Season Schedule

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September 2018

Technology in Emergency Medical Services

Byron Piatt, University of New Mexico Emergency Manager


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September 2018

Gravitational waves and the Kilonova Explosion

Nicole Lloyd-Ronning, Los Alamos National Laboratory


Presenter's Essay and Bio

Presenter's Essay

On September 14, 2015, a new window to the universe was opened. Scientists detected gravitational waves - ripples in spacetime - from two massive black holes colliding. Before their collision, the black holes were spiraling around each other - bound by their mutual gravitational pull - like two ice skaters grasping hands, spinning round and round in circles. As the black holes danced, they warped and rippled space around them and lost energy. This caused them to spiral ever closer until they finally collided. This collision caused a distinct and powerful warp in spacetime - ripples called gravitational waves - that traveled across the universe until they reached our detectors on Earth. For that moment when the ripples passed by, space shrunk and then stretched a little bit until the wave went on its way. This stretching and shrinking of the fabric of space itself was measured by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana.

Almost 2 years later, on Aug. 17, 2018, another phenomenal gravitational wave event occurred. This time it wasn’t two black holes colliding (by now, LIGO had seen around 10 or so of these types of events occur in different parts of the universe), but instead two neutron stars smashed together. Neutron stars are the extremely dense remnants left behind after massive stars die an explosive death. These tiny stars are only about the size of Santa Fe, but are more massive than the sun (that means 1 teaspoon of neutron star weighs as much as 100 trillion elephants). When these two stars collided, they not only rippled space and sent gravitational waves across the universe, but also emitted a bright flash of light called a kilonova, and shot out a jet of high energy radiation called a gamma-ray burst. From these additional light signals, we learned so much! For example, astrophysicists have been wondering for decades where elements heavier than iron came from (it’s very hard for nature to make these big atoms). By looking at the light from the kilonova, we got direct evidence that heavy elements are made when two neutron stars collide. That means the gold in your earrings or the platinum in your car’s catalytic converter were made in events just like this one.

The combination of detecting gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation (light) from an object in space is called “multi-messenger astronomy” and you are witnessing its beginning. By trying to understand the combination of this information - gravitational waves, light, and other radiation - we can learn so much more about these types of merger events, about our universe, and about fundamental physics itself. We are at the dawn of a new era in our ability to make sense of our universe!

About the Presenter

Nicole Lloyd-Ronning

When I was about four years old, I decided I really wanted to be astronaut. This was partly because I thought it sounded ridiculously fun to ride in a rocket ship to the moon, but mostly because I was blown away by the night sky and wanted to find out what was up there. I thought I had to physically go into space to do this.

Without really knowing what it meant, I held on to this dream throughout my childhood. I had a nomadic life, moving on average every two years, migrating from Texas to Germany to California, back to Germany (including moves within Germany), Kansas, Virginia, and finally finishing up my last few years of high school in beautiful Hawaii! This lifestyle and my parents’ sense of adventure nurtured my desire to explore and made me want to seek out places, people, cultures, and ideas that weren’t familiar.

By high school, the dream of being an astronaut was as alive as it was when I was four. I simply assumed I’d become a shuttle pilot and that would be my ticket to space. But during my sophomore year in high school, I learned that my vision would not meet the physical requirements and a shuttle pilot job was out. OK, fine. Having no clue what it meant or what I was talking about, I decided I’d have to get a Ph.D. in physics in order to become an astronaut. I didn’t really even know what physics was, but that became my new completely non-thought out plan about how to get to space. Luckily, thanks to some really awesome teachers, it turned out I really loved my physics and math classes. I loved that both subjects gave me tools to describe and understand how nature works. I loved the lack of subjectivity, that there was a right and a wrong that was not based on a person’s opinion. And I really loved that there were (are!) many different ways to arrive at the same final answer. I decided I’d go to college and major in physics and astronomy.

I applied to schools around the country that were supposed to be good in these fields. My public high school was not known for academics: there were much bigger concerns involving the general well-being and safety of the students. But all it took was a couple of wonderful and encouraging teachers who helped guide me toward the path I wanted to be on. On a last minute whim, at the request of our school’s college counselor, I ended up applying to Cornell University to major in physics.

I was very afraid and averse to being at Cornell: the stereotype of an Ivy League preppy person was not me at all!. What’s more, I knew I had to pay my own tuition and didn’t think I could afford it. Since age 9, I had been working any job I could get, usually babysitting at the crazy rate of $1/hour, bussing tables, and waitressing to save up for college. Funnily enough, thanks to various types of financial aid and scholarships, Cornell ended up being the most affordable school for me and I ended up going there. I couldn’t have been happier - despite the cold, gray weather of upstate New York, the challenging classes and the fantastic professors gave me an excellent foundation in physics and astronomy and prepared me well for the next step on my journey. I went to Stanford for a Ph.D. in physics, focusing on high energy astrophysics and gamma-ray bursts, the violent, explosive deaths of massive stars.

I then headed to the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto as a postdoctoral fellow, and then to Los Alamos in 2003 to do a second postdoc. About a year into this position, expecting my second child, I made the decision to stay home full time with my kids (I now have three). During my time at home, I kept up with the current research in the field (mostly by reading research papers published in academic journals) and stayed in touch with former colleagues in my field. In the last couple of years, thanks to my former postdoc advisor at LANL as well as a generous fellowship from the American Physical Society, I’ve been able to come back to research at the lab and have picked up working on many different and exciting aspects of the deaths of the most massive stars. I also lead a class through UNM-LA’s Community Education program on modern astrophysics that is open to anyone and everyone interested in space regardless of science or math background (and hopefully some of you will join!).

Besides astrophysics, I love to hang out with my family, run, swim, play water polo (or pretty much any sport), cook, and most definitely eat. I haven’t yet physically made it to space (although I still aspire to that), but I feel lucky that I’ve gotten to pursue the dream that inspired me to want to be an astronaut to begin with: to learn about what is up there in that beautiful night sky and how it all works...

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October 2018

Math Circles

James Taylor


Presenter's Bio

About the Presenter

James Taylor

James Taylor founded the Math Circles Collaborative of New Mexico and the Math Teachers' Circle of Santa Fe. James has led math circles, Julia Robinson Math Festivals, and math wrangles in New Mexico and Arizona. He recently retired after 21 years at Santa Fe Preparatory School as computer department chair, computer science and mathematics teacher. He has been working with math circles for students and teachers since early 2006. Most recently James has led an eight-day workshop of math circles with computational extensions at Northern New Mexico College (NNMC), and has helped found several New Mexico math circles at 7-12 grade schools, as well as at NNMC and New Mexico Highlands University. He has been involved with the Alliance of Indigenous Math Circles, the Navajo Math Circles Project, Julia Robinson Math Festivals, and many math circles in classrooms.

James has also been involved since the late 1990s in teaching computational science and computer modeling in the US and Mexico, including teaching modeling workshops at the Santa Fe Institute and the MIT.

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October 2018

Quantum Dots: Reshaping how we use color and light

Hunter McDaniel, UbiQD, Inc.