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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Lagoon Nebula Detail

Professor Martin Harwit: The Cosmic Clock - How did the Universe Evolve from Earliest Times to the World We Inhabit Today?

22nd November 2007, 17:15 to 18:15, Durham Union Society, Palace Green, room 21

The portion of our universe that we survey today once occupied a volume far smaller than the smallest of known particles, the electrons and nucleons that make up all the matter in our bodies and our surroundings.

How did such a tiny universe begin to explosively grow to span such unimaginably great distances today?

How long did it take the universe to expand, and are its dimension likely to continue increasing forever?

Where and how did the many different chemical elements in nature that form the basis of all life come from?

And how do we know that all this really happened, since we weren't there when it did?

Professor Harwit has spent much of his career building telescopes to observe infrared radiation from the Cosmos. To detect this radiation, telescopes have to be launched into space, beyond Earth's strongly absorbing atmosphere. At infrared wavelengths telescopes can discern the role of chemical processes in the evolution of galaxies, the birth of stars and formation of planets. To make such observations possible, Harwit designed, built, and launched the first rocket-borne liquid-helium-cooled telescopes in the late1960s. He and his students also conducted astronomical observations from high-altitude NASA aircraft.

In 1987, Professor Harwit left Cornell to become director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. There, he oversaw the production of three wide-screen IMAX films, "Blue Planet", dealing with Earth; "Destiny in Space," concentrating on space exploration; and "Cosmic Voyage," which dealt with space and time in the Cosmos. The last of these was nominated for an Academy of Motion Pictures award for best documentaries. The museum was also engaged in the restoration of historical aircraft, among them the "Enola Gay," which had dropped history's first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A planned exhibition of this B-29 bomber was strongly opposed by Air Force lobbyists and the US Congress, and was cancelled in early 1995 before ever opening. Professor Harwit resigned from the museum and recounted the controversy in "An Exhibit Denied --- Lobbying the History of Enola Gay," published in 1996 and later translated into Japanese.

Professor Harwit has extensively participated in international astronomical ventures. Since 1985, he has worked on two European Space Agency (ESA) infrared astronomical space missions. He has been an external member of the Max Planck Society of Germany since 1979. In 2002 he was the Adriaan Blaauw visiting professor of Astronomy at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.


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