Arts & Culture

Astrophysicist presents our galaxy and beyond at Palm Beach State College STEAM event

STEAMRandallSmith 021Dr. Randall Smith from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard University took more than 100 audience members on May 22 on a journey to better understand the science, art and overall fascination surrounding astrological images in a presentation at Palm Beach State College. Titled “The Science Behind Science Fiction,” the event was sponsored by Bank of America.

From photos of supernovas and black holes to the well-known “Pillars of Creation” image taken by the Hubble Telescope, attendees not only got a better understanding of the size and content of what they were viewing but how it changes the world around us.

The event was part of the Palm Beach State College Foundation’s STEAM initiative, which seeks to impact the projected shortage of local, skilled professionals in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) fields. The goal of the initiative is to prepare students for the high-paying, high-demand positions immediately available in these industries.

“Randall is here to inspire all of us to keep looking up,” said Yvonne Boice, event and initiative chair. “We have all heard the proverbial saying about reaching for the stars. We tell it to our young people all the time. This is why the STEAM initiative is so powerful. It is helping to provide those dreamers with the funds and connections to make their hopes a reality.”

Doug Sherman, market president of the Treasure Coast branch of Bank of America, also noted the importance of the initiative for the future of the marketplace.

“It is critical that U.S. businesses remain competitive in the global economy and that truly depends on increasing the number of qualified STEAM graduates. This is why we support PBSC in their efforts and are proud to be a part of this initiative. It is really making a difference in the community.”

Smith’s presentation included a sampling from one of his current projects called “Aesthetics and Astronomy.” More information on it can be found at http://astroart.cfa.harvard.edu/.

The project was initiated after he attended a family reunion, where he discovered that his aunt and uncle were research psychologists who had been studying people’s reactions to art for many years.

“I realized this was the same kind of thing astrophysicists do,” said Smith. “We make lots of images but nobody ever studied what people are getting out of it.”

Smith explained what makes an image exciting to an astronomer and how astronomers see these images differently than non-astronomers. He also asked if it was possible to do a better job at presenting them to the public.

According to Smith, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. One of the ways he believes would help people better understand what they are looking at was by changing image captions.

“Take for example an image of a black hole,” said Smith. “Instead of using the general caption you see today that doesn’t give much context, it would be better to start it off with a question such as does everything that comes near a black hole get sucked in? This will get people thinking first,” said Smith.
He also added that if he could change the rest of black hole image captions, they would read:

“Although the public thinks of black holes as giant vacuum cleaners, they are more like ultra-exclusive clubs. Most people get bounced and a few can get in but once you’re in you can never leave. They are sort of the Hotel California of exclusive clubs. Much of the stuff gets re-directed in powerful jets, they travel at half the speed of light and they can blow apart the entire galaxy.”

“Trying to get what is out there today changed to something like this is incredibly challenging,” said Smith. “But that’s what we are working on doing. With some context, you can make a lot more out of an image than you can without it, and people are more likely to remember what they read.”

To view the entire presentation, click HERE.

To find out more about the STEAM initiative and upcoming presenters and topics, visit www.palmbeachstate.edu/foundation/STEAM.

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