The Universe Loses a Brilliant Star: Stephen Hawking


Stephen Hawking wrote that the boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary. The same can certainly be said of his influence on our world. This goes far beyond his direct scientific legacy, his ground-breaking research into black holes. In the 1970s he predicted that black holes aren’t always strictly “black;” instead, under the right conditions they can “evaporate” away, a process known as Hawking radiation. In particular, minuscule subatomic beasties called primordial black holes were predicted by Hawking to have been associated with the birth of our universe, and observations of their tell-tale final explosions in a shower of gamma rays have been sought for many years.

But Hawking’s influence certainly transcends his equations and his scientific papers. In the mid-1980s, Hawking decided to tackle an equally difficult task, to pen a book on theoretical physics for a popular audience. The result, A Brief History of Time, sold more than 10 million copies, although he himself admitted that a significant number of copies were never read from start to finish.

Hawking’s ability to motivate the general public to attempt to understand the mind-bending marvel that is our universe is arguably his most important contribution to science. For as his readers struggled to understand singularities and boundary conditions, event horizons and virtual particles, even at this so-called nontechnical level, they were mirroring the very same process that scientists go through every single day as they strive to understand reality. In this way, Hawking made science “real” even while trying to describe the properties of so-called imaginary time.

It is unknown how many of the upcoming generation of scientists were encouraged to go into the field by Hawking’s popular-level books, documentaries, or appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Futurama, The Simpsons, or The Big Bang Theory. Among them could be a future Nobel Prize winner in Physics, the one major prize that eluded Hawking. But as he clearly demonstrated, one does not need a Nobel Prize to have an impact on the world of science, just as one does not have to be able-bodied. Despite losing his ability to walk, talk, or take care of his basic individual needs by the time he was in his early 40s, Stephen Hawking made an indelible impact on our world. It has been argued that it is precisely because of these challenges that he became so famous, as the public image of a brilliant mind seemingly trapped within an immobile body became burned into our collective consciousness. Hawking himself, however, preferred to consider his mind to be free, unfettered as it explored the cosmos using only his imagination and the power of mathematics.

We should never forget, however, that Hawking’s long life very publicly and honestly educated us all on what a cruel, cruel disease ALS is, and the very real challenges facing the differently-abled in our society (especially those without the resources available to the famed physicist). Having lost a cousin to this heartless ailment, it would be easy for me to ask why Hawking was able to survive for so long and not Dennis. Instead, I take comfort in Hawking’s five-decade-long delight in enthusiastically thumbing his nose at the grim reaper.

Although his computerized voice is forever silenced, Stephen Hawking finally knows the answer to life, the universe, and the theory of everything. His life path was not an easy one, but he accepted it with humor, courage, curiosity, and an unabashed gusto for life that we would all do well to emulate.

— Kristine Larsen

View Dr. Larsen’s contributions to the History Channel’s article on Hawking and listen to her live interview with a New Zealand radio show on Hawking’s life and legacy.


Once in a “No Moon”?


January 2018 featured two full moons (on the 1st and 31st), both “super moons,” with the second also featuring a total lunar eclipse visible from the Western US. But given the fact that the time between two consecutive full moons is 29.5 days, and February only has 28 days in a non leap year, January’s full moon boon has led to February’s bust. That’s right, February 2018 has no full moons, and, to add insult to injury, March 2018 has two full moons. That’s two blue moons in a single year, something that is not rare, but certainly an interesting consequence of our calendar system. The last time February was ripped off in this way was 1999, and the next time it will happen will be 2037. This 19 year “Metonic” cycle is due to a cyclical pattern in solar and lunar calendars. February is definitely not a good month for werewolves – unless you’re trying to avoid howling.

Seeing Stars in a Different Light



Father Angelo Secchi (June 29, 1818 – February 26, 1878)

When discussing the relationship between astronomy and religion one often recounts the tension between Galileo and the Catholic Church in the 17th century. But the Vatican has hosted its own astronomical observatories for many years, and some of the discoveries made in these facilities have changed astronomy forever. A case in point is the work of Father Angelo Secchi, who died on this day in 1878. Father Secchi was a pioneer in the study of the spectra of stars. By passing starlight through a prism, astronomers can divide the white light into its constituent colors, allowing us to determine what stars are made of. Father Secchi did his work before spectra could be photographed. Hence his spectra were captured by the eye and hand, put onto paper through watercolors or colored pencils. His scientific papers were not only brilliant, but beautiful to look at.arcetri_scheda_5a

Father Secchi developed one of the very first spectral classification systems, as illustrated above. While large photographic surveys led to new classification systems, his work was an important first step in our understanding of stars, and for this reason we remember and honor Father Secchi on the anniversary of his death.

Meet Our Amazing Students!


Astronomy Minors Angie Colella (L) and Sara Poppa (R) volunteering at a local rock and mineral show.

Students interested in astronomy have the option of Minoring in either Astronomy or Astrobiology at CCSU. While most students pair this with a major in Earth Sciences or Physics, there are other options available. On our sister blog, CCSUGeologyRocks, we are currently highlighting some of our awesome students. Please take the time to get to know some of the stellar students minoring in astronomy and astrobiology!

Blue Moons, Blood Moons, and Super Moons: Separating Fact from Fiction


[Total lunar eclipse. Courtesy NASA]

Prepare to be inundated with lunacy this week, thanks to three interesting configurations of our nearest celestial neighbor. Wednesday the 31st is the second full moon of January, making it the so-called “blue moon” (as in “once in  a blue moon”). But just how rare is a blue moon? Not very, if you consider that the time between two consecutive full moons is about 29.5 days, and all months except February have more than 29.5 days in them. For example, March 2018 also has two full moons.

The “blood moon” descriptor refers to a total lunar eclipse. When the sun, earth, and moon line up in that order in a straight line, the earth casts a shadow on the otherwise full moon. Because the red portion of sunlight refracts or bends through our atmosphere, the full moon doesn’t turn black but a coppery or bloody red. While it can be a startling sight to those who aren’t expecting it (I remember being scared to death as a child when I saw a lunar eclipse during a late night potty break), there is nothing bloody or gruesome about the event. On average one or two total lunar eclipses occur each calendar year. The January 31 total lunar eclipse will not be visible from here in Connecticut, as the moon will be setting as the eclipse begins. Our next chance to see a “blood moon” will be January 21, 2019.

Well, what about the so-called “super moon?” This refers to the full moon looking larger than average. Because the moon’s orbit around the earth is not a perfect circle, when the moon is at its closest point to earth (called the perigee) it looks 14% larger than when it is at its farthest point (called apogee). When this happens at the time of full moon, you might notice that the moon looks a little bit brighter than average. There is no scientific definition of a super moon (because it’s not really something that scientists care about, to be honest), but one running definition on the internet is that it is when the full moon occurs within a few days of perigee. So how rare is this? Considering that the first full moon of January 2018 (which occurred on New Year’s Day) was also a “super moon,” you have your answer.

Putting all three of predictable, cyclical configurations together into one event, however, is just a tad more rare. The last “blue-blood-super moon” was probably in 1866 (again, depending on your definition of “super moon”). So if you want to take this opportunity to go outside and gawk at dear old Luna, please be my guest. Just don’t howl, because you might be mistaken for a super blue werewolf!

Perihelion and Palantiri: A Reflection on January 3, 2018

[Earth’s orbit (Courtesy NASA); J.R.R.Tolkien (Courtesy  The Tolkien Society]

Given the weight of the stories burying your social media on January 3 this year (including “bombogenesis”), you might have missed two less sensational annual events. At 12:35 AM EST, the Earth passed closest to the sun in its orbit, a point called perihelion (“around sun”). The actual time of perihelion varies a little bit each year, occurring some time between January 2-4. As you can see from the above diagram, we are not that much closer to the sun in January than we are at the farthest point (around July 4-5), called aphelion (“from sun”). A common misconception is that it is the shape of the earth’s orbit that causes seasons – being closer causes summer and being farther away causes winter. This misconception is fed by diagrams in science textbooks that greatly exaggerate the shape of our orbit, drawing it as an elongated ellipse rather than the rather more circular shape it actually has. The seasons are instead caused by the 23.5 degree tilt of earth’s axis.

The second annual event that was widely publicized on my social media was the 126th birthday of author J.R.R. Tolkien (January 3, 1892September 2, 1973), best known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Among Tolkien fans it is a tradition to raise a toast to Tolkien at 9 PM local time on January 3 and proclaim “The Professor!” You might be wondering why I have included Tolkien in an astronomy blog. What many readers of Tolkien’s works miss is that he has a plethora of (often fairly accurate) references to astronomy in his fantasy! From the moon runes of The Hobbit to the various references to the sun, moon, stars, eclipses and more in The Lord of the Rings and his grand mythology The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s use of astronomy in his fantasy reveals his impressive knowledge of the night sky. Tolkien certainly wasn’t the first or last fantasy writer to integrate the night sky into his fantasy world, but unlike his friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien felt it important to get the astronomy “right.” In fact, when he considered revising his unfinished mythology in the last decades of his life, he toyed with completely revising it to avoid trying to describe a mythological creation of the sun and earth, and used the then-current hypotheses concerning the formation of the moon as his guide.

So as you can see, January 3, 2018 gave this astronomer two reasons to celebrate. January 4, on the other hand, is just giving me an astronomical amount of snow to shovel….

CCSU Astronomy Students Shine in Free Public Observing Sessions


[Former AST 278 student Vanessa Swenton running the 10 inch Newtonian during a public observing session]

Each Fall semester, the students in AST 278 Observational Astronomy get an opportunity to shine. The capstone project of the course is for the students to plan, publicize, and carry out a series of four consecutive nights of free public observing sessions.


[Poster for the 2017 observing sessions. Designed by current AST 278 student Hayley Comstock]

This year’s class creatively adopted a Van Gogh theme, using the slogan “Gogh and experience a Starry Night at CCSU.” On December 3-6 from 7-8:30 PM, if the skies are clear, the 15 students will run four different telescopes and two sets of mounted binoculars, each instrument observing a different double star, star cluster, or galaxy. The students have spent a great deal of time preparing for this event, practicing how to operate the instrument they are assigned to and finding their object, as well as researching information about the instrument and object (including mythology and “fun facts”). But the success of this event really depends on you, the general public, to attend and allow these students to prove what they can do. I hope you will join us – I know you will be as proud of our CCSU astronomy students as I am.

For more information, including directions, visit the Copernican Observatory and Planetarium website.