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The Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures Podcasts

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Public lectures by noted astronomers on new developments in our exploration of the universe. These lectures are recorded at Foothill College near San Francisco.

Public lectures by noted astronomers on new developments in our exploration of the universe. These lectures are recorded at Foothill College near San Francisco.
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Public lectures by noted astronomers on new developments in our exploration of the universe. These lectures are recorded at Foothill College near San Francisco.




Will the 21st Century be the Time We Discover Life Beyond Earth?

In 2004, Craig Venter & Daniel Cohen suggested that if the 20th Century was the century of physics, the 21st Century will be the century of biology on our planet. Jill Tarter believes that their idea will be extended beyond the surface of our world and that we may soon have the first opportunity to study biology that developed on other worlds. She talks about her vision of the future of understanding life on Earth and beyond our planet. And she discusses projects that are underway and are...


The ‘All-American’ Eclipse of the Sun this August

On August 21, 2017, there will be a rare eclipse of the Sun visible throughout the U.S. and North America. People in a narrow path from Oregon to South Carolina will see a spectacular total eclipse, while everyone else will see a nice partial eclipse. Andrew Fraknoi, Foothill College, describes how eclipses work, why they are one of nature’s most spectacular sights, and exactly when and where the eclipse of 2017 will be best visible. He also provides practical tips for how to observe the...


The Monster Black Hole at the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy

By measuring the rapid orbits of the stars near the center of our galaxy, Dr. Andrea Ghez, UCLA, and her colleagues have moved the case for a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way from a possibility to a certainty. She reports on her pioneering observations and discusses some of the surprising results this work has led to. Recorded January 25, 2017.


Space-time Symphony: Gravitational Waves from Merging Black Holes

Gravitational waves are predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. They travel at the speed of light, but are much harder to detect than light waves. On September 14, 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) received the first direct gravitational wave signals. The event that produced them was the merger of two distant and massive black holes that were in mutual orbit. Prof. Lynn Cominsky, Sonoma State University, presents an introduction to LIGO, to...


The Science and Non-science of Star Wars

In this wide-ranging, humorous talk, Seth Shostak, SETI Institute, takes a look at Star Wars and other science fiction films from the point of view of a skeptical scientist, tells stories about the movies he has been asked to advise, and muses about aliens from space and how we might make contact with them. Recorded October 12, 2017.


Is Anyone Out There: The $100 Million Breakthrough: Listen Project

What is the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe and how might we detect signals from alien civilizations? Dr. Werthimer describes current and future projects searching for such signals, including the new $100-million Breakthrough Prize Foundation Listen project. He shows how new technologies are revolutionizing the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). He also discusses the SETI@home project, which analyzes data from the world's largest radio telescope using...


Beyond: Our Future in Space

DESCRIPTION: Decades after we last set foot on the Moon, and several years after the Space Shuttle was retired, space activity is finally leaving the doldrums. Permanent bases on the Moon and Mars are now within reach, and a new Space Race is brewing, with Asian countries ascendant. Dr. Impey reviews the history and landmarks of the international space program, gives a snapshot of the current situation, and plots the trajectory of the future of space travel. Recorded Feb. 15, 2017.


How Things in the Universe Came About and How They Ended Up Within Us

Dr. Tom Abel (Stanford University) takes us on an illustrated journey through the early stages of the universe, using the latest computer animations of how the first (massive) stars formed and died, and how stars built up the first galaxies. He also discusses how the early stars seeded the cosmos with the chemical elements necessary for life. Recorded April 6, 2016.


Finding a New Earth: Exoplanets and the Habitable Zone

Over 1500 new planetary systems have now been discovered, many of which include planets quite different from those in our own Solar System. A key step towards finding “Earth 2.0” will be to identify rocky planets that occupy the “Habitable Zone” of their stars. Dr. Stephen Kane (San Francisco State University) describes what the idea of a Habitable Zone means and shows examples of planets that lie in their star’s Habitable Zone (even if the star is not like our Sun.) Recorded May 11, 2016.


Innumerable Globes Like This One: The Search for Life Beyond the Solar System

Our Galaxy probably hosts billions of planetary systems. But how many of those planets are like the Earth and how can we determine whether life has taken hold there, too? In this talk, Dr. Tori Hoehler from NASA Ames Research Center discusses the science of searching for life beyond our immediate neighborhood, and how we will seek evidence of inhabited worlds in the future. Recorded February 3, 2016.


Report from the Planetary Frontier: The Latest from New Horizons at Pluto

On July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft flew 7,800 mi above the surface of Pluto and sent back fascinating images of the dwarf planet and its large (and intriguing) moon Charon. Many of the images show unexpected beauty and complexity on Pluto’s surface. Dr. Jeff Moore from NASA Ames Research Center shows the latest photos and fills us in on the current thinking among the New Horizons team members about Pluto, its moons, and the unexplored frontier that lies beyond. Recorded March 2,...


Einstein’s Blunder Undone: The Runaway Universe

In the past 20 years, astronomers have shown that the universe is not only expanding, but speeding up. In this talk, Harvard University's Dr. Robert Kirshner, who was in many ways the "godfather" of these investigations, discusses the methods used to discover cosmic acceleration and presents the evidence that we live in a Universe that is only 4% matter like the atoms of the periodic table. Recorded November 11, 2015.


In the Land of Enchantment: The Epic Story of the Cassini Mission to Saturn

Since 2004, Cassini has been exploring the giant planet Saturn, its magnificent ring system, and its intriguing moons. Dr. Carolyn Porco shows us many of the magnificent mission images and explains the findings from both the main orbiter and the probe that landed on Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon. She also discusses the geysers on the moon Enceladus and what we have learned about the plumes that erupt. Recorded October 7, 2015.


The Sentinel Mission: Finding the Asteroid Headed for Earth

Asteroids, which hit our planet at least twice each year, are the only natural disaster for which we have a technological solution. We are all living with the threat of a 3-minute experience that could transform our lives and our planet forever. Scientists have found 10,000 Near-Earth Objects, yet there are an estimated one million in our inner solar system, and the vast majority of the threatening ones are still undiscovered. In this non-technical talk, Dr. Ed Lu (Former NASA Astronaut;...


100 Years of Einstein's Relativity (And How it Underlies Our Modern Understanding of the Universe)

2015 marks the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s completion of his General Theory of Relativity, the comprehensive theory of space, time, and gravity. Dr. Jeffrey Bennett (University of Colorado) explains the basic ideas of Einstein’s work (both the special and general theories) in everyday language and shows how Einstein’s remarkable ideas are being confirmed today by astronomical observations. He concludes with four reasons why relativity should matter to everyone. Recorded May 6, 2015.


Now Appearing at a Dwarf Planet Near You: NASA's Dawn Mission to the Asteroid Belt

Dr. Marc Rayman (Jet Propulsion Labs), the Mission Director for the Dawn exploration of Vesta and Ceres, explains the unusual mission (the first to orbit two different bodies in the solar system), what it found at Vesta, and what it is going to do as it gets to Ceres, the largest asteroid and the first dwarf planet discovered. He also gives a behind-the-scenes tour of the Dawn launch and the ion propulsion that allows it to visit multiple targets. Recorded April 8, 2015.


Pluto on the Horizon: Anticipating our First Encounter with the Double Planet

The more we learn about Pluto, the more interesting it becomes. In the last decade, four tiny moons have been discovered orbiting the central “binary planet,” which consists of Pluto and its large moon Charon. Pluto itself has a thin atmosphere and shows signs of seasonal changes. On July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly past Pluto and provide our first close-up look at these distant worlds. Dr. Mark Showalter (SETI Institute), a co-investigator on the mission, describes how...


Images of the Infant Universe: The Latest Results from the Planck Satellite

Professor Lloyd Knox (University of California, Davis) leads the U.S. team determining the basic characteristics of the cosmos from the data recently acquired by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite. He shows the detailed images of the sky obtained by Planck, pictures made from light that has been traveling our way for nearly 14 billion years, since the universe was only a few hundred thousand years old. He further explains how such images provide us with our best means of studying...


The Copernicus Complex: Are We Special in the Cosmos?

Is humanity on Earth special or unexceptional? Extraordinary discoveries in astronomy and biology have revealed a universe filled with endlessly diverse planetary systems, and a picture of life as a phenomenon intimately linked with the most fundamental aspects of physics. But just where these discoveries will lead us is not yet clear. We may need to find a way to see past the mediocre status that Copernicus assigned to us 500 years ago. Dr. Caleb Scharf from Columbia University helps us to...


Monster Black Holes: What Lurks at the Center of Galaxies?

Black holes are among the most fascinating objects in the cosmos, in part because they can grow to monstrous size, swallowing the mass of millions or billions of suns. Dr. Chung-Pei Ma (University of California, Berkeley) describes recent discoveries of record-breaking black holes, each with a mass of ten billion times the mass of the Sun. New evidence shows that these objects could be the dormant remnants of powerful “quasars” that existed in the young universe. Recorded May 24, 2014