Series will take attendees to the stars

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Like many things worth observing in astronomy, the University of Oklahoma is bringing back a lecture series that seemed to dazzle the last time around.

After nine years, the OU Homer L. Dodge Department of Physics and Astronomy — and a host of other sponsors — is bringing back “Postcards from the Universe.” On a selected Thursday each month, a lecture will be hosted at 7 p.m. at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, given by a member of OU’s faculty or an invited guest speaker.

The topics will include everything from amateur astronomy, to the search for Earth-like planets, and even a more topical subject like gravitational waves. In fact, the constantly changing aspect of the subjects makes talking about them more fun, assistant professor John Wisniewski said.

“I can guarantee you that almost all of these talks are not written,” Wisniewski said.

But the decision to bring the year-long lecture series back for another go around had as much to do with the popularity of it as it did with new topics to discuss. Professor emeritus Richard Henry said he recalls packed houses for the 2009 series.

“Tickets are free, but yeah, we had pretty much standing-room-only crowds the whole time,” Henry said. “It just takes a little bit of effort to get the word out and people show up. There’s really a solid audience in Norman for this stuff. You just have to bring them out.”

The series opens Jan. 25 with the lecture “Historic Star Atlas Stories,” presented by Dr. Kerry Magruder and Brent Purkaple from OU. They will discuss how the night sky as we know it today didn’t always look the same, and in the distant future, it will change even more.

In March, the series turns to the more recent topic of gravitational waves. The merger of two massive binary stars within the last year presented an opportunity for astronomers to observe this phenomenon for the first time.

“Gravitational waves were detected for the first time,” Henry said. “Gravitational waves were predicted by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. This is the first time they were detected, so it’s taken over a century to prove this prediction.”

Wisniewski said it offered a “new diagnostic” to astronomy, giving them a new way to measure the universe and its secrets. And it’s only the beginning.

For instance, the Nov. 15 lecture is on the James Webb Telescope that will continue the efforts of the famous Hubble Telescope and take them farther. The Webb can see farther, and it is capable of using infrared light to see into the universe’s past.

“So it’ll be able to look farther, but for cosmology, it’ll be able to look farther back in time,” Wisniewski said.

In his own lecture in the next month, Wisniewski will cover “The Search for Habitable Planets.” When the field was born about 18 years ago, there were zero known planets beyond our own solar system.

Now, Wisniewski said, there are about 3,000, and a new telescope, TESS, will help grow that number. A fraction of them will be in an area known as the habitable zone, a goldilocks spot around a star where the temperature is just right for liquid water to be present.

These planets would be, theoretically, habitable for life as we know it.

And the astronomy doesn’t end with the lectures. After each discussion, the Lunar Sooners and students of Eileen Grzybowski, Norman North astronomy teacher, will host “Star Parties” in the north parking lot of Sam Noble.

Telescopes will be available and set to planets or viewable star clusters, weather permitting. Lunar Sooners already host regular Star Parties each Wednesday throughout the fall and spring semesters.

The lecture series is attended by those of all ages, but adults who are already out of school seem the most eager to learn more about the sky, Henry said.

“I can tell you from 2009, it’s the adults who show up,” Henry said. “It’s people who are already out earning a living, kids in school and stuff like that. We do get some participation from high school students, because their physics/astronomy teacher gives them extra credit or tells them about it and encourages them to go. We do get some OU students, of course.”

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