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is made up of undergraduate students from Columbia and Barnard with a genuine interest in astronomy and who want to engage with other astronomy students, the department here at Columbia and the community at large. We welcome undergrads that are majoring in Astronomy/Astrophysics, other science disciplines, or people who simply have an interest in the subject.

Nov 4, 2011

Bwog reports on Fabric of the Cosmos Live Forum

Life, the Universe, and Everything, With Brian Greene

Last night, Miller Theater was transformed yet again into a realm of mystique and wonder, courtesy of PBS, and Bwog’s favorite physicist, Brian Greene. A sizable crowd assembled to watch the premiere of the new NOVA special, The Fabric of the Cosmos, based on Greene’s book of the same title. The real treat, however, was a live webcast (jointly hosted by the World Science Festival) with Brian Greene after the showing as he answered questions about physics, space, and nearly everything else. Brian Wagner, Bwog’s passionate spacetime enthusiast, was on hand.
cosmosThe NOVA special is based on Greene's book of the same name
Amber Miller, the Dean of Sciences, opened the evening on behalf of PrezBo, who was unable to attend due to his European vacation. After more remarks by folks from the World Science Festival and PBS’s obligatory five minutes of donor-thanking, the show actually began.
Episode 1 of the sciencey special is entitled “What is Space?” The show first asks you to consider all the “stuff” surrounding us in the world. Now what happens if you take away all the “stuff?” What are you left with? If you guessed nothing, you’re kind of right. But mostly wrong. You’re left with space. And though we don’t really know what space is, it’s definitely…something. It can bend and twist (but not shout). Taking a chronological tour (oh, by the way, time might not be real, but you’ll have to wait for Episode 2 for that one) through the history of scientific explanations of space, Fabric explains that space is not a passive “stage,” as Newton conceived of it. In the last century, Einstein discovered that space actually bends and stretches in order to keep the speed of light constant, and this is where gravity comes from. With the help of some fancy CGI Brian Greene explained that space is kind of like a pool table with a stretchy, elastic surface. When you put something heavy on it (i.e. a planet), it creates an indentation. Then when something smaller (like a moon) comes rolling by, it falls into the indentation and begins rolling along the edge of the curve, in effect rotating around the planet.
So space can bend. Got it. What’s actually bending then? At the subatomic level, space is a pretty crowded place, full of elementary particles whizzing around, with pairs appearing and then annihilating each other at an alarming rate. The interesting part is that these little guys have different masses, and we don’t really know why. Actually, we don’t really know what mass is. The current theory, proposed by Peter Higgs, is that space contains a “field,” which particles move through and pick up mass. Fabric invites you to picture it like a crowd of paparazzi. Lesser-known actors, in this case representing lighter particles, are able to move through the crowd without much effort. The George Clooneys of the particle zoo, however, attract rampant attention, and move slower and slower as they progress through the field, picking up more and more “mass.” But what makes some particles Alec Baldwins and others nameless part-time waiters is still unknown.
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