Friday, May 13, 2011

Physics on the Disneyland Express: There are lots of large worlds after all

My continuing mission is to bump into and engage scientists everywhere I happen to go. The airplane, believe it or not, has produced many such encounters. For some reason, I just happen to always sit next to someone in science or engineering. Case in point: my famous Milan to JFK flight, on which I was not even supposed to be, yielded a seat next to a verbose Italian computer scientist. We talked shop in English and Italian for 6 of the 8 hours we were airborne.

So last week as I prepared to leave the APS April Meeting, held mere blocks from Disneyland, I wasn’t too surprised to see a bushy-headed physicist (I knew he had to be one) get on our bus to LAX. The bus was affectionately called the Disneyland Express and after I began chatting the fellow up, it became the happiest place on Earth.

This physicist was actually an astrophysicist, and was far from shy. He was so excited to talk about his research, he was practically goofy. (Please don’t groan – this post contains puns which are obligated by California law to be included.) So the 1 hour-plus trip practically tilt-a-whirled by as he discussed his passion: exoplanets.

According to Dr. M, as I will refer to him, there are many, many exoplanets – ok, yes we know this. In fact, the Extrasolar Planet Encyclopedia states that there is currently 548 known exoplanets. More info can also be found at exoplanets.org. So big deal – there’s a few planets more than a few light years away – how does this impact my life?



[This artist's concept shows a cloudy Jupiter-like planet that orbits very close to its fiery hot star.NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC), from NASA]



Dr. M explained to me that his studies of exoplanets allows him and his astro-colleagues to better understand the formation of the proto-planetary disks that existed before the actually gas-n-stones-particulates bound together and took shape as planets surrounding a star. And with “a few more planets being discovered everyday,” said Dr. M, there is more opportunity to better understand how planets, and more importantly solar systems, form.

This is not Mickey Mouse science. I sat on the bumpy bus listening to Dr. M wax on about how most of the exoplanets are mostly like Jupiter, with odd, jumpy orbits, and how the Kepler Mission is examining 150,000 stars over a three year period with a goal of finding Earth-like planets with Earth-like orbits. He didn’t mention any mission determined to find Pluto-like non-planets. Aw, shucks.

But he did reveal that at least 10% of the stars that we know of have Jupiter-like planets orbiting them, and Kepler may even lead us to discover that that number is more in the 20-30% range.

We soon arrived at LAX and our conversation came to an end. But the fire in Dr. M’s eyes told me that we will be hearing more about this subject in many places, including more APS meetings. In fact, he suggested to me that as an astrophysicist with an expertise in X-rays, he was surprised himself to be speaking at this conference, which doesn’t usually delve into this particular area of astrophysics. But if there are so many worlds out there, there surely will be more conferences at which to present. In fact, maybe one of those conferences is happening right now on a so-called “Jumping Jupiter”. Aw, shucks.



1 comment:

  1. Correction - According to a press release from SETI issued May 13, 2011, "Kepler space telescope has identified 1,235 possible
    planets around stars in our galaxy." See the release at http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/05/13/uc-berkeley-seti-survey-focuses-on-kepler’s-top-earth-like-planets/

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