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Astronomer Wendy Freedman educates public on mysteries of universe

Astronomers’ knowledge of the universe is continually expanding.

It was only in the 1920s that astronomers discovered our solar system isn’t the center of the universe, said University of Chicago astronomer Wendy Freedman.  She is known for measuring the Hubble Constant, which tells astronomers that the expansion of the universe is accelerating exponentially.

“We really have changed our perception of the universe in the last few decades,” Freedman said. 

Freedman spoke Wednesday evening in Rawles Hall for the fifth annual Frank K. Edmondson Astronomy Public Lecture. The Edmondson Lectures were established in memory of IU Professor Frank Kelly Edmondson who was known for his great contributions to the astronomy community. 

In her lecture, “The Unexpected Universe: The Universe Continues to Reveal Surprises,” Freedman highlighted recent developments in astronomy and new telescopes being built.

Two current major topics in astronomy are dark matter and dark energy. 

Dark matter has yet to be observed, but its presence is known because of its gravitational effect. It doesn’t give off light and makes up space previously thought to be made up of only stars, dust and gas.

There is six times as much dark matter in the universe than luminous matter, Freedman said. 

“We don’t fundamentally understand what 95 percent of the universe is made up of,” Freedman said. 

There have been many theories as to what dark matter is, Freedman said. Maybe rocks, dust or compact objects. Nothing has worked because, unlike dark matter, these guesses all have measurable effects.

“There are millions and millions of dark matter particles whizzing through you as you sit listening to this lecture,” Freedman said.

Freedman referred to dark matter and energy as the biggest mystery in astronomy and said there is a Nobel Prize waiting for someone on the discovery of the composition of dark matter. 

“For the young people, we have left a lot for you to do,” Freedman said. 

Freedman spent the remainder of her lecture talking about the Giant Magellan Telescope. The telescope will have six mirrors, which are are 8.4 meters in diameter. It will be located in Chile. 

The optical telescope will have 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Telescope. Freedman said if you held up a dime here in Bloomington, the Giant Magellan Telescope could take a clear image of the dime from Chicago or could detect a lit candle on the moon. 

“With the Giant Magellan Telescope, life on other planets is a science question, not science fiction,” Freedman said. 

According to the Giant Magellan Telescope website, construction began in 2015. 

Freshman Natalia Almanza said she was on her way to jazz band practice when she saw the lecture and decided to stop in.

“It was very informative,” Almanza said. “It was cool to hear about the different ways we explore the universe.”

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