Star Power

Star Power

Do you know what redshift is? Or what a starshade looks like?

If you’d been to Astronomy on Tap in November, you would. The occasional gathering at BAR on Crown Street drew a crowd of more than 100 graduate students, amateur astronomers and curious New Haveners for pizza, beer, prizes and talks by Yale University graduate students in astronomy, complete with plenty of far-out photos, charts, graphs and statistics as well as a few gifs and memes and a Jimmy Buffett song.

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The format of Astronomy on Tap is simple: three informal 20-minute talks on different areas of astronomical research, with 10-minute breaks featuring trivia questions projected onto the presentation screen. At the end, coveted prizes like a custom set of coasters depicting famous telescopes or a coffee table book of space photographs are awarded to those who get the highest scores. Attendees, many of them wearing giveaway glow stick bracelets, pack the bar and the picnic-style tables in BAR’s back room, eventually resorting to folding chairs and standing room. Beer flows freely—a coveted new Astronomy on Tap beer glass debuted at the swag table for $8—and trays of pizza clutter the tables.

The first talk of November’s event was given by sixth-year graduate student Allen Davis, who began with the question, “Do other stars have planets, too?” The answer is a resounding yes. So far, Davis says, more than 4,000 exoplanets—planets outside our solar system—have been discovered in our galaxy alone. In fact, every star in our galaxy is believed to have at least one planet. Davis introduced viewers to the work of TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) and noted one of the stars it has found in our “backyard,” a mere 31 light years away, called Gliese 357, a red dwarf orbited by three known exoplanets including one that could, theoretically, support life. Davis explained the wobble of our sun and how that same kind of wobble in other stars can help scientists measure the mass of their planets. He previewed exciting new telescopes currently being built and explained transit spectroscopy, a tool that helps scientists figure out what kinds of molecules and atoms a planet’s atmosphere is made of. And that was just part of the first talk.

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Imad Pasha, a second-year graduate student, followed Davis with “Fantastic Star Formation and Where to Find It,” looking in particular at other galaxies that appear as mere dots on our photographs of space. Describing galaxies as “factories that turn gas into stars,” Pasha explained the challenges of finding distant stars (hint: measure for UV light) and identified astronomers’ “arch-nemesis,” dust, which hides and distorts them.

While I wasn’t following every word, I was feeling pretty good about getting the gist of Davis’s and Pasha’s talks. Then third-year graduate student Xinyi Chen blew my mind—and, by the look of it, the minds of my tablemates—with a talk on dark energy. The term is essentially a “placeholder,” Chen said, that explains a surprising discovery made in 1998: The expansion of the universe isn’t slowing, as scientists had imagined. It’s actually accelerating. Dark energy is the cause, but, Chen told us, “If you know a little bit about dark energy, you know as much as a physics professor.”

Each talk ended with a brief Q and A. Davis was asked, for example, whether Pluto will be upgraded to planet status again. The answer, he said, is “truly an academic distinction. Where do we want to draw the arbitrary human lines?” Calling Pluto a planet opens the floodgates to including tens of thousands more planets, so Davis casts a no vote for Pluto because, he said, “I like to know all the planets.” Another audience member wanted to know how Pasha got interested in his area of star research. His answer was partly practical—a professor signed him on to her research—and partly emotional. It’s “awe-inspiring,” he told the audience, to work with the biggest telescopes and the biggest questions. The data crunching that goes along with the job is just the day-to-day that earns him the exciting part.

Astronomy on Tap isn’t just a New Haven phenomenon. Founded around 2014 in New York City by then-postdoctoral fellow Meg Schwamb, the geeky gathering now has chapters in cities across America and worldwide. After the latest New Haven talk, I still don’t know what a “hot Jupiter” is, though I heard the term bandied about, nor could I begin to understand the equation Chen projected, the solution to which, she told us, “describes the universe.” I gave up on my trivia answer sheet halfway through.

But I did learn that redshift is, as Chen put it, the “cosmic version of the Doppler effect.” And a starshade is a manmade contraption that unfolds like a gigantic flower in space and shades the light of a star in order for a more accurate observation to be made of its exoplanets by an accompanying telescope. (“It’s rocket science,” Davis quipped.)

It’s hard to imagine such an enthusiastic gathering for something called, for example, Chemistry on Tap, I noted to emcee Malena Rice when we spoke before the event. “I think astronomy is particularly visual, and that probably helps a lot,” she says. “You can put a picture up and can talk about what’s actually happening.”

But there’s more to it. Everyone, Rice says, has seen the stars, and everyone finds them mysterious. In other sciences, talking about something takes away its mystery. “In astronomy,” she says, “the more we learn about it, the more mysterious it seems.”

Astronomy on Tap
BAR – 254 Crown St, New Haven (map)

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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