How do you fit 14 billion years of cosmic history into a 30-minute talk?

A theoretical astrophysicist tells the story of the universe in AstroTour talk

How do you fit 14 billion years of cosmic history into a 30-minute talk?

Dr. Patrick Breysse, a postdoctoral researcher at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, dragged our minds back in time, painted a picture of the universe, and explained how laughably inadequate the term “Big Bang” is at capturing the birth of our reality, in a public talk delivered at U of T on August 1.

How early conceptions of the universe evolved over time

The talk, titled “A Brief History of Everything,” was attended by around 300 audience members at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. Breysse opened with an introduction to the works of American astronomers Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Edwin Hubble in the early 1900s.

At that time, philosophers believed that the Milky Way was at the centre of the universe and was surrounded by a sea of unchanging, unmoving stars. But the discovery of massive swirling clouds called spiral nebulae threw a wrench in that model. 

“There was a great debate around [1908 about] whether these were little gas clouds in our galaxy or enormous things outside of it,” explained Breysse.

Leavitt noticed the blinking of special stars called Cepheid variables, and she figured out that the speed of this blinking could tell us how bright the star is. Hubble used this to figure out how far bright stars are. The giant cluster of stars they quantified eventually became known as the modern galaxies. 

Hubble also showed that these clusters of stars are separate from the Milky Way. The closest galaxy to us, Andromeda, is a whopping 24 quintillion kilometres away — that’s eighteen zeros!

“If I say Andromeda is as far as the moon is away from us, as the moon is from the earth, then the earth would have to be the size of a virus,” noted Breysse.

Hubble concluded that everything in the universe was moving away from us, and so there must have been a point when everything was together, and that an explosion resulted in this scattering of matter.

Decades of investigation later, we know that we are not at the centre of the universe, but are instead surrounded by massive constellations of massive galaxies and cosmic phenomena. 

“Astronomy is, if anything, good for telling you, you are not special in any comprehensive way!”

How theoretical physics underpins our current understanding

From the centre-of-the-universe conception, Breysse brought us up to date with the Lambda Cold Dark Matter model of the universe. This model is, in essence, the Big Bang Theory – the universe started out in a “hot dense state, and then nearly 14 billion years ago,” something happened and here we are.

Astronomers study the origin of the universe by constructing images of cosmic webs of matter and empty space using powerful telescopes and satellites. These researchers glean knowledge from ergo-planetary discs, and learn about the birth of galaxies from nebulae. 

Despite all this, there is a two-billion-year gap in our knowledge. Breysse and his research team use microwaves and intensity mappings to construct an idea of what our cosmic past might have looked like – the universe’s “baby pictures.”

“Every telescope is secretly a time machine,” said Breysse. “Telescopes look at light, and light travels at a constant speed.”

As light travels at nearly 300,000 kilometres per second, images captured from the distant reaches of the universe represent moments taken from the past. This is accounted for by the time it takes for the light to reach our instruments.

The further out we take observations from, the closer we get to the moment the universe originated.

Reactions from audience members

Audience members were given the opportunity to ask questions and express their appreciation at the end of the evening. 

“It was a fun and informative talk. He made a topic that’s quite difficult to understand simple, and did it in an entertaining way,” said Maeesha Mahbub, a third-year Fundamental Genetics and its Applications specialist, to The Varsity

The audience was also, surprisingly, filled with children from the neighbouring communities accompanied by their families. One brave nine-year-old, Leffe Monette, enthusiastically asked Breysse questions during the talk.

“I really enjoyed the talk! I liked how he showed us how far the other galaxies are,” said Leffe, a student of St. Michael’s College School. “I want to be a [space] scientist!”

Following the talk, audience members were given the chance to view Saturn and Jupiter through telescopes from U of T’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics atop McLennan Physical Libraries.

AstroTours also set up a free planetarium show for audience members following Breysse’s talk, conveying further information on the vast expanse of the universe to interested attendees.

Blue Sky Solar Racing unveils new solar-powered race car

Viridian will compete in race of over 3000 kilometres across Australia

Blue Sky Solar Racing unveils new solar-powered race car

A team of U of T Engineering undergraduate students named Blue Sky Solar Racing unveiled Viridian, the 10th generation of its solar-powered race car, in its first public unveiling event on June 24.

For over 22 years, different compositions of the team designed, built, and raced solar-powered cars, creating a new generation every two years.

This year, Blue Sky Solar Racing completed the design and manufacture of Generation X. The vehicle was showcased to the public for the first time at Myhal Centre Auditorium.

Race car’s manufacture celebrated by keynote speakers

The buzzing audience included team alumni, sponsors, and staff from the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. Around 200 guests attended in total.

Following an introduction by Managing Director Hubaab K. Hussain, two professors delivered remarks onstage.

Professor Amy Bilton, the Director of the Centre of Global Engineering, discussed her experiences as an alumna of Blue Sky Solar Racing. She reflected on her involvement as the Aerodynamics Team Lead in 2006, and noted that the team puts in an incredible amount of effort each year.

“[The team members] are basically doing more than a full-time job at the same time as they are doing a full load of engineering courses,” she said.

Professor Cristopher Yip, the Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, also spoke at the event, and congratulated the team on their successful manufacture of Generation X.

The unveiling of Viridian onstage

In a wave of applause, team members pulled back the curtain to reveal their feat of design.

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Viridian is a boat-shaped solar-powered race car with a length of approximately three metres. The hood of the vehicle is covered with an array of solar panels. A glass hemisphere swells from the middle of the car, serving as the windshield.

In an interview with The Varsity, Hussain said that Viridian can reach a top speed of 120 kilometres per hour according to previous testing.

He said that the team continues to work on testing and characterizing the car ⁠— in addition to getting some much-needed sleep. This will be in preparation for racing Viridian in the international Bridgestone World Solar Challenge this autumn.

Racing 3000 kilometres in Australia

Viridian’s race will be the seventh time that the team’s vehicle will make the cross-continental trip from Darwin to Adelaide in Australia. Travelling north to south of the country, Viridian will race a course of 3000 kilometres.

The competition is set to begin in October. Before then, the team will repeatedly test the car to get as much characterized information about its performance as possible. Details such as its power consumption at certain speeds, as well as how certain environmental conditions affect Viridian’s performance, are especially valuable.

Potential commercial applications

Outside of racing competitions, solar-powered cars have an immense commercial potential. Hussain highlighted Lightyear, a start-up electric car manufacturer in the Netherlands.

The European company released their first solar-powered electric car on the same day as Blue Sky Solar Racing’s unveiling event. Its new car, named Lightyear One, is set to be released on the market soon, with a listed price of €149,000 in the Netherlands, roughly equivalent to 218,400 CAD.

In addition to developing solar-powered race cars, Hussain said that Blue Sky Solar Racing also aims to provide opportunities to enrich the experiences of undergraduates.

“The [goal] of the [Blue Sky Solar Racing],” said Hussain, “is to provide students with an opportunity to grow and develop outside of the classroom, as well as promote sustainable technology.”

Science Rendezvous Street Festival celebrates intersections between research and art

Festival aims to make science more accessible to the public

Science Rendezvous Street Festival celebrates intersections between research and art

On a cloudy afternoon on May 11, professors, students, parents, and children enjoyed the annual Science Rendezvous street festival at U of T’s St. George campus. The event let them celebrate and learn more about advancements and achievements in research.

The unifying theme of the festival this year was “S.T.E.A.M Big!”, which focused on the intersections between science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM). While art is often seen as separate from STEM disciplines, it is becoming increasingly common in the scientific community to encourage taking inspiration from the arts to drive innovative research.

Street stalls and displays exhibited the relationship between art and science

Displays that exemplified the relationship between art and science included outdoor music and dancing, as well as a visual art gallery inspired by math and science.

The focal points were the stalls and displays lining all of St. George Street. These exhibits presented some of the hottest topics and projects in science today, focusing on big interdisciplinary innovations found at the intersections of these rapidly advancing fields.

Over 80 faculties and community organizations set up exhibits. Highlights included displays of solar-powered cars, rockets, robots, and a wide array of other projects that would fascinate even those who have a passing interest in scientific inquiry.

This wide range and diversity of subjects represented by the participating volunteers brought the 2019 theme of STEAM to vibrant life.

Booths and demonstrations were highlights of the festival

The street festival included over 100 fascinating and interactive booths. Some leaned toward the classic science fair vibe, such as displaying glowing bacteria and allowing patrons to look through a solar telescope. Others opted to take a more creative approach, such as the station inviting attendees to paint with acids, bases, and plant juices.

Some displayed student innovations, such as the demonstration set up by U of T Blue Sky Solar Racing, an undergraduate team that designs, builds, and races solar powered vehicles. There was also a plethora of digital demonstrations interspersed between all the other projects, ranging from virtual reality tours of archeological sites to demos of the many student-made video games.

Street fairs like Science Rendezvous increase engagement with science

One of the goals of the festival was to raise interest in U of T’s science programs, as many high school students attended and participated in the event. An example was the molecular genetics-focused science fair that took place in Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

Besides attracting prospective students, the festival is intended to improve public involvement and investment in STEAM fields. From the number of students competing in the science fair, sporting U of T shirts with palpable excitement on their faces, to the sizeable crowds drawn in by the street festival, it is safe to say that both of these goals were achieved.

A rendezvous is a meeting or an appointment. In a way, St. George Street is a science rendezvous every day, with labs, classes, and seminars running regularly. What was special about this festival was that it took experiences that are often inaccessible and presented them in a way that could appeal to all.

The pretension and exclusivity that often seems to follow research was stripped away, and all that was left was mystery, excitement, and curiosity. This contributed to why the event drew in hundreds of people, and why volunteers and attendees come back year after year.

NDP Critic for Colleges and Universities Chris Glover speaks at U of T

Glover calls out Ford government for changes to postsecondary education

NDP Critic for Colleges and Universities Chris Glover speaks at U of T

Chris Glover, MPP for Spadina—Fort York and the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) Critic for Training, Colleges and Universities, was hosted by the U of T New Democrats on January 30 to discuss the changes made by the Ford government to postsecondary education, and how these changes will impact students.

Glover, a former adjunct social sciences professor at York University and graduate of Innis College, spoke to a handful of students on a cold Wednesday evening.

During his opening presentation on student financial issues, he reiterated the NDP’s position on the provincial government’s reforms to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), the elimination of the six-month interest free grace period after graduation for OSAP loans, and the new opt-out feature for “non-essential” student fees.

The Ford government’s changes to postsecondary education were not welcome news to the MPP.

While Glover said that he agrees with the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) that the previous Liberal government’s Free Tuition plan was never really free tuition, he disagrees with the tuition cut, as it is unfunded.

“Ontario universities… will have $380 million less in operating revenue [next year], and colleges [will have] $60 million less in operating revenue,” Glover said. “If it was a fully funded tuition cut it [would have been] a wonderful thing because you would have been paying less for the same quality of education.”

While Glover had sharp criticism for the old plan under the Liberals, he did say that it allowed more students from low and middle-income families to benefit from the program, and that if it had continued, more of those students would have graduated with less debt.

Glover also voiced his concerns about the effect on student groups. He noted his dismay at the opt-out nature of student fees, saying that student unions could lose out on much of the revenue that they use for advocacy. He also claimed that the change is a political move to hamstring organizations and prevent them from fighting to reverse these and future cuts.

When asked what an NDP government would do, Glover cited the party’s 2018 provincial platform, in which it committed to working toward ending interest on student loans, converting more loans into grants, eliminating the province’s policy of using private loan collection agencies to collect OSAP, and lifting the budget freeze on colleges and universities.

When asked for solutions to the cuts and their effects, Glover said, “This is not inevitable,” adding that students need to organize at Queen’s Park and especially call on students in PC ridings to confront their local representatives.

Recapping the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union executive candidates forum

Students ask about leadership experience, funding, bursaries

Recapping the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union executive candidates forum

Executive candidates running in the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) 2019 Spring Elections faced student questions about their experience and platforms at a forum hosted on January 29. There are two slates in this race, Shine Bright UTSC and SCSYou. Voting will take place from February 5–7 at three locations on campus.

To the presidential candidates, UTSC student Ghaith Hanbali asked what experience the candidates have that makes them fit for this leadership position.

Shine Bright UTSC’s presidential candidate Chemi Lhamo answered that she is a Director of Marketing for social media for the UTSC Chemistry Society. Lhamo is also the current SCSU Vice-President Equity.

“I thought that organic [chemistry] was the best thing since sliced bread,” said Lhamo. “Hence, why I wanted to help students with their lab coats, lab notebooks… I made sure I was there for them… [and] that people knew about Chemistry Society events.”

SCSYou’s presidential candidate Anup Atwal was the co-president of the Scarborough Campus Punjabi Association and is the founder and President of the Scarborough Campus’ Union Reform Club.

Atwal has also helped students at the Math and Statistics Learning Centre. “Student leadership… is not just being the person who’s always at the front… I do believe that part of being a leader is educating people around you.”

UTSC student Sarkis Kidanian said to the Vice-President Operations candidates that they have “lots of promises… that require money” and asked them where that would come from.

SCSYou’s Vice-President Operations candidate Ray Alibux replied that giving students the option to vote in and out of different levies would free up a lot of money.

He said that students are paying for levies that not all students may want to pay for. “An example is the Blue Sky Solar Racing… this [money] could be going toward something like the Food Centre.”

It is unclear how the union would gain money for other projects if students were allowed to opt out.

Shine Bright UTSC’s Vice-President Operations candidate Kevin Turingan said that since people are going to be able to opt out of the union next year, “he can’t give… an exact answer for that.”

If elected, Turingan plans to look at the funding and figure out how much money the union has before providing an answer. He said that he “would prioritize what students want.”

Among Alibux’s campaign promises are lobbying for more charging stations, longer food vendor hours, an on-campus free food kitchen similar to Good Shepherd Ministries, and a recreation room.

Turingan wants to introduce more food trucks, a food justice campaign, and a Presto card machine on campus. He also wants to give the SCSU Food Centre its own room, and open it at least three times a week, instead of two.

In light of Premier Doug Ford’s government announcement of changes to postsecondary education, which includes a 10 per cent cut to domestic tuition, a student asked the candidates for Vice-President Academics & University Affairs about how they might introduce new bursaries.

Shine Bright UTSC’s Raymond Dang emphasized that “as soon as [he is] in office” in May, he will introduce scholarships and bursaries. He also has plans concerning petition costs and green leadership.

“A vote for Raymond is a vote for a break with the past,” said Dang. “A vote for Shine Bright UTSC is a vote for transparency, ambition, accountability, and positivity.”

SCSYou’s Carly Sahagian said, “As someone who works with admissions, we offer a lot of scholarships for students.”

She said, “[Student services] fees should be able to cover some of the extra services that we pay. For example, the deferred exam fee.” Sahagian wants to remove UTSC fees such as the $70 exam deferral fee and the $36 exam re-read fee.

David Rosenberg delivers Rotman talk on impending US recession

Gluskin Sheff chief economist suggests Feds are disguising a market downturn

David Rosenberg delivers Rotman talk on impending US recession

The Rotman School of Management hosted David Rosenberg for its Investing Experts Speaker Series on January 29. Rosenberg is the Chief Economist and Strategist at wealth management firm Gluskin Sheff, and he was previously the Chief North American Economist at Merrill Lynch Canada. He reflected on current market forces through his experiences in investing from within the private sector.

The talk was titled “The Year of the Pig (Lipstick Won’t Help!),” referencing the Chinese zodiac and riffing on the famous porcine expression of putting lipstick on a pig. Rosenberg said that branding changes being undertaken by the US Federal Reserve System (Fed) are a futile attempt to disguise an impending economic downturn.

If you’re on time, you’re late

With a commanding tone and sardonic remarks such as “economists are accountants with personality,” Rosenberg delved into the topic at hand by introducing a key principle of investing: “Be cognizant of what’s priced in.”

Referencing Donald Coxe, one of his mentors, Rosenberg relayed the prescription to “beware of the front cover affect.”

Much like how the freshness of viral memes are played out by the time they appear on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, he said that stories that appear on the front pages of financial magazines aren’t novel and that their problems have already been factored into the price of equities. With the investor’s goal of buying low and selling high, this provides little margin for profit.

“You want to buy the page B16 story on its way to page A1. Now when it gets on page A1, the story is over,” he said.

Despite the length of the current decade-long US economic expansion, it was his self-described contrarian thinking and a front page story in The Economist, titled “The bull market in everything,” that led Rosenberg to heed his own advice and prepare for the economic downturn of a bear market and possible recession.

Monetary policy

Rosenberg emphasized the significance of interest rates in understanding market behaviour. “Interest rates! That is what is important, because when you’re talking about stocks, or bonds, or real estate, anything that generates an earnings stream, you have to know where interest rates are going or you’re going to be completely lost.”

After the 2008 market crash and resulting recession, lower interest rates set by the Feds were used to induce spending as a means for recovering and reinvigorating the stagnant market. This was followed by quantitative easing (QE) — a large scale purchase of government debt and private assets by the central bank. While an unusual policy move, QE became a popular mechanism for central governments to introduce cash into the market when they were unable to lower interest rates much further.

According to Rosenberg, these policies have led to a ballooning of the stock market not reflected by the economy: “If I had constrained the stock market to what the economy had actually done, the S&P 500, you should know, would’ve peaked at 1,850, not 2,940. And the excess, that gap, is all about the excess Fed liquidity pumped into the system through artificially low interest rates and quantitative easing.”

The high, apparently healthy, numbers of the stock market index superficially conceal the relatively weaker health of the economy.

A bloating system

In addition to the artificial ballooning of the stock market, Rosenberg noted other trends that have strengthened his conviction of an economic slowdown.

In particular, he pointed to high corporate debt-to-GDP ratios. Such high leverage situations have often preceded recessions.

Focusing on corporate debt, Rosenberg emphasized that “we have never had a more junkier corporate bond market than we do today.” He added that even the quality of bonds is poor, with 50 per cent of investment grade bonds rated BBB. This is the lowest rating for an investment grade bond, with lower graded bonds classified as ‘junk’ and considered high-risk or speculative.

Rosenberg explained that the response to the current high leverage will be corporate deleveraging. This would in turn lead to recession because of the sacrifices in capital spending.

Recession is coming

Based on correlative analysis, Rosenberg presented a relationship between levels of employment and recession cycles. Low unemployment, as is currently the case, was often followed by recession and a shrinking job market, while high unemployment signified a potential for sustained growth.

“They call the unemployment rate a lagging indicator,” Rosenberg said. “I don’t think it’s a lagging indicator. It is actually a great recession indicator.”

In Rosenberg’s view, economic health markers are clearly trending in a downward direction. Yet some might argue that these are tenuous relationships with interrelated causes and effects, a classic case of the chicken and the egg.

As common wisdom goes, cycles end, bubbles burst, and a bull market transitions into a bear one. So when will this period of boom hit a dead end?

The answer, for Rosenberg, is that we might already be in it.

Doug Ford: The First 100 Days event sees Liberal, PC speakers spar

Hart House Debate asks how Ford’s government has performed, what it has in store

Doug Ford: The First 100 Days event sees Liberal, PC speakers spar

On September 19, Hart House played host to former Deputy Premier of Ontario Deborah Matthews and the campaign manager for the Progressive Conservative (PC) party that ousted her, Kory Teneycke.

The event was organized by the Hart House Debates and Dialogue Committee and also featured Jaime Watt, an expert in government relations, and Tiffany Gooch, a public affairs consultant.

The sold-out event aimed to discuss the actions taken by Premier Doug Ford and his government since being in office for almost 100 days. The topics touched on included Ford’s climate strategy, his decision to reduce the number of city councillors in Toronto, the threat of the notwithstanding clause to achieve that aim, and the repeal of the basic income pilot project. Their opposing views and political positions came to a head on the debate room floor.

In response to a question about Doug Ford’s intention to “scrap cap and trade, scrap the federal government’s carbon tax, and cancel nearly 800 renewable energy projects,” Matthews brought up how these large and provincial-wide decisions could have a very real impact on students and the U of T campus.

“The money that was raised through cap and trade, every penny was going back into [greenhouse gas (GHG)] reduction. For example, U of T would have received significant money to retrofit buildings to reduce the GHG emissions. That money was earmarked for colleges and universities… to make the buildings more comfortable, but most importantly, to reduce GHG emissions. That money is not available anymore.”

Teneycke responded by supporting Ford’s actions, saying that cap and trade raises costs for consumers at home and results in jobs being driven to “places like China and Mexico” at Canada’s expense.

“If you believe climate change is a global problem, then it’s about global emissions. And if you’re driving jobs from environmentally cleaner jurisdictions to environmentally dirtier jurisdictions — that are using coal power and other things — you’re not actually having a positive impact on global emissions as a whole.”

The back-and-forth dynamic of these two speakers dominated the event.

Their differences were most apparent when the issue of the basic income pilot project was addressed. This experiment was meant to look at the effects of a universal basic income on poverty reduction, but it was discontinued by the Ford government earlier in the year.

Teneycke compared the guaranteed income strategy to the politics of Venezuela, a socialist country that is currently embroiled in an economic crisis.

“It is a bad approach, it’s killed more people than any set of ideas that humanity has ever come up with. So, yeah, an experiment with communism is not something the government is going to double down on.”

Although he later described the use of this comparison as “in part, flippant,” he reaffirmed his criticism of the project.

“People having more money, having more choices that affords them, is a wonderful thing,” he said. “And part of how we do that is called getting a job. I know that’s not possible for everyone in society, but more people that are employed — gainfully employed — means more money we have to help those who are in a position, whether it’s through disability or through other circumstances, to be assisted.”

In opposition to this stance, Matthews said that “if you think that a market-driven economy, a capitalist market-driven economy, has no room for taking care of those that are most vulnerable, then you are wrong.”

Matthews went on to say that the basic income pilot was, at its core, about answering one question: “If people have a little bit more money, would they actually be more likely to go back to school, to get a job, to reduce their reliance on the health care system, to reduce their reliance on the justice system?”

Because the pilot project will not be allowed to run its course, Matthews asserted that we might never know the answer to this question.

Throughout the debate, profanity was thrown around, interruptions were made, and the numerous personal comments verging on attacks “disappointed [Watt] profoundly.”

From all this, Gooch’s response to an audience member, who asked what incentives there are for young people to enter politics, sums up this chaotic event best.

“You need to enter it because it needs you.”