveries from so much new data are staggering. Connolly noted that data on a mere handful supernovae led to the discovery of dark energy.

“It’s amazing that measuring the distances and the brightness of 42 supernovae could reveal a component of our universe that drives the expansion, a component of our universe that makes up 73 percent of the energy budget in the universe today,” Connolly said.

“With the LSST, in ten years we’ll have 1.2 million supernovae,” he added. “A few tens of thousands of galaxies led to the discovery of dark matter through gravitational lensing. With the LSST we get four billion galaxies.”

If it all works, Connolly said it would help us solve what it perhaps the greatest scientific riddle of our time.

“If we can understand dark energy, if we can understand dark matter, if we can understand how the universe formed in the earliest fractions of a second, then we may be able to unify two of the biggest discoveries in the last hundred years: the discovery of general relativity, which explains gravity and how structure forms; and quantum mechanics, how our universe might have come into being.”


Astro happenings every night this week

There’s plenty to do in Seattle this week for those interested in astronomy, as there is at least one event every evening through Saturday.

Physics week at Town Hall

Town Hall Seattle will welcome two authors to the city this week. Harvard particle physicist Lisa Randall will speak at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2, about her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (Ecco, 2015). Did dark matter kill the dinosaurs? 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. Tickets, $5, here.

Town Hall will feature more physics on Tuesday, Nov. 3, as journalist George Musser of Scientific American talks about his new book, Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time—and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). The title is a nod to Einstein’s critique of quantum mechanics, and Musser will look at the universe, black holes, the Big Bang, wormholes, and other somewhat unknown areas of physics. In this month, which marks the centennial of the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity, he will celebrate today’s best scientific thinking and help us understand it. Musser’s talk will begin at 7:30. Tickets are $5 here.

UW astro anniversary celebration continues



The University of Washington Alumni Association is helping to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the university’s Department of Astronomy with a series of four lectures titled The Big Bang and Beyond: Four Excursions to the Edges of Time and Space. The second in the series will be held Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. in room 120 of Kane Hall on the UW campus in Seattle. UW professor Miguel Morales will give a talk titled “The End of the Beginning,” focusing on how scientists read the subtle patterns in the cosmic microwave background to infer what happened in the first few moments of our universe’s history.

All of the free tickets for this lecture, and for the others in the Big Bang and Beyond series, have been claimed. It may be possible to gain admission on a waiting list should there be no-shows. Check our previous post for a rundown of other anniversary events.

Spacefest comes to Museum of Flight

spacefestlogoThe Museum of Flight will host a three-day Spacefest beginning Thursday, Nov. 5 and running through Saturday the seventh. Highlights of the event include astronaut John Herrington leading a glider-building session during the museum’s free-admission evening on Thursday, discussions Friday about the rigors of human spaceflight, and a look Saturday at the challenges of a trip to Mars.

Visit the museum website for a full schedule of the three-day festival.


originsposterThe centerpiece of the UW astronomy anniversary celebration is a multimedia concert, Origins: Life and the Universe, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7 at Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle. Eight Seattle composers have created original orchestral music that showcases the complexity and beauty of our universe. The symphonic concert will be accompanied by projected high-resolution movies created using some of the most spectacular imagery, videos and conceptual art from the Hubble Space Telescope and a variety of other sources. The live concert will feature Grammy-award winning conductor David Sabee and the renowned Northwest Sinfonia orchestra.

Check our previous previews of pieces of the concert, with composers Nan Avant and Glenna Burmer.

The concert is a benefit for scholarships in the UW Department of Astronomy and Astrobiology program. Tickets are $32, $22 for students, and are available through the Seattle Symphony website.

TAS and spectroscopy

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights beginning at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The night will feature a presentation about spectroscopy. In addition, club members will have telescopes on hand should weather conditions be favorable for observing the heavens.

Don’t forget to look up

Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and the Moon are holding a little dance during the mornings all week. Check them out high in the southeast before dawn. The Taurid meteor shower peaks on Nov. 5, but watch out for a few days before and after as well. EarthSky has a good article about watching the Taurids, and Astronomy magazine’s The Sky This Week has daily observing highlights.


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.


Astro Biz: Neptune Theatre

Neptune TheaterMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring them regularly on Seattle Astronomy.

Today’s Astro Biz is the historic Neptune Theatre in Seattle’s University District.

The Neptune was built around 1921 and served as a single-screen movie house until 2011, when the Seattle Theatre Group assumed management of the venue and turned it into a live performance hall. They still occasionally screen films at the Neptune, but it is most often used for concerts, comedy, lectures, and other performing arts and public events.

We spent watched many a film there during our days at the University of Washington. The Neptune was THE place in Seattle to catch the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

More info:


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. Space.com 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.


Seattle’s Spaceflight Industries flying high

It’s been a whale of a month for Seattle-based space-services company Spaceflight. Since late September the company has purchased a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, announced it will use it to launch a private Israeli mission to the Moon as part of the Lunar XPrize competition, and, most recently, brought a third ground station online to facilitate better communication with the bevy of small satellites it has helped put into space.


Jason Andrews is president and CEO of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries.

“We’ve got a little bit going on,” said Spaceflight president and CEO Jason Andrews in something of an understatement. “It’s fun; what we do is really exciting. Anytime you buy a rocket and send it towards the Moon, how can you not love it?”

Andrews said the industry is really taking off.

“There is this sudden, rapid advancement of commercial space—some people call it new space—and it’s really been brought about in the last three or four years due to improvements in technology and access to space,” he said. “You can finally build spacecraft that are the size of a shoebox that actually do something. With what we’ve been able to advance with our Spaceflight launch business, you can actually get those satellites into space.”

Andrews said Spaceflight is aiming to be a comprehensive, full-service company in that effort.

“We’re really trying to address all parts of the value chain by building the satellite components, building the satellites, helping everyone get to space, and now helping them get their data back from space,” he said.

Spaceflight's newest ground station in New Zealand marks another step toward reaching the company's goal of improving communications for smallsat operators. Photo: Spaceflight Industries.

Spaceflight’s newest ground station in New Zealand marks another step toward reaching the company’s goal of improving communications for smallsat operators. Photo: Spaceflight Industries.

Retrieving the data more quickly and efficiently is why Spaceflight is building a network of ground stations. The new one in Invercargill, New Zealand is the company’s third to go operational, following stations in Tukwila, Wash. and Fairbanks, Alaska. Andrews noted that our mobile telephones work most anywhere we go because the gear is standard and speaks the same technical language. It’s not so for spacecraft, which often use custom equipment. Spaceflight wants to change that.

“What we’re doing is building a series of ground stations over the next three years that uses a standard interface protocol,” Andrews explained. The satellites will use standard radios that can connect to the ground stations easily. “Just like a cell phone data plan, we’ll have a satellite data plan.”

While the ultimate number of stations Spaceflight will build is a bit up in the air, Andrews said they plan to have at least a dozen of them in operation around the globe by 2017.

“They’re strategically located geographically to minimize latency—the time between satellites flying over—and that way we can get customer data back quickly,” he explained. As in most businesses, time is money.

Andrews noted that Spaceflight has launched 80 small satellites to date, and has another 86 penciled in to go up next year. He expects customer demand will continue to increase.

“It’s clearly a revolution, and I think just the beginning of the revolution,” he said.


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.