Looking to the stars

As part of the annual Simons Observatory Collaboration conference, Penn held a Community Astronomy Night in David Rittenhouse laboratory that included a panel, a mixer with astronomers, and stargazing. Credit: Eric Sucar 

On June 18, the annual Simons Observatory Collaboration Meetings kicked off at the University of Pennsylvania. The meetings bring together teams of scientists from universities around the world that are working to build an observatory in the Atacama Desert in Chile that could help astronomers and physicists piece together the evolution of the universe. 

As part of the conference, the university held a Community Astronomy Night in David Rittenhouse laboratory that included a panel, a mixer with astronomers, and stargazing.

“The whole idea,” says Simon Dicker, a research associate and lecturer in Penn’s Department of Physics and Astronomy who helped organize the event, “is that while astrophysicists are in town for the conference, we can make use of their expertise for a public event. It’s really to let people know what we do here, give them a chance to look through a telescope, and allow them to see what being an astronomer is actually like.”

The panel, moderated by Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, included astrophysicists Jo Dunkley of Princeton University, Katherine Freese of the University of Michigan, and Brian Keating of the University of California San Diego. After discussing what it’s like to be an astronomer, the panelists fielded questions from the audience about topics such as what to consider when deciding where to go to college, the nature of gravity, and what might have existed in the moments before the big bang.

The panel, moderated by Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, included astrophysicists Katherine Freese of the University of Michigan, Jo Dunkley of Princeton University, and Brian Keating of the University of California San Diego (right to left). 

“One purpose of the event,” says Jane Horwitz, director of Penn’s Science Outreach Initiative, “is to reach the immediate community to let them know about the astronomical research happening here at Penn. The second purpose is to put together a program where kids can get some access to astronomers and physicists and learn about careers in the field.”

Following the panel, the lobby of David Rittenhouse Laboratory filled with members of the public, who had the opportunity to participate in book signings with the panelists as well as see hands-on demonstrations involving Play-Doh planets and models of gravitational lensing, a phenomenon in which a massive object distorts the web of space time surrounding it, bending and magnifying light from other objects behind it. 

During the mixer, the panelists held a book signing. Here, Keating signs a copy of his book Losing the Nobel Prize.

Outside the building, on Shoemaker Green, there were two small optical telescopes set up that people could stargaze through. Clear night skies made it possible for people to see Jupiter and its moons through the telescopes.

Outside the building, on Shoemaker Green, there were two small optical telescopes set up that people could stargaze through. 

The annual meeting that this event is part of brings together the collaborators, which hail from nearly 40 institutions across the world, to go over the collaboration’s basic scientific goals and figure out things like how to optimize the resources they've been given to make the required measurements and how they will build the telescope, cameras, and other instrumentation. The goal of the Simons Observatory, is to build an observatory to study the cosmic microwave background and learn about the evolution of the universe, from the very first instant out to the present day. 

“The general idea is that if you can find out how the universe evolved, then you can use your models of the universe to understand the physical parameters which govern the universe,” says Penn physics professor Mark Devlin, who is the current spokesperson for the collaboration. “In order to understand how things like gravity, dark energy, and dark matter work, you need to have a really deep understanding of how the universe works over time. We’re basically measuring the energy scale of the birth of the universe, and that’s pretty cool.”

In order to achieve this understanding, Devlin says, it’s necessary to be able to build telescopes with as many detectors as possible.

“When I was in grad school, we would build maybe one to five detectors per instrument,” he says. “Currently, we’re able to build up to 10 thousand, but we need to graduate up to half a million. The Simons Observatory, the biggest effort to date concentrated on making this happen, is one step in that direction.”

The meetings bring together a large number of astronomers and physicists who are skilled at communicating with the public about science, which is how the idea to put together the community star party came about. In addition to benefitting the public, providing astronomy enthusiasts with an opportunity to mingle with astronomers who spend their days investigating questions about the universe, the meeting also benefits the younger scientists involved in the collaboration.

“In this collaboration,” says Devlin, “there’s a whole range of participation from undergraduates all the way up to more senior people like me. We make a pretty serious effort to make sure there’s a lot of development of the younger scientists in the group. Going to the star parties is good for them to get used to communicating what they do to other people. The overall purpose of the meetings is to really educate everybody so different teams know what each other are doing and if someone has a question we can facilitate that communication across the entire planet.”