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Does the Multiverse Exist?

Header Image: Guests dressed up in costume at Adler After Dark: Go Boldy in 2016.


If you’re even a little bit into sci-fi, then there’s a good chance you’ve watched, read, or consumed SOMETHING that references multiverses.

In fact, multiverse theory has gained popularity as of late. From Marvel comics to Doctor Who to Rick and Morty—multiverses have taken over nerd culture.

But what IS a multiverse? And does it actually exist? Or is it just the latest sci-fi trope to gain popularity in mainstream media?

As Doctor Strange puts it, “What if the fabric of reality was but a single thread of something much larger?”

Well, currently multiverse theory is… just that, a theory. As it stands, the multiverse exists outside our current scientific understanding of reality. Theoretical physics suggests a multiverse is a hypothetical grouping of multiple universes. This means that our Universe could be just one tiny universe in a much larger multiverse where many, possibly even infinite universes, are contained.

Interestingly enough, even though much of multiverse theory is hypothetical or imagined, there is some scientific grounding to parts of it.

But where to begin?

First, not all scientists agree that the multiverse could exist—or that it’s worth exploring. Second, there are actually a few different theories, each which can help to explain certain anomalies in our Universe. (But could also break some currently known things.)

Let’s focus on the eternal cosmic inflation theory. This theory starts with the Big Bang. It is suggested that as our Universe expanded into existence, it started off rapidly, then slowed—like when you inflate a balloon. This rapid expansion created our Universe, but also other universes in a vast bubble-like multiverse. While parts of the universe stopped the extremely rapid “inflationary” expansion and “budded off” to become normal space, large parts of the Universe have continued to inflate even now. Those inflating portions keep spawning new bubble universes. It will never stop—with uncounted trillions of new universes budding off every second.

Some of the bubbles in the multiverse are still hot and expanding quickly, while others, like our own Universe, have slowed and cooled to allow for the formation of stars, planets, galaxies, etc. The universal laws of physics that we know and understand in our own Universe may not be applicable to other universes. It’s possible they would differ from bubble to bubble.

While scientists haven’t come up with any real tangible exercises to test this theory, for some, the uniformity of our Universe may give hope to something beyond.

Cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), which is considered to be a remnant of the Big Bang, has been precisely measured across our known Universe. Two relevant observations can be made from these measurements:

1.) The striking uniformity in temperature measurements, which suggests that our known Universe is the same temperature from one end to the other.

2.) Everywhere we look, the CMBR shows signs of tiny fluctuations. These fluctuations have the exact properties that we would expect from tiny fluctuations that got blown up by the rapid inflation.

While these things together don’t necessarily establish a multiverse, they certainly don’t rule it out either. But, of course, in the end, these and other theories challenge notions about our Universe that we consider to be scientific and true. And we haven’t really “figured it out” yet. It’s possible we never will.

So, is the multiverse real? To quote the Doctor, “…this is one corner of one country, on one continent on one planet that’s a corner of a galaxy, that’s a corner of a universe, that is forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying and never remaining the same for a single millisecond. And there is so much, so much to see.”

We’ll leave it up to you to decide.

What Goes Up…

Header Image: The Adler Planetarium’s new exhibit, Chicago’s Night Sky, features a Far Horizons high altitude balloon and an image of the city of Chicago at night from above.

When was the last time you took the time to notice your night sky? If you live in or near the City of Chicago—or any large urban area—you may be familiar with the glow that city lights give to the sky. That glow comes from inefficient or poorly used lighting shining up and scattering back down, and it’s the reason you can’t see many stars over a city at night.

Light pollution affects much more than just our view of the stars. It wastes energy by sending light into the sky where nobody needs it, and it can harm wildlife by interfering with their internal navigation systems and sleep/wake cycles. 

Chicago is halfway through a four year project to replace more than 250,000 old street lights with new, more efficient fixtures. The new streetlights will cost the city less in energy bills than the old ones, but no one knows how the project will affect the environment, ecology, and health of the region.

The Adler’s Far Horizons team is looking for answers in the stratosphere with Mission NITELite.

Far Horizons volunteers and staff prepare the balloon that carried the Chicago NITELite mission to the stratosphere on June 2, 2019.

NITELITE

In Far Horizons, the Adler’s high-altitude ballooning program, scientists work with students and volunteers to push the boundaries of scientific research. As the City of Chicago began to swap out the old streetlights, we saw an opportunity to use our years of experience in near-space exploration and the passion and talents of our students and volunteers to expand our knowledge of the impacts of light pollution. Our goal with NITELite is to create the world’s first light pollution map using images from high-altitude balloons.

What can we do with NITELite that hasn’t been done before? We can map the entire City of Chicago in a single mission. Our image resolution is so good that we can identify nearly every streetlight in the city—all quarter-million of them! We can use the color of those lights to identify what type of light each one is—an old high-pressure sodium fixture or a new LED one. 

Getting images that sharp from the stratosphere isn’t easy. Think of a time you tried to snap a photo at night. You need a pretty steady hand. We needed to ensure that our cameras would be rock solid while floating nearly 100,000 feet up, so our students and volunteers developed an Altitude Control System (ACS). As the balloon rises up into the atmosphere and nears the target altitude, the ACS opens and vents helium from the balloon until it stops rising to achieve level flight. Surprisingly, the winds in the stratosphere are very slow, and once we’re there, our cameras can take amazing photos without blurring.

Jesus Garcia, Far Horizons Engineer and Educator, prepares the student built Altitude Control System moments before launch.

MISSION UPDATE

Over the past two years, we’ve launched more than a half dozen test missions around the region with local high school and college students leading the way. On the evening of June 2, we launched our first Chicago imaging mission. After a beautiful sunset launch from Marengo, Ill., the payload ascended according to predictions. Everything was going well as NITELite hovered above the western edge of the city at 92,000 feet—just above Forest Park—and then: POP! The balloon burst just before it achieved level flight. The retrieval crew, which was still on the road near Plymouth, Indiana, hit the breaks and turned back toward the city. As the payload descended quickly aided by a parachute, it was a race against time and geography.

Unfortunately, geography won that night. The safety strobe lights on the NITELite payload were last spotted from the roof of a casino parking lot in Gary, Indiana, bobbing on the dark waves of Lake Michigan about a mile from shore. No one ever said science was easy.

LOOKING UP AND FORWARD

With the help of this summer’s undergraduate interns, NITELite2 has been built and is ready to return to the skies. Plans are set to perform more Chicago mapping missions over the next two years.

The results of NITELite will help inform municipalities in the future—and the City of Chicago today—on how to light the night in a way that can better protect the resource of our night sky and everything alive below it.

See You Another Time (Or Somewhere Else)!

Header Image: Woman looking at a few of the astronomical objects from our collection located in the Adler Planetarium’s new exhibit, Chicago’s Night Sky.

One of the most exciting—and at the same time most difficult — parts of an exhibition project is to decide which collections items will be put on display. 

The Adler team has increasingly favored a careful and restricted choice of objects that strengthen the exhibition narrative and highlight its core messages, rather than overwhelming our guests with an abundance of things that will likely distract them. 

There are also several other types of considerations at play, which include the condition and conservation needs of each object; the safety of both staff and visitors (especially important when we deal with large and complex artifacts); the amount of resources that displaying a particular item might require; and ultimately, how each object choice will help advance the goals of the exhibition, and, more broadly, the Adler’s mission and values.

Here we present some examples of items that were initially considered for Chicago’s Night Sky, but that did not make it in the end for varied reasons. Don’t worry though; there will be many other opportunities for you to see them at the Adler. And there are other ways to learn about the stories of these and other items that were left out of Chicago’s Night Sky—which, needless to say, just ended up with a more refined and compelling object list!

OBJECT 1: STAR CHART BY MASAKI MASAFUSA

The primary goal of the exhibition is to invite the Chicagoland communities to look up, but we also want to show that engagement with the night sky is a fundamental human experience that takes place across different cultures. This large Japanese star chart helps make that point, but it would require a special frame or display case, and we cannot leave it exposed to light for too long. We will use an intermediate solution: there will be a good reproduction on display, clearly identified as such, an approach that we will also apply to other works posing similar concerns. Additionally, we will have on display a beautiful 19th-century Japanese astronomy book that has long been in storage, and which pages we can easily turn every few months.

Star chart by Masaki Masafusa, Japan, 1784, Adler collections.

OBJECT 2: SATALLITE TRACKING TELESCOPE

If you are going to look up, you will need a telescope, right? Well, not necessarily. We wanted Chicago’s Night Sky to emphasize that, and you will see on display several tools designed to help stargazers find their way through the stars with the unaided eye. The instrument shown here was used by young stargazers at the Adler in the late 1950s and in the 1960s to track down satellites. It was left out as it refers to a more specialized and complex type of observation.

Satellite tracking telescope, Edmund Scientific Corporation, United States, c. 1960, Adler collections.

OBJECT 3: STAR CHART FROM JOHN HILL

The night sky has always ignited the imagination of stargazers—sometimes a bit too much. The 18th-century British writer John Hill decided to expand on the role of animal constellations in the Western tradition by placing critters such as a leech (Hirudo, shown below) and an earthworm on the heavens.

Although Mr. Hill’s constellations never took off (we wonder why…) they testify to both the creativity and the humor of stargazers. However, we wanted to give more room in the exhibition to sky knowledge from non-Western cultures, thus the book presenting Hill’s constellations was left out. However, you might still come across them in a special Zooniverse interactive that will also be part of Chicago’s Night Sky.

Detail of star chart from John Hill, A new astronomical dictionary (1768), Adler Library. 

Exoplanets: Sci-Fi vs. Fact

Header Image: An artist’s illustration of Kepler-452b. Image Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle


I was an undergraduate physics major at Cornell University, with my eye on a career in astronomy, when I saw the original Star Wars movie following its release in 1977.

A GIF of the opening crawl for Star Wars: A New Hope.

A rather famous astronomer and science popularizer named Carl Sagan, was a professor at Cornell at the time. Sagan was known for stimulating the public’s imagination concerning the possibility of life on distant planets, but in 1977, the only planets we knew for sure existed were the worlds that orbit our Sun.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, shortly before Sagan’s untimely passing, that the first planet was discovered orbiting a star similar to our Sun. During subsequent years, the discoveries started coming in at an exponential pace. Currently, there are more than 4,000 confirmed exoplanets! 

Sci-Fi has often foreshadowed the diversity of real worlds, and Star Wars is no exception. As we anticipate the opening of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, it’s fun to compare the imaginative worlds conceived for the Star Wars universe with existing worlds in our own Galaxy.

Let’s start with the closest potentially-habitable exoplanet, Proxima Centauri b, which happens to orbit the star nearest to our Sun—a dim red dwarf that is a “mere” 4.2 light-years away. 

This artist's impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b.
This artist’s impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Star Wars depicts forest worlds like Endor in Return of the Jedi, or Takodana in The Force Awakens, as green like our Earth, but astrobiologists speculate that plant life on habitable worlds orbiting stars that emit mostly infrared light, like Proxima Centauri, might be red, black, or even rainbow-colored. 

A GIF from an Endor scene in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

Such worlds should be “tidally locked,” with the same side of the planet always facing its star. Just as seaweed changes color from green to dark brown at greater depths in the ocean, the color of any photosynthetic life on such a planet would depend upon its location.

Another notable exoplanet is Kepler-16b. At a distance of 200 light-years, Kepler-16b orbits two stars and was affectionately dubbed “Tatooine,”  after Luke Skywalker’s home planet with its own two suns.

GIF of Luke Skywalker viewing the famous "binary sunset" in Star Wars: A New Hope.

Unlike Tatooine, Kepler-16b is Saturn-sized and very cold, but gas giant Kepler-453b orbits at a potentially habitable distance from its own two suns. Might this world have a habitable moon like Endor?! 


This artist's concept illustrates Kepler-16b.
This artist’s concept illustrates Kepler-16b. Image Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

Some exoplanets are “Super-Earths”—worlds larger than Earth but smaller than gas giants, that may support large oceans—reminiscent of Kamino in Attack of the Clones or Scarif, in Rogue One

At a distance of 600 light-years, Kepler-22b is 2.4 times the size of Earth, and may be one such world. Other exoplanets are very hot, like Kepler-10b or Kepler-78b, which are molten Earth-sized worlds that bring to mind Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith

A GIF of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi dueling on the planet Mustafar in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.


Still, other worlds are extremely cold—like OGLW 2005-BLG-390L, one of the most distant known exoplanets. 

Artist’s rendition of OGLW 2005-BLG-390L.
Artist’s rendition of OGLW 2005-BLG-390L. Image Credit: NASA

Located near the center of the Milky Way at a distance of 21,530 light-years, this world is an icy Super-Earth that’s been unofficially nicknamed “Hoth,” after the frigid planet depicted in The Empire Strikes Back

A GIF of Chewbacca in a wintry blizzard on the planet Hoth, in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

What about really old exoplanets that might have developed into high-tech worlds like Coruscant, the seat of government for the Galactic Republic and the Empire? 

A Super-Earth known as Kepler-452b orbits a star 1,402 light-years away that’s about 1.5 billion years older than the Sun. The PHL places Kepler-452b at the top of their “optimistic sample” of potentially-habitable exoplanets, a bit less likely to be habitable than the 21 exoplanets that make it to their “conservative” list (which includes the “nearby” Proxima Centauri b.) 

An artist’s illustration of Kepler-452b.
An artist’s illustration of Kepler-452b. Image Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

There’s also some evidence of exoplanet destruction, albeit not by the Death Star that caused Alderaan’s demise in A New Hope

In some cases, real stars may consume planets that orbit too close.

No worries about that happening to Earth—although the Sun will make conditions toasty on Earth in the next billion years or so.

Perhaps we, like the civilizations depicted in Star Wars, will have traveled to distant worlds by then. 

Finally, it’s important to note that we’ve not (yet) discovered evidence of extraterrestrial life, and many of the known exoplanets would be hostile to life as we know it. 

However, it’s beginning to look like planet-sized worlds may outnumber stars in the Universe, and that leaves many of us thinking that it’s only a matter of time… 

Until then, may the force be with you!

A GIF of Han Solo giving his signature salute.

Adler Skywatch: December 2019

Header Image: Graphic representation of the Winter Solstice which will occur on December 21st, 2019 at 10:19pm.

The brightest planet, Venus, begins a run of many weeks’ worth of spectacular viewing in the evening skies this month, December 2019.

Venus starts off the month very low in the southwest after sunset, setting only about 90 minutes after the Sun. However, it moves higher in the evening sky each passing night. By the end of the month it sets nearly three hours after sunset. It also gets a little brighter every evening this month; and will continue to do so through the month of April 2020. The night of the 28th, look for Venus near the top of a very slim waxing crescent Moon.

Not far from Venus this month is the dimmer planet Saturn. Through the 10th Saturn appears less than ten degrees above Venus, low in the southwest sky. After that date the two planets appear side-by-side for a few nights. By the 14th, Saturn is below Venus in the sky; and by the 19th, Saturn is so close to the southwest horizon it becomes difficult to view.

Early risers can try spotting the planet Mars low in the southeast sky during morning twilight. It rises about three hours before the Sun this month. It doesn’t get much brighter than 1.6 magnitude this month, and soon fades as the early-morning sky brightens.  

The planets Jupiter and Mercury appear so close to the Sun this month that they are difficult if not impossible to view.

The annual Geminids meteor shower occurs this month, peaking the night of the 13th and into the early morning darkness of the 14th. The bright waning gibbous Moon on those dates will wash out fainter meteors. However, Geminids tend to be bright – plus, they tend to be plentiful, with up to 100 meteors per hour under very dark, very clear skies. Expect to see far fewer if you’re viewing near city lights. No special equipment is needed to view meteors — just find a clear, dark, safe place, face east, and look up.

The winter solstice occurs at 10:19 p.m. Central time on the 21st.  For the northern hemisphere, this is the date with the shortest period of daylight and the longest period of nighttime; the Sun is at its lowest in the sky for the year. Late that same night and past midnight the following day, see if you can spot any meteors during the annual Ursids meteor shower, which peaks at this time. The Ursids have an expected maximum of only five to ten meteors per hour; but this year they occur when the Moon is waning and low in the sky, which will help aid visibility. Remember: the darker the sky, the better the viewing.

Finally, if you’re traveling overseas for the holidays, an annular solar eclipse takes place the 26th. This type of eclipse occurs as the Moon is near the farthest point in its orbit around the Earth and, thus, it does not appear large enough from Earth to completely cover the Sun, as during a total solar eclipse. The word “annular” is from the Latin word “annulus,” which means “ring.” In this case, the ring refers to the ring of Sun that shows around the Moon during the peak of the eclipse. Unfortunately, Europe, North and South America, and Africa will miss out on seeing this one. The annular eclipse will be visible in parts of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam, and a partial solar eclipse will be visible from northeast Africa and the Middle East to much of eastern and southern Asia. Refer to mreclipse.com for a specific visibility map for this eclipse.  And, wherever you are, remember to never look directly at the Sun without proper safe-solar filters. There is absolutely no time during an annular solar eclipse when the Sun and Moon combination is safe to view with unaided eyes.

  • First Quarter Moon: December 4th
  • Full Moon: December 11th  
  • Last Quarter Moon: December 18th
  • New Moon: December 25th

 (Please note: these descriptions are for the Chicago area, using Central time.)

AstroFan: A Feast Fit For A Black Hole

Header Image: An artist’s illustration of a thick ring of dust near the supermassive black hole of an active galactic nuclei. Image Credit: NASA / SOFIA / Lynette Cook


Ah yes, it is the day after Thanksgiving, and I bet you’re currently dealing with the inevitable ‘post-feast malaise’. 

What if I told you that at this very moment in time, there were countless black holes experiencing a Thanksgiving-worthy “feast” of their own?!

Today, we’re going to be exploring the strange (yet incredibly common) world of supermassive black holes and active galaxies.

Bring out your stretchiest sweatpants—it’s time for us to partake in a galactic feast!

Supermassive Black Holes 101

Before we dive into active galaxies, we’re going to have to do a quick crash course on black holes—more specifically—supermassive black holes.

As you may know, black holes are objects that have such a strong gravitational pull that nothing (not even light) can escape them. 

There are two main known types of black holes, stellar black holes and supermassive black holes. 

Stellar black holes are black holes that form as a result of a massive star (much larger than our Sun) collapsing in on itself.

Stellar black holes can be as massive as 30,000,000 times our Earth! Sounds like an insane amount of mass, right? 

But wait! Things get even crazier when talking about supermassive black holes.

A mass chart for dead stars and black holes.
A mass chart for dead stars and black holes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Supermassive black holes can be up to 12 quadrillion times as massive as our Earth! Unlike stellar black holes, scientists aren’t exactly certain how supermassive black holes are formed or how they become so unbelievably massive.

But there is one thing that scientists are almost certain of: at the center of every galaxy lies a supermassive black hole. 

That’s right folks—even our very own Milky Way has one at its center!

So, what happens when large sums of gas, stars, and other celestial debris find themselves within close orbit of one of these monstrous beasts? The answer is…active galaxies!

What Are Active Galaxies?

As mentioned above, it is believed that nearly all of the galaxies in the observable Universe have a supermassive black hole at their center. The difference between an active galaxy and a non-active galaxy, is that an active galaxy’s supermassive black hole has fuel to burn—or shall we say fuel to feast on!

The anatomy of an active galaxy can be broken down into 3 main parts: a supermassive black hole, an accretion disk, and the jets.

The swirling mass of dust and gas that orbits the supermassive black hole is called an accretion disk. 

The region of the accretion disk that is closer to the black hole moves at a much faster rate than the outer region of the accretion disk. As a result, the material within the disk rubs together at speeds a fraction of the speed of light, causing the accretion disk to heat up to extreme temperatures. As the matter spirals and falls towards the black hole, the immense energy that is produced gets emitted as light. 

Sometimes, these accretion disks produce magnificent jets of charged particles that move away from the poles of the black hole at super high speeds—this is also known as a quasar. 

An artist's rendition of a quasar at the center of an active galaxy.
Artist’s rendition of a quasar at the center of an active galaxy.

Fun fact: quasars are the brightest objects in the known Universe! They’re so bright, that the light emitted from them can sometimes outshine the entirety of light emitted from all of the stars within the quasar’s host galaxy.

Is Our Milky Way An Active Galaxy?

Although our Milky Way has a supermassive black hole at its center, our galaxy is not an active galaxy.

You see, in order for a galaxy to be active, there needs to be gas and dust nearby to form an accretion disk. Currently, there’s nothing for our supermassive black hole to feast on and so it (and our galaxy’s center) remains relatively dark and inactive.

However, this hasn’t always been the case!

There’s evidence that at least twice in the past 300 years our Milky Way’s supermassive black hole (Sgr A*) has been more than a million times brighter than it is today.

And if that wasn’t cool enough—some scientists believe that our non-active Milky Way galaxy could get a kickstart in the form of an incoming collision with the Andromeda galaxy. 

During this collision, there’s a possibility that the centers of the two galaxies could collide, creating an even larger and more active supermassive black hole in the process!

If you’re worried about this incoming collision, relax! It isn’t scheduled to occur for another 4 billion years! 

An animated cartoon illustration of a supermassive blackhole's accretion disk.
A cartoon illustration of a supermassive blackhole’s accretion disk. Image Credit: AstroFan 🙂

So don’t fret quite yet for our Milky Way’s famished gravity bender—it’s merely taking a short siesta between its galactic bites!

As for us earthlings, let’s all just agree to safely observe the strange phenomena of active galaxies from the comforts of our own—slightly less hectic—place in the Universe.


Stay tuned for more awesome space facts on the next AstroFan.

Thank you for reading!

—Bianca, a.k.a. AstroFan

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Header Image: Early artistic representation of a part of the Adler Planetarium’s new exhibit, Chicago’s Night Sky.


If you traveled to a dark-sky park on a clear night to do some stargazing, you’d probably be able to see around 4,500 stars with your naked eye. On a clear night in Chicago, that number is more like 35. Here in the city, the bright lights that illuminate our buildings and streets also scatter in the atmosphere overhead—a phenomenon astronomers call “light pollution”—and make many celestial objects invisible to us. 

But a little light pollution has never stopped Chicagoans from gathering under the night sky, taking in what we can, and learning about the Universe together. In fact, Chicago has long been home to a vibrant community of stargazers, educators, artists, researchers, and storytellers inspired by what they saw in the sky. And the story of our city’s relationship to the stars is still being written. You can step inside that story—and find yourself in it—in the Adler’s newest original exhibition, Chicago’s Night Sky.

“We want people to feel that their neighborhood around them includes the sky above them,” says Michelle.

Michelle Nichols, the Adler’s director of public observing, has been helping city dwellers see their sky in a different way for years. As the founder and leader of Scopes in the City, she brings telescopes and volunteers to public spaces all over Chicagoland and watches people gasp as they lay eyes on Saturn (or a sunspot or the craters on the Moon) for the first time. Michelle was a member of the core development team for Chicago’s Night Sky, and she says its focus on people and personal connections to the sky can recreate those “Saturn moments” for museum guests.


Image: Early artistic representation of a part of the Adler Planetarium’s new exhibit, Chicago’s Night Sky, featuring a refurbished Atwood Sphere.

The exhibition celebrates Chicago stargazers past and present, professional and amateur. There’s Wallace Atwood, whose century-old, 17-foot steel sphere still whirls around friends and families and teaches them about the stars in its home at the Adler. And Frederick J. Brown, a visual artist from Chicago’s South Side, whose 1977 painting, Milky Way, found inspiration in the stars. There’s a group of local teenagers currently conducting the first-ever light-pollution survey of Chicago and another who started a public awareness campaign to help their neighbors understand what light pollution is and how they can work together to reduce it. 

Every detail of the new exhibition was designed to make people feel at home in the city and in the sky. Orilla Fetro, the Adler’s exhibit design lead, says the team took care to represent different parts of the city. “We’re not just doing the downtown skyline,” she says. “We’re doing the skyway to represent the South Side, or a bungalow that might represent the West Side.”

Throughout the space, guests will also find interactive elements that may spark their creativity or get them thinking about the ways people can change the sky we see if we work together.

Whether your night sky is clear or overcast, flooded with city lights or perfectly dark, you have an important role to play in the human traditions of looking up, sharing stories, and solving cosmic mysteries. Chicago’s Night Sky will bring you the story so far. Come help us write the next chapter.

Adler Staff Star: Meet Neil!

Neil Adam
Exhibit Technician/Graphics

What inspired you to be an Exhibits Technician?

10 years before coming to Adler, I worked at a sign shop. After hearing the Adler had an opening for someone with more of a graphics background, I was immediately interested. Knowing that the work I do could be seen by people from all over the world is an award in itself.

Neil Adam installing a graphic in Chicago’s Night Sky on a wall featuring Frederick J. Brown’s painting, “Milky Way.”

You’ve been extremely involved in building the Adler’s newest exhibit, Chicago’s Night Sky (opening November 2019). Can you give us an overview of what that process has been like for you?

Non-stop! There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes for graphics and a lot of prep work before anything can be installed.

Over the years, which exhibit has been your favorite to work on? Why?

It’s a tie between the Fabric of the Universe art collaboration and the Apollo 11 wall in the south stairwell. With the Fabric of the Universe install I got to work with some very talented artists who trusted me in the handling of their Woven Cosmos, and it looked very cool at the end. In the Apollo 11 stairwell I installed a large graphic of the Saturn V rocket, my favorite rocket since I was a kid!

Neil Adam installing a graphic on a wall in The Adler Planetarium’s new exhibit, Chicago’s Night Sky.

Why, in our opinion, is space freaking awesome?

We have something similar shown in our Cosmology gallery, but there are more stars in space than there are grains of sand on Earth. A simple perspective of just how much is out there!

Tell us a fun fact about yourself! 

I was in a band in high school called Eclipse.

Chicago’s Black Women in STEAM Series: Meet Taylor

“Chicago’s Black Women in STEAM” is a series on The Adler ’Scope that highlights the awesome women of Chicago who are doing amazing things in science, technology, engineering, art, and math fields here in our own community. Meet women of varying ages, backgrounds, and interests and learn their unique stories.


Taylor Witten
Content Producer | Change Agent for Diversity & Inclusion

Headshot of Taylor Witten
Taylor Witten

What first sparked your interest in producing/storytelling?

I’ve always had an active imagination. When I was younger I would spend hours in my bedroom reading and writing. I would dream up whole worlds full of characters and convince friends to act out what I had written. Creative writing, organization, and planning all came pretty naturally to me. Being able to translate my childhood interests into a career skill set changed my life. 

I ended up receiving my graduate degree in English literature from Dartmouth College and completed postgraduate study at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland where I received a master’s degree in media and film studies. After graduating, I continued studying the art of filmmaking. I took courses, read books, wrote, and watched lots (and lots) of television/movies and YouTube⁠—all in an effort to gain the knowledge I needed. Then I put it all into practice.

I started producing small projects for friends and church, which then led to bigger ones with budgets and clients. Going to film school isn’t for everyone, but you must be willing to put in the work. It didn’t happen overnight but when it did, I felt prepared.

What aspect(s) of storytelling do you enjoy the most?

To craft a truly interesting story there are a few key ingredients. In my opinion, the best storytellers masterfully showcase:

Characters: Strong characters resonate. Good or evil, they should remind you of someone or something. Their actions and motivations should drive the narrative and hopefully give you something to root for or against.

Dialogue: Dialogue can make or break a piece of content for me. I love it when a character says something that sounds exactly like something someone I know would say. That’s the mark of a good storyteller—capturing the emotion of human behavior through language. Acting embodies it, but good dialogue ensures that each character is given a distinct voice and personality.

Collaboration: Creating content is a collaborative act. There are very few mediums were collaboration is the driving force for success. As a writer-producer, my role is to bring together the most creative and talented people, create an environment where ideas are welcome, and utilize everyone’s strengths and weaknesses to fill in the gaps. We’re all working towards the goal of telling a compelling story.

Could you tell us more about your newly founded production company, “Blessed Press Productions?”

“Blessed Press Productions,” is a production company which aims to bring to life stories of faith. It serves as a production hub for creatives like myself who are interested in purpose-driven storytelling and want to create content that inspires hope, healing, and empowerment.

As a practitioner myself, I understand the value in making content that is meaningful to your community. My own work examines Otherness, identity, and representation within contemporary audio-visual culture. I have also produced and worked on all types of projects; both small and large scale productions, including live events, commercial work, digital content, tv and film.

We plan on developing the next wave of artists by providing resources, workshops, and hands-on training for professional growth. Particularly, for marginalized identities, *womxn, and creatives of color. My goal is for “Blessed Press Productions” to offer opportunities to create, work together, and build community—all the while creating powerful content!

What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a producer for Wakandacon (a convention that highlights diversity in “nerd culture”)?

Wakandacon is a 3-day Afro-futuristic convention that celebrates STEM, art, community, and self-expression in the Black diaspora. Honestly, every aspect of producing the event is rewarding and exciting. It’s a huge undertaking, but I feel very proud to have co-produced it the past 2 years. It’s been very rewarding to see people from all walks of life, regardless of age, ethnicity, or background feel like they finally have a space where they can just be themselves. It’s a very powerful thing to witness and I hope it empowers others to outwardly express and embrace their inner nerd.

The greatest impact has been that we’ve been able to create an inclusive platform and brave space for people of color, and specifically Black professionals to nerd out, showcase their work, and expose a younger generation to these possibilities.

What advice would you give to young girls of color who are interested in pursuing careers in STEAM?

A popular quote by Dr. Maya Angelou says, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

I want to speak to those feelings, insecurities, and shared experiences you will undoubtedly face as a young womxn of color. You are not alone when faced with doubt, hardship, in need of encouragement, in search of belonging, and desire to feel joy. I keep a collection of quotes by phenomenal womxn who make me feel like anything is possible because they’ve already overcome the impossible.

For each situation, here are the words I turn to for inspiration:

Creativity: “Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.” – Dr. Mae Jemison

Encouragement: “Making it through the ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints.” – Shonda Rhimes

Failure: “Failure is God’s way of letting you know you’re moving in the wrong direction.” – Oprah Winfrey

Healing: “Contrary to what we may have been taught to think, unnecessary and unchosen suffering wounds us but need not scar us for life. It does mark us. What we allow the mark of our suffering to become is in our own hands.” – bell hooks

Imposter Syndrome: “Your crown has been bought and paid for. Put it on your head and wear it.” – Dr. Maya Angelou

Paying it forward: “…When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” – Toni Morrison

*Womxn is an inclusive term to represent intersex, trans, and non-binary identities and gender expression.

Understanding Planet Transits

Header Image: Composite image of the transit of Mercury as seen from Earth on May 9, 2016. Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO/Genna Duberstein


What is a Planet Transit?

Every now and again, Earth lines up with one of our neighbor planets so perfectly that we can watch the planet travel across the face of the Sun when we peer through a solar-safe telescope.

Pretty amazing, right?

What’s even more amazing is how rare these types of celestial events are. From Earth, we can only see two planet transits: Mercury and Venus. This is because they are the only two planets in our inner solar system between our home planet and the Sun.

Venus transits are the rarest—happening twice every 108 years. The most recent transit of Venus was back in 2012. The next one doesn’t occur until December 2117.

Mercury transits are more frequent, happening about 13 times a century. The next one happens very soon, on November 11, 2019! After that, we’ll have to wait 30 years until the next transit of Mercury, which won’t be visible in Chicago until 2049.

Why Do Planet Transits Matter?

In 1639, about a hundred years after humans discovered that the Earth was not, in fact, the center of the Universe, that planets actually orbited around the Sun, and the Earth was part of a vast Solar System, two Englishmen named Jeremiah Horrocks and William Crabtree observed the transit of Venus.

This transit of Venus was the first to ever be observed by the human eye. Horrocks and Crabtree did so because they had predicted that by using basic geometry they would be able to calculate the distance between the Sun and Earth. Thanks to the law of cosines, they knew that if they knew one angle of a triangle and one side of a triangle, they would be able to work out all the other parts. They were able to estimate the distance between the Sun and the Earth within 2/3rd accuracy.

In years to come, astronomers would continue to observe each transit of Venus, refining their calculations, and eventually settling on the current distance of approximately 150,000,000 km (~93,000,000 miles).

The work of Horrocks and Crabtree on planet transit calculations was a turning point in the journey “from the classical astronomy of documentation and tabulation to the modern idea of observation, prediction, and comprehension.”

Planet Transits Beyond Our Solar System

Planet transits are not just useful in calculating the geometry of our own Solar System. Observing planet transits are also one way astronomers discover and calculate exoplanets in other parts of the galaxy. Space telescopes, like Kepler Space Telescope, help as part of this process because viewing planets dozens of lightyears away from our own is difficult. Their brightness pales in comparison to stars.

With Kepler, scientists are able to explore parts of our galaxy that wouldn’t be otherwise explorable from Earth. They use transit photometry to measure the minute dimming of a star as an orbiting planet passes between it and Earth. If the dimming occurs at regular intervals, then it can be discerned that a planet is probably orbiting the star.

See a Planet Transit For Yourself!

Teen looking through Doane Observatory telescope
Come look through our telescopes and (safely) see a planet transit for yourself at our upcoming Transit of Mercury event on Monday, November 11, 2019!

You can join us here at the Adler Planetarium as we come together to watch the upcoming transit of Mercury on Monday, November 11. This is a free event, weather-permitting event. We’ll have Adler astronomers on hand to ask questions and solar-filtered telescopes available to watch Mercury as it passes by the Sun. If you’re in the Chicago area, stop by!