This is the story of everything, a sweeping saga that begins with an iota of space-time containing the seeds for 100 billion galaxies. The story starts with a universe smaller than a proton, where four forces of nature were melded into a primal uber-force. Thanks to a slight skewness among the forces space became filled with a billion photons for every particle. As space cooled to glow dull red, radiation and matter parted company, leaving us with a picture of the infant universe. It expanded and cooled, gravity sculpting the smooth gruel of plasma into a delicate filigree of large scale structure, and then the lights switched on for the first time. During hundreds of generations of star birth and death within every galaxy, heavy elements were forged in stellar cauldrons and dispersed into the space between stars. On the surfaces of some rocky cinders left over from star formation, the conditions were ripe for the development of biology. On one of those rocky cinders, a particular species of hairless ape evolved to understand their place in the universe. We consider the current status of big bang cosmology, it’s strengths and weaknesses, and its limits in explaining the origin of everything.

The Space Age is half a century old. Its early successes were driven by a fierce superpower rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, which tended to obscure the fact that exploration and risk-taking are built into human DNA. Decades after we last set foot on the Moon, and several years after the Space Shuttle was retired, the space activity is finally leaving the doldrums. A vibrant private sector led by SpaceX and Virgin Galactic plans to launch supplies cheaply into Earth orbit and give anyone the chance of a sub-orbital joy ride. New materials are being developed that could lead to space elevators and transform the economics of space travel. Fighting gravity will always be difficult but engineers are rethinking rockets and developing new propulsion technologies. Permanent bases on the Moon and Mars are now within reach, and a new Space Race is brewing, with the Asian countries ascendant. Medical advances might even allow us to reach for the stars. This talk will review the history and landmarks of the international space program, give a snapshot of the current dynamic situation, and plot the trajectory of the future of space travel. The time has come to envision our future off-Earth.

Black holes occupy a singular place in modern science and in the public mind. The idea of an object with gravity so strong that even light can’t escape begins with general relativity, yet even Einstein couldn’t accept the implications of his theory. Several dozen black holes in binary star systems have been firmly identified, and astronomers have learned that every galaxy hosts a massive black hole, some of which are billions of times the mass of the Sun. Black holes seem deceptively simple, described by mass and spin, but Stephen Hawking showed they have temperature and slowly evaporate. Theorists struggle to understand the singularity, and what happens to information that falls into the event horizon. We recently entered an exciting era with the detection of gravitational waves from merging black holes. Astronomers plan to use black holes, large and small, to test general relativity in new ways. Black holes have still not given up all their secrets.

At the dawn of science, over two thousand years ago, some Greek philosophers thought that the Earth might not be unique, but geocentric cosmology squashed this speculation until the time of Galileo. Gradually, telescopic observations revealed planets and moons to be diverse geological worlds. Over the past fifty years, robotic space probes sharpened this awareness. Finally, in 1995, the first exoplanet was discovered. In less than thirty years, the inventory has grown to over 4000, of which several hundred are Earth-like and dozens may be habitable. Astronomers project roughly 10 billion habitable “Earths” in the Milky Way and the search for life on those worlds is one of the most compelling projects in science. The state-of-the-art has moved from planet hunting to planet characterization, and the ambitious project to detect the alteration of a planetary atmosphere by the metabolism of microbes will soon begin. We will consider the potential scope of biology beyond the Earth, and look at the ongoing attempts to detect signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.


Why are we so fascinated with Mars, our neighbor in space? Why is it so like our own Earth in some ways — and so utterly different in others? This presentation lets you explore the “Red Planet” from afar and up close. You’ll learn where to find it in the night sky (it won’t be hard to spot) as it comes especially close to Earth in the coming months, and get a sense of what you’ll see through a backyard telescope. Meanwhile, spacecraft from NASA and the European Space Agency are scrutinizing every bit of its globe — both from orbit and from the ground — to determine the planet’s geologic history. And you’ll delve into the real odds of finding life there. Part of our interplanetary tour will put you right on the dusty Martian surface, thanks to 3-D imagery (glasses provided).

Since spotting the first “minor planet” in 1801, astronomers have discovered more than 750,000 small rocky bodies orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Spacecraft have seen 15 of them at close range, most recently NASA and Japanese spacecraft getting ready to land on their targets and return samples to waiting scientists. Meanwhile, tons of “space rocks” fall as meteorites onto Earth every year. Yet we really know little about asteroids — how they formed, what they’re like, and when one of them might strike Earth with enough force to create widespread damage. Join a veteran space journalist to explore the science and science fiction of these rocky bodies. Examples of meteorites will be on display as well.

In July 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto after a 9.5-year-flight. But really its historic encounter had been 85 years in the making, ever since 24-year-old Clyde Tombaugh discovered this enigmatic body at the edge of our planetary system. Back then astronomers thought it was perhaps as massive as Earth; today we realize that Pluto is tiny as planets go, yet one of the largest objects in the Kuiper Belt. This presentation traces the history of Pluto — from predictions of its existence to the discovery of its moons to its “demotion” to dwarf-planet status. Then you’ll take a tour of what New Horizons has revealed about Pluto and Charon — truly the “odd couple” of our solar system — and an even-more-distant object (recently named Arrokoth) that the spacecraft visited on New Year’s Day 2019.

Humans have watched displays of the “Northern Lights” in awe for centuries. Some cultures thought these colorful curtains of light arose from epic battles in the night sky or as sparks created by the tail of an artic fox. The Sámi of northernmost Europe call it “the light you can hear.” But only recently have scientists been able to fully understand how and why auroras exist. This presentation explores the fanciful explanations for these dancing curtains of light, how powerful bursts from the Sun create them, and when/where you’re most likely to see the Aurora Australis throughout our cruise.

Whether you’ve seen a dozen total solar eclipses or this one will be your first, it always pays to be prepared. This presentation will explain why solar eclipses happen, the “specs” for the one we’ll witness on this cruise, and the all-important weather forecast for eclipse day. You’ll also get a preview of all the multi-sensory phenomena that will occur as the Moon’s shadow sweeps over the ms Westerdam at more than 1,500 miles per hour, along with expert tips on how to capture those precious moments with your camera.


The secrets of plate tectonics were first unraveled some 50 years ago as the first maps of the ocean floor revealed the planet’s secrets. As we sail south down the coast of Chile, we will traverse swaths of the South American, Nazca, and Antarctic plates, responsible for the inexorable collision known as subduction that raises the Andes, fuels the volcanoes, and shapes the planet. In this lecture, we will explore the 21st century revolution in imaging, from seafloor mapping to space-based radar and GPS, that has led to new insights in the forces that shape our planet.

The most massive earthquake that has ever been recorded was the 1960 Valdivia, Chile earthquake, a magnitude 9.5 disaster. This single event released a quarter of the energy of all earthquakes on the planet for an entire century. The resulting tsunami crossed the Pacific with devastating effects in Hawaii and Japan as well as in Chile. In the 21st century, the Indonesia 2004, Japan 2011, and Chile’s own 2010 tsunamis have been among the worst natural disasters society has ever seen, but now we record these events on a myriad of modern instruments, giving us novel insight into how they happen. This lecture will be an exploration of how these cataclysmic events unfold specifically at subduction zones and why. We’ll end with an examination of the parallels between Chile and the Pacific Northwest, where the Cascadia subduction zone threatens to be the source of the next giant.

Earthquakes virtually always strike without warning, unlike almost all other natural disasters. The ability to make robust, specific predictions of impending quakes has long been the holy grail of seismology, yet so far it eludes our best efforts. Recent events have provided tantalizing new possible avenues for prediction, including breakthroughs in putting sensors both on and below the sea floor, but the chance for success remains uncertain. Why is it so difficult? Meanwhile, earthquake early warning systems that rely on instantaneous detection of a quake as it unfolds have begun to be implemented, including the U.S. ShakeAlert system on the west coast. The science, technology, and formidable challenges of both early warning and advance prediction will be weighed with an eye toward future prospects.

The global ocean is endlessly in motion, and yet remarkably stable and slow to change. Its chemistry is virtually the same all over the planet, and has been that way for hundreds of millions of years. The ocean literally keeps the Earth habitable, via its heat-retention and re-distribution properties governed by the majestic circulation of the world’s great currents like the circumpolar Antarctic West Wind Drift, the most massive current in the ocean. These currents exert a major control on the climate of Antarctica and thereby of the planet as a whole. Antarctic ice sheets are changing in response, with implications for sea level everywhere. We will explore the links between ocean currents, continental ice sheets, and sea level.