On the road: January 2012 AAS meeting, Monday recap

Posted by Liz Kruesi
on Monday, January 09, 2012

I’ve successfully survived the first full day of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting. I managed to attend all three press conferences, two invited talks, a session on extrasolar planets, a few science education presentations, and the poster exhibition hall. Plus, I caught up with a few fellow science journalists and met with an associate editor of our sister publication, Discover magazine.

The LOFAR project has begun taking data, and will be completely installed later this year. // Photo by Liz Kruesi
At the first press conference of the day, astronomers released the largest dark matter maps yet. They combined five years of observations from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope showing how the invisible dark matter in massive galaxy clusters warps background radiation. Each map is comparable to the size of the palm of your hand. The team released two-dimensional maps today, but they’ve also collected three-dimensional data and plan on incorporating this later.

After the dark matter announcement, I listened in on a few presentations about extrasolar planets. A major theme was how important it is to understand the star when investigating the planets orbiting it. The star is the system’s prime energy and gravity source, and its characteristics (especially temperature) define the system’s habitable zone — where water could possibly exist on a world’s surface. Along those lines, a talk by Billy Quarles of the University of Texas at Arlington described the habitability of the Kepler-16 system. His team suggested astronomers look to see if a moon is orbiting the Saturn-sized Kepler-16b, because if so, it could be habitable.

After lunch, we reconvened for another press conference — this one about the LOFAR radio telescope. This project is located in the Netherlands, a seemingly unusual place for a radio observatory. However, with advanced computer processing, it has so far been successful at filtering out background radio sound (although the motion of windmill blades seems to cause some problems). The LOFAR team announced today that the project’s hardware will be fully installed and online later this year, and LOFAR has already begun taking data in two bands: the low band looks at frequencies between 30 and 75 Megahertz (MHz), and the high band observes between 115 and 185 MHz. There’s a gap between 75 and 115 MHz because of FM radio signals.

Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg gave the last talk of the evening on Monday January 9. // Photo by Liz Kruesi
The last session of the night — a public talk by Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate of physics — was great, but also a bit depressing. Titled “Big science in crisis,” he focused on how difficult it is for huge science projects (such as particle accelerators and space observatories) to get funding. The current financial climate, combined with the requirement to cut 8 percent of the federal non-defense budget at the end of the year, means it will only get harder.

So spread your excitement for science, and get others interested in it. Until the public perception changes and people realize that science is important, and that it leads to incredible technology, funding will continue to decrease.

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