One need not hold an advanced degree in astrophysics to enjoy and appreciate the universe's infinite beauty and often bizarre mysteries. All it takes is a healthy curiosity and a splash of imagination while gazing towards the heavens. While the staggering majority of people in today's age will likely never explore anything past the planet's boundaries, they can tune in to expert presentations and browse literally thousands of free deep space telescope images. Unsurprisingly, the TED Talks series often hosts lectures challenging viewers to consider the universe and what humanity is doing to make better sense of it.
Carter Emmart demos a 3D atlas of the universe: Over a decade's worth of painstaking work by artists, scientists and programmers went into organizing the hauntingly gorgeous Digital Universe. Fans of astronomy and space travel will certainly enjoy Carter Emmart's brief walk-through of the wondrous program brings the furthest stretches of the entire universe to glorious, 3D light. Users are even able to track the trajectories of various missions as well! Back here on Earth, Digital Universe brings together educational institutions from around the world, including Cambodia and Ghana, in the interest of promoting broader scientific (and aesthetic!) understanding.
Peter Diamandis on Stephen Hawking in zero g: Space junkies longing to someday experience the thrill of a no gravity environment should switch on Peter Diamandis' short talk and live vicariously through both him and Stephen Hawking. The X-Prize founder absolutely adores space travel and innovation, and he wielded his resources to make one of the world's foremost astrophysicists achieve his dream. Dr. Hawking, unsurprisingly, harbors a desire to explore outer space, but a jaunt to the atmosphere's zero g levels definitely sufficed. The entire process took six months, and the distinguished participants were joined by the 20 donors who raised $150,000 for various children's hospitals.
Tom Shannon's anti-gravity sculpture: When art and science converge, some of the most intriguing works emerge. Tom Shannon's TED talk may stay grounded, but his concepts stem directly from decidedly astronomical phenomena. Using metals and magnets, the artist constructs breathtaking sculptures inspired by planets and stars, many of which using to-scale proportions and distances between actual celestial bodies. The magnets allow Shannon to produce surreal, anti-gravity scenes, one of which he demonstrates and discusses in detail. Beyond that, however, he also presents videos showcasing other relevant pieces of interest to art and space aficionados alike.
Andrea Ghez: The hunt for a supermassive black hole: More than just inspiration for a thoroughly awesome Muse song's title, supermassive black holes pique the curiosity of both space professionals and hobbyists. Andrea Ghez explains the complex physics involved in the establishment of these bizarre entities, positing that one may exist in every (or almost every) galaxy — which, in turn, heavily influences their gravity. She uses findings from the Keck Observatory to support her claims and looks towards the Milky Way's structure for answers. As of 2009, Ghez's work revolves around finding the Schwartzchild radius of supermassive black holes in order to determine how they work and subsequently impact the heavenly bodies around them.
Steve Jurvetson on model rocketry: The vast majority of people will never have a chance to explore outer space or launch their own missions, but model rocketry stands as a nice, comparatively cheap replacement. Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson loves this hobby, and uses his TED platform to proselytize about its myriad joys. While amateurs may not ever send any of their kits or original creations into orbit, many of the physics principles driving NASA shuttles also factor into backyard launches. It may not be the exact same, but model rocketry still provides a degree of vicarious enjoyment. Considering the video only lasts 3 minutes and 19 seconds, it provides space junkies with a quick way to learn on the go.
Steve Truglia: A leap from the edge of space: As a stunt man, Steve Truglia gleefully tests the boundaries of both technology and the human body without losing sight of safety and spectacle. With over 13 years of experience to his name, this brave individual now hopes to design one of the most ambitious stunts ever performed. High jumps are a staple of his career, but this one will take him to the very boundaries of Earth's atmosphere — where outer space technically begins. Funding, as one can imagine, has proved something of an issue, but Truglia remains optimistic about the venture. Project Space Jump requires vigorous training and cooperation from various academic and scientific organizations, and the ambitious stunt man has even made several trial runs in wind tunnels to prepare.
Mae Jemison on teaching arts and sciences together: Mae Jemison is a true Renaissance woman. Not only was she the first African-American woman to visit space, but she's also an accomplished dancer, educator and consummate art connoisseur and collector. This illuminating, essential lecture pulls from Jemison's extensive experience to make a case for teaching the sciences and arts together. Rather than entirely separate entities — only one of which ever receives any funding or attention — she believes that schools should put forth more effort to point out their intersections. In fact, the arts played a major role in her practice of science! She posits creativity as one of the core components of technological innovation. Without it, humanity will no longer be able to progress past a certain point.
David Hoffman shares his Sputnik mania: Sputnik Mania, a documentary by filmmaker David Hoffman, chronicles the social, economic and political fervor swarming about the landmark Russian satellite. In this brief presentation — only 3 minutes and 47 seconds — he shares some favorite clips and discoveries from his research and subsequent film. The 1957 launch of Sputnik 1 inspired both the Soviets and Americans to heavily fund science and math education programs. And, of course, it sparked the Arms Race. From a broader perspective, Hoffman sees it as a commentary on the role mass media plays in forming ideas and cultures. For good and for ill.
George Smoot on the design of the universe: This Serious Play/TED lecture cobbles together some of the most glorious images ever captured of deep space. Though not comprehensive, it provides viewers with an incredible glimpse into how everything in the universe fits together. George Smoot delves into nature's bizarre and beautiful patterns, and the various ways in which it subverts itself. Using simulations and photos, he points out some of the most distant, mysterious pockets of the universe and questions what sort of celestial bodies lurk within them.
Carolyn Porco flies us to Saturn: Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco shines some light on Saturn's incredible system, whose rings and moons captivate the attentions (and affections) of astronomical types. As part of the Cassini mission, she learned plenty of amazing facts about one of Earth's most colorful neighbors. Out of its 47 (if not more) moons, two in particular stoke Porco's fascination, Titan and Enceladus. The former, Saturn's largest satellite, boasts a truly bizarre atmosphere rife with obscenely freezing temperatures, rain and "haze particles," which result in a sludgy substance on the moon itself. Enceladus sports a number of massive fractures due to its rampant geologic activity, and poles much hotter than the rest of the sphere. The cracks startled scientists when they began launching ice plumes hundreds of miles upwards! Porco thinks a large body of water may be responsible, and if it proves true, then the moon may prove viable for human settlement someday.