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Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures

Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures

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Listen to exciting, non-technical talks on some of the most interesting developments in astronomy and space science. Founded in 1999, the Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures are presented on six Wednesday evenings during each school year at Foothill College, in the heart of California's Silicon Valley. Speakers include a wide range of noted scientists, explaining astronomical developments in everyday language. The series is organized and moderated by Foothill's astronomy instructor emeritus An ...
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With Dr. Leonard Susskind (Stanford University) Black holes, the collapsed remnants of the largest stars, provide a remarkable laboratory where the frontier concepts of our understanding of nature are tested at their extreme limits. For more than two decades, Professor Susskind and a Dutch colleague had a running battle with Stephen Hawking about t…
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A Non-technical Talk by Dr. Jessica Lu (University of California, Berkeley) on March 13, 2024 The population of black holes, objects left over from dead stars, is almost entirely unexplored. Only about two dozen black holes are confidently known in our Galaxy. As a result, some of the most basic properties of black holes remain unknown, including t…
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Speaker: Dr. Brian Lantz (Stanford University) Feb. 7, 2024 Measuring gravitational waves is a revolutionary new way to do astronomy. They were predicted by Einstein, but it was not until 2015, that LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) first detected one of these waves. They were tiny ripples in space itself, generated by …
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Dr. Laura Schaefer (Stanford University): Water is everywhere. Its atoms, hydrogen and oxygen, are the first and fifth most abundant elements in the universe. Water is found in abundance in many environments; it finds its way into planets of all shapes and sizes, where it modifies the properties of everything it touches. Water is crucial to life, b…
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A Talk by Dr. Robert Jedicke (U of Hawaii) Oct. 11, 2023 Near-Earth objects present both an existential threat to human civilization and an extraordinary opportunity to help our exploration and expansion across the solar system. Dr. Jedicke explains that the risk of a sudden, civilization-altering collision with an asteroid or comet has markedly di…
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June 2012 Frank Drake (1930-2022) was known as the "father of SETI science" -- he was the scientist who conducted the first radio survey for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, and came up with the formula for estimating the likelihood of such civilizations, now called the Drake Equation. In June 2012, the SETI Institute sponsored a three-…
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with Dr. Eugene Chiang (University of California, Berkeley) June 21, 2023 We now know that our solar system is but one of countless others. Where did all these planets come from? What are their fates, and ours? Dr. Chiang describes the life cycle of planets, how they are born and die, and how they are born again. The story combines the latest obser…
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North America will be treated to two eclipses of the Sun in the 2023-24 school year: an annular eclipse on Oct. 14, 2023 and a total eclipse on Apr. 8, 2024. Some 500 million people will be in a position to see at least a partial eclipse on each date. Astronomer Andrew Fraknoi (Fromm Institute, University of San Francisco) discusses the cause of ec…
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Dr. Alex Filippenko (University of California, Berkeley) Mar. 8, 2023 We have a new supersensitive eye in the cosmic sky. Parked nearly one million miles from Earth, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is 100 times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope. JWST observes at the red to the mid-infrared parts of the spectrum, offering new insi…
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For centuries, humans have gazed at the night sky and wondered if any intelligent life forms like us might be out there. In 2015, the Breakthrough Foundation gave a $100 million grant to the University of California at Berkeley to undertake the most comprehensive search for signals from an extra-terrestrial civilization. Dr. Steve Croft, of the Uni…
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Talk by Dr. Lynn Cominsky (Sonoma State University) Gravitational waves are predicted by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. They travel at the speed of light, but are much harder to detect than light waves. On September 14, 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) received the first direct gravitational wave signal…
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With Dr. Jeffrey Bennett (University of Colorado) 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of Einstein's completion of his General Theory of Relativity, the comprehensive theory of space, time, and gravity. In everyday language, Dr. Bennett explains the basic ideas of Einstein's work (both his special and general theories) and shows how Einstein's remarka…
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The Sun can unleash violent “space weather” -- storms that can radiate X-rays and even gamma rays into space, send giant clouds of magnetic plasma slamming into the Earth and other planets, and spray firehoses of charged particles throughout interplanetary space. On Earth, we are mostly protected from the Sun’s wrath by our magnetic field and atmos…
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with Dr. Dan Werthimer of the University of California, Berkeley What is the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe and how might we detect signals from alien civilizations? Dr. Werthimer describes current and future projects searching for such signals, including the new $100-million Breakthrough Prize Foundation "Listen" project to …
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With Dr. Natalie Batalha (NASA, Kepler Mission Project Scientist) NASA's Kepler Mission launched in 2009 with the objective of finding "Goldilocks planets" orbiting other stars like our Sun -- those that are not too hot, not too cold, but just right. The space telescope opened our eyes to the many terrestrial-sized planets that populate the galaxy …
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In this episode, Dr. Victoria Kaspi (McGill University) introduces us to a brand-new mystery in the skies -- superfast bursts of radio waves whose source is still unknown. These energetic bursts come from all over the sky (and all over the universe,) pack a huge amount of energy, and typically last a few thousandths of a second. Like a detective in…
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with Prof. Eliot Quataert (University of California, Berkeley) In the previous decade, one third of the world's astronomers became involved in a single project -- observing a distant and violent event, when two "star corpses" called neutron stars collided and exploded. This represented the first time in the history of astronomy that a cosmic event …
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Speaker: Dr. Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory For five years, Curiosity explored Gale Crater, one of the most intriguing locations on Mars -- once the site of an ancient lake. In this talk, the mission's Project Scientist discussed what the rover was capable of and the many things it discovered on and about the red planet. In pa…
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with Dr, Michael Busch (SETI Institute) Near-Earth asteroids are a population of small bodies whose orbits around the Sun cross or come near our planet’s orbit. They turn out to be unusual physical environments: essentially rubble piles. They represent a natural hazard we ignore at our peril, because some of these bodies have the potential to impac…
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In July 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto, revealing its surface to our view for the first time. In this program, Drs. Alan Stern and David Grinspoon give us an insider's view of how this complex mission came to be and what it discovered at the edge of our solar system. Their recent book (with the same title) tells the full story of t…
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Dr. Sandra Faber (University of California, Santa Cruz) Do Humans Have What it Takes to Thrive in this Universe? In this thought-provoking talk, cosmologist (and National Medal of Science winner) Dr. Sandra Faber takes a look at our cosmic origins, the future of the Earth as a habitable planet, and what humans need to do to thrive in the long-term …
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When light from space enters Earth’s atmosphere, it is distorted and displaced, something our eyes perceive as “twinkling.” Adaptive optics can remove a great deal of this distortion, essentially restoring much of the detail we’ve been robbed off in our view of the stars and galaxies. Dr. Max, a world-renowned pioneer in this technique, shows us ho…
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In this talk, astrobiologist Charles Lineweaver discusses the history of life on Earth and what we can deduce from our understanding of the universe about the existence and history of life elsewhere. He recounts the ongoing discovery of large numbers of exoplanets -- planets orbiting other stars -- and what we can learn from the varieties of planet…
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What would it have been like to be an eyewitness to the Big Bang? In 2014, astronomers using the powerful BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole thought they’d glimpsed evidence of the period of cosmic inflation at the beginning of time. Millions around the world tuned in to the announcement, and Nobel whispers spread like wildfire. But had these scien…
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New exploration indicates that caves may be more common on rocky and icy worlds in our Solar System than we have thought in the past. Caves below the Earth show us a very different planet than the familiar one we experience on the surface. Each dark cave system has its own micro-organisms and distinctive mineral and chemical properties. Dr. Penelop…
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In this illustrated talk, Dr. Burgasser explains what happens when a newly forming star doesn't have "what it takes" to produce energy in its core in an ongoing way. This results in "failed stars" or brown dwarfs -- objects that were predicted in theory, but only discovered in the 1990's. Today, many thousands of these brown dwarfs are known, spann…
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Pluto’s large moon Charon turned out to be far more interesting than astronomers expected. Pluto was the star when the New Horizons probe flew by, but the features on Charon’s surface tell a fascinating tale of how icy worlds could form far from the gravitational influences of the giant planets. There is evidence of a world-wide sub-surface ocean e…
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In this nontechnical talk, illustrated with the latest images and video, Dr. Thaller asks what makes a world habitable? What creates and sustains an environment friendly to life? She then discusses the history of life on Earth and what we are learning about our planet, and our neighbors Mars and Venus from such missions as the Parker Solar Probe, t…
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Decades after we last set foot on the Moon, and several years after the Space Shuttle was retired, space activity is finally leaving the doldrums. Permanent bases on the Moon and Mars are now within reach, and a new Space Race is brewing, with Asian countries ascendant. Dr. Impey (University of Arizona) reviews the history and landmarks of the inte…
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Where is the best place to find living life beyond Earth? It may be that the small, ice-covered moons of Jupiter and Saturn harbor some of the most habitable real estate in our Solar System. Life loves liquid water and these moons have lots of it! Such oceans worlds have likely persisted for much of the history of the solar system, and as a result …
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The NASA Kepler mission revealed that our Galaxy is teeming with planetary systems and that Earth-sized planets are common. However, most of the planets detected by Kepler orbit stars too faint to permit detailed study. The NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS,) launched in 2018, is finding hundreds of small planets orbiting stars that …
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The Vera Rubin Observatory will house a survey telescope that will image the night sky faster and deeper than ever before. Its camera, at 3.6 Gigapixels, will be the biggest digital camera ever built. The Rubin Observatory will be able to image the entire visible sky every few nights, and build up, over 10 years, a 900-frame full color movie of the…
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Prof. Jim Bell (of Arizona State University), who is a key leader in projects to take images with NASA's rovers on Mars, discusses the history and current state of our exploration of the red planet. He summarizes the scientific findings from the Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance missions. He puts each mission into the larger context …
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A bird that mimicked a black hole. The astronomer that discovered microwave ovens. A telescope that got shot. The science of astronomy is filled with true stories (and tall tales) of the adventures and misadventures that accompany our exploration of the universe. Dr. Levesque, who interviewed over 100 astronomers for her well-reviewed popular book,…
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Craig Venter & Daniel Cohen suggested that if the 20th century was the century of physics, the 21st century will be the century of biology on our planet. Jill Tarter believes that their idea will be extended beyond the surface of our world, and that we may soon have the first opportunity to study biology that developed on other worlds. In this lect…
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By measuring the rapid orbits of the stars near the center of our galaxy, Dr. Andrea Ghez of UCLA and her colleagues have moved the case for a supermassive black hole at the heart of our Milky Way Galaxy from a possibility to a certainty. She reports on her pioneering observations of stars near our galaxy's center (that orbit the monster black hole…
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After encountering Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft, for the first time flew by a member of the Kuiper Belt of icy objects beyond Neptune. This particular object, informally named “Ultimate Thule” (meaning the farthest place beyond the known world,) turned out to be a “contact binary” – two smaller icy worlds stuck together. Dr. Jeff Moore, a pla…
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Black holes are one of the most remarkable predictions of Einstein's theory of gravity: so much material is compressed into such a small volume that nothing, not even light, can escape. In Spring 2019, the world-wide Event Horizon Telescope released the first real picture of gas around a massive black hole and the “shadow” it makes as the gas swirl…
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Dr. Adam Frank (U of Rochester) first discusses the history of our search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), including the Drake Equation, the Fermi Paradox, and the searches for radio messages from other civilizations that have taken place since 1960. He then explains how new research and funding is expanding our thinking about the ways we…
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Dr. Brown (whose discovery of dwarf planet Eris led to the reclassification of Pluto) discusses the history of planetary discovery (and demotion), why we think a new, larger Planet 9 is on the verge of being found, and the techniques that we are using to try to find this very faint body lurking in the far reaches of our planetary system. This was r…
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May 22, 2021, Dr. Janna Levin (Columbia University's Barnard College) Dr. Levin helps us to understand, and to find delight in, black holes – perhaps the most opaque theoretical construct ever imagined by physicists. She takes us on an exploratory tour of the neighborhood of a black hole, and help us feel the visceral experience of encountering bla…
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Lick Observatory, the first continuously inhabited mountain-top observatory in the world, has been doing ground-breaking research since its opening in 1888. 30 years after Lick Observatory established itself as a leader in astronomical research, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic hit the United States. Research, while hampered by the conditions at the t…
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Astronomers today understand that the universe is full of a mysterious substance they call “dark matter” (because it doesn’t give off any light or other radiation we can detect.) Dr. Tom Shutt (of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) discusses the motivation behind the multi-decade, world-wide effort to test the idea that dark matter is in the f…
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Nobel Physics Prize laureate, Dr. John Mather, explains how the early cosmos (whose precise characteristics he helped pin down) became our present-day universe of galaxies, stars, and planets. Dr. Mather is the Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope (which will be a much larger instrument than the Hubble when it is launched in late 20…
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