The Londolozi family was recently treated to some quality time with a visiting Professor Donald Kurtz, who many explained as “an astronomical genius”! The whole team was privileged to welcome back Don and was eager to attend his open lectures about… space. What followed was a mind-blowing journey through astrophysics and galactic matter of interest.
Don Kurtz is currently a Professor of Astrophysics at the United Kingdom’s University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) and focuses his research in the fields of asteroseismology and magnetic stars. After growing up in California and obtaining his PhD in astronomy from the University of Texas, Don spent 25 years living in South Africa where he spent lots of time rock climbing and gazing at the southern night sky. During this time he also furthered his studies at the University of Cape Town, where he became a Professor, and has since been at UCLAN. Being aware of his near-to 400 professional publications, one can understand how knowledgeable Don is; there’s no need to even mention that he is the discoverer of a class of pulsating, magnetic stars which continue to fascinate astronomers, as the “rapidly oscillating Ap stars”.
The first lecture was a brief summary of Don’s research in asteroseismology, which included a definition thereof, as well as discussions around planets, exoplanets, habitable zones and the physics of interstellar motion. Don’s explanation of stars made it clear that he most likely knows everything there is to know about a star, and we got a deep understanding of the newly discovered magnetic stars which pulsate with light and sound, enabling very clever astronomers with expensive telescopes to “see into their core”, greatly enhancing star knowledge worldwide.
The second lecture began with the solar system in which we find ourselves, as well as our accompanying planets. We learned about Venus and the dangers one would experience if hypothetically visiting a planet that close to the Sun. We learned about the giant Jupiter and many of its moons, some of which are Earth-sized and somewhat attractive. And about the constant hurricane on Jupiter’s surface, which is twice the size of Earth and has been blowing for 300 years. And how Mercury and its “one day equals two years” orbit, which uniquely results in a double sunrise from the scorching planet’s surface.
Then, once the incredible size of this solar system was understood, about 12 billion km wide or about 26 light hours across, Don expanded our view to the entire Milky Way Galaxy, a gigantic 110 000 light years across containing about 200 billion (yes, that’s 200 000 000 000) stars! He revealed that all the galaxies, including the Milky Way, are constantly moving through space and then explained how astronomers are able to track them, “quite precisely, much like your trackers” he added. Most interestingly, Don illustrated many of the ways in which stars come into existence and ways in which they come to extinction. One way in which they are “born” is through starburst, which occurs when two separate galaxies collide on their edges and suspended gases, dust and other particles are thrown together. Captured images of this phenomenon are incredible.
But what really captures our interest, even beyond that of the amazing images, is the realisation that due to the infinitely sized universe and the many millions and billions of miles between us and the stars out there, looking up into the night sky is looking back into time. Hubble’s “Ultra Deep Field” image has since been reprocessed and sharpened and now reveals the farthest-ever view into deep space by allowing us to see galaxies which are confirmed to be billions of light years away. As such, the Hubble Telescope “looks back billions of years into the past”, as Don explained, while the light from those far away galaxies takes so long to reach us.
Some people find the vast, infinite nature of the universe unsettling. But does anyone else enjoy the fact that, despite the incredible and constantly groundbreaking work done by astronomers worldwide, this could be one of the few fields in which humans may never fully understand, but keep exploring? Whichever your view, one struggles not to ignore pondering the topic.