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Stockholm

June 24th, 2009

Higher resolution version.

The opportunity to travel is a splendid benefit of being an astronomer. During this week and last, I’ve been to a whirlwind of European destinations.

Stockholm was the first port of call. For someone whose life is lived at 36.974 degrees North, it is surreal to arrive in the late evening to find the Sun still well above the horizon. Night never really falls. As the hours slip through midnight, the sky merely drifts through gradations of twilight. We don’t yet have addresses for terrestrial planets beyond our solar system, but it’s certain that the galaxy is full of them. We have as yet no clues to the alien geologies, landscapes, biospheres, but the spin axes of planets tend to be tilted. The quality of midsummer twilight in the high latitudes is a phenomena shared by worlds throughout the galaxy.

I gave two talks at the Alba Nova University Center, which hosts a collaboration between astronomers, physicists and biologists, and which is mostly located in a vast award-winning building by architect Henning Larsen. The astronomy offices are arrayed along a hallway that curves for nearly a hundred meters along the top floor. Running above the doorways is a continuous printout of the solar spectrum.

All told, it contains millions of resolution elements, and an absolutely bewildering forest of absorption lines.

Even on closest inspection, each angstrom of the spectrum is smooth and full of detail.

The juxtaposition of the micro and the macro readings is dramatic. The printout also drove home the utterly tiny scale of the Doppler shifts that must be measured in order to detect planets via the radial velocity technique. A large planet such as Tau Boo b generates a radial velocity half-amplitude of 500 m/s, which corresponds to moving (and slightly stretching or compressing) the entire hundred-meter-long diagram up or down the hallway by a few dots of printer resolution. The shift caused by Gliese 581 e, on the other hand, would require a microscope to detect.

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