January 2012 Archives

The "Super Bowl" of Astronomy

I got back from the Austin Meeting of the American Astronomical Society late Friday night.  The AAS likes to call it the winter meetings the "Super Bowl of Astronomy."

These winter meetings typically have around 3,000 participants, most of whom are professional astronomers (there are also smaller, summer meetings, often in smaller cities.  This summer's meeting is in Anchorage!)

Many astronomers "save up" their big announcements for these meetings so that the AAS press office can help with the big announcement.  I happened to chair the scientific session where the latest big Kepler news was announced:  two new transiting circumbinary planets, Kepler-34 b and Kepler-35 b.  These planets, like Kepler-16 b, each orbit a pair of stars, like Tatooine from Star Wars.  These systems offer extraordinary opportunities to learn about planet formation and stellar astrophysics.

Even more exciting, Phil Muirhead, whom I informally supervised as a graduate student at Cornell when I was a postdoc there, and John Asher Johnson, a close friend and former officemate at Berkeley, announced the smallest planets yet from Kepler!  They are around a very small star (an M dwarf) and very hot (way inside the Habitable Zone), but they are really small -- one is around the size of Mars!  

Lots of important business gets conducted at these meetings, including plenary awards lectures, "town halls" for astronomers to discuss NSF and NASA policies and priorities, and for many astronomers it is the one time that all of their collaborators are in one place, so lots of working lunches and dinners are arranged all week long.  In a surprise talk, Congressman Lamar Smith, a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, addressed the meeting on the last day and described the attempted de-funding of the James Webb Space Telescope, explaining that Congress supports JWST and was just trying to get NASA and the White House to be honest about its budgeting.

In the morning Tuesday session I had the honor of seeing two people I had nominated for prizes win awards.  My collaborator John Asher Johnson of Caltech won the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize, which is awarded annually to a young observational astronomer for outstanding achievement.  The list of prior winners is impressive;  the award is clearly a good indicator of future success!  Also the AAS posthumously recognized former astronomy Frank Kameny for his service to the field and the country.  Dr. Kameny, a Harvard PhD under the legendary Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin  was fired from his government astronomy position in 1957 because he was gay.  He spent the next 63 years fighting that decision, and eventually received a formal apology from the federal government and broad recognition for arguably being the founder of the gay rights movement in America, and the world.  You can read more about Dr. Kameny's efforts and their relation to the AAS here.  



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