Issue 15.5: October/November 2012

Star Talk

Story by Genevive Bjorn

photo courtesy Andrew Cooper  


The astronomy buffs in the 490-seat Kahilu Theatre in Waimea already know that Pluto was demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet. Now they’re about to hear an explanation of why from the guy responsible. Mike Brown’s lecture, “How I Killed Pluto & Why It Had It Coming,” has drawn a diverse, standing-room-only crowd of retirees, visitors who saw the flyer at KTA supermarket and kids—lots of kids.


The W.M. Keck Observatory’s free public lecture series started in 2002 with a few people in a small conference room. It grew steadily until the fire marshal issued a warning about overcrowding. The series moved to the Kahilu Theatre in 2011, where it now routinely draws capacity crowds curious for a glimpse into what, exactly, is happening at the Keck telescopes up on Mauna Kea, where the secrets of the universe are being revealed night after night. In the past year, audiences were treated to lectures on dwarf galaxies, ice giants, the structure of the universe and more from the top researchers in the country. “The scientists who speak at these monthly lectures share magnificent insights into the nature of the universe,” says Bob Steele, a regular at the talks, “and they don’t dumb it down.”


But the observatory wanted to reach more than few hundred people a month. “The Mauna Kea summit is vital for astronomical research,” says Brian Siana, who researches the early universe using Keck’s technology. “It’s important the public becomes aware of the great discoveries being made there.” To that end, Keck has begun streaming the lectures on the web as well as archiving past lectures and podcasts on its web site.


Mike Brown’s Pluto lecture was the first live webcast; subsequent webcasts have been growing in popularity. (One attracted six thousand viewers when it took on the topic of an asteroid then making a close pass by Earth.) Lectures like Siana’s “How Stars Destroyed Almost All the Atoms in the Universe” and Greg Laughlin’s “Oodles of Exoplanets: The Search for Other Earths” are now reaching astronomy clubs—as well as living rooms and wireless hotspots—all over the country.