The day began with a metaphorical sunrise (the best we can do in overcast and never-dark Anchorage) when Yvonne Elsworth of the University of Birmingham in England discussed, “How to Observe (Rather Than Model) The Interior of Stars.” So, how to do this? “The Sun resonates like a (three-dimensional) musical instrument,” Elsworth explained, allowing scientists to use seismological techniques to probe and analyze our star. “Seismology genuinely gets under the Sun’s skin.” Armed with the “wonderful, wonderful Kepler data” now available, astrophysicists can study populations of stars in unprecedented detail. For fans of stars, and especially the Sun, Elsworth concluded these are “very exciting times.”
Next up was a press conference that included some familiar subjects: “Exoplanets & Brown Dwarfs.” One of the speakers, Thomas G. Beatty of the Ohio State University in Columbus detailed once more the discoveries from the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT), which he called “small but fierce.” Good for him! Another presenter, Tristan Guillot of the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France, spoke about “The Brown Dwarf Desert: A Tale of Stars Engulfing Their Companions.” For certain stars, astronomers had expected to find close-orbiting brown dwarf companions, but Guillot explained that tidal forces between the dwarf and the star would likely tug on the brown dwarf, sending it crashing to its doom with the star. It’s research that will help astronomers understand not just these specific systems, but also the ultimate fate of our home planet (which might eventually be swallowed up by our own host star).
The last talk before lunch was, “Bubble, Bubble, Toil, And Trouble: A Theorist’s Romp Through The Cosmic Dawn,” by Steven R. Furlanetto of the University of California, Los Angeles. No witches appeared, but Furlanetto did include a quote from Shakespeare on each of his slides, in exchange for altering a quote in his title. (The actual line from Macbeth is “Double, double toil and trouble.”) In addition to enlightening us with Shakespeare, Furlanetto worked to explain the significance of the cosmic dawn, that time when the universe was just starting to form the structures that would lead to galaxies and stars. He also discussed the current methods scientists use to study that time and their considerable drawbacks. Luckily, we’re entering an age where astronomers’ tools are powerful enough to make significant progress (including the latest Ultra Deep Field from Hubble, due out later this summer). “Observations are going to be really key,” he said, “and we’re starting to get them.”
Immediately following this lecture, familiar face Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University in Canberra moved things back into space — but kept them Australian — with the day’s final talk, “SkyMapper: Surveying the Southern Sky.” Schmidt said, “You can think of it as analogous to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey,” only instead of focusing on galaxies, it’s optimized for stellar astrophysics. Despite some pretty serious technical discussions of the 1.35-meter scope, the CCD, and observatory facility, Schmidt kept the talk fun with his casual comparisons and a penchant for anecdotes. (At one point, he made an offhand comment about having to “deal with the Russian mob,” and kept us hanging till the very end of the talk, when he described the shady Russian company that delivered a $40,000 instrument in a pizza box, complete with cheese and grease-stained paper.) The project will be able to search out metal-poor stars, hypervelocity stars, quasars, and much more. “There’s a lot of things to do,” Schmidt said excitedly, and he invited everyone to “please come and work with us!” It almost made we want to be an astronomer.
And there we have it! It’s hard to believe the main three days of the AAS summer conference are already over. Normally, I’d be heading back home about now, but because Alaska’s such a hard place to get to, we figured I might as well stick around and go to some of the talks on Thursday, tomorrow. I do have to leave before the final events, sadly, but I’ll be sure to write up everything I see in my next (and final) blog post, and live tweet throughout the day (#AAS220).