Astronomer enlightens audience

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Oppenheimer Memorial: Filippenko was the 42nd speaker at the annual event

By Tris DeRoma

Astronomer Alex Filippenko knows his audience. At the Duane Smith Auditorium Monday night, he wowed the crowd with his talk about dark matter, expanding universes and supernovae black holes — and even included a little extra

“I gave more details tonight and went on longer than I usually do because I wanted to give this much more scientifically literate audience some more of the details,” Filippenko said. “When I give this lecture to a much more generalized audience, I leave out particular things because it confuses them; but I felt like I owed it to this particular audience.”

But he also brought along his sense of humor, too. At one point during the lecture, he showed a wall of stars on his presentation screen and started to seriously tell the audience that dark matter is what you see between the stars. He then started to count the dark spaces in between the clusters of stars and galaxies before a ripple of laughter in the audience grew louder, signaling the jig was up.

After that, though, things got serious as he described dark matter as something everyone should be paying attention to, whether award-winning astronomers or not.

“It’s something weird. It’s something new, and for better or worse, the term people have come with is ‘dark energy,’ he said. “It’s mysterious and we don’t see it. In both ways it is a dark form of energy.”

He also gave the audience pause when he said that this unknown matter has been calculated to make up three-quarters of the universe.

“We know it’s there, we think it’s there, but we don’t know what it is,” he told the audience. “That’s a big challenge for those of you who are seniors in high school, freshmen in college or still in middle school.”

He further inspired the young people in the audience by saying that physics can eventually solve this puzzle and possibly give humankind a whole new understanding of the universe if it’s ever discovered what dark matter truly is. “For anyone who hears someone say ‘physics is dead’ and that there’s nothing left to be discovered, you point them to 96 percent of the universe, and ask them what is it in detail and show me some proof.”

During other parts of his lecture, he also tossed an apple in the air to demonstrate the theory of gravity and showed a before and after illustration of raisin bread being baked to demonstrate universe expansion. All and all, the audience appeared to enjoy learning about the universe and a little bit about the Nobel Prize-winning astronomer.

“I thought it was pretty funny,” said middle school student and aspiring astronomer Danny Wheat.
“I thought it was fantastic and so awesome,” said Wheat’s mother Heather. It was so great that they could bring him here.”

By “they,” Wheat meant the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee, which started the lecture series in 1972.

Filippenko was the 42nd lecturer to appear in Los Alamos for the committee. The committee also runs a scholarship program for students in Los Alamos and surrounding communities. In 2012, the committee gave out nine scholarships.

Donations can be sent to the committee at P.O. Box 220, Los Alamos, N.M., 87544. To find out more about the committee, log onto jromc.org.

After the lecture, the committee presented Filippenko with a medallion inspired by a bust of Oppenheimer created in 1973 by Santa Fe artist Una Hanbury.