Great Heroes and Discoveries of Astronomy
Emily Levesque is an Associate Professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate in Astronomy from the University of Hawai‘i. She received both the Annie Jump Cannon Award and the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize from the American Astronomical Society. She has been a Scialog Fellow, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, a Kavli Fellow, and a Cottrell Scholar. She has also received competitive research funding from NASA and the National Science Foundation.
01: What Astronomy’s Heroes Can Teach Us
Begin with an overview of the course, which revolves around the landmark accomplishments of Edwin Hubble, Albert Einstein, and Carl Sagan. Preview some of the fascinating astronomical discoveries tied to their legacies—and the many other great heroes of astronomy who helped make these scientific strides possible.
02: Designing and Building the Modern Telescope
Meet George Ellery Hale, the father of the modern telescope. After learning the engineering science behind telescopes, follow the story of how Hale raised funds for a massive 200-inch telescope that went on to hold the world record for largest telescope for nearly 30 years—and sparked our continued plans to build more ELTs, or Extremely Large Telescopes.
03: Harvard Heroines Show Us the Stars
With so many stars, could we possibly study them all? Enter three women: Williamina Fleming, who developed a method for classifying stars based on their spectra; Annie Jump Cannon, who rearranged the classification system’s order using multiple elements; and Cecilia Payne, who established the first temperature scale for stars based on their classifications and spectral appearances.
04: The Heroic Discovery of Other Galaxies
How did Henrietta Swan Leavitt, the prolific discoverer of variable stars, make sense of “Cepheid variables”? How did she calculate the relationship between their periods and their true luminosities? How did Edwin Hubble use Leavitt’s work (known as the Leavitt law) to measure the distance to the Great Andromeda Nebula in the 1920s?
05: Edwin Hubble and the Expanding Universe
In this lesson, unpack the mysteries of Hubble’s law. First, take a closer look at each part of this deceptively simple equation. Then, encounter the many heroes behind the law, including Vesto Slipher, an astronomer at Arizona’s Lowell Observatory, and Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest and astronomer who may have influenced Hubble’s insights.
06: Heroes of the Hubble Space Telescope
Here, focus on the story of Edwin Hubble’s most famous namesake: the Hubble Space Telescope. Among the heroes who helped make this vision a reality were the astrophysicist Lyman Spitzer; Nancy Roman, NASA’s first chief of astronomy; and a team of astronomers and telescope builders who helped repair a critical problem post-launch.
07: Pioneers of Radio Astronomy
Today, radio astronomy is an immense field that has given rise to some of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the last century. Explore the work of Karl Jansky, who first detected radio waves in the early 1930s, and Grote Roeber, who built the first dedicated radio telescope and kicked off a surge of interest in radio astronomy.
08: Discovering the Cosmic Microwave Background
What began as a faint hiss soon became one of the most crucial signals being studied in astronomy today. In this lesson on the cosmic microwave background (CMB), discover how detector designs, satellite observations, and other heroic efforts have shaped our understanding of the entire universe, from its age to the way it behaves today.
09: Vera Rubin and the Discovery of Dark Matter
Today’s physicists and astronomers debate the idea of dark matter: what it’s made of, how it works, and what it means for the makeup of our universe. Go back to the beginning and learn about the invaluable contributions of Vera Rubin and Kent Ford, who found the first observational evidence of dark matter.
10: Finding the Beginning and End of the Cosmos
In this lesson, cover two of the most fundamental—and intertwined—questions astronomers around the world continually ask themselves: How did the universe begin? How will it end? Central to these questions is an innovative theory proposed by physicist Alan Guth that could explain the earliest moments of the universe.
11: How Astronomers Have Shaped Our World
Turn now to the physical and energetic extremes of the universe, which are some of the most brain-bending areas of astronomy. Begin by taking a look at how astronomers from all backgrounds—from theoretical physicist and humanitarian Albert Einstein to astronomer and gay rights advocate Frank Kameny—have taken on the challenge of shaping the world we live in, as well as the continued efforts in the profession to fight for continued and improved equity.
12: The Discoverers of Exploding Stars
Supernovae are some of the most luminous events in our universe. Learn why Oscar Duhalde deserves a unique place among astronomical heroes, then examine how astronomers study and classify supernovae and eventually discovered SN 1987A: one of the most infamous and well-studied supernovae of all time.
13: Pioneers of X-ray and Ultraviolet Astronomy
X-ray and ultraviolet light are invaluable pieces in the puzzle of observational astronomy that have opened our eyes to everything from the solar corona to Earth’s magnetic field. Here, take a closer look at the importance of ultraviolet and X-ray astronomy, and the invaluable efforts of scientific heroes like George Carruthers and Riccardo Giacconi.
14: Finding Neutron Stars and Black Holes
Discover the contributions of Jocelyn Bell and other astronomers in the search for neutron stars and black holes. How do astronomers observe these strange objects—and what, exactly, are they? What cutting-edge techniques are today’s teams of heroic astronomers using to study topics like stellar death and gravity?
15: Astronomers Put Einstein to the Test
There is perhaps no more famous theory in the field of physics than Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity. After unpacking the details of the infamous equation that revolutionized science, discover how Arthur Eddington catapulted Einstein and his newly proven theories about the relationship between space, time, and gravity worldwide.
16: The Heroic Detection of Gravitational Waves
Dig into what gravitational waves are, as well as the enormous observatories and groups of scientists that accomplished the mind-blowing task of detecting them. Focus on the work of teams led by Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish, whose Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected the tiny chirps of minuscule density waves in spacetime.
17: Heroic Surveys of the Entire Night Sky
How do astronomers study and track changes in the night sky? Track the development of astronomical surveys, from the work of William and Caroline Herschel in the 1780s to build a systematic catalogue of the northern night sky to Jim Gunn’s work in the late 20th century to develop the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
18: Carl Sagan: The Great Space Communicator
Explore the vital importance of communicating astronomical discoveries to the rest of the world. First, witness the rise of planetariums that can simulate a night sky for the public. Then, turn to the storytelling of science-fiction authors like Jules Verne and Gene Roddenberry. Lastly, celebrate the impact of Carl Sagan and his Cosmos television series.
19: The Shoemakers Reveal Asteroids and Comets
Take a census of our solar system’s smallest members, including asteroids and comets, and their relationship with geological history. We have Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker to thank for the dawn of planetary geology, which helped astronomers better understand the origins of the Moon and project the paths of near-Earth objects.
20: Discovering Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Explore Pluto’s brief decades of fame. Start with Percival Lowell and Clyde Tombaugh’s search for another planet lurking beyond Neptune, continue with Gerard Kuiper’s pioneering work on airborne observatories that revealed our first glimpse of Pluto’s atmosphere, and conclude with the planet’s demotion to a dwarf planet that was part of the ring of rock-and-ice objects known as the Kuiper belt.
21: Solar Astronomers Reveal the Universe
Drawing on a great deal of heroic research, take a long (and safe) look at our own Sun. How have particle physics and asteroseismology helped us to understand the Sun’s inner workings and deepest layers? How did astronomers build solar telescopes that could tackle the unique challenges of studying the Sun and eye-catching events like sunspots and solar flares?
22: The Heroic Hunt for Extrasolar Planets
Astronomers today continue the search for exoplanets orbiting around other stars. In this lesson, meet astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail, who in the 1990s discovered not only the first extrasolar planets, but also the first multi-planet system and the first evidence of planets forming around pulsars.
23: The Seekers of Extraterrestrial Life
Explore how we study the environments of distant planets and what—or who—may be living on them. Among the many bright minds you’ll meet are Vikki Meadows, whose team specializes in habitability and biosignatures, and Frank Drake, whose famous equation puts a number on the civilizations in our galaxy we could potentially detect.
24: Tomorrow’s Heroes of Astronomy
Tomorrow’s heroes of astronomy are hard at work today pursuing new discoveries, testing new theories, and making groundbreaking technological advances. Topics in this final lesson include the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), and the James Webb Space Telescope.