Lurking at the heart of every massive galaxy, including our own Milky Way, there appears to be a giant black hole. Learn what we know of these behemoths, thought to be nearly infinitely small and infinitely dense. Here the current laws of physics break down, so we cannot know exactly what lies inside a black hole. But by watching how stars or gas move in the gravitational field of the central black hole, we can weigh them and study their properties. We’ll discuss how the Hubble Space Telescope, the ALMA radio telescope array in Chile, and the technique of adaptive optics on ground-based observatories have each revolutionized this field.
        The past few decades of observations have shown that supermassive black holes are ubiquitous at the centers of massive galaxies, and that their masses tend to scale up with the mass of the galaxy. While the black hole inside the Milky Way is thought to contain the mass of about 4 million suns, the black holes at the centers of other, larger galaxies can weigh much more. For small, low-mass galaxies, however, the story is more mysterious.

Astronomers don’t know how huge black holes came to live at the centers of all large galaxies. Did they come about first, and the galaxies built up around them, or did the black holes grow inside existing galaxies? Black holes can form when massive stars reach the ends of their lives and run out of fuel for nuclear fusion, causing them to fall inward under the force of gravity. They can also form directly from the collapse of a large cloud of gas, or from a runaway process of black holes merging inside dense clusters of stars. Learn what we do and don’t know about the birth of black holes, and how we stand to revolutionize our knowledge in the coming years.
        The formation of black holes can have dramatic consequences for the environments of gas around them, affecting the evolution of their surrounding galaxies. Although we cannot see these processes directly yet, future observations may help illuminate the violent births of black holes. Studies have shown that some gigantic black holes, weighing as much as a billion suns, already existed early in the universe just 200 million years after the Big Bang. These black holes had to grow fast! Yet some supermassive black holes we have seen weigh as little as 100,000 suns. If we can figure out how common such black holes are, we can begin to understand how the first black holes formed. With luck, the next generation of telescopes should be able to observe, for the first time, black holes in the process of forming.

When black holes are feasting on matter, they can become some of the most luminous objects in the universe. Extra-large black holes caught in feeding frenzies at the centers of galaxies are called quasars, and can be seen from billions of light-years away. The black holes themselves don’t light up — rather, the mass they capture radiates light as it falls in. Learn about the evolution of these objects, which have captivated astronomers since they were first spotted in the 1960s.
        We know that many black holes grew up when most of the stars formed in the universe. Yet the details of this process are mysterious. Sometimes pairs of black holes collide and merge together, but how often does this occur? And how does the energy radiating from a feeding black hole change the growth of the galaxy around it? Learn about the ongoing observations that are helping to illuminate these processes, and the signals from them called gravity waves that astronomers hope to detect soon.

Women are underrepresented in many science fields, but especially astronomy and physics, where they made up just 14 percent of university faculty members in 2010. We’ll discuss the real numbers behind this problem, and the various factors that play into it, including sub-conscious bias in hiring and test-taking practices. Learn about the “leaky pipeline” — for each step from undergrad to graduate student to postdoc to tenure-track scientist, the number of women shrinks. We’ll examine the studies that have shed light on this issue, and the potential routes toward changing the pattern in the future.


Yes, intelligence is something real and it can be defined and studied scientifically. It’s somewhat like Dark Matter — we know it’s there but measuring it presents difficulties. We’ll consider savants and geniuses, how to define intelligence, and discuss how intelligence tests work. Despite their limitations, a single score on an intelligence test predicts many practical aspects of life — including mortality. We’ll review the key research and discuss why a person’s intelligence is both liberating and constraining. We’ll also consider why smart people do dumb things.

Here are the slides (7mb file).

We know there is a strong genetic component from studies of twins and, more recently, from studies that combine genetic analyses and neuro-imaging. Surprisingly, research results showing influence of specific environmental factors, including early childhood education, are rather weak. Brain development, as revealed by neuro-imaging, may be a key.

Here are the slides (23mb file).

Neuro-imaging research has identified brain features and specific areas distributed throughout the brain that are related to intelligence test scores. We’ll review, in non-technical terms, how neuro-imaging works and we’ll see some amazing dynamic views of intelligence at work in the brain during problem-solving (some findings “hot off the press”).

Here are the slides (9mb file).

Current interest in memory training or dietary supplements to increase intelligence may promise too much, but as we learn more about the neural mechanisms of intelligence, prospects for enhancing intelligence, perhaps dramatically, become more likely. If there were an IQ Pill, would you take it? What about enhancing intelligence in children and students? If we could enhance intelligence, don’t we have a moral obligation to do so?

Here are the slides (10mb file).


The Kepler Mission is a space telescope that carried out a 4-year mission to discover planets around other stars. It has so far discovered more than 3500 exoplanets — the vast majority of all known; continuing data analysis closing in on the goal to find another Earth, a rocky planet in the “Goldilocks zone” where life might exist. Kepler has even found Tatooines, planets orbiting double stars, as in the fictional Luke Skywalker’s home planet in Star Wars, and it has found other solar systems with many planets. The Kepler Mission has improved our ability to see pulsations and variability in stars by 100 to 1000 times better than with ground-based telescopes. From this unprecedented improvement, we are looking right into the hearts of stars using a method called asteroseismology, and we are seeing stars as never before: heartbeat stars, flares stars, eclipsing stars with many stars orbiting each other, spots and magnetic cycles as in our own Sun. Kepler has shown that many stars like the Sun have much more severe “stellar weather”; that is a potential killer, so that our own Sun’s relatively quiet nature may be one reason why we are here. This multimedia presentation will show the synergy of new discoveries about stars and their planets through the revolutionary data of the Kepler Space Mission.

Here are the slides (92mb file).

Days, weeks, months, years and more: Hear about Roman Emperors, Zulu Wars, Rider Haggard, Thomas Hardy, the English time riots, and how the days of the week got their names in an amusing and informative tour of the Western calendar.

Here are the slides (64mb file).

“What good is astronomy?” Through colourful historical anecdotes and science this talk leads from a lonely death in a cold stone tower over 400 years ago to the discovery of the ultimate energy source for humanity — the biggest payoff of all time. Hear stories of wealth and poverty, castles and dungeons, kings and princes, sailors and maidens, sea battles and Shakespeare as we look back at the improbable, unpredictable path that gave us the Power of the Stars.

Here are the slides (98mb file).

Magnetic fields play a large role in stars. In our own Sun “weather” twists and churns the magnetic field to release stupendous amounts of energy, guiding the solar wind, and occasionally blasting Earth with mass ejections. This talk looks at the surface of our Sun in detail to see sunspots, prominences, flares, coronal mass ejections and other magnetic phenomena: Solar weather. The wind from the Sun and ejections from its surface have significant impact on Earth. A big flare on the Sun produces more power than 10 million volcanic explosions the size of Tambora or Krakatoa. Blasts of material can bombard the Earth producing power failures, radio communication disruption and spectacular aurorae. They are potential death for astronauts on missions beyond the van Allen belts, e.g. on the way to the Moon or Mars. We’ll look at solar eclipses, the solar magnetic cycle, the Earth’s magnetosphere, Sun-Earth interactions, aurorae on Earth and other planets. We’ll see why the Sun is not the source of global warming, and we’ll have a look at weather on other stars, which is important in our search for life on other planets. I will introduce you to the most peculiar stars known, a group of pulsating, strongly magnetic stars that I discovered.

Here are the slides (75mb file).


In the United States, the Fourth of July usually features fireworks; however in 2012, the fireworks were of a scientific rather than a pyrotechnic variety. In the main auditorium at the CERN laboratory, the leaders of two large particle physics experiments described how they had successfully discovered a new particle called the Higgs boson. The world was electrified.
        The story of the Higgs field and its associated particle has spanned half a century. In this presentation, I will describe the saga of the Higgs boson, from its initial prediction in 1964, through the 2013 Nobel Prize. As a member of one of the teams who discovered it, I will give an insider’s perspective, including answering the very important question “What’s next?”

The Higgs boson, the top quark, dark matter — the media is full of reports of searches for new physical phenomena with occasional discoveries that keep us interested. However none of these particles are part of our everyday experiences. We can’t observe them in the same way that we can see our morning breakfast. So how is it that scientists can make these ephemeral and elusive particles and be so sure of their conclusions?
        There are many techniques scientists use to generate the particles, ranging from studying cosmic rays from space to building huge particle accelerator complexes big enough to surround the downtown of a small city. Once generated, the particles must somehow be detected and here too the techniques are varied, including a 14,000 ton electronic marvel with over a hundred million elements, a cavern containing 50,000 tons of water, a cubic kilometer of ice the Antarctic and a patch of the Argentinean pampas covering an area the size of Rhode Island.
        In this presentation, I will present a survey of the techniques and equipment that physicists use to make their measurements.

The search for the ultimate building blocks of matter has a long history, with the first written records on the subject penned about 2,500 years ago. For millennia, there was no data to settle the question and only in the 1700s and with the creation of modern chemistry did the situation begin to clarify itself. While the discovery of atoms was clearly a significant advance in our understanding of matter, our modern picture began in 1897 with the discovery of the electron. The discovery of the proton in 1919 and the neutron in 1932 meant that scientists had reduced the number of building blocks to a mere three. However that simplicity was short-lived.
        In 1936, Carl Anderson and Seth Neddermeyer discovered a particle called the muon in cosmic rays from space. The muon was the first particle discovered to have no role in ordinary matter, prompting physicist I.I. Rabi to exclaim “Who ordered that?” In the 1940s and 1950s, the number of new particles proliferated, resulting in hundreds of known particles. It was in the 1960s that this murky situation began to clarify, with our current picture of quarks and leptons and a handful of force carrying particles. In this talk, I will tell the history of particle physics, giving a real flavor of the century-long intellectual journey.

We understand the nature of the ordinary matter that makes up you and me to a considerable level of detail. We claim to be able to study its behavior back to about a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. And that accomplishment is an intellectual achievement that is one of most profound yet attained by the human mind. However, there’s just one little detail. Ordinary matter makes up only 5% of the matter and energy in the universe.
        Using data from observations of the heavens, astronomers have come to believe that 25% of the universe is composed of an as-yet uncharacterized substance called dark matter, which is matter that does not emit or absorb light and doesn’t experience the strong nuclear force. Even weirder still, scientists believe that about 70% of the universe is composed of a form of energy called dark energy. This energy can counteract gravity’s natural tendency to pull matter together and cause the observed expansion of the universe to speed up.
        In this talk, I will describe some of the data that led us to conclude that this bizarre dark world must exist. I will also describe current experimental efforts aimed at definitively proving or disproving whether these ideas are true.


Most people are familiar with the great two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs of the Jurassic and Cretaceous — giants like Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. These dinosaurs — the theropods — include a diversity of formidable super-predators that evolved different techniques to capture and subdue diverse prey. But the theropod group also includes numerous lineages of smaller, more bird-like dinosaurs that ate tiny animals and even practised omnivory or herbivory. Recent finds have shown that bird-like theropods were feathered and more bird-like in appearance than conventionally thought: if we saw them alive, we would surely identify them as weird-looking birds. In fact, feathers were widespread in theropods: even tyrannosaurs had feathers or feather-like structures. The fossil record shows that birds and non-bird theropod are not distinct groups. Rather, they grade into one another, and we are now hard pressed to say which theropods should be imagined as birds and which should not. In this presentation we take a tour through theropod diversity, and examine the many controversial ideas of how they lived, how they hunted, and what they looked like when they were alive.

Here are the slides (22mb file).

In the modern world, many remarkable anatomical structures likely evolved under sexual selection pressure. That is, their evolution was driven by their role in mating success. Sauropod dinosaurs were important, widespread and diverse during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous and one of their key innovations was an immensely long neck, sometimes more than four times longer than the body and more than 10 metres long in the largest forms. In 2006, the intriguing suggestion was made that the sauropod neck might have evolved as a sexual signal: not as a foraging tool, but as a display organ, the length of which had been driven by sexual selection pressure. Does this hypothesis withstand scrutiny? In this presentation, we’ll see how I and a group of colleagues tested the ‘necks for sex’ hypothesis and essentially found it to be full of holes. Sauropod neck evolution seems to have been driven by the use of the neck in feeding and foraging, but this doesn’t, of course, rule out the idea that sexual selection was important in guiding the evolution of other aspects of dinosaur diversity.

Here are the slides (22mb file).

A remarkable group of flying reptiles, the pterosaurs, ruled the skies of the Mesozoic Era (between about 230 and 66 million years ago). Pterosaurs flew on membranous wings supported by enormous fourth fingers. They had furry bodies, air-filled bones and many species possessed crested skulls. Most people are familiar with a few members of this group, including the small, lagoon-dwelling Pterodactylus from the famous Solnhofen Limestone of Germany and the giant, toothless, crested Pteranodon from the Western Interior of the USA. However, pterosaurs as a whole included an enormous diversity, much of which has only come to light within the past three or four decades. We know that the group included small, possibly nocturnal, bat-like forms, giant, long-necked stork-like predators as well as weird, crested omnivores and long-jawed, multi-toothed aquatic foragers. Recent studies have shown that pterosaur wing membranes were complex and that their flight abilities were sophisticated. Little is known about pterosaur behaviour and social life but we can make some educated guesses. The purpose of this presentation is to introduce you to pterosaur diversity, anatomy and biology, and hence to enhance your appreciation of prehistoric wildlife.

Here are the slides (15mb file).

Pterosaurs — the membranous-winged flying reptiles of the Mesozoic — evolved in the Triassic and thrived throughout the following Jurassic and Cretaceous. Among the most unusual of pterosaurs are the azhdarchoids, a group of toothless, Cretaceous lineages that share proportionally short wings and other features. Included within this group are the very largest of pterosaurs — animals with wingspans of 10 metres or more and a quadrupedal standing height of over 4 metres. These pterosaurs (termed azhdarchids) have long, straight necks and elongate, stork-like jaws. Substantial controversy has surrounded their way of life: they have been imagined as mud-probers, as vulture-like scavengers, as skim-feeders and as heron-like waders. Data on their anatomy and paleoenvironments strongly suggests that they were ‘terrestrial stalkers’: specialised for quadrupedal walking in continental places, and a lifestyle that involved the grabbing of small animals and other objects. In fact, azhdarchoids as a whole seem to have been a strongly terrestrial radiation, their jaw and wing shapes tied to life in continental environments. In this presentation we look at azhdarchoid diversity and anatomy and discuss the new data that has changed our view of these remarkable extinct animals.

Here are the slides (30mb file).