The space between stars is emptier than any vacuum we can create on Earth, but it still contains dust, hydrogen, helium, more hydrogen, some carbon, and more hydrogen. This “interstellar medium” is a critical part of the galaxy because it’s where stars are born and die.
The first time I visited Chapin Library was for my Astronomy 102 class. All the notable books in the history of astronomy, from Euclid to Newton, were arranged on a square of tables. We admired the fascinating geometry of the sketches, recognizing some from our textbook. The books were a leathery tan, opened to illustrations of Galileo patiently listening to Copernicus and Ptolemy argue, a giant bull adorned with stars leaping across the sky, or Kepler’s attempts to chart the heavens on the musical staff. In the center of the room was a large book, its pages a couple of feet across. It detailed the elegant but inaccurate Earth-centered system, tracing the paths of the planets in pink and blue corkscrews around Earth. At last a lean man with a soft voice and owlish glasses said, “I’m Wayne Hammond, curator here at the Chapin Library.” And in a few more soft words, he began to spin the tale of astronomy’s history, slowly orbiting the room and leaving a trail of facts floating in his wake.
Image: Williams College students who attended the 2015 KNAC symposium. L to R: Allison Carter ’16, Michael May ’17, Sarah Stevenson ’17, Emily Stump ’18, Anneliese Rilinger ’17, Ross Yu ’19, Becky Durst ’16. Gillian, and Prof. Karen Kwitter. Not Pictured: Tina Seeger ’16, MeiLu McDermott ’16, Hallee Wong ’18, Marcus Hughes ’18, Tim Nagle-McNaughton ’18
Why didn’t the Dog Star laugh at the joke? If you were in science quad last weekend (October 17th) and asked one of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC) presenters, you would likely have gotten a chuckle and a response that “it was too Sirius.” KNAC, a collaboration of eight liberal arts colleges in New England (Colgate University, Middlebury College, Vassar College, Wesleyan University, Haverford College, Swarthmore College, Wellesley College, and Williams College) funds summer research opportunities for astronomy students. The annual symposium, which rotates between the eight institutions, was hosted at Williams this year with 32 student speakers and 9 poster presentations.
This is the third installment in our “Ask A Science Student” series. For the previous responses, see chemistry and physics.
Ask a Science Student, Part 3: Astronomy
By Marcus Hughes ’18
Astronomy deals with a tremendous scale of energy, from the Cosmic Microwave Background – the 2.7 kelvin echo left from the Big Bang – to hyper-luminous quasars – compact centers of galaxies related to black holes that release 4 trillion times as much energy as our Sun. Astronomy even has not yet understood types of energy like dark energy, a repulsive energy causing the universe to expand faster, literally changing the fate of the universe. When most people think of energy in astronomy, they think of stars, but dark energy makes up 70% of the total mass-energy in the universe. At its simplest, energy is just the capacity to do work; i.e. the capacity for a force to displace an object.
Don’t underestimate college students, especially if they study astronomy at the top northeastern liberal arts colleges, because they might just be re-defining what we know about the universe.
Last weekend, Williams professors Karen Kwitter and Steven Souza traveled with seven students to Swarthmore College to participate in the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium’s 2014 Undergraduate Symposium on Research in Astronomy. There they learned about the cutting-edge summer research conducted by students from Williams, Wesleyan, Wellesley, Vassar, Swarthmore, Middlebury, Haverford, and Colgate, which together form the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium. Members of the consortium send students to partner schools every summer to conduct paid research, which is later presented at the annual symposium.
This week, the ScientEphic sat down with senior astrophysics major Allen Davis. He took some time out of his busy schedule to chat about his life as a globetrotting thesis student and a dedicated Trekkie.