Starting things off, AAS’s Solar Physics Division (SPD) awarded Dibyendu Nandy of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata the 2012 Harvey Prize (whose prize money he donated to the SPD’s Thomas Metcalf Fund). Nandy spoke on the subject, “The Solar Cycle: From Understanding to Forecasting.” With its complex dynamics and fluctuating cycles of activity, the Sun has proven difficult over the years to model fully; it’s about as hard to forecast solar activity as it is Earth’s weather activity, especially over the long term. Still, Nandy was optimistic: “The understanding of the solar cycle is incomplete, but we’re making progress.” Thanks to recent models that can incorporate varying degrees of “memory,” Nandy declared, “Predictions are possible!”
With my faith in the power of science newly boosted, I took advantage of one of my favorite activities at these conferences: the poster sessions. The discoveries on display aren’t always as dramatic or profound as the major lectures, but the sheer number of them allows the casual fan to walk out and search the most personally interesting stuff. And, best of all, the lead authors are typically there to answer questions and talk about the data. Yesterday, I’d bumped into Dean Pesnell, project scientist for the Solar Dynamics Observatory, who was excited about images showing off the death-defying trip of Comet C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy) past the Sun. This morning, I chatted with Alexandra Truebenbach (pronounced just how it’s spelled) of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, about her poster “The Central Stellar Structures of Active Galaxies: Insights into Galaxy–Black Hole Coevolution.” The main insight is that galaxies don’t need a bulging center to house an active supermassive black hole, contrary to previous opinion.
I then found myself in “brown dwarf alley,” an area focusing on the weird objects (part supergiant planet, part supercool and tiny star) with posters by several students from the same group at the University of California, San Diego. Amelia Christensen’s poster, “L-Dwarfs in the Catalina Real Time Transit Survey: Freaks and Beats” immediately caught my eye because of both the cool science on it and the distinctive and familiar display itself. Christensen explained that her research, which looked at a large sample of a subset of brown dwarfs and the clouds that could condense on them, just inspired a look similar to the famous science webcomic xkcd. (She also said two emails to the xkcd people had gone unanswered. That’s too bad — from what little I know of the comic’s writer, he’d love it!) Next, Daniella C. Bardalez Gagliuffi talked to me about the unexpected triple system discussed in her poster, “Discovery of an Old, Wide, Very Low Mass Triple System with Late-M and T Dwarf Components.” By studying a target’s light using spectroscopy, she was able to recognize it as a binary system, which was later confirmed (and turned out itself to be part of a triple system, with another star orbiting much farther from the central couple). Remarkably, all three stars had a combined mass just about a quarter of our Sun’s! I also learned Gagliuffi and I had an alma mater in common, so it was fun to chat about going to school out east for a while.
Coming back to Earth for my lunch (a reindeer sausage sandwich, because how often does that opportunity arise?), I went back to the depths of space with a special session titled “Kepler’s Future; the Road to Eta-Earth,” all about the orbiting planet-hunting telescope. There ended up being quite a bit of technical shop talk from the various speakers, detailing how to reduce “signal distortion” and “improving the pipeline” and so on. The upshot is that, through various software and modeling improvements, Kepler is going to be even better than ever, which is saying a lot considering its already prodigious results (2,321 planetary candidates and counting). Andrew Howard of the University of California, Berkley, piqued my interest when he described the increasing evidence that smaller planets (a few times Earth’s size) are common throughout the cosmos. And Jason Steffen of Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, made me feel a little bad for hot Jupiter-type planets, which apparently are in “a very lonely situation,” due to a lack of companion planets in their systems (like almost all other types of planets). Because of this finding, Steffen also suggested that the formation of hot Jupiters came about from “violence and mayhem,” where the huge worlds bounce smaller planets out of the system. So, I guess they brought the loneliness on themselves?
After hearing about the far-off and concrete, I next caught a couple of talks about the nearby and energetic — namely, cosmic rays. Up first, self-professed “local yokel” Katherine Rawlins of the University of Alaska Anchorage spoke about “Measuring Cosmic Rays at 1 PeV and Above.” Basically, it was the experimental part of the “double feature,” as Rawlins put it. She went over the various ways to study the most energetic of cosmic rays and the latest advances in detection, spending a little extra time with ground-based detectors (in particular the IceCube Observatory in Antarctica, which Rawlins works with). She compared these imperfect methods to calling in a forensic team for a crime, rather than catching the culprit directly; one slide even featured the description, “CSI: Cosmic Rays.” For the second, theoretical part of the double feature, titled “The Plasma Physics of Cosmic Rays,” Ellen Gould Zweibel of the University of Wisconsin-Madison described a more fundamental, physical way to understand the enigmatic phenomenon. “We can describe cosmic rays as a fluid,” she said, and had slides and slides of physics to back her up — I’m inclined simply to trust her. This approach implies that cosmic rays are at least partially responsible for galactic winds and even galactic structure.
Thus ended day two of the AAS summer meeting. But just as I’m starting to get the hang of everything (except daylight at 1 a.m.), it’s nearly time to go. Tomorrow, Wednesday, will be the last full day of the conference, packed with more talks, lectures, sessions, and capped off with a spacey film screening. How chic! (Thursday will also have some activities, but not for the full day.) And of course, I’ll keep tweeting the latest info (#AAS220) if you can’t wait to hear about it in my next blog post.
Related blog:On the road: American Astronomical Society June 2012 meeting, Monday recap