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Lectures @ Dyer

Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory hosts annual Seyfert lectures in honor of the late Dr. Carl Seyfert, renowned galactic astronomer and the “father” and first director of Dyer Observatory. In addition, Dyer Observatory holds lectures for special events as well as visiting astronomers. Below are just a few of the many lectures we have held over the years:

March 2018 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Mike Lund

The first planets around other stars were discovered just over 20 years ago. Since then, a trickle of new planets has erupted into a cascade, with almost 3000 planets now known around other stars. With the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT), Vanderbilt University has been active in the search for exoplanets that periodically transit in front of the stars they orbit, causing a tell-tale dimming of starlight. In the last few years, the KELT team has discovered planets in systems with some of the hottest stars known to host planets, and in turn, some of the hottest planets that have ever been discovered. These planets around relatively bright stars are now some of the best candidates for additional observations that will provide insight into what the atmospheres are like for planets beyond our Solar System.


November 2017 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Billy Teets

Winter often provides Tennesseans with some of the best sky-viewing conditions, and the winter sky obliges with a plethora of bright and interesting objects. This time of year also brings the holiday season, when we are often asked what telescope would be a great gift for the budding astronomer, especially if on a budget. This talk tackles both of these topics as we start out with a short discussion of telescope, viewing aids, and accessory recommendations. Then, some of the prime wintertime objects that one may view with a backyard telescope are discussed, including how to find the objects and a bit of background information pertaining to each.


August 2017 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Billy Teets

The total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, was the first total solar eclipse visible across the United States for nearly a century. The average person will get a few chances in a lifetime to see a partial solar eclipse, but the opportunity to observe a total solar eclipse is, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness one of the most awe-inspiring sights of nature. This talk covers the basics of eclipse mechanics, how to safely observe a solar eclipse, what one could expect to see, and information specific to the August 21, 2017 event.


July 2017 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Billy Teets

The total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, was the first total solar eclipse visible across the United States for nearly a century. The average person will get a few chances in a lifetime to see a partial solar eclipse, but the opportunity to observe a total solar eclipse is, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness one of the most awe-inspiring sights of nature. This talk covers the basics of eclipse mechanics, how to safely observe a solar eclipse, what one could expect to see, and information specific to the August 21, 2017 event.


May 2017 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Susan Stewart

As navigation methods have advanced, the practice of celestial navigation has largely been overshadowed by the use of GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems, aka GPS). However, celestial navigation is still quite relevant, as the rising threat of cyber warfare and the proliferation of cheap but powerful “jammers” have raised concerns that satellite navigational methods may be compromised. Because of this, celestial navigation remains tremendously important as a reliable independent system.

In this engaging talk, Dr. Stewart illustrates the increased need for precise stellar positions in the development of new technology. She also discusses the vulnerabilities of GNSS, and outlines both the principles and techniques of celestial navigation. The vital need for celestial navigation instruction, and Vanderbilt’s role in developing an online learning module for assisting in this effort, are also presented.


April 2017 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Bob Scherrer

Over the past three decades, cosmologists have made remarkable strides in understanding what the universe is made of, and it’s weirder than we could possibly have imagined. The observational evidence points to a universe that is roughly 5% ordinary matter, 25% dark matter, and 70% dark energy. The dark matter binds galaxies and clusters of galaxies together, while the dark energy exerts repulsive gravity, driving the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe.

During this talk, Dr. Robert Scherrer, former Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics & Astronomy of Vanderbilt University, discusses the evidence for dark matter and dark energy, the properties of each, and ongoing searches to discover the particle comprising the dark matter and to pin down the exact nature of dark energy.


March 2017 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Keivan Stassun

NASA’s recently completed Kepler mission has uncovered thousands of distant solar systems, the vast majority of which contain “gas giant” planets like our Jupiter and Saturn. Now astronomers are redirecting the quest toward the discovery of solar systems with planets most like our own terrestrial home.

The NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, to be launched in 2018, will survey the brightest stars across the entire sky searching for “Earth 2.0,” those Earth-like planets orbiting relatively nearby stars and whose atmospheres could be probed for signs of habitability by the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

During this talk, Dr. Keivan Stassun, Vanderbilt University Harvie Branscomb Distinguished Professor of Physics & Astronomy and Adjunct Professor of Physics at Fisk University, summarizes the promise of the TESS mission for detecting other worlds like our own and identifying other places in the universe where life just might be possible.


November 2016 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Jedidah Isler

Blazars are supermassive, hyperactive black holes that reside at the centers of certain massive galaxies. These extremely active black holes interact with the environment around them to produce highly accelerated particle streams, called jets, from very nearby the black holes themselves. The process by which these particles are accelerated is still a very active area of research and Dr. Isler discusses the most recent findings while learning more about some of Nature’s most powerful particle accelerators.


September 2016 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Jonathan Bird

Where did you come from? Many of the atoms that make up our bodies were created by stars billions of years ago. We are literally made of star dust. Whether or not you have heard this story, Dr. Bird’s talk  provides new insight into how astrophysicists *know* this to be true. He discusses scientific results covering a variety of fields: cosmology and the shape of the Universe, gravity and general relativity, the structure of the nucleus and atomic physics, nuclear reactions in stars, and much more. By the end of the talk, you will be able to convince your friends and family one of the most beautiful lessons our exploration of the Universe has taught us: we are all made from stars.


August 2016 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Bob O’Dell

Stars are forming continuously from giant clouds of gas molecules in our Milky Way Galaxy. Fortunately, one of these regions is nearby and has created the Orion Nebula, which is visible with even small binoculars. Thousands of stars have recently formed there, with the oldest about three million years old and the youngest about the same age as us, homo sapiens. The advent of the Hubble Space Telescope has allowed us for the first time to see the disk and jets that seem to be necessary to allow the formation of stars and that are the building blocks from which planetary systems may be forming. Dr. Bob O’Dell, Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, explains one facet of how we came to be.

Note: Audio quality improves after first 30 seconds.


June 2016 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Andreas Berlind

If you go to the NASA Science Astrophysics site, their explanation of dark matter begins with, “We are much more certain what dark matter is not, rather than what it is.” Dr. Andreas Berlind, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Astrophysics at Vanderbilt University, discuss what is actually known now about dark matter, the challenges of researching dark matter, and what we hope to learn from new and future discoveries.


May 2016 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. David Weintraub

Over ten years ago NASA launched the New Horizons mission to Pluto.  After traveling three billion miles through our solar system, New Horizons finally reached the Pluto system in July 2015 for a quick close encounter, taking as many images and measurements as possible while it flew past the frigid system.  As New Horizons continues to move on towards the next target, it continues sending back data, and mission scientists continue to be awestruck by all of the new results that are still coming in on a daily basis.

During this talk, Dr. David Weintraub, Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Program in the Communication of Science and Techonology at Vanderbilt University, discusses some of the science results that have come about thus far from the New Horizons data.


April 2016 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Keivan Stassun

NASA’s recently completed Kepler mission has uncovered thousands of distant solar systems, the vast majority of which contain “gas giant” planets like our Jupiter and Saturn. Now astronomers are redirecting the quest toward the discovery of solar systems with planets most like our own terrestrial home. The NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, to be launched in 2017, will survey the brightest stars across the entire sky searching for “Earth 2.0,” those Earth-like planets orbiting relatively nearby stars and whose atmospheres could be probed for signs of habitability by the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. Dr. Keivan Stassun, Vanderbilt University Harvie Branscomb Distinguished Professor of Physics & Astronomy and Adjunct Professor of Physics at Fisk University, summarized the promise of the TESS mission for detecting other worlds like our own and identifying other places in the universe where life just might be possible.


March 2016 “Meet the Astronomer” – Dr. Kelly Holley-Bockelmann

In February 2016, a team of scientists from around the world announced that they had recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, fulfilling the last prediction of Einstein’s 100-year-old General Theory of Relativity. The resulting gravitational waves, with power 50 times greater than the output of all the stars in the universe combined, were picked up by two highly-specialized giant antennae in Washington State and Louisiana known as LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). Dr. Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, Associate Professor of Astrophysics at Vanderbilt University and Adjunct Professor of Physics at Fisk University, gave a lively presentation on gravitational waves for non-experts. In the talk, she discussed gravitational waves, how they were observed, played audio of what was actually detected, and then answered audience questions.

In addition, Dr. Holley-Bockelmann also gave a TEDx talk on the subject, which can be viewed here.


The Thirty Meter Telescope:  What, Why, & How – Dr. Warren Skidmore

On November 20, 2015, Dr. Warren Skidmore spoke about the construction, the scientific questions that drive the creation of a giant telescope, how the observatory is designed to support a range of scientific studies, and the engineering solutions that have been developed to overcome the problems of constructing a giant diffraction-limited observatory.


25th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope Launch – Dr. C. R. O’Dell

The Making of the Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble’s Universe

Dr. C. R. O’Dell of Vanderbilt University, who was not only instrumental in the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope but also some of the science that was carried out with it, gave two lectures in April of 2015 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the orbiting observatory’s launch. The first lecture detailed the creation of the telescope from the early design concepts to the last servicing mission in 2009. The second lecture described just a few of the innumerable scientific discoveries made possible by the sharp vision of the Hubble Space Telescope.


Religion and Extra-Terrestrial Life – Dr. David Weintraub

Astronomers have now discovered thousands of planets in orbit around other stars. I will briefly describe those discoveries and predict the progress astronomers are likely to make in their studies of these planets over the next fifty years, as we begin to study these planets in detail, looking for evidence for the presence or absence of life. Then we will consider some of the consequences of those potential discoveries. Specifically, if astronomers develop convincing evidence that life exists beyond the Earth, how will that discovery impact terrestrial religions and our understanding of our place in the universe? Are any of humanities’ religions universal, or does a particular religion only make sense for earthlings?? Would Roman Catholicism or Judaism or Islam or Mormonism or Buddhism work or make sense on another planet? Could a Klingon be a Southern Baptist?


Searching for New Physics with the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope – Dr. Peter Michelson

Dr. Peter Michelson, professor of Physics at Stanford University, California, and the Principal Investigator for the Large Area Telescope (LAT)on the Fermi spacecraft, spoke about the search for dark matter and gravitational radiation through the use of neutron stars and pulsars in April 2014.


Hot on the Trail of Warm Planets Around Cool Stars – Dr. John Johnson

In 2013 Dr. John Johnson of the California Institute of Technology spoke about how just three years prior the prospect of finding temperate, rocky worlds around other stars was still the subject of science fiction until the extraordinary success of NASA’s Kepler mission changed all of that.


Catching Shadows: Kepler’s Quest for New Worlds – Dr. Natalie Batalha

For the 2012 Seyfert Lecture, Dr. Natalie Batahla, professor of physics and astronomy at San Jose State University and the Science Team Lead of NASA’s Kepler Mission, discussed NASA’s Kepler mission and some of the exciting results that have come out of its detection of over 2,000 possible planets as well as details of some of its confirmed exoplanet discoveries.


How Old is the Universe? – Dr. David Weintraub presents the topic of his new book

The age of our universe poses a deceptively simple question, and its answer carries profound implications for science, religion, and philosophy. David Weintraub traces the centuries-old quest by astronomers to fathom the secrets of the nighttime sky. Describing the achievements of the visionaries whose discoveries collectively unveiled a fundamental mystery, he shows how many independent lines of inquiry and much painstakingly gathered evidence, when fitted together like pieces in a cosmic puzzle, led to the long-sought answer. Astronomers don’t believe the universe is 13.7 billion years old–they know it. You will too after reading this book. By focusing on one of the most crucial questions about the universe and challenging readers to understand the answer, Weintraub familiarizes readers with the ideas and phenomena at the heart of modern astronomy, including red giants and white dwarfs, cepheid variable stars and supernovae, clusters of galaxies, gravitational lensing, dark matter, dark energy and the accelerating universe–and much more. Offering a unique historical approach to astronomy, How Old Is the Universe? sheds light on the inner workings of scientific inquiry and reveals how astronomers grapple with deep questions about the physical nature of our universe.


Endless Universe – Dr. Paul Steinhardt

Dr. Paul Steinhardt, the Albert Einstein Professor in Science and director of the Princeton Center for Theoretical Science at Princeton University, gave the 2011 Seyfert Lecture on the topic of the “endless universe,” which introduced an alternative to the standard Big Bang model and challenged conventional ideas about space, time and the evolution of the Universe. Known as the “cyclic universe,” this theory proposes that space and time had no beginning and that the Big Bang is actually an event that has repeated at regular intervals. Included is a discussion of how the cyclic theory may be distinguished from the standard Big Bang picture through experiments being mounted over the next few years.


Primordial Ice Reservoirs of the Solar System – Dr. David Jewitt

In March 2010, Dr. David Jewitt, professor of astronomy in the Earth, Planetary, and Space Science Department of UCLA and principal investigator of the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program, discussed our current knowledge (and lack thereof) of the primordial ice reservoirs of the solar system. He also emphasized links to the formation epoch and connections between the origin of the oceans and atmosphere and of the thermal evolution of asteroids and comets.


Patterns on the Pampa: Secrets of the Nazca Lines – Dr. Anthony Aveni

The Nazca Lines are an enigma. The strange geometric shapes and animals carved into the land were first spotted in the Peruvian desert south of Lima in the 1930s when commercial airlines began flying over them.  No one has proof who built them or why. Since their discovery, the Nazca Lines have inspired fantastic explanations ranging from monuments honoring ancient gods to a landing strip for alien spacecraft to a celestial calendar created by the ancient Nazca civilization. Anthony Aveni, the Russell Colgate Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology at Colgate University and a pioneer in the field of archaeoastronomy, particularly the astronomical history of Latin America, presents an illustrated lecture about the Nazca Lines, reviews a number of seemingly diverse hypotheses relating to the origins of the Nazca lines, and puts them to the test by the examination of relevant evidence derived from remains in the area.


Are We Alone? – Dr. Jill Tarter

SETI is an attempt to detect evidence of another distant technology. If we find such evidence, we will infer the existence of intelligent technologists.  In addition to looking for radio signals, we’ve recently begun looking for very short optical pulses as well. As our own technology matures, we may try other means of searching, and we will certainly improve upon the searches that we are already conducting. Guiseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison ended their 1959 seminal paper on SETI with the statement, “The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the chance of success is zero.”  This remains true today.


The Big Deal About Galileo – Dr. David Weintraub

Galileo looked through a telescope for the first time over 400 years ago. The global “100 Hours of Astronomy Cornerstone Project” of 2009 hoped to have as many people as possible look through a telescope from April 2, 2009 to April 5, 2009 as Galileo once did. Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory participated in the project by offering people a chance to view the stars on Saturday, April 4, 2009.

Before viewing through Dyer Observatory’s Seyfert Telescope, Dr. David Weintraub, professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University, led a discussion about Galileo Galilei including his scientific accomplishments and the trouble he got into as a result of his work.


Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet – Dr. Steve Squyres

Steve Squyres, lead scientist of the Mars Exploration Mission, talks about his passion for the red planet and the amazing journey to build and launch the rovers. As principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Project, one of NASA‘s most successful programs, Squyres is responsible for all of the scientific activities of the twin robots Opportunity and Spirit.  Squyres, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University, also discusses the possibility of water on Mars and the study of its geology, what it’s like to live on “Mars time,” and the ups and downs of the project.