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Saturday Morning Physics to dive into black holes

By Carolyn Darr, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 22, 2013

This weekend, the physics department will once again host its Saturday Morning Physics event, this time on the fascinating topic of black holes. Started in 1995, the series invites anyone from the Ann Arbor community to join in exploring questions that captivate the great minds of today. Lecturers mostly consist of University postdocs — those who have received their Ph.D. but are not quite faculty. The series began both as a way to reach out to the community and a place for postdocs to get teaching experience.

Dr. Fred Adams, a theoretical astrophysicist and professor in the physics department at the University, has been around since the series’ conception. He has been the chair of the series for the last five years and has given a few talks himself.

“There’s always this pressure, and there should be pressure, for scientists to communicate to the general public, but that’s actually a hard thing to do,” Adams said. “It’s hard for anyone to take the science and make it accessible for the public, but the public is actually not that excited about it either.”

Saturday Morning Physics, however, has seemed to capture some attention. Due to uncertainty about public reception, the first lecture was held in a classroom, but to the delight of the series coordinators, there wasn’t enough room and a larger lecture hall had to be opened up. Today, because of the size of the audience, an overflow room is created in the lecture hall next to the primary one where the talk is piped in and the slides are posted.

“The public is of course very diverse, and by the public we mean people who are not scientists,” Adams said. “These are public lectures available to anybody who is willing to think for a little bit. You don’t have to have physics or math backgrounds to understand. We have a sort of local following. Over the years we’ve developed a regular audience of older people, college students and even some high schools will send their students for extra credit.”

Over the years, the series has played host to a variety of topics and speakers, including some big names. When Complicite, the British theater company, came to Ann Arbor in 2008 to perform “A Disappearing Number,” about the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, the series hosted a panel discussion with them. When Philip Glass was here with his opera “Einstein on the Beach,” Glass, Adams and others participated in another panel discussion for the series. Last year, to celebrate the newly renovated Hill Auditorium, the series invited Scott Pfeiffer, an acoustic engineer who aided in the renovation, to talk about the physics behind the acoustics of the venue.

“We choose the topics based on what’s happening and who’s available,” Adams said. “There’s a lot going on in physics this year. We had two talks on the Higgs Boson before the Nobel Prize was even awarded. We were pretty sure it was going to be in the running, but even if it wasn’t it was still a big thing of the year. Basically, anything that’s cool in physics, we try to cover.”

For this talk on one of the most interesting phenomena in the universe, black holes, Adams asked Dr. Rubens Reis to speak. Reis, who came to Michigan from Cambridge, is an Einstein Postdoctoral Fellow and a Michigan Society Fellow. He has been studying stellar mass and supermassive black holes for the past six years.

“Black holes have a certain romantic feel to them,” Reis said. “It is talking about the unknown. This idea that there’s something that we just do not understand. If you look from a mathematical perspective, the formula that describes a black hole goes to infinity. It’s where this equation breaks down.”

Reis explained that many black holes, like Sagittarius A* — the one in our own Milky Way galaxy — are inactive. This means that, while it’s still a powerful force in our universe, it doesn’t really affect things around it unless they get too close. In the event that something, perhaps a star, does get too close to the event horizon (the place past which nothing can escape the gravitational pull of the black hole), the black hole becomes active. The material from whatever has come too close gets accreted onto the black hole and forms a disk around it, which powers massive jets shooting out from the center of the black hole.

“The black hole in the center of our own Milky Way could potentially become active,” Reis said. “One of the exciting things that is happening now is there is a gas cloud that is getting very close to the black hole and there is a possibility that sometime next year it will be accreted into the black hole. It will be pretty impressive for us who are looking for it.”

If you can’t make it on Saturday or just want to learn more about the inner workings of our world, all the lectures are available free for download on the Saturday Morning Physics website.