From white dwarves to dark matter: 75 years of discovery at McDonald Observatory

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you from Rebecca Johnson, Editor of the StarDate Magazine at the McDonald Observatory.

A year-long celebration is underway to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory, with the first event of 2014 being held at HMNS on Tues., Jan. 14 with a public lecture by Dr. Jon Winget.

McDonald Observatory 1

Photo credit: Sandia National Laboratories

Dubbed “impossible stars,” white dwarfs are the simplest stars with the simplest surface chemical compositions known — yet they are very mysterious. The McDonald Observatory leads in investigating white dwarfs along several avenues: telescope observations, theory, and most recently, the making of “star stuff,” using the most powerful X-ray source on Earth at Sandia National Laboratory.

Dr. Don Winget, one of the world’s leading experts on white dwarfs, will give a Distinguished Lecture at HMNS to examine the how studies of these stars can shed light on everything from the age of the universe to the understanding of dark matter and dark energy.

White dwarves are often difficult to locate due to the larger, brighter stars they are paired with

Located near Fort Davis, Texas, under the darkest night skies of any professional observatory in the continental United States, McDonald Observatory  hosts multiple telescopes undertaking a wide range of astronomical research. McDonald is home to the consortium-run Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), one of the world’s largest, which is being upgraded to begin the HET Dark Energy Experiment. An internationally known leader in astronomy education and outreach, McDonald Observatory is also pioneering the next generation of astronomical research as a founding partner of the Giant Magellan Telescope. The McDonald Observatory was dedicated May 5, 1939, and has supported some of the most important astronomical discoveries of recent decades about everything from extrasolar planets to exotic stars and black holes.

The Observatory plans a full year of activities around the state to celebrate. Events will run through August 2014, including a lecture series featuring McDonald Observatory astronomers in multiple cities and an Open House at the Observatory.

The celebration continues at the observatory’s website. Visitors to the anniversary pages can peruse a timeline of observatory history, watch several historical videos, and share their memories and photos of McDonald on an interactive blog called “Share Your Story.”

McDonald Observatory 2
(And while we’re at it, don’t forget about our own George Observatory‘s anniversary this year as well — 25 years of showcasing the night sky to the Greater Houston area!)

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
Date: Tues., Jan. 14, 6:30 p.m.
Topic: “Small Stars in a Large Context: All Things White Dwarf”
Speaker: Don Winget, Ph.D.
Where: HMNS Wortham Giant Screen Theater
How: Click here for advance tickets

Sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory in celebration of their 75th anniversary, with a pre-lecture reception at 5 p.m.

 

Distinguished Lecture: Merge art and science in an exclusive Giant Screen showing of Chasing Ice

The Extreme Ice Survey merges art and science to give a “visual voice” to Earth’s changing ecosystems. Extreme Ice Survey imagery preserves a visual legacy, providing a unique baseline — useful in years, decades and even centuries to come — for revealing how climate change and other human activity impacts our air, water, forests and wildlife.

Chasing IceEIS field assistant Adam LeWinter on NE rim of Birthday Canyon, atop feature called “Moab.” Greenland Ice Sheet, July 2009. Black deposit in bottom of channel is cryoconite. Birthday Canyon is approximately 150 feet deep.

One aspect of Extreme Ice Survey’s work is a portfolio of single-frame photographs celebrating the beauty, art and architecture of ice. The other aspect of the survey is time-lapse photography. Currently, 27 cameras are deployed at 18 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, the Nepalese Himalaya at Mount Everest, Alaska and the U.S. Rocky Mountains. These cameras record changes in the glaciers every half hour of daylight year round, yielding approximately 8,500 frames per camera per year. The time-lapse images are then edited into stunning videos that reveal how fast climate change is transforming large regions of the planet.

You can witness the hauntingly beautiful videos that compress years into seconds and capture ancient mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at a breathtaking rate in the film Chasing Ice. The vivid images of the majestic ice caps slowly melting away are set to an Academy-Award nominated soundtrack featuring Scarlett Johansson.

Chasing IceLeWinter ice climbing in Survey Canyon, Greenland

Chasing Ice features geologist, mountaineer and award-winning photographer James Balog, who is director of the Extreme Ice Survey and founder of Earth Vision Trust.

Join oceanography and climate change researcher Dr. John B. Anderson of Rice University for a one-night-only screening of Chasing Ice at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on June 18 at 6:30 p.m. This is the only digital, giant-screen showing of Chasing Ice in Houston.

WHAT: HMNS Film Screening of Chasing Ice
WHEN: Tuesday, June 18, 6:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: Tickets $18, HMNS Members $12

Click here for advance tickets.

Unravel the coldest case on record: Talk Otzi the Iceman in a Distinguished Lecture on May 14

“Otzi the Iceman,” a 5,300-year-old Copper Age/Neolithic man, was found in 1991 preserved in the Similaun Pass of the Otztal Alps at 10,500 feet between Italy and Austria. Since the discovery, extensive ongoing scientific investigations indicate that he is unique because “Otzi” is practically an archaeological site in himself.

Unlike any other human remains of this age discovered to date, nearly every bit of Otzi is preserved, including his clothing, tools, gear, weapons — even his last meals. Amazing forensic science has recovered many details about his life through the material technology he carried, including a rare and precious copper axe, and vital medical and bioarchaeological data. This includes his DNA and a full genome record, where he lived in the prehistoric Val Senales, and reconstructions and possible scenarios of how he was killed.

Not only did Otzi treat his own parasites, showing prehistoric human medicine, but he used and carried more than 10 different tree and plant products that survived in his glacial context. Even his weapons demonstrate early archery using spiraling arrows, suggesting prehistoric knowledge of aerodynamic stabilizing technology. For those fascinated with forensic and C.S.I. investigation, Otzi may be the “coldest case” on record.

Dr. Patrick Hunt of the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project has studied Otzi’s tools and paleobotanical specimens in Bolzano, Italy, where Otzi resides frozen, as well as in the Otztal Alps where he lived and was found.

Meet Dr. Hunt at a Distinguished Lecture at HMNS on May 14.  This lecture is co-sponsored by Archaeological Institute of America – Houston Society with support of Applied Diagnostics and Dr. and Mrs. Arthur Bracey.

What: Distinguished Lecture: “Frozen in Time – The Story of Otzi the Iceman”
When: Tuesday, May 14, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Houston Museum of Natural Science main campus
How Much: $12 for members, $18 for general public. Tickets available here.

How mammals became mommies: Learn about the evolution of mothering over 200 million years in this Distinguished Lecture

My mom is a wonderful person. Most people think the same of their own mothers and, at least in my case, it’s true. She is always supportive, she let me win at board games (at least until I was an adult — now she shows no mercy), and she made sure I was able to visit museums and go watch Shakespeare plays.

When we think about mothering, certain preconceptions come to mind. We might think of an SUV full of kids being taken to and from different events. We might think of a working woman coming home from the office, or even a mother at home with a newborn. Would it surprise you to know that the idea of motherhood has changed over time?

via zooborns.comVia the cute-collectors over at zooborns.com

There are two stereotypes currently dominating the idea of the ideal mother: soccer moms and supermoms. Soccer (or hockey, basketball, or other hobby-supporting) moms have a large vehicle full of kids and equipment and they go from plays and practices to games and recitals. There is also the supermom, who works 60 hours a week and still has another 40 for her kids.

In the ’70s we were introduced to child-rearing experts. They gave us the latest and greatest that science had to offer. Dr. Spock was a predominate example. This came as a reaction to the mother-knows-best attitude of the early 20th century, which, in itself, was a response to patriarchal child raising, where the mother deferred to the father to make sure her “womanly disposition” didn’t damage the child.

In early centuries, a well-to-do woman would not lower herself to raise a child — such tasks were for the help while a lady went to dinner parties. And throughout the Dark Ages, a child was thought of as a little demon who had to be restrained until they were able to behave.

In ancient Rome, being a mother raised your social capital and marked a closer tie to your husband’s family and distancing of your own. (But if you could afford it, you’d have someone else raise the kid.)

The Greeks had a yearly celebration for mothers. It was a spring festival dedicated to the goddess Rhea. Mothers in Ancient Egypt were also well-regarded — several mothers of pharaoh were the real power behind the throne.

But is mothering confined to human culture? Do other animals do it? Chimpanzees have the longest childhood of the animal kingdom. A baby can stay with its mother for up to seven years. Elephants, which have the longest pregnancy at 22 months and some of the largest babies at 250 lbs, use the herd to help raise a baby, with the other females working together as babysitters.

And motherhood is not confined to mammals.The alligator is noted as a caring mother.  The temperature of the nest determines whether the babies will be boys or girls, so the alligator knows in advance what color onesies to get. After hatching, the mother will carry her babies around in her mouth and protect them from other animals.

A mother octopus will spend months hovering around her 50,000 to 2,000,000 eggs to protect them from predators and to make sure enough water goes by to provide enough oxygen. During that time, she’ll not leave the eggs even to get food and resorts to ingesting an arm or two. We should at least give her a hand.

Earwigs, one of my least favorite insects, are also caring mothers. Instead of just laying her eggs and leaving, she will hang around and keep her eggs warm and fungus-free. She will stay for months after they hatch and continue to provide safety and substance.

If mammals, reptiles, and even insects mother, what part of mothering is cultural? Is it a genetic need to make sure that our progeny survive? Which parts are nature and which nurture? Join us on April 2 at 6:30 p.m. and hear Dr. Robert Martin from The Field Museum talk about the evolution of mothering.

WHAT: HMNS Distinguished Lecture, “Evolution of Mothering: The Natural Heritage from our Deep Mammalian Past”
WHO: Robert Martin, Ph.D., Field Museum
WHEN: Tuesday, April 2, 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: HMNS Main, 5555 Hermann Park Dr., Houston, TX 77030
HOW MUCH: $18

Sponsored by The Leakey Foundation 

Mammals, whose name comes from the Latin “mamma” for teat, are defined by suckling. Mothering began 200 million years ago with the first mammals and developed to become a hallmark of ancestral primates. Taking evidence from anthropology, archaeology and genetics, this presentation reviews the long evolutionary trajectory of human mothering. Reconstructing that history throws light on the natural basis for our own maternal behavior and highlights sources of problems encountered by modern mothers.

via the Leakey Foundation

Dr. Robert Martin is curator of biological anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago. He has devoted his career to exploring the evolutionary tree of primates, as summarized in his 1990 textbook Primate Origins. Dr. Martin is particularly interested in reproductive biology and the brain, because these systems have been of special importance in primate evolution. His research is based on broad comparisons across primates, covering reproduction, anatomy, behavior, paleontology and molecular evolution. The Leakey Foundation Lecture Series is sponsored nationally by Wells Fargo Bank and locally by The Brown Foundation, Inc.

Watch Dr. Martin speak about his work and experience as a biological anthropologist below: