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New monthly bar series taps into mysteries of the cosmos

Jeff Silverman’s job tends to spark conversation at bars.

When he tells the people he meets that he’s an astronomer, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas, they get curious. They were especially interested earlier this year when “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” aired on Fox. They would ask him if all those out-of-this-world scientific explanations Neil deGrasse Tyson so earnestly broke down for his earthling audience were accurate.

“I would almost have to keep watching the episodes because I was asked about it so many times,” he said. “And it covers so many other subjects besides astronomy. Geology, physics, biology, chemistry.”

Now, he has to talk only about the subject he knows when he visits the downtown bar where other astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts will gather on the third Tuesday of every month.

He and Rachael Livermore, another postdoctoral fellow in UT’s astronomy department, are starting an Austin branch of Astronomy on Tap, a series of astronomy-related talks at bars around the country (and now around the globe, with the recent launch of a branch in Santiago, Chile). These kid-friendly talks are geared toward the average person, so you don’t have to be a scientist with a Ph.D to understand them.

The monthly event in Austin — the first one is Nov. 18 at Easy Tiger — features two to three 20-minute presentations about various astronomy topics, as well as games, trivia and, of course, beer.

Many of the astronomers at UT are big craft beer fans, and some are also homebrewers. Although not a homebrewer himself, Silverman has been to every brewery in town except for Oasis, Texas Brewing on Lake Travis (though he does intend to go sometime) and now wants to expand his sudsy explorations to Houston and Dallas. When he first heard about Astronomy on Tap from some of the organizers at New York events, he thought it would be a good fit in Austin.

Livermore, who moved to Austin last year from England, is more of a cider drinker, but she got involved in Astronomy on Tap because of her event-planning experience running science fiction conventions. It was Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” short story, she said, that first fueled her love for the genre, then science and most specifically astronomy. “I like to say that astronomy is the PR department for physics,” she joked.

Although she and Silverman are colleagues, they don’t specialize in the same area of study or even work on the same floor. He focuses on the “big, beautiful, bright explosions” of supernovas, while she studies far-off galaxies. Her boss was the leader of a team of astronomers at UT and Texas A&M last year who discovered the most distant galaxy from Earth.

“Its light has taken almost the entire lifespan of the universe to get to us,” she said, which essentially means the astronomers saw it as it was just 700 million years after the Big Bang. With the universe about 13.7 billion years old, she said, they were getting a look into the cosmic past.

This tiny speck in NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope will be Livermore’s topic at the first Astronomy on Tap event. Silverman will talk about “Death from the Skies,” a book about the various ways the world could end by astronomical phenomena, and their colleague Adam McKay will discuss Rosetta, the first spacecraft to orbit a comet. They already have other astronomers lined up for coming months.

Silverman said it would be great if they inspired a few audience members to go into astronomy, but the ultimate goal is to get everyone excited about science and “help them realize it’s an important aspect of society.”

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