Four hundred years after Galileos first discoveries through a telescope changed how people view the heavens, West Virginia University is celebrating the International Year of Astronomy with a series of talks on everything from black holes to the ultimate theory of the universe.

John Littleton , professor emeritus of physics at WVU , will kick off the lecture series Wednesday, Jan. 21. Littletons talk on gamma-ray burststhe most luminous electromagnetic events occurring in the universe since the Big Bangwill begin at 7:30 p.m. in 260 Hodges Hall on WVU s Downtown Campus. The talks are free and open to the public.

We are very excited about the range of topics that will be covered by our speakers,said Duncan Lorimer , an assistant professor of physics at WVU and faculty adviser to the WVU Astronomy Club.No prior knowledge of astronomy is needed to listen to these talks. The topics cover just about all aspects of astronomy and should have a broad appeal to anyone who is curious about whats out there and how it all works.

The WVU Astronomy Club is organizing the lecture series in collaboration with the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences , Department of Physics and West Virginia Space Grant Consortium . Speakers will include leaders in their fields; some are either WVU physics faculty members or WVU alumni.

WVU s first lecture comes six days after the International Astronomical Union and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization officially kicks off the global celebration Thursday and Friday (Jan. 15-16) in Paris. More than 130 countries are involved, uniting astronomers probing some of the most fundamental questions ever asked.

In conjunction with the lecture series, WVU has launched an International Year of Astronomy Web site ( http://iya.wvu.edu ).

The site is the place to go to learn more about the speakers, read blogs from physics faculty and students, check out scheduled shows and viewings at Tomchin Planetarium and Observatory , see what heavenly bodies are visible in the sky on a given night and more.

WVU s Department of Physics has developed a strong astronomy program the past few years, thanks to the work of Lorimer and his wife, Maura McLaughlin , also an assistant professor of physics and 2008 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow.

The couple was part of a team of researchers who discovered the only known double-pulsar system a find that led McLaughlin and colleagues last summer to confirm Einsteins prediction that in a strong gravitational field, an objects spin axis should slowly change direction as it orbits around its companion.

Students in the WVU Astronomy Club are excited to be a part of WVU s activities, said Dominic Ludovici , club president and a NASA International Year of Astronomy student ambassador .

No matter how experienced you are in astronomy, it is still very rewarding,Ludovici said.By looking up at the night sky, the whole universe opens up to you. The opportunity to gaze into the unknown is what generates so much excitement among the students.

Littleton, the lecture seriesfirst speaker, will give a historical overview of gamma-ray burstsfrom their discovery in the 1960s by U.S. nuclear test detection satellites to the latest research and theories.

Gamma-ray burstswhich most scientists believe are created either by dying stars that collapse to form black holes or coalescing pairs of neutron starsoffer unique insights into how stars are born and die. Some scientists also theorize that gamma-ray bursts, while rare in the Milky Way galaxy, could alter life on Earth if pointed toward the planet because of the intense radiation.

Littleton taught at WVU from 1975-2008 and was the only resident astronomy expert until Lorimer and McLaughlin joined the physics faculty in 2006.

His areas of expertise include supernovae, which are exploding stars; late stages in star development; solar physics; galaxies; and plasma physics, the study of matter in its fourth state as an ionized gas.

He obtained his bachelors degree from Cornell University in 1965 and his doctorate from the University of Rochester in 1972.

All talks will begin at 7:30 p.m. in 260 Hodges Hall.

Other lecturers:

  • Feb. 18Maura McLaughlin, assistant professor of physics, WVU ,Pulsars: Timekeepers of the Cosmos
  • March 25Kim Weaver, NASA astrophysicist and WVU alumna,Supermassive Black Holes in Galaxies
  • April 16Sera Cremonini, assistant professor of physics, University of Michigan,Superstrings: The Ultimate Theory of Everything?
  • May 20Paulo Freire, research assistant professor of physics, WVU ,The Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn
  • June 10Mark Kochte, NASA ,Prometheus-Bound: NASA s Return Mission to Mercury
  • July 22Jay Lockman, adjunct professor, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Green Bank,The Green Bank Telescope: West Virginias Mountain Ear
  • Aug. 26Duncan Lorimer, assistant professor of physics, WVU ,Matters of Gravity: Einsteins Theories of Relativity
  • Oct. 21Dave Meisel, professor emeritus of physics, State University of New York, Geneseo, and WVU alumnus,Near Earth Objects: From Dust and Rocks to Comets and Asteroids
  • Nov. 18Jason Best, professor of astronomy and astrophysics and director of the Institute for Environmental Studies, Shepherd University,Cosmology of the Renaissance and the Renaissance of Cosmology
  • Dec. 2D.J. Pisano, assistant professor of physics, WVU ,Galaxies: Building Blocks of the Universe

The International Year of Astronomy is one of two science-related anniversaries that WVU is marking this year. The other one is DarwinFest , a celebration of the 200th birthday of naturalist Charles Darwin.

International Year of Astronomy on the Net: http://www.astronomy2009.org/