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Our Place in the Universe

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We are happy to report that the Library’s science lecture Our Place in the Universe – Cosmology from the Ancient Greeks to Today with astrobiologist Michelle Thaller will continue as scheduled for Wednesday Oct. 23rd at 11:30 a.m. in the Library’s Mary Pickford Theater of the James Madison Building. [Update 4/11/2014- The Our Place in the Universe webcast and YouTube video are available for viewing]

We are equally happy to have Michelle Thaller make a return engagement to the Library. In February 2010, she gave a fantastic talk about Galileo and the Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger). If you are interested in viewing this lecture see our Galileo: 400 Years of the Telescope Webcast or YouTube video.  I should also note that Galileo’s Starry Messenger is the subject of a new Library of Congress publication edited by Daniel De Simone and John Hessler. The facsimile used in this book comes from the Library’s copy, which is one of the most complete copies in existence. To celebrate the 2008 purchase of this work, the Library hosted the 2010 program Galileo’s Moon.

I asked our speaker (Michelle Thaller) for a brief summary of her lecture and she responded with the following:

As a scientist, I am always amazed at the audacity that we claim, in any real way, to understand the nature of the universe.  We know our history.  We understand that it has only been a few thousand years since we had any idea of the scale of our own planet, only a few brief centuries since we invented the telescope.  But any journey of exploration needs a first step, then maybe a wild leap of conjecture to get us going.  It’s amazing, in retrospect, how good many first guesses are.  Aristarchus of Samos knew the rough sizes of the Earth, Moon and Sun (and yes, he knew the Sun was much larger than the Earth) over two thousand years ago.  Ancient Greeks had sophisticated gear-controlled astronomical computers, which remained unrivaled in accuracy and complexity until the genius of 18th century clockmakers.  Standing on the shoulders of these giants, how far does our gaze extend today, with the advent of space-based observatories and supercomputers?  We’ve mapped our position relative to millions of other galaxies covering billions of light years of distance.  We now understand, astoundingly, that the vast majority of the universe is not composed of the same kind of matter that makes our bodies, planet, galaxies. Come find out just how much we know, and how much we don’t know, about our place in the universe.

Illus. in: Machinae coelestis / Johannes Hevelius. Gedani : Auctoris typis, & sumtibus, impremebat S. Reiniger, 1673-1679.

In case you are not familiar with Dr. Thaller’s work, she is a nationally recognized spokesperson for astronomy and science. By training she is an astrobiologist, but her job description is the Assistant Director of Science for Communication at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She speaks to members of Congress and their staffs regularly, as well as international embassy staff and internal NASA policy-makers. Michelle has received numerous high-profile awards for her work, including the Robert Goddard Award, the Women in Aerospace Award, and induction into the Space Camp Hall of Fame.

You can find Dr. Thaller hosting a series of podcasts available on iTunes and YouTube and starring in the television series “The Universe”  on the History Channel,  “The Known Universe” on NatGeo and “How the Universe Works” on Discovery Science Channel. Behind the scenes, Michelle has led efforts to develop high-quality apps for smartphones and tablets, as well as involve NASA missions with social media outlets such as FaceBook, Twitter, and Second Life.

Our Place in the Universe – Cosmology from the Ancient Greeks to Today will be the conclusion of the seventh year of the Library’s partnership in hosting lectures with the Goddard Space Flight Center. We are currently planning the 2014 series that will feature topics on earth and space sciences, so stay tuned.

To learn more about the prehistoric, ancient, and traditional astronomies within their cultural context take a look at our guide on Archaeoastronomy.



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