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Searching for life with giant telescopes

The Kepler Space Telescope discovered more than 2,600 exoplanets—planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. Kepler used the transit method, watching for tiny dips in the amount of light coming from a star when a planet passed in front of it. After more than nine years in space, Kepler ran out of fuel last month and NASA officially ended the telescope’s science mission. The torch has been passed to a new generation of planet hunters, and experts in the field of exoplanets say we may be less than a decade away from answering one of humanity’s biggest questions: is there life somewhere besides Earth?

David Charbonneau

Harvard physics Prof. David Charbonneau gave a lecture at the UW Oct. 16. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“We are the special generation that for the first time in human history is going to have the technological ability—if we choose—to go and answer this great question,” said David Charbonneau, professor of astronomy at Harvard University and a member of the Kepler mission team. Charbonneau gave a lecture recently at the University of Washington, part of the Frontiers of Physics series. He suggests that when we look for an inhabited planet, we don’t confine ourselves to just finding people.

“There may be other humans out there, but I’m going to advocate that we need to create and cast the broadest net possible when we go and actually make the first search for life outside the solar system,” Charbonneau said. He noted that SETI has been listening for years with no contact so far, and other planets are too far away to visit any time soon. But we are on the verge of being able to analyze the chemical content of exoplanet atmospheres, and that can tell us if there’s life on the ground. A scientist on a distant planet looking at Earth could tell there is life here by the chemicals in our atmosphere.

“Life has radically changed the content of our atmosphere,” he said, by creating oxygen and other elements. “We’re going to try to detect life through the unintentional waste products that are produced as life goes about its business.”

News reports of discoveries often note if an exoplanet is “Earth-like,” but in reality we know little about conditions on these far-away worlds. We can accurately figure an exoplanet’s size, mass, and density, but know little else about them. Two new telescopes—one in space, one on the ground—may be able to give us the data we need to know about actual conditions on these planets.

Giant Magellan Telescope

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) is being built in Chile by an international consortium, and is expected to begin science operations around 2023. The GMT will be the largest optical telescope ever constructed, with seven 8.5-meter mirrors. This huge telescope will be able to gather an enormous amount of light, enough to analyze the atmospheres of exoplanets.

James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a NASA project scheduled to launch in 2021. JWST will have a 6.5-meter primary mirror, and the observatory will be able to observe light in the infrared, and that’s important.

“Infrared is where all the molecules we want to study show their fingerprints,” Charbonneau said, listing oxygen, water, and methane among the molecules of interest.

He said the JWST “will revolutionize essentially all major branches of astrophysics.”

Charbonneau said we need both of the new telescopes to nail down whether an exoplanet is inhabited.

“Individually, a large ground-based telescope or the James Webb Space Telescope cannot tell us if there’s life on a planet,” he said. That’s because they’re sensitive to different molecules. The GMT could spot oxygen, which usually means life. It’s not certain, though, because oxygen could be created in other ways. The JWST could find methane, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide, which would put that oxygen in context, determining if it’s there because of biological activity.

“The idea is together they can get the data that will allow us to conclude that there really is life,” Charbonneau said.

TESS and MEarth

While we wait for these two observatories to be completed, astronomers are not sitting idly by. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is continuing the work of Kepler, using the transit method to search for more exoplanets.

“Our mission is to find hundreds of nearby small planets amenable to detailed characterization,” said Charbonneau, who is a co-investigator on the mission. TESS will survey the entire sky over a period of two years. It was launched in April, began science work in August, and found its first exoplanet in September. Charbonneau said that by December they should have the data to determine if this new exoplanet has an atmosphere.

Charbonneau is the primary investigator for the MEarth Project, which is searching for habitable exoplanets around nearby stars. MEarth consists of two automated observatories, one near Tucson, Arizona and the other in Chile. Each employs eight robotic 16-inch telescopes that constantly watch M-dwarf stars for transiting exoplanets. There are several good reasons to look at these “red dwarf” stars. They’re plentiful—there are about 240 of them within 30 light years of us, compared to just 20 G-stars like the Sun. Since they’re smaller stars and not as bright, they won’t wash out an orbiting planet’s atmosphere, making the observation technically easier.

The following time-lapse video shows the MEarth-North observatory in action.

 

The point of both TESS and MEarth is to create a good list of things for GMT and JWST to check out once they come on line.

“The search for atmospheric biomarkers such as oxygen will be humanity’s first attempt to really answer this great question about whether or not we are alone,” Charbonneau said.

You can watch the entire lecture here:

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Answering the ultimate questions

There is a crisis in physics today, but Adam Frank sees it as an opportunity rather than a threat. Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and co-founder of NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, gave a talk last week at the University of Washington titled, “Beyond the Big Bang: Cosmology and Ultimate Questions.” Frank, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at the UW, was back on campus for the last in a series of lectures titled The Big Bang and Beyond, which was sponsored by the university’s alumni association as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy.

Modern mythology

Frank called the Big Bang a bit of “modern mythology,” an origin narrative that puts us into a cosmic context and gives the universe meaning.

Adam Frank

Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and frequent NPR science commentator, gave a lecture at the University of Washington Dec. 2, 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Science tells us that there is no meaning,” Frank noted. “We can argue about that. But even not having a meaning is meaning. In that sense the Big Bang is a powerful origin myth for our culture.”

While he called it an origin narrative, Frank pointed out that many people have a misconception about the Big Bang Theory.

“It is not a theory of the beginning,” he pointed out. “The Big Bang never tells you why it’s there.”

It gets close; within about 10-32 seconds of the start.

“We can do a pretty good job of telling you in detail what the history of the universe had been going back to some tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang,” Frank said.

Fine tuning

That tiny fraction of a second is where some weighty riddles reside. For the Big Bang to work, we have to assume that the initial conditions were the same as they are now. There’s a lengthy list of constants in the math that describes the universe, such as the speed of light and the gravitational constant. All of them have to be just so.

“You change one of those numbers by just a tiny amount and life could never form,” Frank noted. So how did we end up in a universe that is perfectly fine tuned for us to arrive on the scene?

“If you’re an intelligent design person you say, ‘Oh, it’s God that did it,’” Frank said. “If you’re a physicist, that’s not going to work very well for you. What you want as a physicist is a theory that predicts these.”

“People often talk about cosmology as being the place where science butts up against theology, but physicists don’t want that to be the case,” he continued. “They want to have coherent physical explanations for something like where the Big Bang came from.”

Coherent is in the mind of the beholder, but it may well be that such an explanation has yet to emerge. Frank refers to the most prominient ideas so far as the “standard crazy” and the “alternative crazy.” And it’s from these crazy ideas that the crisis emerges.

Standard crazy

The first standard crazy idea is that of multiverses. With an infinite number of universes popping up all over, fine tuning is no longer an issue. There’s bound to be a universe with our exact conditions, and that’s the one we live in.

Then there is string theory, which arose out of the search for a quantum theory of gravity. String theory can reproduce standard-model particles, and it includes a gravity particle. People got pretty excited about a “theory of everything.”

There are problems within the standard crazy. Unobservable multiverses. Hidden dimensions. The existence of 10500 universes. And it all may lie beyond possible experimentation.

“People are really starting to push back on multiverse and string theory—these ‘standard crazy’ ideas—saying these things may be untestable,” Frank said. “If they’re untestable they’re not science, and if they’re not science it’s time for people to stop talking about them.”

“All of the work that was done on string theory and the multiverse may, in the end, turn out to be, in some sense, a wrong direction,” he added.

Alternative crazy

Other far-out ideas have been proposed. British physicist Julian Barbour puts forward the notion that time doesn’t exist, and that every moment is a distinct and separate now. Lee Smolin suggests that we reboot cosmology entirely, and consider that our “timeless” laws are anything but; that physical laws may in fact be evolving.

“It could be totally wrong, but it’s illustrative of the difference of where you have to go to try and think about going beyond and before the Big Bang without getting into the conceptual problems that string theory and the multiverse lead to,” Frank said.

A good crisis

Frank sees this crisis in physics as an opportunity.

“The crisis in phyics is great because what it’s going to mean is that we’re going to have to come up with even different ideas,” he said. “We’re going to have to probe our understanding of reality even deeper, and what we’re slowly heading toward is some kind of truth. It may not be the ultimate truth, but we’ve been approaching a better understanding of the world since science has begun.”

Frank said that, with a seemingly endless stream of terrible headlines in the news, he sees the search for this ultimate reality as an example of what we do best.

“Humanity is capable of such incredible stupidity and horror, and yet we’re also capable of such compassion, and such wonder, and the ability to experience such awe,” Frank said. “The quest for ultimate reality is a fundamental expression of human goodness and hope.”

More reading

Books by Adam Frank

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Aperture fever strikes in the hunt for dark matter

There’s a truism in astronomy that aperture rules. The wider your telescope mirror or lens the more photons you can capture and the better views you’ll get of celestial objects. It turns out that aperture fever strikes professional astronomers as well as amateurs. The latest to fall victim to this malady is Julianne Dalcanton, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. Last week Dalcanton gave a talk at the UW titled “Building the Universe Piece by Piece.” It was part of the lecture series The Big Bang and Beyond being presented by the UW Alumni Association in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the university’s Department of Astronomy.

Dalcanton

Prof. Julianne Dalcanton spoke about galaxy formation and evolution at the UW Nov. 18. 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dalcanton’s bailiwick is the study of the formation and evolution of galaxies, and she picked up that story where Miguel Morales left off two weeks before in the second lecture of the series. Morales took us up to the “end of the beginning,” the release of the cosmic microwave background, 380,000 years after the Big Bang. Once things cooled down after that, the universe developed more complexity.

“You have intergalactic gas that originally permeated the universe mixed with the dark matter and the light of the cosmic microwave background,” Dalcanton said. “This gas has funneled, along with the dark matter, into these increasingly rich structures and then funneled into galaxies.”

As the galaxies formed, so did stars out of even more densely concentrated areas of gas. Dalcanton noted that the Hubble Space Telescope has given us marvelous photos of stars being born in places like the Orion Nebula or the Eagle Nebula, subject of the now-famous photo “Pillars of Creation.”

Beautiful and deadly

Pillars

“The Pillars of Creation” is arguably Hubble’s most famous photo. Image: NASA, Jeff Hester, and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University) –

“These scenes of great beauty are scenes of great destruction,” Dalcanton said. “The stars that are born here are the ultimate in ungrateful children. They are just going about their business absolutely destroying the cloud from which they were born.”

Dalcanton pointed out that we can recognize young stars easily because they’re massive, bright, blue, large, and hot. They tend to flame out quickly. On the other hand, smaller, cooler, dimmer red stars like our Sun last a lot longer.

“They all seem so different,” Dalcanton said. “There’s a clear regularity in their properties that must be directly linked to the physics that’s going on inside the stars.”

By looking at other galaxies and noting the distribution of young and old stars, astronomers get clues about how the galaxies evolved and how elusive dark matter works. Then they make computer models and compare the results to what they see around the universe. The theoretical models match the observations pretty well so far.

“Just because you can make it in the computer doesn’t mean that it’s true,” Dalcanton cautioned. “The study of the individual stars and the actual histories of individual galaxies, where we can pick them apart into their individual pieces, gives us a really strong constraint on all of these models. That then gives us the additional leverage to try to break apart various possible theories of dark matter.”

“The key ingredient to all of this is actually detecting individual stars,” she added.

We need a bigger telescope

This is where the aperture fever comes in.

Dalcanton heads up PHAT, the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury, a project in which Hubble made nearly 13,000 images of the Andromeda Galaxy and did a billion measurements of 110 million stars. Volunteers in the Andromeda Project helped sift through nearly a terabyte of data, and we learned a lot.

“As awesome as this is, Hubble is not enough,” Dalcanton said. “Hubble’s my babe, but it’s got its limitations.”

She said Andromeda was chosen for this survey because it is the closest, most massive spiral galaxy we can get a good look at.

“Even with the Hubble Space Telescope we can’t really pick apart all of the stars that we actually want to,” Dalcanton said.

HDST is the answer

The HDST would dwarf Hubble or the James Webb Space Telescope, planned for launch in 2018. Image: C. Godfrey, STscI.

The HDST would dwarf Hubble or the James Webb Space Telescope, planned for launch in 2018. Image: C. Godfrey, STscI.

That’s why she’s a big advocate for a new project on the drawing boards called the High Definition Space Telescope (HDST). Hubble’s mirror is 2.4 meters. HDST’s would be nearly 12 meters, and would have 25 times the surface area of Hubble. Dalcanton said that would give it vastly superior sensitivity and clarity.

“We would see fainter stars and we would see them in regions of the universe where they were much more closely packed together,” she said. It would be like going from an old tube TV to your new 60-inch high-definition television. HDST would be strong enough to spot planets orbiting relatively nearby stars, and could see more and more stellar nurseries like the Eagle Nebula.

“We would be able to see those in individual galaxies anywhere in the universe,” with the HDST, Dalcanton said.

“That’s what I’m rooting for.”

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The end of the beginning of the universe

Miguel Morales has been spending a lot of time pondering what he calls “the end of the beginning of the universe”—the cosmic microwave background. Morales, professor of physics at the University of Washington, heads up the university’s Dark Universe Science Center, a group working to figure out gravity, dark matter, dark energy, galaxy formation and evolution, and other cosmological mysteries. Morales gave a talk earlier this month titled “The End of the Beginning.” It was the second of a four-part lecture series, The Big Bang and Beyond, sponsored by the UW alumni association in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy.

CMB

The now-famous rendering of the cosmic microwave background “looks like Pollock. It’s kind of a mess!” jokes Prof. Miguel Morales. Yet it may hold clues to how the universe formed and how we all got here. Image: ESA and the Planck Collaboration.

Morales gave a “Cliff’s Notes” history of the formation of the universe, noting that the end of the beginning came about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the hydrogen and helium plasma formed by that event cooled sufficiently to change phase and release light.

“It froze from an opaque helium hydrogen plasma to a clear, neutral gas,” Morales explained.

The “glowing wall of gas” left behind is the cosmic microwave background. Recent measurements have confirmed temperature fluctuations in the CMB.

“These are real, hot and cold spots that we see on the sky,” Morales said. “This is the writing of creation on the wall.”

Ghostly evidence

Morales noted that this writing is extremely faint. He pointed out that the differences between the red an blue sections of the now-famous Planck map of the cosmic microwave background are just one part in 100,000.

Miguel Morales explains how oscillations in plasma created sound waves that can be spotted within the cosmic microwave background. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Miguel Morales explains how oscillations in plasma created sound waves that can be spotted within the cosmic microwave background. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“This is really a testament to precision measurement,” he said. He noted that, given this level of accuracy, we can learn a lot about what was going on in the early universe from the evidence left behind.

For example, scientists have teased out sound waves from the cosmic microwave background. The waves were created when the plasma oscillated in what was essentially a tug-o-war between gravity trying to collapse the mass and photons resisting that force. How those sound waves propagate could hold clues to what was going on in the early universe.

Changing tactics

The early observations measured temperature, but Morales said the state of the art is to look at the polarization of the light, which could lead to a needle in the cosmic haystack.

“You might be able to see, in the polarization, the ghost of gravity waves from inflation,” he said. They actually thought they had something in observations from the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole, but what they saw actually turned out to be spinning dust.

“The polarization that BICEP saw is contaminated by the galaxy,” Morales said. “We’re seeing stuff on the windshield here; it’s not all primordial.”

One of the greatest challenges in making these observations is fine-tuning the instruments to ignore the noise and not be faked out by the data.

“BICEP is a technical tour de force, the measurement is awesome. It’s just a little contaminated, and, to be honest, Planck is not sensitive enough to say how bad the contamination is,” Morales explained.

That, he said, is science.

“We’ll keep looking, scratching our heads, building yet more sensitive instruments as we learn to read the words about the universe written faintly on the sky.”

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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.

Connolly

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.”

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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

Morales

Morales

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.

Origins

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.

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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.

Balick

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.

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