Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) is a “research institute” of the Smithsonian Institution. It is joined with the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) to form the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

Astronomy is a science that asks fundamental questions about the very fundament of things, the universe. How big and how far away are the planets and stars? How did they form and when? How do they move and why? Finding answers to those questions has been the highest adventure of the human mind, and yet the questions, in essence, are those of any child looking into the sky. The lessons in this issue of Smithsonian in Your Classroom address the questions, therefore, by first asking the students.

Resources provided by conference presenter Lisa Kaltenegger, Are there other worlds out there?

The first discovery of an “exoplanet”—a planet outside of our solar system—came as recently as 1995. Since then, there have been more than four hundred discoveries. Astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger is at work on the next step: examining these planets, and any Avatar-like moons, for signs of life. In this series of short video clips, Kaltenegger answers a series of questions about the burgeoning field of planet hunting, which is bringing us ever closer to a new view of the starry skies—from a universe of distant fires to a universe of other lands.

Q: How did life begin on Earth?


Q: What were conditions like when life began?


Q: How do we actually look for Earth-like planets?


Q: What signs of life can we look for?


Q: Will life out there resemble Earth life?


Q: Isn‘t life on Earth going to keep evolving?


Q: How can we look for intelligent life in the universe?


Q: What sort of fingerprints do we present to aliens?


Q: Why should people care if there is life out there?


Q: What does Lisa do on a typical day?


Q: What did Lisa get involved in science?


Q: How many people are working in this field?


Q: What opportunities are there for young people in this field?


Resources provided by conference presenter Phil Sadler, How do we grasp the vastness of the universe?

Web PageSmithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, founded in 1890, is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1973, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory became a member of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which combines the resources and research facilities of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory under a single director. Its mission is to pursue research and education about the basic physical processes that determine the nature and evolution of the universe.


Web Page"Lighthouse of the Skies"
an 8-minute video about the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory


Links Related to Phil Sadler’s research

Web PageSAO Science Education Department



Video: "A Private Universe – Misconceptions that Block Learning"
In 1989,Dr. Philip M. Sadler and Dr. Matthew H. Schneps produced an 18-minute video for teacher education about student misconceptions that has been widely shown in schools and universities around the world.

Other clips about common misconceptions relating to science can be found at MOSART, Misconception-Oriented Standards-Based Assessment Resources for Teachers and at Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Digital Video Library

Web PageDr. Philip M. Sadler publications



Web PageAmerican Astronomical Society 2010 Education Prize
The 2010 Education Prize was awarded to Dr. Philip M. Sadler (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) for developing the StarLab portable planetarium and "for opening our minds to the misconceptions and reasoning difficulties held by teachers and students about astronomy, and the role that understanding these misconceptions and reasoning difficulties plays in improving teaching and learning."

Web PageMOSART – Misconceptions-Oriented Standards-Based Assessment Resources for Teachers
Philip Sadler is the leader of a project that provides educators with multiple-choice tests that can be used to assess their students’ understanding of different science domains, K-12.


Web PageFactors Influencing College Science Success
Just for teachers: Research results from a study about the impact of high school practice on college science achievement.


Web PageAnnenberg Media: Resources for students and teachers
Since 1992, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory has partnered with Annenberg Media to produce over 20 workshops and courses about science and mathematics. Currently all these resources are available free on the internet. Find them by typing "Harvard-Smithsonian" in the search box at the top of the home page. Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s current project, which has sections dealing with gravity, dark matter, and dark energy is "Physics for the 21st Century" (available in fall, 2010.)

You can see Phil Sadler’s interviews with students appear in "Essential Science for Teachers: Physical Science", a series of video, print, and web based courses designed to enhance elementary school teachers’ understanding of matter as one of the “big ideas” of physical science as well as provide ways to convey these often difficult ideas to students. You can find video overviews, and Dr. Sadler’s interviews at the bottom of each session. – http://www.learner.org/courses/essential/physicalsci/

Resources for Astronomy Education

Web PageSAO Education Page: "Fun Things to See and Do"



Web PageLinks to SAO Public Talks:


Web PageMicro-Observatory – Observing with NASA
Micro-Observatory is a network of remotely-operated telescopes that students can control and receive their astronomical images by email. For teachers, there are classroom activities and projects and resources.


Web PageNASA Education Forum on the Structure and Evolution of the Universe
The Universe Forum was a national center for teaching and learning about the scientific study of the Structure and Evolution of the Universe (SEU). While the project concluded in 2009, web resources (including classroom activities and universe tours) are archived and still available.

Web PageChandra Education
On the website for Chandra, the x-ray observatory run by SAO, you can find links to Classroom-ready activities and informal science resources.


Web PageAstronomy Detectives
See how astronomers actually do their work by playing the role of an astronomer to discover the answer to one of the current mysteries astronomy: how do massive stars form? Massive stars were much more common in the early universe than they are today, and they were thought to have created the heavy elements that life depends on today.


Web PageEye on the Sky
Black holes, the life of stars, extrasolar planets: How do astronomers actually do their work? What are the big questions that drive them to pursue their research? How did they get first get started in astronomy?


Web PageCrossroads: The Future of Human Life in the Universe Conference
Astronomers are on the threshold of discovering the Holy Grail of planetary sciences – new Earth-like planets. The next challenge will be to determine whether or not these worlds have life on them especially intelligent life that we can communicate with. If such life does exist beyond our solar system, will it be technologically-based life like ours? Or, if we do not find intelligent life out there, what does that imply about our place in the Universe? Are there "filters" like global warming, overpopulation, exhaustion of natural resources, and the emergence of A.I. that sentient species must pass through? And, if they don’t, does their dominance end? Is this the reason SETI has heard nothing for the past 35 years because no intelligent species near us has survived these types of filters? Are humans on the brink of one of these dangerous passages right now? These are the topics to be explored in this provocative meeting of world experts as we examine THE FUTURE OF HUMAN LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE.