“Science!” an enthusiastic voice shouted out from the massive crowd in the Rio Theatre. The chattering audience raced to find their seats as the lights dimmed. No, they were not waiting for some sort of science fiction rocker but for professor of astronomy Greg Laughlin. The 10th Annual Halliday Lecture that took place last Wednesday literally spotlighted Laughlin and his research.
Vice Chancellor Barry Shiller explained the aims of the Halliday Lecture.
“The event is meant to bring the community together to share some of the achievements the university has made,” Shiller said. “One faculty member gives a talk. Tonight it is Greg Laughlin, who’s been using a very, very high power telescope to view planets that are like Earth.”
Stargazers and science fans of all ages and from all over Santa Cruz showed up to the free event. Sandra Faber, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, said the event was a huge success.
“This is the 10th Halliday Lecture, and the fourth since we moved downtown,” Faber said. “We once couldn’t fill our venue at UCSC, but tonight we turned away about 150 people.”
Laughlin, a young professor, walked to the stage to the applause of about 600 spectators in total. The lecture was very community-friendly, and he explained the complicated science so the whole audience was able to follow along. Hannah Denham, a first-year who is taking an astronomy course this quarter, attended.
“I think for the most part he did a good job of explaining everything very well,” Denahm said. “His models were good, and he interjected some humor in there to keep the audience’s attention.”
Before getting to the main purpose of the lecture, Laughlin provided historical information and discussed the modern astronomer’s struggle. The problem of studying planets in other systems, he explained, is much like the problem Galileo faced when trying to examine Venus through his small telescope.
“I took this photograph from my front yard,” Laughlin said. “In the lower right-hand corner of the picture, there you can see some power lines. And that small crescent-shaped dot up there — that’s Venus. This is the view of space we once had hundreds of years ago. It leaves a lot of mystery. This view of Venus is what we are faced with now with planets out in other solar systems.”
Laughlin also provided background scientific information for those unfamiliar with the subject matter at hand. In order to thoroughly explain how astronomers find other solar systems, he first explained how solar systems form. Before they are systems, Laughlin informed the audience, they are huge discs of gas and dust. They undergo an incredibly slow process of formation, one which reminded him of his own life.
“I don’t like to clean up. If you’re like me, and you don’t clean up under your bed, the dust builds up,” Laughlin said. “But, it doesn’t build up flat — it builds up into fractal shapes. It builds up into dust bunnies. If you didn’t clean up under your bed long enough, eventually you’ll get dust bunnies so large, they have their own gravitational pull.”
Over the course of extra-solar system exploration, astronomers have discovered information not only about other solar systems but our own solar system as well.
“The other planets in the same system are closer and denser which, is nothing like our solar system,” Laughlin said. “This turns out to be the dominant mode that solar systems form. Ours is relatively rare. It is actually rare to have a planet like Jupiter so far away from a sun.”
Laughlin’s information about Earth-like planets was very brief, and was mostly confined to graphs and charts, as technology does not yet allow much further information. The term “Earth-like planets,” Laughlin said, does not necessarily mean these planets have the ability to sustain life — just that the planets are similar in mass and size to Earth.
There may not be amazing photographs of these earth-like planets yet, Laughlin said, but hefinds the data very exciting. He made an example of the recently discovered planet found by fellow professor Steven Vogt.
“You see in the news media, you see artists renditions of this earth-like planet,” Laughlin said. “I see this tantalizing peak in the data.”
Despite the challenges and the slow process of discovery, Laughlin said that this is an exciting time for astronomers.
“We are right on where there are the most planets of our size and mass,” Laughlin said. “It is a unique point in human history.”