geoff marcy

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What all the harassment stories in astronomy really mean

“The real story — the one you’re only seeing the beginning of — is that for the first time, these actions are getting the attention they deserve for what they truly are: unacceptable. A senior scientist’s right to control the fate, behavior, personal space and even the bodies of junior scientists is no longer going to fly. Creating a work environment that’s comfortable for some and less accessible to others based on gender, race, sexual orientation or identity has been the norm for a very long time, but all of that is changing.”

Geoff Marcy. Tim Slater. Christian Ott. And a great many more who are just waiting to be publicly exposed for what they’ve done (and in many cases, are still doing). Does it mean that astronomy has a harassment problem? Of course it does, but that’s not the real story. The real story is that, for the first time, an entire academic field is recognizing a widespread problem, taking steps to change its policies, and is beginning to support the victims, rather than the senior, more famous, more prestigious perpetrators. Astronomy is the just start; hopefully physics, computer science, engineering, philosophy and economics are next.

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Alien Post #13: Dyson Spheres

Geoff Marcy, an astronomer at U-Cal Berkeley, discovered 70 of the first 100 exoplanets ever found.

He worked with the robotic telescope Kepler as it harvested light from distant worlds and recently he put together a project for Kepler that has interesting implications.

The Kepler telescope watches as a stars brightness dims due to a planet moving in front of it as it orbits. This is how it finds planets. Marcy decided that assuming there are hyper-advanced alien civilizations out there somewhere, it’s possible we aren’t looking entirely at planets, but something far less natural:

Marcy was awarded $200,000 from the Templeton Foundation to search for things called “Dyson spheres”.

What are those you ask? Imagine a solar panel. Now imagine a huge array of solar panels. Now imagine a huge array of solar panels wrapped around a star. Now imagine how much energy that would generate.

These theoretical machines would be wrapped around entire stars and could produce the energy needed to support a super advanced, possibly interstellar, civilization.

Using his grant money, Marcy is going to lease time to use the Keck Observatory and develop methods to hunt for things like Dyson spheres that would indicate advanced extra terrestrial intelligence. This all while scouring through the Kepler data, looking for aberrations that would indicate we may not be looking at a planet after all.

When I was fourteen my parents bought me a used telescope and I took that telescope and put it on the roof of my parents house in Southern California. I would spend hours at night looking at Saturn’s rings and thought: ‘Wow, you can see Jewelry, in space. That’s crazy, right?’

Jupiter had four moons and you could see the moons going around, it was like a merry-go-round - in space! Nature made this! Then I learned about many other things, the Andromeda Galaxy with it’s 200 billion stars that’s outside our Milky Way Galaxy. I could see, even with my naked eye, this whole pinwheel of 200 billion stars…

The universe is so beautiful with its jewelry and merry-go-rounds and distant pinwheels. It’s so enormous that you can’t just conceive how large the universe is. Our brains can barely comprehend how large the earth is. I realized that this is a beautiful thing, the universe. We are part of it. Here on the earth we live our little lives, we get up in the morning, we have drama, we do the best we can in life and we’re struggling every day. The universe is so much bigger, we’re just this little tiny speck and I just wanted to learn everything I could about the big picture and see how we, on the earth, fit in.

—  Geoff Marcy, UC Berkeley Astronomy Professor, interviewed by Berkeley Story Collective
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Five new rocky planets discovered

MORE THAN THREE-QUARTERS of the planet candidates discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft have sizes ranging from that of Earth to that of Neptune, which is nearly four times as big as Earth. Such planets dominate the galactic census but are not represented in our own Solar System. Astronomers don’t know how they form or if they are made of rock, water or gas.

The Kepler team has today reported on four years of ground-based telescope follow-up observations targeting Kepler’s exoplanet systems (ie. planets beyond our Solar System) at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington. These observations confirm the numerous Kepler discoveries are indeed planets and yield mass measurements of these enigmatic worlds that vary between Earth and Neptune in size.

Included in the findings are five new rocky planets ranging in size from ten to eighty percent larger than Earth. Two of the new rocky worlds, dubbed Kepler-99b and Kepler-406b, are both forty percent larger in size than Earth and have a density similar to lead. The planets orbit their host stars in less than five and three days respectively, making these worlds too hot for life as we know it.

Wobbly measurements
A major component of the follow-up observations were Doppler measurements of the planets’ host stars. The team measured the wobble of the host star, caused by the gravitational tug on the star exerted by the orbiting planet. That measured wobble reveals the mass of the planet: the higher the mass of the planet, the greater the gravitational tug on the star and hence the greater the wobble.

“This marvellous avalanche of information about the mini-Neptune planets is telling us about their core-envelope structure, not unlike a peach with its pit and fruit,” said Geoff Marcy, professor of astronomy at University of California, Berkeley who led the summary analysis of the high-precision Doppler study. “We now face daunting questions about how these enigmas formed and why our Solar System is devoid of the most populous residents in the galaxy.”

Using one of the world’s largest ground-based telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, scientists confirmed 41 of the exoplanets discovered by Kepler and determined the masses of 16. With the mass and diameter in-hand, scientists could immediately determine the density of the planets, characterising them as rocky or gaseous, or mixtures of the two.

These density measurements dictate the possible chemical composition of these strange, but ubiquitous planets. The density measurements suggest that those planets smaller than Neptune – or mini-Neptunes – have a rocky core, but the proportions of hydrogen, helium and hydrogen-rich molecules in the envelope surrounding that core vary dramatically, with some having no envelope at all.

One step closer
A complementary technique used to determine mass, and in turn density of a planet, is by measuring the transit timing variations (TTV). Much like the gravitational force of a planet on its star, neighbouring planets can tug on one another causing one planet to accelerate and another planet to decelerate along its orbit.

Ji-Wei Xie of the University of Toronto, used TTV to validate 15 pairs of Kepler planets ranging from Earth-sized to a little larger than Neptune. Xie measured masses of 30 planets thereby adding to the compendium of planetary characteristics for this new class of planets.

“Kepler’s primary objective is to determine the prevalence of planets of varying sizes and orbits. Of particular interest to the search for life is the prevalence of Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone,” said Natalie Batalha, Kepler mission scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre. “But the question in the back of our minds is: are all planets the size of Earth rocky? Might some be scaled-down versions of icy Neptunes or steamy water worlds? What fraction are recognisable as kin of our rocky, terrestrial globe?”

The mass measurements produced by Doppler and TTV hint that a large fraction of planets smaller than 1.5 times the radius of Earth may be comprised of the rocky silicates, iron, nickel and magnesium that are found in the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) here in the Solar System.

Armed with this type of information, scientists will be able to turn the fraction of stars harbouring Earth-sizes planets into the fraction of stars harbouring bona-fide rocky planets. And that’s a step closer to finding a habitable environment beyond the Solar System.

TOP IMAGE…Astronomers have used ground-based telescopes to do follow-up observations of exoplanets detected by NASA’s Kepler space observatory. They’ve confirmed that many are between the Earth and Neptune in size. (Artist’s impression courtesy of NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech / Tim Pyle.)

LOWER IMAGE…Artist’s impression of several exoplanets orbiting a red star. Courtesy ESO.