Astronomy Meeting Excites Student Interest
by Danielle Dowling, SPS Reporter, Hunter College
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Undergraduates Vivienne Baldassare, Naomi Alpert, Alexandra Greenbaum, and Daniel Feldman enjoy the images from Hubble on a 3-D HDTV set.  Photo courtesy of Danielle Dowling. Undergraduates Vivienne Baldassare, Naomi Alpert, Alexandra Greenbaum, and Daniel Feldman enjoy the images from Hubble on a 3-D HDTV set.
Photo courtesy of Danielle Dowling.
Though not the largest gathering of physics undergraduates ever—close to 600 students turned out for the 2008 Sigma Pi Sigma Quadrennial Congress at Fermilab—the 217th American Astronomical Society (AAS) Meeting came close to that apogee. In fact, at the opening address, AAS president Debra Elmegreen proclaimed the attendance of 387 undergraduates a “record” for the biannual conference.

“I did get a sense that there were more undergraduates,” says Vivienne Baldassare, a junior at Hunter College in New York City who also attended the meeting last year.

This abundance of young, fresh faces was no more apparent than at the undergraduate orientation on the first official day of the AAS meeting. Scores of students, as well as representatives from grad schools wishing to woo them, crammed into the sizable Cirrus Room of the Sheraton Seattle Hotel. “It was overwhelming,” says Hunter College junior Alejandro Nunez. “It was too crowded for any useful networking to take place.” But Alexandra Greenbaum, a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, enjoyed the event. “I even managed to speak with a couple of recruiters for the schools I applied to,” she says.

For Baldassare, this year’s conference was made that much better by her experiences at the 215th meeting in Washington, D.C., last year. Her advice to future first-timers? Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

“Last year, I tried to attend too many talks on topics I was unfamiliar with, and a lot of it went over my head. This time around, I generally stuck to the invited sessions,” she says, referring to the talks given by speakers at the request of AAS. “[They] are more accessible for those who might not be specialized in the topics that are discussed.”

Nunez, Baldassare, and Greenbaum each had their own opinion about the highlights of the AAS meeting. Nunez was a fan of the career workshops such as “Making the Most of Your Presentation,” in which Jean-Luc Doumont, the author of Trees, Maps, and Theorems, instructed attendees on how to better prepare and present their data and conquer stage fright. Greenbaum, on the other hand, relished feeling “like a part of the science community” at the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) town hall meeting on January 10, after which she had the pleasure of meeting Dr. John Grunsfeld, astronaut and deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

The next night, at the SPS Evening of Undergraduate Science, Grunsfeld offered some sage advice to the students who attended: “[Many people] study physics because it’s really important and the noble thing to do, but they miss something about physics: It’s fun and exciting.… Make sure you take advantage of that.” The veteran of five space flights, who admits “I feel more comfortable in space than I do on Earth,” shared stories of his missions to the Hubble Space Telescope and implored students to “dream big” but budget frugally when imagining the successor to JWST, which is scheduled to launch in 2014.

The contributions of observational astronomy figured prominently at the conference, which was dedicated to the memory of Dr. John Huchra. The former president of AAS and professor of cosmology at Harvard University, who passed away in October 2010, was instrumental in the development of the CfA Redshift Survey, discovered the lensing galaxy Huchra’s Lens, and contributed to the measurement of Hubble’s constant. So it seems fitting that at a conference held in his honor, NASA’s Kepler team would divulge the most exciting discovery to be revealed by astronomers in recent years: the definitive detection of the first terrestrial exoplanet, Kepler-10b. Geoffrey Marcy, of the University of California, Berkeley, praised the revelation as “among the most profound discoveries in human history.”

“What makes this important is that we know the properties of the star [which Kepler-10b orbits] within 2 to 6 percent,” said Natalie Batalha, deputy leader of the Kepler Science Team, at a press conference held on the second day of the AAS meeting. The Kepler telescope, a 0.95-meter photometer, is trained on about 150,000 stars in the constellation of Cygnus and detects brightness changes in those objects. If the dips in brightness are periodic, that observation indicates the transit of a planet, and the length of the transit can be used to determine the radius of the planet. Additional data collected at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii allowed the scientists to determine the mass of Kepler-10b, and using the radius and mass measurements, they could calculate the planet’s density, which is 1.6 times that of Earth’s. The reason the Kepler team could achieve such conclusive accuracy is due to that fact that Kepler-10b orbits a star that’s magnetically “quiet,” which makes it easier to comb out data, according to Batalha.

“Hearing them announce the discovery of a new, Earth-sized planet was amazing,” says Hunter College junior Baldassare. Another highlight of the AAS meeting for Baldassare was the talk “Stellar Archaeology: New Science With Old Stars,” given by this year’s Annie Jump Cannon prizewinner Anna Frebel from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Frebel’s work also relies solely on telescopes—the bigger, the better. “I like large telescopes,” she quipped to the audience. “They give me lots of photons.”

But not just any gargantuan telescope will do for Frebel, who studies metal-poor stars more than 10 billion years old. “Instrumentation is important,” she says. “You want a big optical telescope with a big mirror and a variety of spectrographs. The Giant Magellan Telescope [GMT] is a good example of that.” Unfortunately, the GMT is not set to launch till 2018 at the earliest, so in the meantime, Frebel will use the Southern Sky Survey to fish out the haystack needles she seeks. The universe’s first stars are not only rare but faint, yet they provide what Frebel calls a “cosmic lab” in which scientists can better grasp the origin of elements and gain a deeper understanding of the universe—and ourselves. “We are all descendents of the big bang,” she says. “In a cosmic way, we are all connected.”

About The Author

Danielle Dowling, Hunter CollegeDanielle Dowling is a former journalist currently pursuing a second bachelorís degree in physics at Hunter College in New York City, where she serves as the treasurer of the physics club and as a teaching assistant. Her current research involves analyzing spectral data of and building databases about brown dwarfs. She intends to pursue a Ph.D. in astronomy or physics education or both after she receives her degree in the spring.

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