posted on Oct. 4: Astronomer Beckwith brings the universe to McMaster


[img_inline align=”right” src=”” caption=”Steven Beckwith”]A painting, a poem and the universe: that's what American astronomer Steven Beckwith brought to an overflow audience in the Health Sciences Centre last evening during the first of this year's two Whidden Lectures, given under the whimsical title Rocket Science and Little Green Men: The Universe from Orbit.

Last night's talk by Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute and professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., was called Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?

In his second lecture tonight, called Looking for Life in the Galaxy, he will discuss new space technologies that will allow us to search for signs of life on planets orbiting other stars. The lecture will take place in HSC-1A1 at 8 p.m.

Last night, Beckwith discussed how scientists from Galileo to American astronomer Edwin Hubble to modern researchers have observed the night sky and developed ideas to explain an enduring mystery: the origins and continued unfolding of our universe.

Against an opening slide backdrop of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, he said, “Asking where we came from and where we're going is a deep-rooted notion in people.”

It was Hubble who first got an inkling not just of the size of the universe but of its continual expansion, an observation that underpins the Big Bang theory of the universe's origins. “This was a really remarkable discovery,” Beckwith said, pointing out that Hubble's work in the 1920s still guides much of modern astronomy.

Perhaps no more visible proof of that lies in the Hubble space telescope. Launched in 1990, the telescope orbits above the earth's atmosphere to provide a clear-eyed view of the universe in greater detail than ever.

Beckwith said the school-bus-sized instrument allows us to “look at a time when stars and galaxies were first being created. That's what Hubble has done.”

Besides helping scientists resolve several paradoxes about space, Hubble's observations have allowed us to watch the birth of nearby stars, uncovered evidence for the existence of giant black holes and provided a ringside seat during the collision of a comet with Jupiter.

Through observations of supernovae, or stars exploding back when the universe was only about one-third its present age, the space telescope has also shown scientists that, not only is the universe expanding but it's doing so at a faster rate. “The only way to explain the data properly is if the universe is accelerating.”

Beckwith had explored the stars with his own telescope at his boyhood home in Wisconsin. Drawn initially by mathematics, he earned a degree in engineering physics at Cornell University in 1973.

Speaking after his lecture, he said, “What intrigued me was the ability to explain things I saw with these elegant mathematical principles.”

It was during his graduate studies at the California Institute of Technology that the astrophysics bug bit him. There he worked with the group that developed infrared instruments for the telescopes at Mount Wilson and Palomar Mountain.

He also worked with Hubble's old telescope, what he called the “second most important telescope in history.” (The first? That belonged to Galileo.) He completed his PhD in physics at Caltech in 1978.

After teaching astronomy at Cornell, he became director of the Max-Plank-Institute fuer Astronomie in 1991. In 1998 he became director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, where he's responsible for the science program of the Hubble space telescope.

Explaining the choice of Beckwith as this year's Whidden lecturer, Richard Butler, professor of pathology & molecular medicine and chair of the lecture committee, said in his introductory remarks that “the heavens, the stars, the universe, space, hold a general appeal for us all.”

Beckwith ended his lecture with a slide that superimposed the text of Fire and Ice, a poem by Robert Frost, over a depiction of the likely end of the solar system. Explaining that the sun will eventually explode, consuming itself and its planets even as the universe continues to expand outward, he said, “Robert Frost got it right both times.”