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Michelle Nichols, Director of Public Observing at The Adler Planetarium, has a special talent as a public speaker. She is an expert in her subject matter. She speaks with warmth, enthusiasm, and confidence. Listening to her talk about astronomy feels both intimate and understandable, as if she is talking only to the viewer. She makes the universe accessible, in the hope that the viewer will love it in some small way as she does. It is a wonderful combination of instruction, storytelling, and intellectual hypnosis that leaves even incurious viewers spellbound.
On June 1, Ms. Nichols regaled the Levy Lecture audience with “An Armchair Tour of the Universe.” She started with some basic building blocks. Stars, like the sun in this solar system, make their own energy; planets orbit stars and reflect light from their stars. Other objects orbit stars including satellites (also known as moons), nebulae (the plural of nebula, the Latin word for “clouds’ or more colloquially, “fuzzy things” that can be seen with an ordinary telescope), asteroids (rocky objects), comets (icy objects), dust, and gases (mostly hydrogen). Galaxies are collections of stars and their solar systems. All of those objects, visible with a telescopic camera as well as the naked eye, form the universe. She explained, “The universe is just a collection of everything we can see.”
“Stars form in big giant gas clouds. Solar systems form around stars. You need big giant gas clouds to form stars,” Ms. Nichols said. The photos she referred to and shared, taken from observatories all over the world, including the Hubble telescope, are both stunningly beautiful and eerie. Vivid colors combine in phantastic shapes. All of these photos are available online to the public without charge, courtesy of the research being funded by U.S. tax dollars. The photos from the Hubble telescope capture colors (and even heat) that the human eye cannot see.
There are planets around most stars. In the Milky Way Galaxy alone, Ms. Nichols said, there are around four hundred billion stars and trillions of planets, the vast majority of which have not been seen. She cited a website (exoplanets.nasa.gov) within the NASA network that keeps track of the number of planets that have been found to date, and on June 1 that number was 4,389 planets orbiting 3,260 stars. As more research is done, the number keeps increasing.
She also noted how far astronomical science has come in the some 25 years she has been at the Adler. Scientists can now find planets, determine their relative age and size, and know whether or not they contain air. Undoubtedly there are complex math and physics formulas that enable these calculations, but watching and listening to Ms. Nichols describe how scientists can deduce new facts based on existing knowledge made the concepts seem positively fun.
Ms. Nichols shared that the most frequently asked question she is asked has to do with whether or not she believes there is other intelligent life “out there” beyond Earth. She says she believes there is. With so many trillions of stars and planets out there, it seems realistic that there have to be other living things somewhere, although she does not believe they have visited Earth. The listening audience – several hundred seniors living in and around Evanston – were rapturous over Ms. Nichols’ presentation, her third as a Levy Lecturer. In a non-pandemic year, her public speaking to non-professional groups is mostly limited to her local public library in the evenings. Fortunately, this lecture, as were the other two, was taped and is available to view on the Levy Senior Center Foundation YouTube channel.