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Vernon Lecture Series Delves Into Mysteries of the Cosmos

If you're ready for a truly cosmic experience, you won't want to miss the Vernon Public Lecture Series this fall at the University of Delaware.

Nationally known speakers will transport audiences on a quest to find new planets on Sept. 26, journey back in time to see how modern astronomy was really invented on Oct. 17, and explore the prospect of “dark energy” and a runaway universe on Nov. 7.

Hosted by the Delaware Asteroseismic Research Center at UD, the series is named for Harcourt C. “Ace” Vernon (1907-1978), who was one of the founders and the first chairman of the board of trustees of Mt. Cuba Astronomical Observatory in Greenville, Del. The observatory is sponsoring the series in Vernon's memory.

A chemical engineer with bachelor's and master's degrees from MIT, Vernon worked for the DuPont Company in several capacities including as director of the Engineering Research Laboratory, a position he held until his retirement in 1972. He had a strong interest in many areas of science and technology, which led him into such fields as hydroponics, computing, the tracking of artificial satellites, and astronomy.

“We are so pleased to offer this series to the public in honor of Ace Vernon and with the support of Mt. Cuba Astronomical Observatory,” notes Judi Provencal, director of the Delaware Asteroseismic Research Center. “These renowned speakers will share new views of the cosmos in lectures that are both educational and entertaining. We look forward to welcoming people of all ages to the series.”

Each lecture is free and will be held on a Saturday evening at the University's Newark campus. Attendees are asked to register in advance on this Web page to ensure adequate seating.

On Saturday, Sept. 26, at 7 p.m., at the Clayton Hall Conference Center, Harry Shipman, UD's Annie Jump Cannon Professor of Physics and Astronomy, will present “Planets Beyond Our Solar System.”

While the quest to detect planets beyond our solar system actually began in the mid-19th century, the first confirmed detection -- of a giant planet in a four-day orbit around the nearby star 51 Peg -- was made in 1995, according to Shipman.

“As of August 2009, there are 373 known planets outside our solar system, although we are not yet capable of detecting Earth-sized worlds,” Shipman says. “We now believe that a significant fraction of sun-like stars are accompanied by planets, leading to the question of whether some might support extraterrestrial life.”

Shipman received a bachelor's degree from Harvard and master's and doctoral degrees from the California Institute of Technology. For most of his 20-plus year career at UD, his research activities have concentrated on astronomy, in particular on white dwarf stars, the future life-cycle stages of low-mass stars like our sun.

Science teaching is a secondary research area of Shipman's. His innovations in science teaching, developed in cooperation with other faculty in Delaware's Problem-Based Learning group, have focused primarily on ways to incorporate group activity into large classes. Many of these group activities ask students to make decisions about current research projects, both Shipman's own and others that are active nationally.

Michael Lemonick, former senior science writer at TIME Magazine, will provide a fascinating account of how a poor musician's observation led to a whole new world of scientific inquiry in “How William and Caroline Herschel Invented Modern Astronomy” on Saturday, October 17, at 7 p.m. in the Rodney Room of the Perkins Student Center.

Lemonick has been a journalist and author for more than 25 years -- 20 of them at TIME Magazine, where he wrote more than 50 cover stories on topics ranging from climate change to genomics to particle physics before stepping down as a senior science writer in 2007. The author of four books, he teaches writing at Princeton University and is the senior staff writer for Climate Central (

Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy at the University of California Berkeley, will provide the capstone lecture -- “Dark Energy and the Runaway Universe”--on Saturday, November 7, at 7 p.m. at Clayton Hall Conference Center.

Observations of very distant exploding stars (supernovae) show that the expansion of the universe is now speeding up, rather than slowing down, according to Filippenko.

Over the largest distances, our universe seems to be dominated by a “dark energy” -- originally suggested by Einstein -- that stretches the very fabric of space itself faster and faster with time, he says.

An observational astronomer, Filippenko uses the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories to study supernovae, active galaxies, black holes, gamma-ray bursts, and the expansion of the universe. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he is one of the world's most cited astronomers, with some 600 scientific publications to his credit, as well as an award-winning textbook.

Filippenko also has appeared on numerous television programs including Stephen Hawking's Universe, The History Channel's The Universe, and introductory astronomy video courses produced in association with The Teaching Company.

Tracey Bryant | Newswise Science News
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