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Home » We Are Dead Stars: Michelle Thaller at TEDxBaltimore (Full Transcript)

We Are Dead Stars: Michelle Thaller at TEDxBaltimore (Full Transcript)

Michelle Thaller – TRANSCRIPT

I want to tell you the best story that I have ever heard, and it has the added advantage of actually being a true story. I’m an astrophysicist, which means that my profession, my passion is studying things in the Universe that are incomprehensibly large, they’re extremely far away, they’re very old; the human brain doesn’t even comprehend the numbers.

I think sometimes people don’t realize that scientists actually do respond to this with some emotion. People often ask me, “What’s it like to be an astrophysicist? When you learn all these things, does it affect the way you view the rest of your life?” And the answer is yes. It’s changed the way I view absolutely everything. I want to tell you that story because I never responded to science just as the mathematics, just as the technical aspects I responded to the story and to the drama of it all.

And this morning, I want to talk to you about, as I said, my favorite story: is where we all come from. In order to start that story, we need to go to some very large scales indeed. This is a galaxy. Every image I’m going to show you today is a real picture taken by a NASA mission; this is from the Hubble Space Telescope. A lot of people know the word galaxy – that’s OK – but I don’t think people understand what monsters these really are.

Galaxies are incredibly huge. This is a galaxy that is a family of about 500 billion stars, about half a trillion stars. It’s about 100,000 light-years from end to end. Let me talk about that, because light-year is one of those famously confusing words in astronomy. When you hear the word “year”, you think it’s a unit of time. But instead it’s a unit of distance, because light travels through space at 186,000 miles per second. If you go at that speed for one year, you cover about 6 trillion miles. And that’s one light-year. This galaxy is so huge, it’s 100,000 light-years from end to end; 100,000 times 6 trillion miles.

We live in a galaxy very much like this, called the Milky Way. In fact, the Sun is spinning around the center of the Milky Way right now. All the stars in the Galaxy orbit around a common center of mass. Right now, this room, and this planet, and this whole Solar System is moving at about half a million miles an hour around the center of our Galaxy. But the Galaxy is so huge, it’s going to take us about a quarter billion years to make one transit.

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