Previous Gamow lectures covered a wide range of topics, from Physics, to Geosciences, to Chemisty and Biology, and much more. Lectures were delivered in the Macky Auditorium on the CU Boulder Campus.
*Denotes Nobel Prize Winners.
• 2018 Vint Cerf
• 1992 Norman Myers
Vinton G. Cerf
Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist
Saturday, February 10, 2018 at 7:30 P.M.
University of Colorado Boulder
Free admission - doors open at 7:00
Humans produce trillions of photos and countless exabytes of complex digital objects every year - but formats are constantly changing and all this data is potentially ephemeral. Dr. Cerf will discuss how we might curate and store all that data in a way that will remain accessible 100 years from now.
Vinton G. Cerf is vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. He contributes to global policy development and continued spread of the Internet. Widely known as one of the "Fathers of the Internet," Cerf is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet. He has served in executive positions at MCI, the Corporation for National Research Initiatives and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and on the faculty of Stanford University.
Vint Cerf served as chairman of the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) from 2000-2007 and has been a Visiting Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory since 1998. Cerf served as founding president of the Internet Society (ISOC) from 1992-1995. Cerf is a Foreign Member of the British Royal Society and Swedish Academy of Engineering, and Fellow of IEEE, ACM, and American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the International Engineering Consortium, the Computer History Museum, the British Computer Society, the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, the Worshipful Company of Stationers and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He has served as President of the Association for Computing Machinery, chairman of the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) and completed a term as Chairman of the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology for the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. President Obama appointed him to the National Science Board in 2012.
Cerf is a recipient of numerous awards and commendations in connection with his work on the Internet, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, US National Medal of Technology, the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the Prince of Asturias Award, the Tunisian National Medal of Science, the Japan Prize, the Charles Stark Draper award, the ACM Turing Award, Officer of the Legion d’Honneur and 29 honorary degrees. In December 1994, People magazine identified Cerf as one of that year's "25 Most Intriguing People."
His personal interests include fine wine, gourmet cooking and science fiction. Cerf and his wife, Sigrid, were married in 1966 and have two sons, David and Bennett.
"Probing the Warped Side of the Universe with Gravitational Waves:
From the Big Bang to Black Holes"
Dr. Kip S. Thorne
Thursday, April 27, 2017 at 7:30 P.M.
University of Colorado Boulder
Free admission - doors open at 7:00
Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space and time predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago. After a half century effort, we humans have had our first contact with these waves. LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) has detected and deciphered gravitational waves produced by pairs of colliding black holes a billion light years from Earth. Thorne will describe LIGO and its discoveries, and the future of gravitational-wave astronomy: A future that will include at least four different frequency bands (the gravitational analogs of X-ray, optical, infrared, and radio astronomy); and a future in which astronomers will probe a rich range of phenomena, including the birth of the universe and the birth of the fundamental forces of nature in our universe’s earliest moments.
Kip Thorne is the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. He is a theoretical physicist specializing in the astrophysical effects of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, especially black holes and gravitational waves. He was one of the founding members of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) in 1984. The goal of LIGO is to observe gravitational waves from extreme astrophysical events. Gravitational waves were first predicted by Albert Einstein one-hundred years ago this year. While there is good indirect evidence for gravitational waves based on the behavior of binary pulsars, the first direct measurement of a gravitational wave was announced by the LIGO team on February 11, 2016. Two independent laser interferometers in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington observed a gravitational wave on September 14, 2015. Analysis of the signal indicates the wave was produced by the collision of two black holes more than one-billion light years away.
Professor Thorne is an accomplished author of books for scientists and the general public, and he was the scientific consultant and Executive Producer of the film Interstellar.
Watch the Lecture
Dr. Jane Goodall
"Sowing the Seeds of Hope"
Thursday, October 1, 2015 at 7:30 P.M.
Coors Events Center
University of Colorado Boulder
In her speech, Sowing the Seeds of Hope, Dr. Goodall will bring her audience into the world of the Gombe chimpanzees―from her early observations and experiences to the latest news and stories from the field. Her latest publication, “Seeds of Hope”, dives into the world of plants, exploring interesting anomalies about the natural world and how we can protect the place we call home.
Dr. Goodall will also share information about the work of the Jane Goodall Institute, which continues her pioneering research at Gombe and is widely recognized for establishing innovative community-centered conservation and development programs in Africa. Today, the Institute is a global leader in the effort to protect chimpanzees and their habitats, operating in more than 28 countries.
In 1991, Dr. Goodall began Roots & Shoots, the Institute’s global environmental and humanitarian youth program that is now in more than 130 countries across the globe. The program empowers young people of all ages to identify issues in their local communities or worldwide, and truly help to make a difference for people, animals and the environment we all share.
In Sowing the Seeds of Hope, Dr. Goodall will provide insight into the person behind the globe-trotting international icon: a UN Messenger of Peace, Dame of the British Empire, and the subject of countless articles and television programs around the world. She will also discuss the current threats facing the planet and her reasons for hope in these complex times, encouraging everyone in the audience to do their part to make a positive difference each and every day.
In July 1960, at the age of 26, Jane Goodall traveled from England to what is today Tanzania and bravely entered the little-known world of wild chimpanzees. She was equipped with nothing more than a notebook and a pair of binoculars. But with her unyielding patience and characteristic optimism, she won the trust of these initially shy creatures. She managed to open a window into their sometimes strange and often familiar-seeming lives. The public was fascinated and remains so to this day.
Today, Jane’s work revolves around inspiring action on behalf of endangered species, particularly chimpanzees, and encouraging people to do their part to make the world a better place for people, animals, and the environment we all share. The Jane Goodall Institute works to protect the famous chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Tanzania, but recognizes this can’t be accomplished without a comprehensive approach that addresses the needs of local people who are critical to chimpanzee survival. Our community-centered conservation programs in Africa include sustainable development projects that engage local people as true partners. These programs began around Gombe in 1994, but have since been replicated in other parts of the continent. Likewise, Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, which Jane started with a group of Tanzania students in 1991, is today the Institute’s global environmental and humanitarian youth program for young people from preschool through university with nearly 150,000 members in more than 130 countries.
Image Caption: Jane Goodall with Motambo, an orphan at the JGI Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center. Image Credit: the Jane Goodall Institute
Dr. David Wineland
2012 Nobel Laureate in Physics
Fellow, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Boulder, Colorado
Professor Adjoint, Department of Physics, University of Colorado, Boulder
"Quantum Computers and Schrödinger's Cat"
Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at 7:30 P.M.
University of Colorado Boulder
Abstract: As the size of computer logic gates and memory elements approaches the atomic scale, we are forced to deal with the constraints imposed by the laws of quantum mechanics. However, we now also know that a computer based on quantum mechanics could solve certain problems that are intractable on conventional computers. Interestingly, if this device could be made on a large scale it would have the same characteristics as Erwin Schrödinger’s famous 1935 hypothetical cat that could be both dead and alive at the same time. In part, I will discuss how a quantum computer might be realized with a collection of atomic ions.
A video recording of the lecture is now available. If you would like a DVD copy, please contact Veronica Lingo with the Department of Physics.
Professor of Physics and Mathematics
"The Hidden Reality: From Unification to the Multiverse"
Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 7:30 P.M.
University of Colorado Boulder
Abstract: Ever since Einstein, physicists have been seeking a unified description of nature's forces. In this talk, which presumes no background in physics, we will follow the trail toward's nature's deepest laws and examine some of the potential--albeit hypothetical--consequences, including the strange possibility that our universe may not be the only universe.
Dr. Brian Greene is professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University and co-founder and director of the Institute for Strings, Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics.
He is widely recognized for his groundbreaking discoveries in the field of superstring theory, including the co-discovery of mirror symmetry, which launched a vibrant field of research in physics, and mathematics. He is credited with the discovery of topology change, which showed that unlike Einstein's General Relativity, in string theory the fabric of space can tear apart.
He is well known for his lucid and entertaining lectures and writing for general audiences, including The Elegant Universe, a Pulitzer Prize finalist that has sold more than one million copies. His latest book, The Hidden Reality, an exploration of the science of parallel universes, debuted at number 4 on the New York Times bestseller list.
Professor Greene has had many media appearances, from Charlie Rose to David Letterman, and this three-part NOVA special based on The Elegant Universe won an Emmy Award and a Peabody Award, and the four-part NOVA special based on The Fabric of the Cosmos was nominated for a 2012 Emmy Award.
For more information on Dr. Greene and his work, please visit his Web site.
Professor of Astronomy and Physics, Johns Hopkins University
Space Telescope Science Institute
"Supernovae and the Discovery of the Accelerating Universe"
Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 7:30 P.M.
University of Colorado Boulder
Abstract: In 1929 Edwin Hubble discovered that our Universe is expanding. Eighty years later, the Space Telescope which bears his name is being used to study an even more surprising phenomenon, that the expansion is speeding up. The origin of this effect is not known, but is broadly attributed to a type of "dark energy" first posited to exist by Albert Einstein and now dominating the mass-energy budget of the Universe. I will describe how our team discovered the acceleration of the Universe and why understanding the nature of dark energy presents one of the greatest remaining challenges in astrophysics and cosmology.
Dr. Adam Riess was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, "for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae". His research involves measurements of the cosmological framework with supernovae (exploding stars) and Cepheids (pulsating stars). His work has been identified by NASA as the #1 Achievement of the Hubble Space Telescope to date.
An alumnus of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Riess is a Gilman Scholar, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a MacArthur Fellow, and a recipient of the 2011 Einstein Medal.
For more information on Dr. Riess and his work, please visit his Web site.
Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
2004 Nobel Laureate in Physics
"Anticipating a New Golden Age: A Vision and Its Fiery Trial at the Large Hadron Collider"
Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 7:30 p.m.
University of Colorado at Boulder
Professor Frank Wilczek is considered one of the worlds’ most eminent theoretical physicists. He is known, among other things for the discovery of asymptotic freedom, the development of quantum chromodynamics, the invention of axions and the discovery and exploitation of new forms of quantum statistics (anyons). When only 21 years old and a graduate student at Princeton University, in work with David Gross he defined the properties of color gluons, which hold nuclei together. Professor Wilczek received his B.S. degree from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D from Princeton University. He taught at Princeton from 1974-1981. During the period 1981-88, he was the Chancellor Robert Huttenback Professor of Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the first permanent member of the National Science Foundation’s Institute for Theoretical Physics. In the fall of 2000, he moved from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he was the J.R. Oppenheimer Professor, to the MIT Department of Physics, where he is the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics. Since 2002, he has also been an Adjunct Professor in the Centro de Estudios Cientificos of Valdivia Chile.
For more information on Dr. Wilczek and his work, please visit this Web site.
Watch the Gamow Lecture Online
Dr. Richard Alley
Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences and Associate of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute Pennsylvania State University
"Learning While Burning: Peak (whale) Oil, Changing Climate and Our Future"
Monday, March 29, 2010 at 7:30 p.m.
University of Colorado at Boulder
Dr. Richard Alley is Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences and Associate of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, where he has worked since 1988. He was graduated with the Ph.D. in 1987 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and with M.Sc. (1983) and B.Sc. (1980) degrees from Ohio State University-Columbus, all in Geology. Dr. Alley teaches, and conducts research on the climatic records, flow behavior, and sedimentary deposits of large ice sheets, to aid in prediction of future changes in climate and sea level. His experience includes three field seasons in Antarctica, eight in Greenland, and three in Alaska. His awards include election to the US National Academy of Sciences, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, the Revelle Medal of the American Geophysical Union and the Horton Award of their Hydrology Section and Fellowship in the Union, the Seligman Crystal of the International Glaciological Society, the first Agassiz Medal of the European Geosciences Union Cryospheric Section, Fellowship in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the US Presidential Young Investigator Award, the Public Service Award of the Geological Society of America, the Easterbrook Award of their Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology Division and Fellow in the Society, the American Geological Institute Award for Outstanding Contribution to Public Understanding of the Geosciences, and at Penn State, the Eisenhower Teaching Award, the Evan Pugh Professorship, the Faculty Scholar Medal in Science, and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Wilson Teaching Award, Mitchell Innovative Teaching Award and Faculty Mentoring Award.
Dr. Alley has served on a variety of advisory panels and steering committees, including chairing the National Research Council's Panel on Abrupt Climate Change and participating in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which was co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize), and has provided requested advice to numerous government officials in multiple administrations including a US Vice President, the President's Science Advisor, and committees and individual members of the US Senate and the House of Representatives. He has published over 190 refereed papers, and is a 'highly cited' scientist as indexed by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). His popular account of climate change and ice cores, The Two-Mile Time Machine, was chosen science book of the year by Phi Beta Kappa in 2001. Dr. Alley is happily married with two daughters in college, two cats still at home, two bicycles, and a pair of soccer cleats.
Abstract about the Lecture:
You, and Einstein, and Lincoln, each use or used about as much energy inside as a 100-watt light bulb, but your share of total energy use in the US is about 100 times that much, with almost all of that "outside" energy from fossil fuels that will run out. We have high scientific confidence that learning to use alternatives while burning will make life easier for our grandchildren, but that burning before learning will make their lives harder. Testing this science against the history of Earth's climate motivates faster learning. Fortunately, we are surrounded by more options than we'll ever need, and we already have our learner's permit.
photo of Dr. Alley coutesy of BBC
Dr. Joy Hirsch
Director of the fMRI Research Center at Columbia University
"Dialogues Within the Specialized Brain"
Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 7:30 p.m.
CU Boulder Campus
Joy Hirsch is a professor of Functional Neuroradiology, Neuroscience, and Psychology at Columbia University in New York City. She is also the Director of the Program for Imaging & Cognitive Sciences, PICS, a university-wide core imaging facility to study brain and mind. Her Imaging Center aims to apply advanced and developing imaging technologies including functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI, to observe both the structures of the brain and their internal connections as well as to investigate fundamental processes that underlie brain-driven functions.
Hirsch’s research focuses on the investigation of the brain circuitry that underlies cognition, perception, and action. She studies conscious and subconscious neural processes that mediate emotion and cognition in healthy individuals and in patients with psychiatric, neurological, and developmental disorders.
Her research on language was the first to show that the mechanisms involved in acquiring a second language occur in a part of the brain separate from parts used in learning a primary language. She and her group have also pioneered studies of obesity and eating disorders, autism, vision, and inter-brain communications.
“Functional imaging is really a bridge between the brain and the mind that neuroscientists have dreamed of,” says Hirsch. “It has revolutionized and revitalized neuroscience.”
Hirsch received her Doctorate in Psychology from Columbia University. Prior to joining the Columbia faculty, she was a professor at Yale University School of Medicine in the Neuroscience program and the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, and then founded the first fMRI laboratory at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City prior to being recruited to Columbia University as Director of the mind and brain imaging program.
Dr. Kerry Emanuel
Professor of Atmospheric Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
"Is Global Warming Affecting Hurricanes?"
Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 7:30 p.m.
CU Boulder Campus
Dr. Kerry Emanuel is a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he has been on the faculty since 1981, after spending three years as a faculty member at UCLA. Professor Emanuel's research interests focus on tropical meteorology and climate, with a specialty in hurricane physics. His interests also include cumulus convection, and advanced methods of sampling the atmosphere in aid of numerical weather prediction. He is the author or co-author of over 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and two books, including Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes, recently released by Oxford University Press and aimed at a general audience, and What We Know about Climate Change, published by the MIT Press.
Dr. Emanuel earned his S.B. in Earth and Planetary Sciences from MIT in 1976 and his Ph.D. in Meteorology from MIT in 1978. At present, his MIT appointments are professor in the Program in Atmospheres, Oceans and Climate, and professor and director of the Center for Meteorology and Physical Oceanography. Among his awards are the 2007 David B. Stone Medal from New England Aquarium, as well as numerous honors from the American Meteorological Society including 2007 Bernhard Haurwitz Memorial Lecturer, 2007 Louis J. Barttan Author’s Award, 2007 Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal, 1995 Fellow, 1992 Banner I. Miller Award (with Richard Rotunno) and 1986 Meisinger Award.
From 1989-1992 Dr. Emanuel served on the board of the Boulder-based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. From 1999-2002 he was a member of the Council of the American Meteorological Society and since 2003 he has served on the Board of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate of the National Academy. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2007.
An up-to-date publication list can be found on his Web site.
Professor of Physics, Harvard University
"Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions"
Monday, March 19, 2007 at 7:30 p.m.
Do we inhabit a three-dimensional universe floating in a four dimensional space? What if the extra dimensions required by string theory were not curled up and unobservably small, but unfurled and vast, extending forever? Could an invisible universe only a tiny fraction of an inch apart in another dimension explain phenomena that we see today in our world?
These are among the questions that we will consider in this lecture about extra dimensions of space.
Lisa Randall studies particle physics and cosmology at Harvard University , where she is professor of theoretical physics. Her research concerns elementary particles and fundamental forces, and has involved the study a wide variety of models, the most recent involving extra dimensions of space. She is currently working out the implications of extra-dimensional models for experiments, particularly those that will take place at the L arge H adron C ollider ( LHC ). She has also worked on supersymmetry, Standard Model observables, cosmological inflation, baryogenesis, grand unified theories, general relativity, and string theory. Professor Randall recently completed a book entitled Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions , which was included in the New York Times' of 100 notable books of 2005.
Professor Randall earned a BA in 1983, and obtained her Ph.D. in particle physics in 1987 from Harvard University . She held professorships at MIT and Princeton University before returning to Harvard in 2001. Professor Randall is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Physical Society, and is a past winner of an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, a DOE Outstanding Junior Investigator Award, and the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. In 2003, she received the Premio Caterina Tomassoni e Felice Pietro Chisesi Award, from the University of Rome , La Sapienza. In autumn, 2004, she was the most cited theoretical physicist of the previous five years. In 2006, she received the Klopsted Award from the American Society of Physics Teachers (AAPT). Prof Randall was featured in Seed Magazine's “2005 Year in Science Icons” and in Newsweek's Who's Next in 2006 as "one of the most promising theoretical physicists of her generation." She has helped organize numerous conferences and has been on the editorial board of several major theoretical physics journals.
Learn more about Professor Randall at her Web site.
Geoffrey W. Marcy
Professor of Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley
Adjunct Professor of Physics & Astronomy, San Francisco State University
"New Worlds, Yellowstone, and Life in the Universe"
Thursday, April 6, 2006 at 7:30 p.m.
Over 175 planets have been discovered orbiting other stars. Some planets are scorching hot while others travel in strange, elongated orbits. A multitude of planets around some stars engage in harmonic resonances, with planets flinging themselves back and forth in rhythmic oscillations. All of these new planetary systems shine a spotlight back on our Solar System in comparison. Is our home planetary system a common or rare type? Are habitable worlds, such as the Earth, a rarity in the cosmos? Astronomers are just on the threshold of finding other rocky planets, and habitable worlds are rising up over the discovery horizon. Already, we can predict the diversity of environments on other worlds, and some may be very different from the conditions on Earth. Nonetheless, life may thrive despite harsh and bizarre conditions. But the search for intelligent life has come up empty, and possible reasons are emerging.
Dr. Marcy's research has focused on the detection of extrasolar planets and brown dwarfs. His team has discovered 110 extrasolar planets (as of Jan 2006), allowing study of their masses and orbits. Among the planets discovered are the first multiple-planet system, the first Saturn-mass planet, the first Neptune-mass planet, and the first transiting planet. Ongoing work is designed to study the mass distribution of planets and the eccentrcity of their orbits. The 5-year goal is to find Jupiter analogs at 5 AU. Dr. Marcy is participating in the Berkeley's new "Center for Integrative Planetary Science'', designed to study the formation, geophysics, chemistry and evolution of planets.
Paul C. Sereno
Department of Organismal Biology University of Chicago
"Dinosaurs on Drifting Continents"
Delivered in 2004
The Mesozoic Era witnessed the pulling apart of a supercontinent and the simultaneous rise and fall of dinosaurs, the first group of land animals to achieve and maintain a global distribution. Their history is recorded by abundant fossils on all continents.
The central focus of my research has been to chart the evolution of dinosaurs and reveal how a fragmenting geography influenced their evolution. How does the breakup of a supercontinent affect land-based life? Does diversity or the pace of evolutionary change increase? Does phylogeny track geography? How do novel and demanding functional capabilities, like powered flight, first evolve? What triggers or drives major replacements in the history of life? Questions like these are answered primarily, or entirely, with evidence from the fossil record. The study of long-term, large-scale paleontological patterns is an important component of current evolutionary research.
Research has taken me to collections around the world in dogged pursuit of the skeletal details that allow us to stitch together, with efficient computer algorithms, the tree of dinosaur life. Fieldwork, in turn, has focused on Cretaceous rocks (66 to 144 million years old) on the little explored southern continents, in an attempt to shed light on their isolated faunas.
Beginning in 1988 in the foothills of the Andes in Argentina, my team discovered the first dinosaurs to roam the Earth, the predators Herrerasaurus and the most primitive of all, Eoraptor, the "dawn raptor." In the early 1990's we shifted our focus to Africa's lost world of dinosaurs. Discovering them has involved a series of intrepid expeditions into the heart of the Sahara, where we discovered and named Afrovenator, a new 27-foot-long meat-eater, and skeletons of a 70-foot-long plant-eater named Jobaria. We discovered a bizarre fish-eating dinosaur, Suchomimus, with huge claws and a sail on its back, and another 45-foot-long plant-eater we named Nigersaurus. In Morocco we unearthed the most fleet-footed meat-eater, the 30-foot-long Deltadromeus, and the skull of a huge, T. rex-sized meat-eater Carcharodontosaurus. Besides new and unusual dinosaurs, we stumbled on the world's largest crocodile, the 40-foot-long Sarcosuchus, dubbed SuperCroc. Most recently, we announced the first predator from India, Rajasaurus, and a new meat-eater from Africa, Rugops.
Dinosaur evolution, it turns out, was influenced by global geographical events and shaped indelibly by the fickle hand of extinction. The result is a spell-binding tale of evolution on island continents that is no more predictable than that of a well-planned paleontological expedition. Speaking of which, my next will be to the last totally unexplored piece of the great southern landmass Gondwana—better known as Tibet.
Paul Sereno grew up in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, and studied art and biology as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University. He earned a doctorate in geology at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In 1987, he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he teaches paleontology and evolution to graduate and undergraduate students and human anatomy to medical students. He is the co-founder, with his wife Gabrielle Lyon, of Project Exploration, a nonprofit science education organization, and an Explorer-in-Residence with the National Geographic Society.
Robert P. Kirshner
Clowes Professor of Science Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
"A Blunder Undone: The Accelerating Universe"
March 30, 2004
Exploding stars halfway across the observable universe reveal a surprising fact. Judging the distances to distant supernovae from their apparent brightness, the rate of cosmic expansion has been speeding up in the last 5 billion years. While gravitation acts to slow cosmic expansion, these observations require something else to make the universe accelerate. We call this the “dark energy”, though, in truth, we do not know what it is. Perhaps it is the modern version of Einstein's notorious cosmological constant, famously described by George Gamow as Einstein's “greatest blunder.”
This result was a big surprise to people working on the problem. Early in 1998, I wrote an e-mail to the members of our “High-Z Supernova Team” saying, “In your heart you know this is wrong, though your head tells you [that] you don't care and you're just reporting the observations.”
One reason to be wary was Einstein's bad experience with this idea, invented to make a static universe. Did we think we were smarter than Einstein? Einstein never liked the cosmological constant, as he wrote, “I am unable to believe that such an ugly thing should be realized in nature.” It became a kind of theoretical poison ivy—touched only by the unwary for about 65 years. But the data were leading us to reconsider. As Adam Riess wrote to the rest of the team, “Approach these results not with your heart or your head, but with your eyes. We are observers, after all!”
Technology is a lot better now: we use fast computers to scan digital images of the sky and pick out the objects that change. We've developed a pipeline system that pops out the supernova candidates about an hour after we take the images. This is important because supernovae are like fish—after about 3 days, they begin to lose their freshness. If you want to see the peak of the light curve prompt action is essential.
In 1998, we saw the signature of cosmic acceleration in supernovae at redshift 0.5: light that had been en route for about 5 billion years. Now we're using the Hubble Space Telescope to search for even fainter and more distant supernovae at redshift 1.5, roughly 9 billion light years away when we expect deceleration from dense dark matter.
We would like to understand better the nature of the dark energy. Is it really Einstein's cosmological constant, retrieved from the dumpster of history, smoothed out and made new again? Or is it some more general “quintessence” whose energy density changes over time. Better measurements will show whether the dark energy comes from a source that is constant, or one that changes subtly as the universe expands. Either way will be very interesting.
Faint light from distant stellar catastrophes traces the history of cosmic expansion. It is not what we expected to see. The universe contains more parts than the simplest universe we could imagine: atoms that glow, atoms that don't, neutrinos with mass, and another dark matter particle with more mass, something that made the universe expand exponentially in the era of inflation and something more that is making the universe accelerate now. Perhaps some day in the future all of this will seem essential, but at the moment, it seems we live in a recklessly extravagant universe, with extra parts whose function we do not yet fathom.
Robert P. Kirshner is Clowes Professor of Science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Born in Sudbury, MA in 1949, he obtained his A.B. from Harvard College in 1970 and his Ph.D from the California Institute of Technology in 1975. Kirshner was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1998 and elected President of the American Astronomical Society in 2003. At Harvard, he teaches a large course for students who are not science concentrators, “Matter in the Universe.” He is also Master of Quincy House, one of Harvard's undergraduate residences. In 2003, Princeton University Press published Kirshner's popular-level book, “The Extravagant Universe: exploding stars, dark energy, and the accelerating cosmos.”
Nobel Laureate, President, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Distinguished Professor, University of Colorado
"From Catalytic RNA to Howard Hughes"
Delivered in 2003
In 1978 I arrived in Boulder to take up my first faculty position, in the Department of Chemistry at CU. The main attractants were a smart, friendly group of colleagues who were intent on propelling the department into national prominence, and the breathtaking mountain environment. I began to teach undergraduates, both in the classroom and in my laboratory, obtained federal funding for my research, and began to explore the expression of an abundant set of genes in a simple pond organism, Tetrahymena.
I chose to launch a research project distinct from my postdoctoral work in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because I thought this unlikely creature might provide special insights on molecular biology: the way that genetic information is copied from DNA into RNA. I was not disappointed. My group of students and I watched the RNA being synthesized in the test tube, and also spliced - an intervening sequencer or "intron" removed and the flanking RNA sequenced ligated together. The mechanism of the RNA splicing was intriguing, the protein enzyme that catalyzed the process being exceptionally elusive. Eventually, we showed that there was no protein enzyme. The RNA spliced itself, providing the first example of a biochemical reaction catalyzed by RNA.
Unknown to me, the scientific world had been waiting for this discovery. If RNA could provide both heritable "information" and catalytic function, then one could envision a vastly simplified scenario for the origins of life based on RNA, replicating itself. Furthermore, perhaps the roles of RNA in contemporary biology had been underestimated? And indeed, research groups around the world reported first a few other examples of catalytic RNA, then dozens, and then many hundreds.
An opportunity to make an impact at a national and international level came with the offer to head the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 1999. The Institute, founded by the aviator-industrialist Howard Hughes in 1953, became the recipient of much of the Hughes fortune. Well before my time, the Institute had earned the reputation for supporting the highest quality biomedical research and innovative science education. I now work at HHMI headquarters in the Washington D.C. area and commute to Boulder to oversee my research group. While this may seem like an enormous change, I've been able to continue two of the same activities I began in 1978 - working to improve undergraduate education and carrying out RNA research.