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Watson Lecture: Shri Kulkarni Discusses Scanning the Night Sky

What if we could capture major events throughout the cosmos with a camera? On Wednesday, February 7, 2024, at 7:30 p.m. PT in Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, Shri Kulkarni, the George Ellery Hale Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science, will explain that while astronomers cannot see every exploding supernova, the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), a robotic camera based at Caltech's Palomar Observatory, does enable scientists to observe thousands of them—along with other exciting phenomena—every year.

In a public talk called "Illuminating the Dynamic Night Sky: Discoveries from the Zwicky Transient Facility" that continues the 101st season of the Watson Lectures, Kulkarni will discuss the history and development of ZTF, a public-private partnership aimed at the systematic exploration of the optical night sky. Kulkarni will share some of the thrilling events this cutting-edge instrument has revealed in its first years of operation—such as stars being swallowed by black holes and planets being engulfed by their parent stars—and explore how machine learning is powering an unprecedented new era of discovery at Palomar.

"The ideal scientist is supposed to ask questions and seek answers—I've never been that," says Kulkarni, who is principal investigator of ZTF. "I really like to build instruments, or as I sometimes call them, toys, and play with them to discover the universe. I think it's a very different approach to science, which is, in some sense, based on a combination of engineering and curiosity rather than a more theoretical approach."

In addition to ZTF, Kulkarni has played a major role in building nine other astronomical instruments, including the precursor to ZTF: the Palomar Transient Factory. His research interests are largely in observational astronomy and spread across several fields, from transients to the study of the interstellar medium. Originally from India, Kulkarni first came to Caltech as a Millikan Research Fellow in Radio Astronomy in 1985 and has spent his career at the Institute.

The Watson Lectures offer new opportunities each month to hear how Caltech's premier researchers are tackling society's most pressing challenges and inventing the technologies of the future.

Learn more about the Earnest C. Watson Lecture Series and its history at

Watson Lectures are free and open to the public. Register online. A recording will be made available after the live event.

Written by Katie Neith

Caltech Media Relations