(recorded in 2002)
Robert Kirshner is the author of more than 200 research papers dealing with supernovae, the large-scale distribution of galaxies, and the size and shape of the universe. His work with the “High-Z Supernova Team” on the acceleration of the universe was dubbed the “Science Breakthrough of the Year for 1998” by Science Magazine. Kirshner is a frequent public lecturer on science. He is also the teacher of Science A-35, a core curriculum course for 250 Harvard undergraduates entitled “Matter in the Universe.” His popular-level book “The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy, and the Accelerating Cosmos” was published by Princeton University press in October 2002. Kirshner graduated from Harvard College in 1970 and received a Ph.D. in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology in 1975. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, Ariz., he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan for nine years before moving to the Harvard Astronomy Department in 1986. Kirshner is the Clowes Professor of Science at Harvard University.
Listen to the Interview (requires free RealPlayer software):
Robert Kirshner talks about his family background and his early interest in science. He then goes on to talk about his college experience at Harvard University. (11 minutes)
Kirshner describes his research as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology. He explains what supernovae are, and describes one particular type, called “Type I” supernovae. (11 minutes)
Kirshner continues his discussion on supernovae, describing the second type of supernovae called “Type II” supernovae. He also explains the relevance of supernovae in making elements heavier than iron and discusses the remnants left after a supernova explosion. (11 minutes)
Kirshner discusses how technology has advanced and its effects on research methods. Kirshner describes his role in the construction of large telescopes like the Magellan project consisting of two 6.5m telescopes located in the Chilean Andes. He also describes the role of theory in research and his own work on supernovae. (11 minutes)
Kirshner talks about the cosmological constant and the quest for a so-called “theory of everything,” the research being conducted to unify quantum mechanics and gravity. He explains how research on supernovae might help determine the cosmological constant and be applied in string theory to unify quantum mechanics and gravity. (10 minutes)
Kirshner describes the structure and constituents of the universe -- how the observable matter comprises only 1 percent of the universe and the rest remains inaccessible. We can only infer the presence of this “dark matter” and “dark energy” from their effects on the visible matter. He also talks about his project to find and study distant supernovae. (10 minutes)
Last Updated: 07-20-2004
The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.