Galaxies, the Universe, and Everything in Reading, PA

Title slide for the talk "Galaxies, the Universe, & Everything"

Tonight I had a great time speaking to the Berks County Amateur Astronomical Society at the Reading Public Museum in Reading, PA, which on the whole wasn’t too far from where I grew up. It was nice being in my home state once again, even for an evening!

Despite it being a school/work night, I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout of the Berks club members and general public. After my presentation people stayed for a Q&A session that went on for about a good half-hour or so. I was worried I was keeping folks up past their bedtime, but I kept getting great questions, especially from the kids who haven’t grown up to learn they shouldn’t ask “dumb” questions like:

If a black hole were heading toward Earth, could we detect it so we would have time to escape?

Can a Gama Ray Burst be because two black holes collide?

What caused galaxies to form in the first place?

and this one, which had me thinking on my feet a bit:

If the Sun were to suddenly disappear, how long would it take for the Earth to stop orbiting it?

To those kids, let me just say, don’t grow up! Keep asking those “dumb” questions because they actually some of the most important questions we can ask!

Fireball on Jupiter

On September 10, Jupiter took another one for the team:

Is that cool or what? In case you missed it, the flash lasts just for a second or two on the left-hand side of the image near the limb. This video is a series of images captured by amateur astronomer George Hall of Dallas, Texas, who caught it on video. Here’s a still image from Hall’s video:

Still image of the impact on Jupiter
Still image from George Hall’s video capture (click for full size)

The fireball was most likely caused by an asteroid that probably was no larger than 10-meters in diameter. That’s not very big, but just consider how fast this must have been traveling as it slammed into Jupiter’s upper atmosphere and you have a very big explosion indeed!

If this story sounds familiar, consider that this is the sixth time such an event has been observed since the 1994 impacts of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. Jupiter’s large mass captures astroids and comets into a stable orbit around Jupiter or, apparently rather frequently, pulls these objects in.

Not only does that give us some pretty amazing planetary fireworks, but we also have the benefit of not getting hit by said object. Jupiter is our Solar System’s bodyguard, taking one for the team every couple of years.

Thank you, Jupiter! Now don’t send anything our way kthanxbai.


Franck Marchis has more at his blog with a pretty good analysis. Worth checking out!

Magnifying the Universe

Magnifying the Universe poster
Excerpt from the Magnifying the Universe poster. Click this, it’s cool.

“Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space, listen…” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Now that we’re up, up and away, a little orientation of the universe seemed like as good a way as any to get started. The problem is that  the sheer scales of even the most trivial objects in the universe are so beyond our day-to-day experiences is that it is very difficult to get our heads around them.

That shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we evolved to survive on a planet that happened to be of a certain size. Perhaps if we were some sort of interstellar whales we might have a more intuitive sense of the sizes and distances of everything from small asteroids to the largest stars. But even then we might have a hard time contemplating the relative sizes of galaxies and the vast distances between them.

Fortunately, such scales are not beyond our mathematics, nor beyond our ability to express them in a convenient infographic courtesy of the folks at Be sure to click for the full size as it’s worth a fun little read.


While I trust that their scales check out, some of the imagery used is incorrect or misleading. For example, the image of the solar system chosen only goes out to the orbit of Jupiter. It’s much larger than that, of course. The first two images of the poster for the Observable Universe and the Observed Universe should be switched and labeled differently. Still, it’s a pretty fun way to get a handle on the scales of these things.

But wait, there’s more!

As an added bonus, the same folks were kind enough to organize the infographic into a handy zoomable interactive:

Copyright 2012. Magnifying the Universe by Number Sleuth.

Enjoy zooming around!

First Light

Hubble Space Telescope
The Hubble Space Telescope, seen here after release back to orbit following the end of its final servicing mission in 2009

Astronomy is the only investigation into nature that demands at least one arm tied behind your back. Unless you’re into meteorites or comet samples, the only method of studying the greater universe beyond our home world is by examining the light from distant suns. To do that, we must turn of course to our telescopes.

Every telescope’s inaugural moment is known as first light – that first image or observation taken by the newly commissioned telescope. If a telescope were a ship, first light is its maiden voyage.

I’ve been fortunate to work on one particularly interesting telescope, as well as a few others. But my greatest joy has been sharing the excitement of what we’ve discovered about our universe using these wonderful machines.

I’ve been giving public presentations since I was a teenager, and even made a video or two. But writing has always been a bit of a challenge for me, which is ironic since I’m best friends with a brilliant writer and editor, the son of an English Professor, and husband to an incredible (and beautiful) author. You’d think some of that would rub off on me.

Of course, there are a few other astronomy and physics blogs out there (including some pretty bad ones), and perhaps even a nice space science site or two. But one thing I’ve come to understand is that to teach is to learn. I hope that by doing more writing, I’ll get the hang of it and also force myself to spend a little more time doing what I love to do in the first place – learn about the universe.

Another thing I’ve learned is that science is a collaborative effort at all levels, from our best theorists to the technicians in the trenches, to amateurs who pursue their subject purely for their love of it.

And so my new blog has seen its own first light. I hope to present the light of many more telescopes, and observatories in these pages, and perhaps shed some light on a few other topics as well. And of course I’ll be tinkering, tweaking, and eventually probably redesigning this blog from time to time as it – and my abilities – evolve.

I hope you’ll enjoy the voyage with me.