Will we ever be able to make beer in space? Do stars leaving their homes pack up quietly, or explode into big, weepy balls of gas? What are today’s coolest space missions, and why isn’t America consistently on top of them?
Those questions set the tone for Monday night’s unorthodox gathering of over 100 scientists, stargazers, and galactic enthusiasts in the back room of BAR on Crown Street, where the New Haven chapter of Astronomy on Tap held their third session of the year.
The series, organized by Yale research scientist Steph LaMassa, seeks to make lofty astronomical concepts, like interstellar elements, space missions, small planets versus gaseous moons, black holes, and the birth and death of stars, accessible to everyone—from those seriously studying astronomy to those with only a fledgling interest in science. The setting—complete with glowstick necklaces for scientists and drinks such as White Dwarf (vodka, Malibu, coconut water, lime juice), Dark Matter (vodka, Frangelico, lemon, and blackberry juices), and Crab Nebula (bourbon, St. Germaine, Campari, orange juice)—was easy to nestle into, lending a kind of casual, you-are-not-in-class-so-stop-worrying-already comfort level to science.
That’s because LaMassa wants to make people more excited about science at a time when, contrary to what Matthew McConaughey might have us believe, it’s not getting enough love (read: funding). Monday night, three speakers made compelling arguments for why that should change.
Like lecturer and Leitner Planetarium director Michael Faison (pictured above), whose twenty-minute talk, “Beer in Space,” explored in utterly charming terms what it would take to make beer in space’s current atmosphere. The good news? It turns out that almost all of the chemical components except sugar are hanging out across the universe.
Research associate Elisabeth Adams took a closer look at outer space in her lecture “The Coolest NASA Planetary Missions Right Now Are Not to Planets” (spoiler alert: the coolest missions are not led by Americans, either). In twenty minutes, Adams caught the audience up to speed on who is looking at what where, like the Dawn mission to explore Ceres, Vesta, and the asteroid belt.
Postdoc Jonathan Foster rounded out the evening, presenting a theory of astronomical movement and change that pulls away from the classical notion that the sky–our sky–has always been the same. Pairing stellar imagery with quotations from Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Victor Hugo, his lecture “How Stars Leave Home” made clear that stars aren’t at all what we once imagined them to be; they are dynamic and momentous things that form in clusters and pull away slowly from their homes like hesitant children.
An ask-the-astronomer panel at the end of the evening made clear just how casual—without being dumbed down—the series is. Audience members laughed at the ping-pong of questions drifting back and forth across the large room, bouncing off a projector screen that had been filled with floating planets, developing stars, and NASA data moments before. Scientists took long, thoughtful sips of drinks the color of the night sky. A graduate student waxed poetic on dark matter.
And no question was out of bounds. As the evening wound down, a hand shot up from the front of the packed room. A girl looked forward timidly.
“Listen, this might sound naive, but could we find wormholes? Like, possibly?” she asked.
An astronomer stepped forward. It was time for the most diplomatic answer possible.
“Unlikely,” he said.