Tag Archives: Bad Jimmy’s

The universe is big, even in small spaces

The universe is pretty vast even in confined spaces. That was the lesson given on opposite ends of the size scale at the most recent Astronomy on Tap Seattle event hosted at Hilliard’s Beer Taproom by University of Washington graduate students in astronomy.

Ethan Kruse

UW astronomy graduate student Ethan Kruse said the universe is a big place, and it will take some technological advances to reach Alpha Centauri in 20 years. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Grad student Ethan Kruse was all set to give a talk that concluded we would never even get out of our solar system because it is way too big. Then a few weeks before the talk Stephen Hawking and friends announced their plan for getting all the way to neighboring star Alpha Centauri in 20 years through a project called Breakthrough Starshot.

“If I’m disagreeing with Stephen Hawking,” Kruse recalled thinking, “I should probably stop for a minute and reevaluate my thesis.”

Kruse remained on point about the mind-boggling scale of the universe. He said that if our Sun was the size of a basketball sitting on the stage of Hilliard’s, Earth would be the size of a sesame seed in the back of the room, 84 feet away, and the orbiting Moon would be the size of a grain of salt. At this scale Jupiter would be a golf ball on the Ballard Bridge and Pluto would be a grain of salt about a kilometer away—about the distance to Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company, which served as the venue for Astronomy on Tap Seattle for its first year. Alpha Centauri, in this set-up, is some 4,400 miles away—in London or Tokyo.

Kruse pointed out that the fastest spacecraft we have built so far, New Horizons, took a decade to get to Pluto.

“We went from Hilliard’s to Bad Jimmy’s in ten years,” he observed. “Don’t worry guys, we’re going to go to London in 20 years!”

The idea behind Starshot is that a super-light craft with a light sail could be accelerated by lasers to up to 20 percent of the speed of light. Kruse outlined a litany of technological challenges with the concept, including the ability to generate sufficient laser power, creating an adequately reflective material for the sails, being able to accurately aim the lasers at great distances, and shielding the craft from possible collisions with space debris. Still, he concluded, the idea is worth exploring, especially since the same technology could be used to explore the solar system more quickly.

“This is honestly the most realistic thing that anyone has proposed so far for getting to any other star system,” Kruse said.

It will, however, take a great deal of research and development.

“Don’t necessarily count on this before you die,” Kruse concluded. “Space is big.”

Jessica Werk

UW astronomy Prof. Jessica Werk says your atoms took quite a journey to become you. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Professor Jessica Werk, one of the newest hires onto the astronomy faculty at the University of Washington, also used sports equipment to illustrate her talk, “The History of You: The Rather Tumultuous Past of the Atoms in Your Body.” Werk pointed out that atoms are mostly empty space. If the nucleus of an atom were the size of a baseball, the nearest electrons would be a football field away.

After the Big Bang the universe was mostly light atoms: hydrogen and helium and a few others. Where did the carbon and calcium and other heavier stuff we’re made of come from?

“All evidence suggests that these atoms were fused in the cores of very, very massive stars twelve-and-a-half billion years ago,” Werk said. “Since then they have been on an absolutely crazy, long, sometimes violent journey to end up in your body 93 million miles from the Sun on this speck named Earth.”

Those atoms took a somewhat circuitous route to get here.

“Sixty percent of the atoms in your body we at one point outside of the galaxy in the circumgalactic or intergalactic medium,” Werk said. We don’t really know how they got here, but the best theory is that the atoms tend to cool off, and the gas rains back down on the galaxy, collapsing in star formation or becoming part of the debris disk out of which planets form.

There’s some mind-bending scale at the atomic level, too. Werk pointed out that there are 1023 atoms in a breath of air.

“Each breath-full of air contains more atoms than the number of breath-fulls of air in the entire Earth’s atmosphere,” she said. “What that means is that it is very likely that the last breath of air you just took contained at least one oxygen atom from the first breath of air that you ever took as a human being on planet Earth.”

That reminds us of a recent post by Ethan Siegel on the blog Starts With a Bang, in which he concluded that we all probably share atoms that were once part of King Tut or any other historical figure you might name.

AOT crowd

Astronomy on Tap Seattle outgrew Bad Jimmy’s, and pretty well packed the larger Hilliard’s at its first event there in April. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“The matter that makes up your physical body is part of a huge universe that is continually evolving and recycling the material in it into new forms,” Werk concluded.

The next Astronomy on Tap Seattle event is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 25 at Hilliard’s. Astronomy Prof. Emily Levesque and graduate student John Ruan will give talks about some of the strangest celestial objects ever discovered or theorized. People outnumbered seats at the April event, and so the organizers suggest that you can bring a lawn chair and create your own premium seating.

Happy birthday to Astronomy on Tap Seattle

Astronomy on Tap Seattle has spent the last year confirming that astronomy and beer together make a great combination. We will celebrate AoT’s first year in operation with a gala event at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 23 at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard. The free astronomy talks have drawn good crowds from the beginning, and the most recent events have seen attendees packed shoulder-to-shoulder into Bad Jimmy’s.

AOT Seattle March 23“It’s been a wild ride growing from our initially small size to something that we almost can’t handle,” said Brett Morris, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Washington who is the emcee and one of the co-founders of Astronomy on Tap Seattle. “We’re going to try our best to keep up with it as it grows through our second year.”

Morris said they had a hunch before they started that the audience was out there. Astronomy on Tap started in New York and has spread to a total of eight cities, and events elsewhere have drawn big crowds. Austin, Texas, for example, regularly attracts 400 people to its events in an outdoor beer garden.

“We knew that there was a big drive for this kind of event, especially in nerdy cities like Seattle, so we knew that the availability of participants was good,” Morris said, “but we didn’t really know if we’d be able to scale up the way we wanted or to reach the number of people that we needed to.”

They set out in hopes of being able to attract 50 people who would attend regularly to hear astronomy talks and enjoy a brew. They’ve accomplished that without any sort of paid advertising.

Brett Morris

UW grad student Brett Morris talked about the history of Pluto and the first photos from New Horizons at Astronomy on Tap Seattle July 15. He’ll give a Pluto update at the March 23 event. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“It seems that word of mouth among nerds is really effective. The social networks have been all that we needed to get the word out,” Morris said. “The enthusiasm that we’ve had from the audience has been unbelieveable and unrelenting, and the beer is quite delicious.”

There will be a special treat at the March 23 event. Astronomy on Tap Seattle participants named one of Bad Jimmy’s beers, a Scotch ale that popular vote dubbed “The Big Sipper.” Several months ago the brewers stowed some of that ale in old rum casks.

“We’re going to tap those barrels for the one-year anniversary and serve this barrel-aged imperial Scotch ale in special commemorative glasses, that you can also purchase, that have astronomy on Tap logos on them,” Morris said.

There will be a series of short talks at the anniversary with updates on astronomy discoveries made in the last year, including the latest photos from Pluto and the possibility of the existence of Planet 9. Morris said that one of the great things about being an astronomer is that when an idea such as Planet 9 comes out, there probably is an expert close by who can lead the discussion about how plausible it is. Astronomy on Tap is essentially an effort to take that discussion public.

“As an astronomer you get to meet a lot of people, daily, who think that astronomy is great and would love to talk to you about space, and would love to talk to you about life in the universe,” Morris said, “but it’s rare that you really encounter people who spend their free time trying to learn more about astronomy and physics, and that really is the core audience of Astronomy on Tap.”

“I am consistently surprised by how many people are passionately interested in learning astronomy and physics at a level deeper than you might find in an astronomy magazine,” he added.

It has been a boon for people who write about astronomy for fun. It’s great to have a monthly topic, and the discussions and trivia contests that are a part of Astronomy on Tap are fun and informative.

The March 23 event begins at 7 p.m. at Bad Jimmy’s in Ballard. You might want to arrive earlier than that to get a good seat! It’s free, but bring beer money.

Radioactivity is good for you

While most of us tend to think that radioactivity is dangerous, experts say that, like beer, it’s actually good for you in moderation. We learned this while drinking radioactive beer at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard on Wednesday during the “radioactive edition” of Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

Radioactive beer

Barnes

UW prof. Rory Barnes makes a point about radioactive beer during his Astronomy on Tap talk at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

University of Washington astrobiology professor Rory Barnes did the math on the beer. Figuring that a pint is about 90 percent water, carbon is about ten percent of the rest. That works out to 4.5 grams, or about 200 billion carbon-14 atoms. Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years, which Barnes said means that, in your glass, there’s about one atomic decay every second.

“You are all drinking radioactive beer,” he said. Nobody stopped. I was sipping on a red IPA which was delightful and may have been even a bit more radioactive than the others!

Barnes noted that while we think of Chernobyl or Fukushima when we think about radiation, the process of radioactive decay is pretty important.

Radioactivity is good

“If it weren’t for the radioactivity inside our planet we’d all be dead,” he said. Barnes explained that decay of uranium, thorium, and potassium inside the Earth produces about 50 terawatts of energy, or about 0.1 watt per square meter on the surface. That much energy could run our entire civilization if we could capture it. As it is, it drives geologic processes such as plate tectonics, which helps regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

“It’s really important that the planet does a good job of keeping it from building up to too high of a level or dropping down to too low of a level because then our Earth would not be habitable,” Barnes explained. “Without (plate tectonics) the carbon dioxide would either build up and our planet would roast or it would get drawn down and our planet would freeze.”

Earth is in a sweet spot as far as this internal energy goes. Mars generates less than half the energy Earth does and is geologically dead. Jupiter’s moon Io generates a whopping two watts per square meter and is wildly active volcanically. For life, conditions have to be just right.

Radioactivity may lead us to ET

Barnes said that this fact could help guide us to other planets that might be likely to harbor life. The trouble is that in order to determine a planet’s internal energy and radioactivity we would have to look inside a rock that is hundreds of light years away.

“It’s not really obvious how you do that, but that’s what we need to do,” he said. “I’m sorry to say that the answer is that we can’t at this point. This is the limit of our scientific research right now.”

The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to determine the elements in the atmospheres of distant planets. Barnes said it would make sense to use JWST to look at planets that are near where supernovae have occurred, because these stellar explosions spread the heavy elements needed for this sort of planetary energy generation.

Radioactivity and the ages of stars

Sakari

UW postdoctoral research associate Charli Sakari explains how the age of a star can be determined by the presence of radioactive elements. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

UW astronomy post-doc Charli Sakari also uses radioactivity in her work. During her Astronomy on Tap talk she explained how she determines the makeup of stars by looking at spectra of the light they emit. Different elements leave a clear signature in the spectrum, absorption lines created when atoms in a star’s atmosphere absorb certain color wavelengths.

“If we measure how dark those lines are we can figure out how much of those elements is present in the atmospheres,” Sakari said.

It is especially informative to look for uranium and thorium.

“Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, which is about the age of the Sun, whereas thorium-232 has a half life of 14 billion years,” Sakari explained. “These half-lives are long enough that we can use them to date the ages of the oldest stars in the universe.”

The oldest stars have few elements heavier than helium. Younger stars can contain many heavier elements fused in the cores of the generations of stars that preceded them.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle drew a big crowd to Bad Jimmy’s on a rainy Wednesday night. In fact astronomy and beer lovers were packed in so tightly, and were generating considerable warmth, that the staff popped the garage-type doors open to let in a little fresh air. One wag in the crowd speculated that the robust attendance may have been an indicator of the sorry state of network television. We would say that, in eleven months of events Astronomy on Tap, which is organized by astronomy graduate students at the UW, has delivered plenty of good information and tons of fun. The next gathering is scheduled for Feb. 24.

Game of Thrones and black holes at latest Astronomy on Tap

The extreme seasons on the popular HBO series Game of Thrones and supermassive black holes were the subjects of talks at the most recent Astronomy on Tap event held at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard.

AoT vs. GoT: Reasons for the (Extreme) Seasons

Russell Deitrick

Russell Deitrick makes a point during his talk at Astronomy on Tap II at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Russell Deitrick is an graduate student in astronomy at the University of Washington, studying models of the dynamics of exoplanets in multi-planet systems. He is particularly interested in how interactions between planets with high eccentricity and high mutual-inclination might affect habitability of those planets. That, it would seem, makes him the perfect one to figure out what could cause the sort of long, severe, and unpredictable seasons the characters on Game of Thrones experience.

Deitrick started with a quick primer on what causes seasons. The main cause is the axial tilt, or obliquity, of the planet. Earth, for example, has an axial tilt of about 23 1/2 degrees, and when a pole is inclined toward the Sun its hemisphere enjoys summer.

There are several ways to mess with the seasons, Deitrick explained. Our Moon stabilizes precession—the wobble of the orbital axis like a top—so if a planet doesn’t have a large moon, precession would be greater and there would be more variance. You could alter the orbit itself, making it highly eccentric.

Other factors that can change climate include volcanism, solar variability, or having a planet in a binary star system.

Deitrick ran computer models in which all of these varied wildly. The simulations didn’t match the show.

“Eccentricity can’t really explain the duration of the seasons on Game of Thrones,” Deitrick said. “If you’re at high eccentricity, you may have a very long winter, but you’re going to have a correspondingly short summer, and the seasons are going to be the same length.”

He noted that changing the obliquity of the axis can explain everything except the long duration of the seasons. Volcanos can create long seasons, but Deitrick said that doesn’t fit in with the show.

“The problem with the volcanic winter is that it’s possibly too random,” he said. “The fact that the seasons are quasi-predictable suggests that it probably isn’t related to volcanos.”

He said solar variability takes to long to create climate change on the short time scale of a season, and a binary star system doesn’t appear to be part of the story in Game of Thrones.

“You’d think they’d mention somewhere in the series that there were two suns,” he said.

“None of these can explain that long night, that generation of darkness,” Deitrick added.

“The seasons on Game of Thrones probably can’t be explained by a single theory,” Deitrick concluded. “So they’re probably magic.”

Supermassive black holes: size matters

Michael Tremmel

Michael Tremmel is working on figuring out how supermassive black holes came to be. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Michael Tremmel, another UW astronomy grad student, took on an equally mysterious if less fictional topic in his Astronomy on Tap talk: supermassive black holes.

Tremmel explained that an ordinary black hole—one of between one and 10 solar masses—is the result of simple stellar evolution.

“When a massive star runs out of fuel and explodes in a supernova, the core of the star continues collapsing and forms a black hole,” he said.

The problem is that supermassive black holes can be of billions of solar masses and could not have formed in the same way.

“It’s still an open question where these black holes came from,” Tremmel said, “but we think that they must have formed very, very early on in the universe when the first stars that exist were beginning to form. Before there were galaxies, before there were stars, there were supermassive black holes.”

We’ve never seen a black hole because they don’t emit light. Their gravity is such that even light can’t break free. But the evidence that they exist is plain. Tremmel explained that we have observed stars orbiting rapidly around the center of our own galaxy. By gauging the trajectories of these stars we reach one conclusion about what they are orbiting.

“This object must be really, massive, and really, really small,” he said. “The only thing this thing could be is a black hole that is a billion solar masses.”

Astronomy and beer go together at Bad Jimmy's.

Astronomy and beer go together at Bad Jimmy’s.

We’ve seen the evidence of black holes in other galaxies by catching the glow of gas as it is consumed by supermassive black holes.

“This gas is flowing in, spiraling around, and becoming very, very hot,” Tremmel noted. “As that gas gets really hot it emits a lot of light.”

Tremmel said it’s an exciting time for his field of study, trying to figure out more about the formation of supermassive black holes.

“These relatively tiny objects within a galaxy are a true mystery still for astronomers,” he said.

The next Astronomy on Tap Seattle is scheduled for Wednesday, May 20 at 7 p.m. at Bad Jimmy’s. It’s free, and you can RSVP here.

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Gamma ray bursts, galaxies, exoplanets, and beer

Back in 1979 when I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington I took an introductory course in astronomy to fulfill some science credit requirements. The two Voyager spacecraft had just visited Jupiter and the faculty in the astronomy department seemed practically giddy about all of the new data received and textbook re-writing to come. These days, given the number of exciting missions returning information from the near and far reaches of the solar system, it seems we’re learning something new about the cosmos almost every day.

Case in point: earlier this week a trio of UW astronomy graduate students put on the first Astronomy on Tap event in Seattle, each giving a mini-lecture about their current research. Two of them had news fresh out of the headlines.

Zapped by gamma rays

Kristen Garofali was first up with a talk titled “To GRB or Not to GRB.” The GRB in this case stands for gamma ray burst.

Astronomy on Tap

There was a full house Wednesday at Bad Jimmy’s in Ballard for the first Seattle Astronomy on Tap event. Photo by @AoTSeattle.

“Gamma ray bursts are cosmic lighthouses,” directional beams that Garofali explained result from the formation of a black hole. “When the black hole forms there are two jets of energy emitted that are really high-energy.”

Last week, for the second time in less than a year, scientists thought they had detected a GRB from our closest galactic neighbor, M31, the Andromeda galaxy. This would have been a first; we’ve never detected a GRB so nearby before. The nearest have been billions of light years distant, while M31 is a mere 2.5 million light years away from Earth.

Both the event last May and the one last week turned out not to be GRBs. Garofali noted that there are other objects out there that emit gamma rays, but these don’t look at all like whatever was detected coming from the neighborhood of M31 last week.

“It’s too bright to be a transient or an ultraluminous x-ray source,” she said. “It’s too faint, however, to be a gamma ray burst.” Even so, Garofali finds the discovery and the mystery exciting. “It could open our eyes to some new process that we haven’t thought about before,” she said.

Garofali said the reason we should care about this is that gamma rays are nasty things. At the very least, one would foul up your cell phone reception, and a strong burst could cause mass extinction on Earth. In fact, there is some scientific speculation that a GRB may well be responsible for at least one of the mass extinctions that have hit our planet. However, to do that the GRB would have to come from relatively close by and be aimed right at us. The odds of that happening are extremely long, but not zero.

Astronomy porn

Talk number two by Nell Byler was titled “Andromeda, So Fly, So PHAT.” She wasn’t using dated slang, but rather was talking about the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury, a key tool for her work studying stellar populations. PHAT has taken up a lot of the Hubble Space Telescope’s time; the treasury was created from some 7,400 Hubble images involving 936 exposure hours. The collected data has resolved more than 117 million stars in our neighboring galaxy. The UW’s Julianne Dalcanton is the principal investigator for PHAT.

PHAT M31

This PHAT portrait of M31 is a mosaic of more than 7,000 Hubble Space Telescope images. Photo: NASA; ESA; J. DALCANTON, B.F. WILLIAMS, AND L.C. JOHNSON/UNIV. OF WASHINGTON; THE PHAT TEAM; R. GENDLER.

Byler showed a great deal of “astronomy porn”—stunning Hubble images from the project. They’re more than just pretty pictures; Byler said PHAT has the potential to reveal much about star formation, stellar evolution, and a host of other questions about how galaxies work.

“Even though we’re looking at stars within another galaxy it provides a lot of insight for galaxies that we can’t resolve and for our own galaxy, which we think is pretty similar to Andromeda itself,” Byler said. “And there’s lots more science to be done.”

Little green men

Brett Morris closed the evening with a talk titled “Dear Grandpa.” Morris is an astrobiologist, which his grandfather thinks is a pretty fishy undertaking involving the cover-up of the existence of extraterrestrials. Morris is hoping to find ETs, though, and on the very day of Astronomy on Tap the news wires were abuzz with new information about subsurface oceans on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede and on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, both of which could be havens for life. Kenneth Chang’s article in the New York Times provides excellent coverage.

Enceladus geysers

Water vapor geysers erupt from the south pole area of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Photo: NASA/JPL.

“Enceladus has what we call cryovolcanoes; they’re volcanos that shoot out water,” Morris said.

“I personally think that this is the best chance to look for life elsewhere in our solar system because we can send a spacecraft that just orbits this moon and picks up the water as it shoots out of the moon,” he said. “Could it get more convenient? We don’t need to dig at all!”

Morris explained how the Kepler Space Telescope hunted for planets around other stars, though he bristled a little at the fact that when one is discovered similar in size to our home world it is invariably called “Earthlike.”

“Those have very broad, flimsy definitions,” he said, noting that Venus, which is practically our twin in size and mass, could be called Earthlike, but it would not be a nice place to visit. Morris is excited for scientific advances that will help us get a better idea of what exoplanets are truly like, and to identify which ones might harbor life like us.

The Astronomy on Tap event was well attended, with more than 60 people jamming into Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard (which pours a lovely IPA, by the way). The talks were well received and games were enjoyed, even though our team, nicknamed “Hubble Trouble,” did not win any cupcakes donated by Trophy Cupcakes. The organizers plan to be back with more events. Follow them on Twitter at @AOTSeattle. Also watch Facebook, where they hope to set up a page soon.