Public Talks and Courses

I give a wide variety of public talks, to a wide variety of groups and organizations. Below are some of my most requested.

Also, once every year or two, I teach a public-level course, typically consisting of 6 — 7 lectures. These are also listed below, and are usually for members of the local Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, both at Duke University and at North Carolina State University.

I have also given a “last lecture” and a commencement address.

One of Skynet’s original, 16-inch diameter  PROMPT  telescopes at  Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory  in the Chilean Andes.

One of Skynet’s original, 16-inch diameter PROMPT telescopes at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the Chilean Andes.

Public Talk

Observing with Skynet: From Birthing Black Holes to Globally Distributed Robots

I will present Skynet — our growing collection of approximately two dozen fully automated, or robotic, telescopes. Skynet’s visible-light telescopes range in size from 14 to 40 inches, and now span four continents and five countries. We have also recently integrated a 20-meter diameter radio telescope into Skynet.

Originally built to observe the deaths of massive stars and the births of black holes within tens of seconds of notification by NASA spacecraft, Skynet telescopes are now used to study everything from gravitational-wave events to exoplanets, and have made a number of significant discoveries. We are also the leading tracker of near-Earth objects in the southern hemisphere.

Skynet’s mission is evenly split between research and education/public engagement. Funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, our education programs serve students of all ages, and have already served tens of thousands.  Recently, we have been funded to develop astronomical image-analysis software that can also serve blind and visually impaired students.

Skynet/PROMPT/DLT40’s discovery of the first optical counterpart to a gravitational-wave event, caused by the merger of binary neutron stars.

Skynet/PROMPT/DLT40’s discovery of the first optical counterpart to a gravitational-wave event, caused by the merger of binary neutron stars.

Public Talk

Two Ways to Make a Black Hole — And See It!

I will discuss what a black hole is, and two ways to make them. The first is the collapse of a massive star, which sometimes results in a gamma-ray burst (GRB). The second is the merger of binary neutron stars, which results in a burst of gravitational waves and a kilonova (and possibly also a GRB). I will discuss the roles that I have played in locking down both of these physical pictures, including linking GRBs to supernova explosions, and hence to the collapse of massive stars, in 1999; the discovery of the most distant explosion in the universe then known, in 2005; and the discovery of the first optical counterpart (a kilonova) to a gravitational-wave event in 2017. I will also present our plans for discovering more of these, and possibly even measuring Hubble’s Constant in a new way, moving forward.

Public Talk

SETI:  The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence

Drake’s Equation can be used to (gu)estimate the number of intelligent, technologically capable civilizations that are out there, somewhere, in the Galaxy today. However, it is not so much a precision equation as it is an attempt to break a large, nearly-impossible-to-answer question into a handful of smaller, easier-to-manage — but still nearly-impossible-to-answer — questions. Despite this, we will throw caution to the wind, discuss the known knowns and the known unknowns of each of these questions — and then vote. Everyone will get one vote per question, and will submit it using their phones and a custom web interface that we made just for this talk. We will see what the group comes up with, multiply it by the number of galaxies in the (known) universe, and be amazed by the result!

Screenshot from  The Stonehenge Observatory:  A bird's-eye view of Stonehenge's third phase of construction, circa 2000 B.C. The outlying stones, statistically, are the most astronomically significant.

Screenshot from The Stonehenge Observatory: A bird's-eye view of Stonehenge's third phase of construction, circa 2000 B.C. The outlying stones, statistically, are the most astronomically significant.

Public Talk

The Stonehenge Observatory

Using a three-dimensional computer recreation of Stonehenge, we will explore the site's astronomical properties, primarily by inserting ourselves into the simulation and watching solar and lunar alignments in real time, as they occurred thousands of years ago. The program recreates all three major phases of Stonehenge's construction based on archaeological records, and the sun and moon simulations take into account atmospheric refraction, the gradually changing tilt of Earth's axis, and the sun's gravitational tug on the moon to ensure the utmost in accuracy.

More information about The Stonehenge Observatory can be found here.

Public Talk

Discovery and Exploration of the Solar System

From five naked-eye planets and an occasional comet, to all of the planets, dwarf planets, trans-Neptunian objects, Centaurs, and asteroids that we know about today, the past 400+ years have been quite a ride!  Century by century, I’ll hit the highlights of humanity's discovery of the rest of the solar system, including a peek at the best-of-the-best telescopes from each era.  We’ll also spend some time discussing the very human endeavor of categorization:  planet vs. dwarf planet (and does it really even matter).  In particular, we’ll talk about that former planet/current dwarf planet that we all know and love:  Ceres!

Oh, and Pluto too ;)  

The 140-foot diameter radio telescope at  Green Bank Observatory , caught during a rare receiver change. Built in the 1960s, the 140-foot is still in use today.

The 140-foot diameter radio telescope at Green Bank Observatory, caught during a rare receiver change. Built in the 1960s, the 140-foot is still in use today.

Public Talk

Radio Eyes: A Tour of the Invisible Universe

I will give a brief history of radio astronomy, with an emphasis on the larger and larger and larger telescopes that have been built over the years. We will then take a brief tour of the invisible universe, examining pictures of familiar objects that these telescopes have taken at radio wavelengths, and comparing them to what they look like at visible wavelengths.

Public Talk

Stardeath… White Dwarfs… Neutron Stars… Black Holes…

Our sun is middle aged — it is about 5 billion years old, and has another 5 billion years before it will die. But why will it die, and what will happen when it does? What happens to other, more massive stars when they die? I will present the three endpoints of single-star stellar evolution — white dwarfs, neutrons stars, and black holes — and how they come about.

The Big Bang was not an explosion  in  space, but rather an explosion  of  space.

The Big Bang was not an explosion in space, but rather an explosion of space.

Public Course

The Big Bang: Cosmology and the Early Universe

Although called a “theory”, the Big Bang theory is now supported by a wealth of observational evidence.  We will work our way through the theory, its predictions, and the observational evidence to date.  In the process, we will talk about Hubble's law, the age and fate of the universe, dark matter, and dark energy.  We will also talk about the first few minutes, seconds, and very small fractions of a second after the Big Bang, and how the physical conditions of the universe changed as it expanded and cooled.

PuBlic Course

The Planets

The latter part of the 20th century began the great era of robotic exploration of the solar system, which has not abated to this day.  We got up close and personal with planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and other worlds for the very first time.  Some worlds we flew by.  Others we entered long-term orbit around.  Yet others we landed on, and oven roved over.  Each turned out to be unique, and expectations defying.  How could one solar system produce so varied a collection of worlds?  I will lead the class through a tour of the solar system, and a dissection of each of its major worlds — with the goal of explaining their stark differences with but a few underlying, physical concepts.