Events offered at MIT during the January 2018 Independent Activities Period.

The MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research concentrates scientists at MIT working on observing and understanding how the Universe works. Every year during IAP, we host a series of events to share the kind of work that's going on here with the broader MIT community. Please join us this year for science talks, lab tours, or observing outings. Most talks are in room 37-252 (in the McNair Building), unless otherwise stated.

Please contact Shuo Zhang ( or Paul Hemphill ( with any questions.

Solar Observing

Three dates:

22 January, 12:00pm - 2:00pm, North Court -- behind Stata and Koch buildings

23 January, 12:00pm - 2:00pm, Outside of MIT Student Center -- upper plaza

25 January, 12:00pm - 2:00pm, North Court -- behind Stata and Koch buildings

Join us for daytime stargazing! We will have solar telescopes set up so you can safely observe our closest star, the Sun. Swing on by for a quick look, and feel free to stay and chat with MIT astronomers over cups of cocoa.

Sponsored by Kavli Institute for Astrophysics & Space Research, Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and Wallace Astrophysics Observatory.

weather permitting

Complexity in the Universe

16 January 2018, 1:30 - 2:30pm

Learn about broken symmetries and simulation of the Universe.

Broken Symmetries in the Cosmos.

Dr. Tom Chang, 1:30 - 2:00pm in 37-252

Abstract: If there is any running of the propagator (fundamental interaction) coupling constant at large spatial scales in renormalization-group (similarity) transformations of the gravitational effective action, cosmological observations may antiscreening distortions with possible dark matter implications. A narrative description of this novel idea of symmetry-breaking will be conveyed to the general scientific audience, along with some simple illustrative examples utilizing the fractional differintegral operators.

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.

Simulating the Universe on a Supercomputer

Ryan McKinnon, 2:00 - 2:30pm in 37-252

Galaxies in the universe form and grow over time in a complicated nonlinear fashion. Recent advances in supercomputing ability make it possible to numerically model the essential physics and evolve a "mock" universe from shortly after the Big Bang to the present day, producing a fairly realistic population of galaxies. In this talk, I will highlight the key topics in physics that govern galaxy formation, display visualizations from state-of-the-art astrophysics simulations, and discuss the supercomputing resources needed to simulate the universe.

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.

Exoplanet Research at MIT

17 January 2018, 1:00 - 2:30pm

Learn about exoplanet research being carried out at MIT.

Finding New Worlds with the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

Dr. Diana Dragomir, 1:00 - 1:30pm in 37-252

Just 25 years ago, humanity did not know whether planets were common in the Universe or whether the Solar System was an anomaly. Then, in 1995 a giant planet was discovered in a 4-day orbit around a main sequence star. Since then, the number of exoplanets discovered every year in our Galaxy has been increasing exponentially. In a few months, the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) space mission will launch, with the goal of finding the nearest exoplanet systems to us. The TESS science instruments will be operated from the MIT campus, and the satellite is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral on a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket. TESS will focus on discovering Earth- and super-Earth-sized planets in the solar neighborhood, as well as exoplanets in the habitable zones of nearby stars, where conditions might be suitable for the existence life. Once discovered by TESS, these new exoplanets will be much more easily studied than those we already know of, thanks to their proximity.

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.

Exoplanet Science in the era of TESS

Dr. Jenn Burt, 1:30 - 2:00pm in 37-252

The beginning of the TESS spacecraft's science mission in mid 2018 promises the detection of thousands of exoplanets orbiting bright, nearby stars. These planets will provide astronomers with our best ever opportunity to mount extensive follow up observation efforts and try to understand the composition, distribution and evolution of planets in our galaxy. This talk will describe the anticipated TESS planet yield, its impact on the exoplanet field, and some of the follow up methods that astronomers will use to probe the composition of the planets' rocky cores and/or gaseous outer atmospheres.

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.

Science behind LIGO

19 January 2018, 1:00 - 2:30pm

Learn about gravitational wave science and take a LIGO lab tour!

An Explanation of the Science Behind LIGO

Dr. Evan Hall, 1:00 - 1:30pm in NW22 at interaction area

How can we build a machine that can detect dead stars colliding with each other a billion light-years away? Come hear about the physics that goes into building the LIGO gravitational wave observatories, and the astrophysics behind recent detections. Black holes, neutron stars, high-power lasers, and quantum optics!

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.


Dr. Lee McCuller, 1:30 - 2:30pm in NW17

Following the talk will be a tour of the MIT LIGO lab. Come see how the quantum optics research here at MIT will improve detections of binary neutron stars and black holes in LIGO to be more often and more informative.

Please Note:
30 people max for tour, going in as two groups of 15 each. Advance sign-up required starting at 12:55pm in NW22 immediately before Dr. Evan Hall's talk. Attendance of talk is required for tour of the Lab. We will walk over as a group from Building NW22, immediately following Dr. Hall's talk. Building NW17 is about a 10 minute walk away. The tour will last until about 2:30pm.

Giant Telescopes and First Stars

23 January 2018, 1:30 - 2:30pm

Learn about next generation telescopes and first stars.

Modern Cyclopses - The Era of Giant Telescopes

Dr. Gabor Furesz, 1:30 - 2:00pm in 37-252

While astronomical observations have been carried out for thousands of years it is only the past four centuries when our naked eyes have been aided by telescopes. With today's 'giant eyes' we can peer really deep into the night sky, literally reaching the edge of the (observable) Universe. But to get there we have to build larger and larger, ever more sensitive, better telescopes and instruments. It has been really just the past few decades when progress was exponential, just like in other fields: thanks to computers, highly sensitive digital detectors and other modern design and manufacturing technologies. But progress in astronomical instrumentation is also influenced by commercialization, the consumer market, as well as history and politics - as these extremely large and complex scientific machines require collaboration and unique technology developments that point beyond a single nation, even the U.S. One could rightfully ask: do we really need these even larger giant telescopes, if they are so expensive and we already can see to the edge of the Universe? I will argue for the "yes" answer by showing a few very exciting science cases, like the detection and characterization of extrasolar planets and understanding the chemical evolution of the Universe. To investigate these questions it is not enough to simply detect the light but also to analyze it in detail. While spectroscopy is a well established and great method to do so, it requires a lot of photons to be captured - which hopefully will be delivered by the next generation of giant light buckets.

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.

Searching for the First Stars

Dr. Ani Chiti, 2:00 - 2:30pm in 37-252

metal- stars have helped us peer into the conditions of the early universe, as the chemical composition of a s photosphere mirrors the composition of its natal gas cloud. Recent efforts have been successful in detecting a number of stars that formed in the first few generations after the first stars. But we are yet to discover a surviving first star, which leads to some questionsstarpoorOld natural Is there even a possibility of detecting a surviving first star? And if so, what open questions would such a remarkable detection answer? Come to this talk to learn about the background and techniques on studying and identifying the oldest stars.

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.

X-ray Spectroscopy and Polarimetry: Talk and Tour

24 January 2018, 1:00 - 2:30pm

Learn about the development and application of x-ray spectroscopy.

Heavier than the Sun, Smaller than a City: The Neutron Star

Dr. Paul Hemphill 1:30 - 2:00pm in 37-252

Neutron stars are some of the most extreme objects in the known Universe. More massive than the Sun, but just a few miles across, they have some of the highest densities, strongest magnetic fields, and highest temperatures of any celestial objects. In this talk I will give an overview of the origins and properties of the various types of neutron stars that we observe, as well as how we can detect them and their usefulness for astrophysics as a whole.

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.

Tour of the X-ray Polarimetry Lab -- please note tour limit and prerequisite below

Drs. Norbert Schulz and Herman Marshall, 2:30 - 3:30pm departing from 37-252

Tour of MIT's X-ray Polarimetry Lab, where new X-ray instrumentation is currently being developed.

Please Note:
20 people max for tour. Advance sign-up required starting at 12:25pm in 37-252 immediately before Dr. Hemphill's talk. Attendance of talk is required for tour of the Lab. Tour will leave from 37-252 at 2:30pm, and last until about 3:30pm.

Black Hole, Neutron Star and Star Formation

25 January 2018, 1:00 - 2:30pm

Learn about supermassive black hole, R process and star formation!

The Glorious Past of Our Monster Black Hole

Dr. Shuo Zhang, 1:00 - 1:30pm in 37-252

The center of our Galaxy resides a monster black hole, called Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*), containing 4.5 million times the mass of our sun. While Sgr A* is quite inactive nowadays, there have been abundant observation evidence pointing to a glorious past of this supermassive black hole. Sgr A* has been inferred to produce major outbursts a few hundred years ago, and even more extreme eruptions a few million years ago. What is the physics behind such extreme bahavious of the Galactic center supermassive black hole? Will it become active again in the future? This talk will answer these questions by discussing the past activities and future fate of Sgr A*.

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.

Formation of Gold and other heavy elements via the R(apid neutron capture)-process

Dr. Rana Ezzeddine, 1:30 - 2:00pm in 37-252

Most chemical elements up to Iron are formed in the core of the stars via nucleosynthesis fusion processes of lighter elements into heavier ones. Elements heavier than iron, however, require neutron-capture processes to take place. I will talk about our current understanding of the formation of heavy elements, such as Gold and Uranium, via the (r)apid neutron-capture process within the latest multi-wavelength discovery on 17/08/17 of the neutron star merging event.

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.

How Stars are Born

Dr. Moritz Gunther, 2:00 - 2:30pm in 37-252

While our Sun is almost 5 billion years old, stars still form in the the dark clouds of our Milky Way. When we observe those regions we can learn how star and planet formation works, so that we also understand the formation of our own solar system and the Earth better. I will describe how we observe those regions that are hidden to the naked eye using infrared and X-ray telescopes to obtain stunning images of stellar nurseries. Zooming in on just a few of the young stars, I show how a gas cloud collapses to form a hot gas core that is the birth place of another sun and possibly a few planets. This is the stage of star formation where I concentrate my own research and I will describe how professional astronomers gain access to space telescopes, share my experiences of how to use the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) for my observations of young stars and I will show an example of how we process the observations to extract scientific conclusions. Star formation is a very active area of research with many open questions to solve and certainly one of the areas in astronomy that delivers extremely beautiful images of the Milky Way that surrounds us.

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.

Roman Warships!

26 January 2018, 1:30 - 2:30pm

Learn about reconstruction efforts for Roman Warships. This talk is co-sponsored by MIT History Faculty and MKI.

Roman warships in Experiment: Reconstruction and Sailing Tests

Dr. Moritz Gunther, 1:30 - 2:30pm in 37-252

Warning: This talk is non-astronomical and contains actual videos and possibly sound. After the climax of its power internal struggle weakened the military position of the Roman Empire. A series of attacks in the 2nd and 3rd century AD forced an adjustment of the military strategy in central Europe. Instead of further expansion, the borders of the empire were increasingly fortified. In Germany this lead to the construction of an impressive naval fleet on the rivers Rhine and Danube. Several of the boats have been excavated. Our team has attempted a reconstruction of two types of vessel, the "navis lusoria" and the "Oberstimm" with a level of detail down to the hand-smithened nails with the correct metallurgy. A series of three working boats have been built in original size. I will show pictures of the reconstruction phase, but concentrate on the on-the-water tests we have performed with different teams to access the speed, maneuverability and sailing performance of these boats. Particularly in sailing the possibilities far exceeded the expectations. This result indicates a much larger operating radius of these vessels than previously estimated and thus a much higher flexibility of the river defense scheme which the empire relied on to keep the barbarians at bay. See, e.g.: this movie

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.

The Universe in X-ray Light

29 January 2018, 1:00 - 3:00pm

Learn how astronomers use the NASA flagship X-ray telescope Chandra to observe exotic objects in the Universe.

Exploring the Universe from Near to Far with the Chandra X-ray Observatory

Mike Nowak 1:00 - 1:30pm in 37-252

In the summer of 1999, NASA launched the third of its great observatories -- the Chandra X-ray telescope. Like the Hubble Space telescope which preceded it, Chandra is designed to have an unprecedented ability to create images and spectra of astrophysical objects, except working with high energy X-rays instead of optical light. This means that Chandra views some of the universe's most exotic and energetic phenomena: supernovae, neutron stars, black holes, jets traveling at nearly the speed of light emanating from near the center of clusters of galaxies. In this talk, we'll take a tour of the discoveries made by the Chandra X-ray telescope, starting with studies of our own solar system, moving outward to nearby stars, to the center of our own Galaxy where a black hole 40 millions times the mass of our Sun lurks, to distant clusters of Galaxies where the most massive black holes, billions of times the mass of our Sun, reside.

No enrollment limit for talk, no advance sign-up required.

Tour of the Operations Control Center for the Chandra X-ray Observatory, One of NASA's Great Observatories

Dr. Norbert Schulz, 2:00 - 3:00pm departing from 37-252

The Chandra X-ray Observatory is the world's most powerful X-ray telescope, allowing scientists to study the origin, structure and evolution of our universe in greater detail than ever before. The spacecraft and science instruments are controlled from the Operations Control Center (OCC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We will take our visitors on a tour of the OCC and show where scientists and engineers direct the flight and execute the observing plan of Chandra, and where they receive the scientific data from the observatory. During the tour the visitors will learn about the basics of X-ray astronomy and about the latest, exciting discoveries made by MIT scientists with data acquired with Chandra.

Tour will be limited to max 20 people. Advance sign-up for tour required! Sign up deadline 12:00 noon on JANUARY 22nd. Contact Debbie Meinbresse ( with your name and country of citizenship. Prerequisites: Attendance of 1:00pm talk by Dr. Michael Nowak (Marlar Lounge, 37-252) preceding the tour. NOTE: This event and the subsequent one are in building NE-80 and NE-83, which are restricted areas. We will walk over as a group from Building 37, immediately following Dr. Nowak's talk. Building NE-83 is about an 8 minute walk away, near the Cambridge Brewing Company. Be sure to bring your ID with you (driver's license, state issued identification card, or passport)!