“Weird new worlds around other stars” by Henry Schiller

Weird New Worlds Around Other Stars, Physics and Astronomy, Photo by Dong Ning DengPhotos by Dong Ning Deng.

Thursday night was Innovative Learning Week’s keynote seminar, given by astronomers Ken Rice and Beth Biller. The topic of the lecture was the search for potentially inhabitable planets outside of the solar system. Following a relaxed wine reception in the James Clerk Maxwell building (as far as I’m concerned, this should be a prerequisite for all lectures at the university) attendees filed into lecture theatre A for a brief talk on contemporary astrophysics.

The lecture was split into two parts, the first conducted by Dr. Rice and the second by Dr. Biller. Dr. Rice talked us through all of the ways in which we are currently able to detect exoplanets. Since the first definite detection of an exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star in 1995, over one thousand other exoplanets have been identified. 51 Pegasi b was discovered by measuring the gravitational influence it had on its parent star and this, according to Dr. Rice, is a method very commonly used in today’s discoveries.

But how can we tell if these planets are inhabitable? Dr. Biller conducted the second half of the lecture, focusing on the various ways in which we can detect the atmospheric contents of distant worlds. She discussed the physical difficulties and limitations that exist for astronomers hoping to identify cloud coverage and weather on exoplanets, but also revealed some of the remarkable advances we have made in detecting atmospheric content.

Both talks were focused and engaging, and though it was a substantial load of new information, I never felt overwhelmed or confused. Of particular interest to me was the revelation that an exoplanet’s habitability has everything to do with its atmospheric conditions and relatively less to do with its measurable distance from a parent star.

Dr. Rice mentioned that we seem to be finding planets everywhere we are able to look. What any of this this says about earth’s possibly less-than unique place in the galaxy is unclear, but undeniably very intriguing.
Weird New Worlds Around Other Stars, Physics and Astronomy, Photo by Dong Ning DengStaff and students mingle at the reception.

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