No plans for Friday evening? Not to worry—the Columbia Astronomy Public Outreach program holds biweekly Friday lectures that cover a variety of astronomy topics. These lectures are accompanied by movie screenings, slideshows, and most excitingly, stargazing. Graduate students in Columbia's astronomy department run the series, which is open to all Columbia students as well as to the general public. At last Friday's event, Yuan Li, a second-year graduate student studying astronomy, presented a lecture on black holes that was both comprehensible and accessible to the diverse audience. Although there appeared to be few undergraduate students present, the attendees ranged from families with elementary-school-aged children to graduate students. Ian Allen, SEAS '12, was one of the few undergraduates at the event. Allen, an applied physics major, first heard about the program through a friend who studies astrophysics at Barnard. Allen has always been interested in astronomy and physics, and his competitive nature aligned with this interest in high school to strengthen his passion. "In high school, I did the National Science Bowl, a Jeopardy-style competition, so I learned a lot of astronomy for that," Allen said. "Our team went to nationals every year, and I was the astronomy guy on the team." Allen also noticed the disappointing lack of undergraduates at this particular event. "It would definitely be nice to get the word out," Allen said. "When it's a clear night, we usually have three telescopes set up. There's really a lot to look at up there." There definitely was a lot to look at atop Pupin Physics Laboratories—and not just through the telescopes. Despite the chill of the spring wind at night, the view from the top of the building was breathtaking. Viewers could look out onto Harlem, the Hudson, and central Manhattan—a perspective that was more than worth the climb up to the 15th floor of the building. For a vantage point of another kind, the telescopes offered amazingly clear views of the moon and Mars. Erika Hamden, a third-year graduate student in the astronomy department, said that sometimes "people look through the telescope and wave their hands in front of it to check, to make sure that it's not just a picture pasted into the lens." Hamden said that she has liked astronomy since age five. "I used to watch space shows on the Learning Channel," Hamden said. "I remember my mommy told me that when the universe started it was called the Big Bang, and I looked it up, and it was so exciting." Graduate students like Hamden share their respective interests in astronomy and astrophysics through these lectures. Although the series isn't funded, the department provides some of the equipment and helps with booking the space. Other freebies, like astro-themed postcards, posters, and CDs, are provided by NASA and other organizations that support the program. "Cameron Hummels, who got the program started, would just write to the telescope outreach offices and they would send us boxes and boxes of things," Hamden said. "Hubble has probably the best PR of any telescope company. They send us posters, CDs, kits The only cost is the time from the graduate students." But to many graduate students, the time put into preparing for these presentations is gratifying. "It's nice to bring people the wonders of the universe, especially [in] a place where nobody really even looks up," Li said. "Sometimes it's just amazing to see how engaged the audience becomes." And astronomy isn't just for students into math and science—Li believes it is important for students of all backgrounds to understand the universe. "I teach astronomy labs, and some students come without any background in astronomy or physics, but after they spend a few semesters learning they tell me what they've learned really changed how they look at the world," he said.
Columbia Spectator Staff