Meet the astrophysicist spinning deep space data into a tangible sense of wonder
Once inside Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, summer museumgoers stroll down a backlit hallway that shifts between dreamy blues and purples while projected stars spiral across the carpeted floor. These splashes of light represent the gigantic first-generation stars that lived brightly, albeit briefly, before exploding into supernovas that spewed out the minerals and metals we use today—the calcium in our bodies, the gold on our wristwatches. Astrophysicist Lucianne Walkowicz, our cosmic guide for the day, is excitedly explaining this as a star swirls beneath her feet. After a moment, the projection explodes across the floor in a brilliant, colorful burst.
This is just one of the interactive digital elements woven throughout the planetarium in an effort to make the dark expanses of cosmology more tangible. Luckily for the inquisitive sort, Walkowicz is keen to share her passion for these celestial bodies. She studies how stars affect a planet’s habitability—whether the high-energy radiation beaming off a given star might allow its particular spinning planets to sustain life. Besides being a resident astronomer at Adler, Walkowicz, 36, is a former NASA Kepler Fellow for the study of planet-bearing stars at UC Berkeley and a current leader in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) mission, which will photograph the visible sky every few nights from a Chilean mountaintop, capturing, as LSST describes it, “the greatest movie ever made... the first motion picture of our universe.”