Cleveland is known for a lot of things, but one thing that is often overlooked is just how much this city loves its science. I was reminded of this last Thursday when I went to find a seat in the almost filled to capacity Murch Auditorium at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to hear Risa Wechsler, an assistant professor of physics and astrophysics at Stanford University, give a talk about how computer simulations are playing a role in unlocking how the universe was formed and where it’s headed. The lecture is part of one of the coolest things the CMNH offers: the Frontiers of Astronomy lecture series, which is always free and open to the public. For a $6 parking fee (which could have easily been avoided if I had chosen not to be so lazy) I was able to learn about (in no particular order):
- How computer simulations are helping us to test theoretical models of how the universe was formed and where it could be headed
- Only 5% of the universe is made up of matter (WTF, right? 95% of the galaxy is made up of stuff we don’t know anything about)
- Galaxies are “clumpy” and that “clumpiness” depends on dark matter and dark energy in order to form (so, basically that 95% of the universe we don’t understand is doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to galaxy formation)
- WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) which is further proof that physicists are hilarious
- The Dark Energy Survey (2013-2018) which is an attempt to better understand why the expansion of the universe is accelerating, not slowing down despite the amount of mass it contains
- the LSST project which will attempt to map out approximately 10 billion galaxies by imaging half of the sky every 3 nights from 2018-2028
- Oh, and about 10% of me is approx. 13.8 billion years old. Apparently, the hydrogen that helps make humans was made during the first three minutes of the universe. So, if anyone accuses you of being old, throw that juicy fact right back in his or her face.
I’ll admit, some of the lecture material went a little over my head, but overall, Dr. Wechsler was successful at presenting fairly complicated physics concepts to a general audience. If nothing else, I’m confident she was able to inspire many of the audience members to get out there and hit up Google for more information about the relationship between dark matter and the acceleration of the universe or to further explore just what the hell a “clumpy” universe really means. After the lecture Dr. Wechsler graciously answered questions from a typical Cleveland audience – a little surly, sincerely curious, and totally diverse – before we were ushered off to the museum cafeteria for refreshments.
However, there were some of us who could not be lured away from further discovery so easily. Snacks be damned, it was a clear night and Clyde Simpson, the Observatory Coordinator for the museum, was opening up shop for the business of star gazing. If there is anything I must insist that a visitor to the museum has to experience it’s taking a trip up to the Mueller Observatory. Open until 11pm on Wednesday nights from September through May (on the condition of clear skies, of course) the Observatory is a wonderful opportunity for museum visitors to observe astronomical events thanks mostly to Mr. Simpson’s dry humor and his wealth of knowledge about the nighttime sky. Thursday night was no exception as visitors lined up to get a glimpse of the moon through the telescope while Mr. Simpson talked about a range of topics and answered questions about upcoming astronomical events, most notably, the Ison comet.
While getting a closer look at the moon through a telescope built sometime around the end of the 1890’s is nothing to sneeze at, one of the most memorable aspects of the evening was being reminded of just how unpretentious Cleveland is about science. It’s something open and free to everyone, no matter what one’s background, income or education level is. After the museum, folks met up to drink beer and talk about WIMPs and the search for dark matter before delving into a conversation about the finer points of the BBC comedy “Red Dwarf.” All in all, a perfectly geeky way to spend a Thursday night in Cleveland.
Next month’s Frontiers of Astronomy lecture will be all about supernovae, so show up to the museum early to grab a seat and then stay late with GeekCLE as we drink to science at ABC Uptown!
To see more of Dr. Wechsler’s lectures and videos check out her website: http://risa.stanford.edu/outreach.php
To find out more about upcoming lectures and events at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History click here: http://www.cmnh.org/site/CalendarOfEvents.aspx
Heather Tripp isn’t originally from Cleveland, so she’s still getting used to the indoor hours. When she’s not hating on the weather she loves science, heavy metal, whiskey, unicorns, March Madness, comic books, sci-fi & horror TV shows and an excuse to talk about any of those things, but not necessarily all at the same time.