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Postdoc Caitlin Witt tunes into the cosmic symphony at 3rd Annual CIERA Astronomy Night Out

On Friday, May 17, 2024, CIERA welcomed 170 in-person and 25 remote participants to its 3rd annual Astronomy Night Out, an evening dedicated to sharing astronomy with the community through a variety of formats. Astronomy Night Out centers around a public lecture given by a CIERA researcher, which is followed by activities, tabling, and telescope observing.

The keynote public lecture was presented by CIERA-Adler Postdoctoral Fellow Caitlin Witt and entitled, “Tuning into the Cosmic Symphony: Pulsar Timing, the Gravitational Wave Background, and Beyond.” Dr. Witt was introduced by CIERA’s Associate Director Shane Larson. In her talk, Dr. Witt explored last summer’s major astronomy announcement: evidence of the gravitational wave background! Dr. Witt explained how monitoring the steady, lighthouse-like flashes emitted by pulsars (a type of neutron star, the collapsed core of a massive star), allowed researchers to tease out the “bass notes” in the cosmic symphony of gravitational waves. This work is conducted by pulsar timing arrays like the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav). As a member of NANOGrav, Dr. Witt leads efforts to detect gravitational waves from supermassive black hole binaries (SMBHBs) and develops methods that inform multi-messenger searches for these elusive pairs.

After Dr. Witt’s talk, some guests remained in the lecture hall to play trivia while others perused the activities and community tables in the hallway just outside. Laura Trouille, VP of Science Engagement at the Adler Planetarium, introduced attendees to the Zooniverse, the world’s largest and most popular platform for people powered-research. Founder and CEO Brianne Caplan tabled for Code Your Dreams, a nonprofit dedicated to providing tech and coding instruction to local youth who would otherwise not have access. Local artist Jan Pieter Fokkens returned to showcase his astronomy-inspired paintings.

Ezar Shinbaro and Dean Kousiounelos (2023 CIERA REU student) tabled on behalf of the Lake Forest College Astronomy Club. CIERA graduate students and postdocs staffed the “Ask a Scientist” table (a CIERA tradition) and led window constellation creating, spectroscopy demonstrations and constructed and operated a gravitational wave demonstration table.

Throughout the post-lecture activities, CIERA volunteers led groups of attendees to the historic Dearborn Observatory. There, guests received a tour from Dearborn volunteers of the historic observatory nestled on campus and had the opportunity to look through at the night sky through the telescope.

Watch Dr. Witt’s lecture below, stay tuned for an announcement about CIERA’s Fall public lecture, and stop by CIERA Astronomer Evenings at Dearborn Observatory the last Friday of every month!