Exploring at AstroFest
I don’t know about you, but when I pick up a program at an event and discover that one of the featured presentations is titled “Galactic Cannibalism,” I immediately plan the rest of the evening’s activities around, yes, “Galactic Cannibalism.”
And that did turn out to be one of the highlights of my Thursday night visit to AstroFest, the annual celebration of astronomy that the Department of Astrophysics hosts every year during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. But it was just one of many. All of the students and researchers at AstroFest went out of their way to make sure all of us had a good time.
And it’s continuing Friday and Saturday nights, so if you’re in town for Arts Fest, you should stop by. Especially if you’ve got kids.
Research associate Mike Siegel said his “Galactic Cannibalism” presentation was “basically a story of a good galaxy gone bad,” but it was way more than that. We learned that the Milky Way, once thought to be pretty quiet (or “quiescent,” in Official Science Terms, which were sprinkled throughout the evening) as galaxies go, is not. It’s actually pulling stars away from globular clusters, which is long and rather violent process. Equally important, we learned a bigger truth, as Siegel explained how more powerful computers and equipment like the Hubble Space Telescope are enabling scientists to discover this kind of phenomena, and how that increases our knowledge of the universe.
Among the other especially cool activities:
—The planetarium show. Somehow—and I’ll blame this, as usual, on my Liberal Arts background—I was unaware that there’s a planetarium on the fifth floor of Davey Lab. It’s a great place to start and get re-oriented to astronomy, and it’s also a great place to catch the spirit of AstroFest. When our guide took the “sky” from “big-city” dark to “way-out-in-the-country” dark, enabling you to see thousands of stars, all of the kids in my group gasped.
— At the cloud chamber, I watched particles of gamma rays—which, it turns out, are coming into our rooms all the time, right through the walls!—make a trail through the mist, which was weirdly soothing. The students in the room told me an earlier visitor had suggested it would make a great screen saver, and that person was right.
— I watched students make a comet with some dirt, corn syrup, ammonia, and dry ice. (If I were working AstroFest, this is the assignment I’d want.) Then one of them smashed it with a hammer, and I had to peek over a cluster of excited kids to check out the bubbles inside.
—Grad student Brendan Mullan gave me an explanation of “Astronomy in Action,” complete with labels on common artifacts in astronomers’ offices, from a giant computer monitor to the all-important coffee maker. (Sign on window: “You need a PhD for one of these.”) Then he ran a computer simulation—because these days, astronomy is less about looking up at the stars than you’d think—and allowed me to try to identify star clusters. I “discovered” one with 20 black holes.
—And, I’m proud to report, I did win a prize in the Astronomy Quiz. Yes, my semester of what was called, back in the day, Astronomy for Non-Science Majors, paid off. I can identify the planet Saturn.
AstroFest continues Friday and Saturday nights, 8:30 to 11:30 at Davey Lab. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see and hear the soda-bottle rocket launches out front. If the sky is clear, you’ll be able to go up to the sixth floor and look at Mars, Venus, and the rings of Saturn through a telescope. I didn’t get to that Thursday night because it was way past my bedtime, but I’ll be back.
Lori Shontz, senior editor
Entry filed under: Campus events, Eberly College of Science. Tags: AstroFest, Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, Davey Lab, Department of Astrophysics, galaxies, Hubble Space Telescope, planetarium.