Summer Under the Stars / by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

I usually don’t like to repeat myself in anything I do, but this summer I did. If you were reading my blog a year ago you might remember that last year I enrolled in a three-week course on biotechnology at the University of Chicago and this summer I did it again, only I took a course called Physics of the Stars. Taking this class was a bit of a risk because I had never taken a physics course before, but I dove right in.

The course was amazing, far better than last year! It was very nice being back in the same place. I knew my way around well and could show my friends nice places to eat and such in that part of Chicago, but the class trumped all of that. Everyday was something new and wonderful. We would have “lectures” in the morning – which really were discussions about certain ways astrophysicists understand and measure qualities of stars – and labs in the afternoon where we would learn how to measure the distance to, or luminosity of stars. Many of the labs contained far less “physics” than I had expected and mainly consisted of many algebraic or geometric calculations. All the work we had was a perfect blend of challenging problems and new information, which made the material immensely interesting.

We continued this routine for two and a half weeks, and then we spent three days at Yerkes Observatory for the grand finale! 

It’s a wonderful old observatory- like Hogwarts for astronomy – with three telescopes: a 41 inch remotely operated telescope, a 24 inch manually operated telescope, and a 40 inch telescope that’s the largest refracting telescope in the world! One of the best parts of our time at Yerkes was when we actually got to operate the 40 inch. This was a rare occurrence, according to our teachers, for in their ten plus years of teaching they had never actually used the 40 inch. If I wasn’t so interested in biomimicry I would love to be an astronomer! 

 At the end of three weeks, we all handed in the projects we’d chosen to work on for the first two weeks. My project – in summary – consisted of making color images of galaxies and then using both the images and spectra* of the galaxies to discover what types of stars were in the galaxies. My professors were very impressed; Mr. De Coster said that people had made color images before, but never to analyze galaxies. Two people who worked at the observatory even wanted to see my work!

All in all, my three weeks in Chicago was wonderful, and if I get the chance next year I will definitely go again! 

* Spectra is a plot of the amount of light that an object gives off as a function of wavelength of light. Most cosmic objects have spectra, and by measuring the wavelengths of light from an object astronomers can learn the composition of that object.

** The image above was made by me as part of my project of the course!