The lecture “Our Place in the Cosmos” explains how we (and, for that matter, all complex life forms) are connected to the Universe around us. This connection relies on the fact that our Milky Way and other galaxies like it play host to cosmic recycling processes that involve the formation of stars and their planetary systems inside nebulae (dense gas/dust clouds), nuclear fusion reactions that occur within stars, and the death of massive stars in explosions known as supernovae. As a result of these processes the Earth contains elements like carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, all of which are essential ingredients of protein molecules that are basic building blocks of life on Earth. To understand our origin we must therefore understand how galaxies form as part of the so-called cosmic web and evolve via galaxy cannibalism: merging and destruction of small satellite galaxies whereby their stars are incorporated into larger galaxies. This portion of the story will take us back to the earliest imaginable times in the history of the Universe. The talk will be illustrated with the latest astronomical images obtained using space-/ground-based telescopes and state-of-the-art computer simulations.
Raja (Puragra) GuhaThakurta received a bachelor’s degree in Physics at Saint Xavier’s College in Kolkata, India and a Ph.D. in Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University in 1989. He was a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ and at Princeton University. He worked briefly at NASA’s Space Telescope Science Institute in Balitmore, MD (operational headquarters of the Hubble Space Telescope), before joining the faculty of the University of California Santa Cruz in 1994 where he is currently a professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The primary focus of GuhaThakurta’s research is the formation and evolution of galaxies, including the Andromeda galaxy. He has authored/coauthored ~350 journal articles and meeting abstracts, and has given dozens of lectures, both non-technical and technical. He received an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship in 1997 and the Herzberg Memorial Prize and Fellowship in 2001.