Sunday, January 31, 2016

My exoplanet memories

This is what I was doing in 1995.
Conducting, Counting, and at the beach. These weirdly follow my
real life. But those trousers in the middle, what were they thinking.
It is strange, when I think about the discovery of exoplanets, I cannot place the first time when it dawned on me they were real and not just science fiction. When I give talks about exoplanets to young audiences I am always quick to point out that they are the first generations to grow up always knowing that other worlds outside of our solar system exist. But, I fear I have been lying to myself this whole time, and I am actually part of that generation too. 

In 1995 when exoplanets hit the big time, with the discovery of 51 Pegasi b, I was 5/6 years old. I was in year 1/2 at school (kindergarten/1st grade). My memories of that time are limited. I was modeling for children book publisher DK, where my aunt and uncle worked, and dreaming of becoming a farmer with my friends at school where we would have a farm to look after sick animals. The only science fiction we had been introduced to at this time by my mother was Quantum Leap, and Stargate was not due to be made into a TV show for another two years. 

All I recall from the years following 1995 is my interest changed from farm animals to dinosaurs, spurred on by the 1993 release of Jurassic Park, and Jurassic park lost world in 1997. As this was all accompanied by trips to the Natural History Museum in London with the school, and clear memories of my friend being terrified of the animatronic T-Rex ripping apart another dinosaur as I walked past grinning and loving it. 

We were not introduced to Star Trek or Star Wars growing up, because our mother did not watch it so we didn’t.The first experience of epic science fiction journeys to other worlds came in the form of Stargate SG1. When Stargate, a pivotal information source of my future ambitions and endeavors, did reach my consciousness we were already adventurers and explorers. My parents enrolled us in a snorkeling club where we went on big trips to the lake or the coast to explore the world under the waves. My father a amateur historian loved to take us to castles, towns, and museums. By the early 2000’s we were all planning to be Egyptian archeologists or marine biologists.

It was not until 2001/2 that I distinctly remember turning towards space*. My Father used to drive me to the Guildford astronomical society evenings, to listen to talks or look through a real telescope. Every single year our family grabs some bin liners and goes out to the field out the back of the house to lie down and look up at the sky during the Perseid meteor shower, but I don’t remember when that started, it is just something we have always done but quite honestly could be a relatively new tradition. 

*In 2002 the first atmospheric detection was made of a transiting exoplanet (Charbonneau et al. 2002), work which forms the basis for what I do now as a postdoc. 

Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping)
from Stargate SG1. We had this photo
signed on our bedroom wall for at least
7 years. Then I took it with me to put
on  my wall at Uni.
Since I decided I wanted to be a real life Samantha Carter (Stargate Astrophysicist, adventurer, and all round depended on kick ass woman), I have not turned back. But by then the presence of other alien worlds as the norm was in my head, the new Star Wars prequels were out, we were having lightsaber fights in the science classroom with the meter rulers, and I was going to sic-fi conventions to meet people from Stargate, Lord of the rings, the matrix, and a host of other shows featured in SFX each month. 

When I went to university exoplanets were not yet part of the general curriculum for undergrad classes. I selected my university degree based on how much space I could learn about, and by how far away they could send me for a year. I ended up at the University of Wales: Aberystwyth, the most awkward to get to from my parents home, where they sent me to Svalbard in the Arctic to finish up my MPhys year. It is half way through my time at Aberystwyth that I remember openly talking about exoplanets as a real scientific discovery. We were asked to write an essay about water on Mars or other planets. As we were enrolled in a Planetary and Space Physics degree, most of us had worked on Venus or Martian data, so I remember most of the class writing about that. But, I wrote an essay on exoplanets and the plans for the upcoming Kepler mission to find all of these strange new alien worlds, of course I linked it all back to Stargate in some way. I loved the work I did on the solar system planets, and the impact the Sun’s atmosphere had on our inner solar system, but I knew I wanted to work on exoplanets. I wanted to find an Abydos, or Chulak. I wanted to discover what they were like, was it anything we had seen before. Did Stargate get any of it right?

In 2010 myself and a friend convinced our advisor to apply to the Royal Astronomical Society for a summer internship position at the university to search through the first sets of data coming from the Kepler Exoplanet Mission. To link it to our work on the Sun, where we had previously been looking at CME tracking and sunspot evolutions, my friend used the Kepler data as a search for starspots to model their influence on the light curve, while I set about looking for planets transiting them. 

I had my taste of what being an exoplanet explorer could be and I wanted to keep doing it as long as I could get away with it. But looking back there was no eureka moment. No point in time where I sat there and thought, ‘holy shit they are real and people have just discovered them’. They were always just there, be it in science fiction which I did not know was not based on truth yet, or in reality. As my earliest memories of the world stem from a time when they actually did exist despite the fact I was born in a world where they did not, I cannot truly claim to be part of the last generation to grow up with this world changing discovery. 

But I think I am okay with that. Now I am part of the first generation to grow up always knowing we were not a lone solar system drifting at the reaches of our galaxy. Like Pluto I have been reborn.

Me talking about exoplanets, and comparing hot Jupiters to a watermelon.