Facing the Final Frontier: Yale Astronomer Visits ESU

By William Cameron
SC Contributing Writer

A crowd had gathered for Yale’s astronomy professor, Dr. Debra Fischer, who was this year’s keynote speaker for the Student Research and Creative Activity Symposium. The symposium gave undergraduate and graduate students an opportunity to present their research.

Space was limited in the Niedbala Auditorium on Thursday, April 23, as spectators quickly took their seats for a special presentation about the search for habitable planets.

In addition to teaching, Fischer researches the detection and characterization of exoplanets, developing improved instrumentation in the process.

The astronomer is also accountable for a role in discovering the first known multiple-planet system.

The symposium began at 9:00 AM in ESU’s Science and Technology Center. The guest star’s visit came courtesy of funding from the ESU chapter of Sigma Xi and the College of Arts and Science’s Dean’s Office.

Fischer’s presentation began with a brief tour of our own solar system to give context. Referencing the cosmic calendar model popularized by Carl Sagan, she remarked on the grand scale of the universe that long precedes human existence.

On the cosmic calendar, which maps the history of the universe from the big bang to the present day on a 12-month calendar, the first humans to do not appear until the final hours of December 31.

She then compared characteristics of the terrestrial planets of our system to data from the planets of nearby systems.

“The overlapping region shows you the habitable zone,” said Fischer, pointing to a colorful diagram comparing the masses of planets to their orbital periods.

“So the question that I have for you is this,” she continued, referencing a region of the visual highlighted in red, “We’ve been looking for twenty years. How many planets have we found that land inside that red box?”

Sensing the silent audience’s hesitation to answer, she instead asked them to simply make a “WAG.”

“Everyone knows what a WAG is, right,” she added. “A Wild Ass Guess? That’s a technical engineering term.”

Following a collective chuckle from the audience, one brave student finally responded, “None?”

“None,” Fischer confirmed. “Well, maybe one, the one we’re standing on.”

All cosmic comedy aside, Fischer’s presentation proved that the search for earth-like planets has been anything but guesswork.

While modern methodology has yet to distinguish any particularly promising candidates, continuing advancements make the search more feasible.

As planets themselves do not emit light, viewing them from such great distance is currently impossible. However, planets do exert a measurable force on the suns they orbit.

Fischer described the methods used to measure these otherwise unobservable planets, explaining how each has allowed her to gather data on planetary size, mass, and relative composition.

The “Wobble Method” measures motion indicated by changes in the visual spectrum emitted by a star. Fluctuations in the spectrum result from changes in line of sight velocity produced by the gravitational force of an orbiting planet.

Spectroscopy also reveals changes in starlight as a planet passes in front of a star. Researchers can determine information about size and orbit of a planet using the duration, frequency, and amount the star is dimmed.

The presentation concluded with images of notable telescopes, the modern tools of discovery used by her research team.

As Fischer added, the technological leviathans do not provide profitable returns for their expensive investments; instead, they serve as “monuments to our curiosity” as a species.

“We’re creating new things and inventing new technology,” said Fischer. “We’ve discovered that the universe started with the big bang and that every atom in our bodies was once in the core of a star.”

She also commented on the human implications of those findings, saying, “We’ve learned that there are species that have come before us and, in some cases, we’ve learned what caused the mass extinctions that wiped them out.”

Such knowledge could improve our own species’ ability to avoid a similar fate.

Fischer left the audience with an important set of questions: “With our knowledge, what we know with our intelligence and our technology, will we persist for more than a millisecond? Will we live for hours, or even a cosmic week, and where will we be?”

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