Tag Archives: George Musser

Our favorite Seattle astronomy events from 2015

Happy New Year from Seattle Astronomy! Yesterday we ran down our top five news stories of the past year. Today, let’s take a look back at our top talks and events from 2015.

Comet Hunter

Scheiderer and MachholzRenowned comet hunter Don Machholz was the keynote speaker last year at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Machholz has discovered eleven comets visually, without the aid of CCD cameras and other modern aids, and that’s the record. He does it the old-fashioned way, sitting at the eyepiece for hours at a time and sweeping the sky for something that wasn’t there before.

Machholz told a wonderful tale about his techniques of comet hunting and about the intensely personal reasons that drove him to the quest. It was an informative, touching, and often hilarious presentation filled with images and music.

It’s all relative

Jeffrey Bennett at the UW's physics/astronomy auditorium. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Last year was the international year of light and marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Jeffrey Bennett toured the country to help us better understand relativity, and stopped in at the April meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society to give a well-received talk about the concepts of relativity. Bennett is an engaging lecturer and his book, What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter, (Columbia University Press, 2014) is a big help, too, that makes a topic that is so mind-bending and daunting to so many truly accessible to a broader audience.

We did a preview interview with Bennett as well.

Physics pioneer

Jim Peebles

Science is mostly about brainpower and creativity, and testing, but there’s some luck involved, too. Case in point: back in 1965 Jim Peebles and colleagues at Princeton were on the hunt for what we now know as the cosmic microwave background, the lasting signature of the Big Bang. Up the road at Bell Telephone Labs, Bob Wilson and Arno Penzias had found the CMB, but didn’t realize what they had! To the latter went the Nobel Prize, but Peebles has been in the forefront of research on the CMB for the past 50 years. We now know a lot about the history of our universe, except for the first fleeting moments that remain a mystery. Peebles talked about that history at a UW lecture in May.

Space tourist

SimonyiCharles Simonyi shelled out a lot of cash to fly to the International Space Station in a Soyuz capsule with the Russians—speculation is that his tab for two trips, in 2007 and 2009, came to about $60 million. Simonyi gave a talk at the University of Washington in September about the practicalities of space travel, and when it might be possible for those of us with somewhat lesser means.

The answer, sadly, is not that soon, but Simonyi envisions a day when the cost of launching a kilogram of mass into space might be driven down to $100, and that might make the cost of space travel something that more people could consider.

Simonyi’s story was an entertaining one that was as much about the training for his two trips to space as it was about the technical aspects of getting there.

Dark matter and the dinosaurs

Lisa RandallHarvard particle physicist and author Lisa Randall has a new hypothesis about what may have killed the dinosaurs on Earth. It’s a surprisingly simple notion, at least once you get past the fact that it depends on a new sort of particle that we haven’t yet detected.

Randall spoke at Town Hall Seattle in November about her ideas and her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (Ecco, 2015). The theory in a nutshell: suppose that there’s a type of dark matter that interacts with light. Such dark matter could collapse into a disk, just like our galaxy. As our solar system orbits the galaxy, we periodically go up and down through the galactic plane. Passing through the plane would also move us through this disk of dark matter, which could gravitationally dislodge comets from the Oort Cloud and send them hurtling our way.

It is an interesting idea that Randall says she’ll devote much time to testing in the coming years.

Honorable mention on our list: the lecturers of the Big Bang and Beyond series at the UW, including Andy Connolly, Miguel Morales, Julianne Dalcanton, and Adam Frank; George Musser, who spoke about his 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 (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015); and Curiosity rover chief engineer Rob Manning, who gave a talk based on his tome Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014).

Gifts for the astronomy enthusiast on your list

Many Seattle Astronomy readers seem to be looking for gifts to give to the astro-enthusiasts on their lists this time of year, and often ask us for advice. We have some!

It doesn’t change much from year to year. Check our posts Gifts for the astronomy enthusiast from last year, Picking a gift for the astronomy buff from 2013, and Choosing a gift telescope from 2012. Too busy to scrape around in the past? A few quick tips:

Visit the Seattle Astronomy Store. It’s packed with our favorite gear, books we’ve read from authors we’ve interviewed, cameras, gadgets, and accessories.

Trying to pick a first telescope for someone? The book The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide (Firefly Books, 2008) by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer is a great reference, offers fantastic advice about what to consider when choosing a telescope, and makes a great gift in and of itself. It helped me get started, lo those many years ago, and I still use it often. This is the best gift for anyone who is interested in amateur astronomy, but who may not have much idea about how to get started in the hobby.

More books

It’s great to be able to read about astronomy in an area in which rain and clouds are the norm about 11 months of the year. While our store has a big selection, there are a number of good choices that are new in the last year or so, and whose authors have made presentations here in town.

What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter (Columbia University Press, 2014) by Jeffrey Bennett is a wonderfully approachable primer on a topic that many people find mind bending, perhaps just because it never gets explained so well. Pick this one up and your gift recipient will be explaining the fabric of spacetime to one and all. Bennett did an interview with us in March and spoke at the April meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. He’s been touring the country in support of the book in observance of the 100th anniversary of the Theory of Relativity.

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (Ecco, 2015). Harvard astrophysicist Lisa Randall did a talk at Town Hall Seattle in November. Her idea about how dark matter may have done in the large reptiles 65 million years ago is an interesting and relatively simple one. Her research for the next few years will be focused on trying to find evidence that her notion is valid, and that a type of particle of dark matter that reacts to “dark light” may be behind mass extinctions.

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 (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). Author George Musser also talked at Town Hall in November and took a shot at explaining quantum entanglement. He noted that we’re starting to see the hazy outlines of an answer to questions about the how particles in different locations appear to act on each other, but adds that there are still scientists who don’t really believe that non-locality is a real thing.

After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program (Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology) and John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (Both Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 and 2010, respectively). Space historian John Logsdon did two speeches in Seattle this year, one at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society back in January, and the other in June at the Museum of Flight. He insterestingly described the race to the Moon as a one-sided one that we almost lost anyway. A perfect couple of volumes for those interested in the history of space exploration.

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard. This isn’t a new book, but we absolutely love it for its beautiful writing as well as its important message. Bogard spoke in Seattle two years ago and we’ve been raving about the book ever since.

Emily Lackdawalla of the Planetary Society did a post last year with suggestions for astronomy books for children, and Bennett has also done a number of acclaimed books for children, with links included at the end of our post based on our interview with him.

New experts in town

Cloud Break OpticsIf you’re looking for gear there are new experts in town to help you out. Cloud Break Optics opened earlier this year in Ballard, and it’s the first astronomy shop in town ages that is owned and operated by and for amateur astronomers. Stephanie Anderson and Matt Dahl are the proprietors, they know their stuff, and are more than happy to share. They take online orders, but why not drop by, meet some new friends, see all of those telescopes and eyepieces and gadgets in person, and buy from your local small business.

Cameras

We are decidedly not astrophotographers, but our friend The Soggy Astronomer is, and he wrote an article earlier this year about good camera choices for this aspect of the hobby. Our post gives a brief summary, and his top picks are included in our store.

Spooky action explained

Some eighty years ago Albert Einstein derided the notion of quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance.” Today, according to author and journalist George Musser, “We’re starting to see the hazy outlines of an answer,” to questions about the how particles in different locations appear to act on each other. He is quick to add that there are still scientists who don’t really believe that non-locality is a real thing.

Musser

Author George Musser explains separate particles magically acting on each other during his talk Nov. 3 at Town Hall Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Musser is the author of 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 (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). He spoke about the book and the science earlier this month at Town Hall Seattle.

Musser noted that Einstein was clearly bothered by some aspects of quantum mechanics, particularly the notion that randomness governs the universe. This led to his famous observation that God does not place dice.

“It was arguably Einstein’s number one concern,” Musser noted. “His deeper worry, actually the worry that led him to the worry about randomness, was the worry about non-locality. What is non-locality? How can this magic sorcery kind of thing be happening in the real world?”

That’s the quality that got Musser interested in writing about the subject.

“It’s the closest thing that we have in contemporary science to real, honest-to-god, Harry Potter magic,” he said. He noted that it turns up in many different sciences, and isn’t just a “freak show” over in quantum mechanics.

Space is constructed

Muster detailed the experimental evidence that has established that entanglement is a real phenomenon. String theory, loop quantum gravity, and other attempts to explain what’s happening have, at their cores, a similar idea, according to Musser. That idea is that space isn’t just empty and out there; it’s made of something.

“Anyone working on quantum gravity thinks that at some level space is constructed,” Musser explained. “That gives you the opening to deal with non-locality. No longer is that an insoluble puzzle that has been hanging in the air since Einstein’s days.”

Muster suggested thinking about water to illustrate the idea. A single molecule of H2O does not have the properties of water. It’s only when you get a whole bunch of that molecules together that water can flow or have surface tension.

“Likewise, if space consists of atoms, each individual atom is not spacial. Each individual atom lacks the properties we associate with spacial things,” Musser said. “Those spacial properties are derived collectively from the interactions among atoms.”

Given that idea, it’s possible that space can also change its state, just like water can boil and evaporate or freeze, and perhaps that’s part of what is driving our perception of different locations and entanglement.

“It seems that these things are in a predetermined location, but maybe that quality of being in a predetermined location is actively being generated all the time, below our level of consciousness, below the level even of our theories,” Musser said. “There’s some deeper machinery in the natural world.”

It’s a complicated concept to work into a 500-word blog post or a 45-minute lecture. You can listen to an audio recording of Musser’s talk on the Town Hall Seattle website. He is an engaging speaker, and Spooky Action at a Distance promises to be a good read.

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.