Jason Kendall
William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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A Question from Scholastic magazine

On August 8, got an interesting email from Scholastic Magazine. Here it is and here is my response.

Question for you from Scholastic magazine Dear Jason Kendall,

I'm a reporter for Science World, a science magazine for kids in 6th-10th grade. In each issue we have an "Ask Science World," where our readers write in with their questions and we answer them. We recently received the question "How was the Milky Way formed?" Would you be able to send me a few lines answering this question? Feel free to throw in any cool facts about the Milky Way, and keep in mind that our audience is young, so the science needs to be super simple. I'd really appreciate your help!

Thanks so much,
Stephanie W.

And I replied:

"To be honest, no one really knows exactly how the Milky Way was formed; but all the evidence that scientists have gathered points at a really great story. Over 10 billion years ago the Milky Way was a gargantuan cloud of gas, with only a few very large stars in it. This cloud, made of the simplest elements hydrogen and helium, formed in the gravity wells created by huge clumps of Dark Matter; so called because, simply, it doesn't interact with light at all. This Dark Matter acted like the tiny snowball you roll when you want to make a snowman in winter. The regular matter "stuck" to it and that made it easier for even more matter to "stick", because the more mass you have the stronger is your gravitational pull. So even though Dark Matter couldn't been seen, it could be felt, and its impact was huge. Over time, this big cloud grew by absorbing other nearby smaller clouds. Such collisions of clouds are not necessarily smooth, as you can readily see on a stormy night. Where they collided, dense sub-clouds formed, and these made huge numbers of stars. The Milky Way's spiral appearance and flat shape was formed in a way kind of like a spinning water balloon. Take a slightly full water balloon, and throw it up in the air, and give it a good spin. The balloon will flatten out into a wheel before the inevitable splash. The Milky Way did the same thing, but with no splash. And it did more. As it got denser and flattened its shape, smaller gas clouds of hydrogen formed in the spinning disk and created numerous stars and a huge supermassive black hole in the center. In this way, the Milky Way's basic shape emerged. Billions of years passed while stars lived and died, all the while creating elements other than hydrogen and helium. Eventually, stars made carbon and oxygen and phosphorus and potassium and all the rest. And those elements seeded other clouds to make other stars, and from those clouds planets formed next to new stars. And on at least one of those planets someone asked: "How did the Milky Way form?"

About Jason Kendall

I am currently adjunct faculty at William Paterson University teaching astronomy. I hold a Master of Science in Astronomy from New Mexico State University. I am also a board member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. Since 2008, I have led the Inwood Astronomy Project which brought over 200 events of stargazing and public astronomy outreach to upper Manhattan, including the historic Inwood Star Fest, where Inwood Hill Park lights were turned off as part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy event in IYA2009. This was the first time in New York City history when park lights were turned off for an astronomy event. I've also focused on park safety due to an uptick in sexual assaults in Washington Heights and Inwood during 2011. I've worked to make our parks safer by encouraging public use of parks at night through night-time events with Park Rangers. I have led numerous "starwatching parties" and astronomy events in New York City, New Mexico, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut and Texas. I am also proud to have been part of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Program from 2009 to 2012. It all started way back in the fourth grade by the encouragement of two noted astronomers, Charles Schweighauser and Bart Bok. I saw Saturn through Charlie's telescope at then Sangamon State University on a clear Illinois night, and Bart encouraged me under those stars to study hard to come visit him at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I finally did make it down there about a decade after Bart passed away, and I found the favorite spots in Tucson, Arizona, where Bart and his wife Priscilla would spend when they were not gazing at the stars. Bart and his wife were pioneers in the study of the Milky Way, and their studies of the starforming regions called Bok Globules. It's even in my family. My great-grandfather was a Midwestern minister who used to preach his sermons out under the dark, cloudless nights. He always believed that getting out and experiencing the wonders of the natural world was a central part of being human. My family has always been inspired by his words: "We look up to look within." I hope that you'll join me under the stars or at one of my talks.

Come see what's up in the sky!

Jason Kendall

We look up to look within

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Astronomical Society of the Pacific Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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