The 230th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society: Wednesday & Thursday

Posted by Alison Klesman
on Friday, June 9, 2017

I don't know how I managed to miss this lovely display until the second-to-last day! // Astronomy: Alison Klesman

For me, the last two days of this year’s spring AAS meeting seemed to narrow in on both the future and the past of astronomy. From confirmation of quintessential theories to a look back over the ground astronomers have covered in a relatively short time, the talks I attended were both enlightening and encouraging. 

Wednesday morning marked the final press conference of the meeting. It was at this conference that Kailash Sahu of the Space Telescope Science Institute announced the first successful measurement of the deflection of faraway starlight by a star other than our Sun. This deflection occurs because of the effects of general relativity, and was first confirmed using the Sun in 1919. Sahu’s group had watched closely as background starlight was distorted by the white dwarf Stein 2051B. By measuring the amount of deflection, they were able to “cleanly” weigh the white dwarf doing the deflecting in a way that has never before been achieved. The result? Stein 2051B is 0.675 solar masses, which puts it squarely where it should be based on our current understanding of electron degenerate matter, which is the material that makes up white dwarfs. This amazing measurement is not only a testament to the precision of Hubble and the ingenuity of astronomers, but also the solidity of the theories put forth by great astronomers such as Albert Einstein and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, whose work has changed the way we understand the universe and the objects within it.

The second presentation was by Brian Kent of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, who spoke about the powerful tools now at astronomers’ fingertips in terms of data visualization. Not only do 3-dimensional models and starfield flythroughs help astronomers better analyze their findings, they’re also great ways to capture the public’s interest and spark the imagination. Kent stressed that data visualization is a valuable asset to modern astronomy, and discussed the popular Blender software package as a simple and effective way for amateur and professional astronomers alike to create visualizations that will put astronomy into the hands of everyone — literally, via their ability to run on any platform, including mobile phones. 

If you’d like to learn more, click over to the VizualizeAstronomy YouTube channel.

I concluded my Wednesday morning with David Koo’s plenary talk, “CANDELS: A Cosmic Quest for Distant Galaxies Offering Live Views of Galaxy Evolution.” David Koo is a brilliant astronomer, whose name I personally saw often in conjunction with my advisor’s on galaxy evolution papers. Koo is part of the groundbreaking CANDELS project, which he calls his “dream survey” of galaxies in the nearby and distant universe. CANDELS incorporates multiwavelength data across five regions of the sky, combining shallower, wider-field data with deeper but smaller windows into the distant universe. This survey, according to Koo, is absolutely unsurpassed in pure comprehensiveness of its data coverage. It includes 250,000 galaxies from redshifts spanning 1.5 to 8, and has X-ray coverage the likes of which will not be surpassed for at least a decade.

The major goals of the CANDELS survey are many and varied, and the data is all publicly available, allowing astronomers from every discipline within the field access to this amazing dataset. All of this information lets astronomers study galaxy evolution at every stage, spurring them to answer questions about how and when galaxies formed their stars, the life cycles of supermassive black holes, and the amount of variance that occurs throughout the universe, because it’s definitely not a uniform, easily understood place. Koo stressed that each and every galaxy is the culmination of many non-discrete parameters, meaning that small differences from galaxy to galaxy can produce big variations in what we see. 

If you’d like to learn more about this survey, just type in “CANDELS” and “astronomy” into your search bar — Koo said he specifically misspelled the survey’s name to make it easier to find on Google. (Although, admittedly, I found that “CANDELS survey” is probably the fastest way to make sure their website is the top result on your page.) 

The CANDELS survey is the largest observing project in the history of the Hubble Space Telescope. This "little" image started it all: the original Hubble Deep Field. // R. Williams (STScI), the Hubble Deep Field Team and NASA/ESA

Wednesday afternoon was a bit slower for me; I attended a few of the shorter cosmology talks and took the opportunity to glance at a couple of posters during the AGN, QSO, and Blazars poster session (again, a topic near and dear to my heart). That evening, I had an enjoyable dinner with several of the press members covering the conference, although we stayed out just late enough to miss the majority of the bats emerging from under the Congress Street Bridge at sunset. We did managed to catch sight of the clouds (and I do mean clouds!) of bats off in the distance, which was admittedly impressive in and of itself.

Thursday was only a short day, but it did give me the opportunity to attend the AAS Education Prize lecture, given by recipient Hernán Quintana of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Quintana gave a fascinating talk on the history of astronomy in Chile — not the story most astronomers have heard, which focuses on the wealth of instruments and observatories that have been established in the country, but the much more personal story of the Chilean astronomers and their struggles to develop astronomy departments and degrees of their own.

Quintana began by discussing the birth of modern astronomy in Chile as the result of the establishment of two observatories (by other countries) there in the mid-19th century. The majority of his talk, however, focused on the timeframe from the 1960s through the present, especially the years between the 1980s and today. These past few decades are when the vast majority of the country’s universities have finally begun to come into their own in terms of astronomical research on a country-wide and global scale. He discussed the “internal brakes” on astronomy from within Chile, from inter-university rivalries to intra-departmental struggles within joint physics and astronomy programs both seeking resources such as students and funding from the same, limited pool.

Despite many hardships, however, astronomy in Chile has finally begun to flourish, attracting postdocs and professionals from all around the world, many of whom stay to establish new astronomy research and working groups of their own in Chile. Not only are Chile’s astronomy programs today well-rounded, they are also finally gaining financial and political support, as well as international renown as the country’s astronomers step onto the worldwide stage of research in every aspect of the field.

Quintana’s talk was fascinating and enlightening; I also felt it was a good first step on my own path to Chile. My second step is taking place next week, as I board a plane to Santiago to participate in the Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program as their first ever media liaison (so stay tuned!).

All in all, I had a wonderful time at the 230th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Austin is a fabulous town and I had the opportunity to meet with and listen to many leaders in the astronomical community. I look forward to my next AAS meeting, whenever it will be; and in the meantime, I have a stack of notes that will hopefully continue to evolve into exciting news stories for our website and magazine.

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