Voices Of Change — #LookUp! Space is Freaking Awesome

| Michelle B. Larson, President and CEO, Adler Planetarium

Diversity and inclusion are critical underpinnings to our evolving culture at Microsoft and powerful bridges to the marketplace. We are inspired by the local leaders who make diversity a priority in their daily work. In the spirit of International Women’s Day, we’re honored to celebrate women in our community who are carrying out the mission of civic engagement, leadership and empowering other women.

— MSFT Chicago Staff


At the Adler Planetarium, we take our science very seriously, but ourselves? Not as much. With our battle cry of Space is Freaking Awesome, we are on a mission to awaken and empower the explorer in you.

Exploding stars

History tells us—and the Adler’s historic collections show us—that for millennia humans have been driven to explore and discover. In 1054 AD, Chinese astronomers documented their observance of a new “guest star” in the sky, which was brightly visible during the daytime for weeks! This supernova, or exploding star, is known as the Crab Nebula today, and continues to be studied by astronomers who use new telescopes, tools, and talent to further understand how our Universe works. Their observations tell us that the iron in your blood and the copper in a penny you find in the sidewalk were forged in supernova explosions like the one that made the Crab Nebula. Freaking awesome!

As our civic contribution toward building an engaged society, at the Adler we encourage you to follow your own curiosity, take notice of the world around you, and contribute your ideas. As exciting as the Crab Nebula is (I myself studied its central neutron star for my PhD thesis), exploration and discovery need not always take you 6,500 light years from home.

Mountains on the Moon, comets in the kitchen

Try holding a pair of binoculars up to the Moon. I guarantee you will be blown away by and curious about what you see. Craters, mountains, shadows, rays of ejecta dust—you can see them all if you just look up! Now, fill a cake pan with flour and dust the top with cocoa powder. Then, hold a marble high above and drop it into the pan. Wow! Moon-like craters! Freaking awesome!

PotatoCollageTry looking at your next bag of potatoes more carefully (this is the not-taking-ourselves-too-seriously part). I did and was delighted to find a beautiful model of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Comet 67P was recently visited by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta satellite and Philae lander, the first mission to ever land on a comet! My potato replica (seen here) was my personal connection to keeping up with the Rosetta mission. It even “evolved” as the comet did, mimicking the winds that spewed off the comet as it came closer to the Sun. Freaking awesome! 

All minds on deck

While this all may sound like fun and games, my point is a serious one: We are human; we are born to explore. Look under that rock at the park. Pick an object and track its shadow with sidewalk chalk during the day. Look up. Look around. There is much to be tackled on this planet and in the Universe at large. We need all minds on deck. Yes, yours too! Only with a society of engaged, participating citizens will we make progress. Embrace your inner explorer. Discovery awaits.

MBLPic2_sMichelle Larson discovered astronomy in her 20s, when she pointed a pair of binoculars at the Moon. The stunning details visible on its craggy surface were a complete surprise, and the experience left her eager to find out what other secrets the sky had to offer. Now, as the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Michelle leads a talented team that helps people of all ages explore and discover our Universe.

Michelle enjoys making science approachable, often through connections to familiar, everyday items. Don’t be surprised if you end up speaking with her about rising cells of cream in your coffee, or her potato that looks like a comet. You may even find yourself exclaiming, like one young visitor did after looking through her telescope, “Hey! Saturn looks just like a Chevy symbol!”

Before joining the Adler in 2013, Michelle held positions in science education and administration at Utah State University, The Pennsylvania State University, the Montana Space Grant Consortium, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the University of California–Berkeley. She earned a PhD in physics from Montana State University, where she studied neutron stars and realized her passion for sharing science with the public. Michelle is a member of the American Astronomical Society and the American Physical Society; she also serves on several advisory boards.

Michelle lives just outside Chicago with her husband—who is also an astrophysicist—their daughter, and three cats.

About the Adler Planetarium 

The Adler Planetarium is more than a museum; it is a laboratory, a classroom, and a community exploring the Universe together. Each year, more than 550,000 visitors experience the museum’s interactive exhibitions, live, state-of-the-art planetarium shows, hands-on, minds-on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education programs, cutting-edge research, and world-class collections.

Founded in 1930 by Chicago business leader Max Adler, the Adler is a recognized leader in science engagement with the public; the museum’s scientists, historians, and educators inspire the next generation of explorers and invite the public to do science with us.


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