Friday Froth: Astronomy On Tap At BAR New Haven

James Gribbon

Have you ever looked down into the swirling foam at the top of a freshly poured beer and thought "that looks like a galaxy"? Ever had your mind blown by a Carl Sagan quote? Do you like New Haven pizz- OK, unless you're a CAPTCHA-bot, of course you do. The point is, whether you've watched the original Cosmos ten times, or you just wonder how far away the stars are, BAR in New Haven has re-started Astronomy On Tap, where beer, pizza, and cosmology come together. 

Astronomy On Tap is a a global event series where professors, PhDs, and grad students talk about their areas of expertise at bars full of anyone who's interested, and it's free. Events are held in towns across the U.S., and abroad in places like Denmark, Germany, Canada, Chile and the Netherlands. AoT in New Haven was started several years ago, but was just recently revived after a two year absence in the Elm City by Yale PhD student Yotam Cohen, who studies low surface brightness galaxies whose stars are spread so thin, you can see right through them. This Tuesday, Cohen recruited Yale professor Greg Laughlin, Dr. Vivienne Baldassare, and graduate students Jesse Feddersen, and Mila Chadayammuri to talk planets, stars, black holes, and how they all happened. 

I wheeled into BAR from the warm evening air and there was immediately no question which beer to order. On the chalkboard menu, along with crowd favorite AmBAR and beer-geek totem Elm City Pils from NEBCO, was BAR's own Hopthology offering, Helios IPA. When early scientists first started using prisms to split the Sun's light they found, to their amazement, that it was mostly made out of the same elements as the Earth. Just one element was brand new, something they'd never seen before. As it seemed to be an element which existed only the Sun, they named it after the Greek sun god, Helios, and called it Helium. It's still the only element on the periodic table to be discovered somewhere other than the Earth. I am a nerd, so of course that's what I ordered.

Astronomy On Tap is held in the back room club at BAR, and I'm pretty sure these events are the only times when 150+ people pack into that space without at least one of them falling down from Jäger-shock. I walked in at the 7pm start time and may have found the last seat in the room. The staff at BAR had put a few slices of pizza on plates around the communal tables, and attendees were free to order pizza, salads, and drinks at any time. Astronomy is... let's call it Jargon Heavy, so each person was also given a pen and a bingo card with terms like quasar, redshift, telescope, and exoplanet on them to play along when the presenters were speaking and win fabulous prizes. The absolutely ebullient Ms. Chadayammuri, who studies gravitational waves, used so many bingo terms in her allotted time the organizers actually ran out of coasters, mugs, bracelets, and the planet socks I openly wanted, and started handing out glow sticks. Anyone who didn't get a prize now knows what LIGO is, anyway, so they got to take that home.

Prof. Laughlin started off the evening discussing the structure of the universe, and the scales that were involved. Shrink the Earth down to the size of a grain of sand, he said, and the Sun would be about the size of a dime. Hold that dime in the fingers of one hand, the sand grain in the other, and stretch your arms out to each side as far as they'll go, and that's about the distance, to scale, from the Earth to the Sun in our solar system. 

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Helios IPA was designed by the brewers at BAR to be a lighter beer, in color and body, for the hot months of summer. It pours a straw color with a light head, and gives off a bit of a sweet stonefruit aroma with a tiny hint of fresh cut grass. Take your first sip, or completely indelicate chug in my case (I was thirsty enough to drink from a puddle at that point), and experience a wash of prismatic green brightness. The nectarine flavors of Mosaic and Idaho 7 hops dominate, along with some bready malt, and bitterness is kept very low. Helios is a (merci)fully filtered beer - who wants a yeast clog when it's 90º and 90% out - and is thin and refreshing as a session IPA, despite its respectable 6%ABV. I'd recommend bringing a growler of this low volume but accessible seasonal to any summer cookout, soirée, or half naked mowing of the lawn. I had several.

Other highlights of the evening included Mr. Feddersen's short review of astronomic history, from a 2nd. century star map depicted on the shoulders of Atlas, to the orbital GAIA mission, which has just finished mapping one BILLION of the closest stars to Earth, including one which will fly by our solar system between 1.25-1.4million years from now, and knock comets in our general direction. Try not to think of it before bedtime. 

The final speaker of the night was NASA Einstein Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale, Dr. Vivienne Baldassare and her contradictory sounding, but gloriously head spinning talk, "Tiny Monsters: The Smallest Supermassive Black Holes." Sizeable galaxies, like our Milky Way, all have supermassive black holes spinning away at their centers and eating anything unlucky enough to fall within reach. Our galaxy's central black hole, Sagittarius A*, has a mass about 4 million times that of our Sun. The ones Dr. Baldassare studies are in smaller, dwarf galaxies, whose central black holes are a MERE 50,000 times the size of the object which is a dime to our Earth's grain of sand. 

Does this sound cool to you? It all sounded very cool to me. If you're the type to look up at night, Astronomy On Tap should be back at BAR later this summer. You can keep track of events on their Facebook page or Twitter, and for more info on BAR New Haven, click here

See you out there, space fans.