Our Place in the Cosmos

On the first Thursday of every month, the astronomy department at University of Toronto hosts a free public lecture.  I’ve really wanted to go to one of these for ages because afterward you get to look through UofT’s two telescopes.* I hadn’t ever gotten around to going – typically, I’d remember about the event a week after it happened – and eventually I forgot about it entirely. Finally, my friend Alex and I were trying to think of something interesting to do and miraculously I remembered the astronomy department and it coincided with the beginning of February.

As a side note, I have to point out that the signage guiding people to the lecture was incredible. Trying to navigate around UofT can give a person a nervous breakdown. I was at least a half an hour late for the first session of the writing class I had last spring at University College  spring and several people ran in manically after me. The most ridiculous thing about that story is I have had no less than three previous classes in that building! So good job, signage people.

The speaker, graduate student JD Emberson, did a great job at making the concepts he was talking about accessible and interesting for a general audience. At one point he was discussing how, in the early days of the universe before anything had formed, there were just a lot of particles of matter and antimatter floating around. Whenever a particle of matter collided with a particle of antimatter, they annihalated each other. Eventually, matter defeated antimatter and our we got our galaxy (or something like that – this is what I understood but I highly doubt that I have it right, perhaps JD will come across this blog post while Googling his name one day when he’s bored and clarify).

Anyway, after the lecture, JD took on a Q&A with the audience. A little boy raised his hand and asked, “What would happen if a person in this room touched an antiperson?”

I was so impressed with this kid. I would never have raised my hand and asked a question in a hall full of adults at his age, nor would I do it now! Plus, it was a great question.

Answer: That would be a really bad day for the person.

Something else that stuck with me from the lecture was a picture that JD showed us, of a galaxy that had recently been discovered. To discover this galaxy, it was necessary to train Hubble on the same spot for many days so that it could pick up enough light for the galaxy to become visible to us. This galaxy, he said, is 33 billion light years away, so we are seeing it not as it is now, but as it was 13.3 billion years ago. W.T.F. [Again, let’s just hope I’ve retained this information at least marginally correctly.]

So with this in mind, I really enjoyed the reaction of outraged Earthlings on the news a couple weeks later, when that meteor whizzed into Russia at 40,000 mph on the very same day we were wondering, hmm, is that asteroid reeeeally going to pass Earth at a comfortable distance? All these media people fuming, “WHY DIDN’T WE KNOW ABOUT THIS?!” We think we are very important, but we are hardly even a pin prick of light in the universe.

* Unfortunately, Alex and I didn’t get to look through the telescopes due to a huge snowstorm that was moving in, but we did enjoy the planetarium show after the lecture.

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