Archive for June, 2011

The Silicon Effect

June 28th, 2011 3 comments

The French philosopher of science Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte (1798 – 1857) was the founder of sociology and is widely remembered for the doctrine of positivism, which holds that the scientific method can be used to understand both natural and social phenomena.

He’s well known to astronomers, however, largely because of the spectacularly incorrect statements regarding stars in his Cours de la Philosophie Positive (1830-1842):

On the subject of stars, all investigations which are not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations are … necessarily denied to us. While we can conceive of the possibility of determining their shapes, their sizes, and their motions, we shall never be able by any means to study their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Our knowledge concerning their gaseous envelopes is necessarily limited to their existence, size … and refractive power, we shall not at all be able to determine their chemical composition or even their density… I regard any notion concerning the true mean temperature of the various stars as forever denied to us.

Lots of fun to get your introductory lecture on stellar spectroscopy off to a snarky start with that particular zinger.

Comte’s pronouncements on planets are slightly more obscure, but now, given the many and varied successes of the Spitzer Telescope, they provide an equally rich vein for irony-with-20/20-hindsight:

The take away message seems to be “never say never”. Nowadays, an academic with Comte’s flair would certainly have the innate sense to leave some wriggle room in anticipation of unforeseen scientific advances.

In any case, in this evening’s astro-ph mailing, there’s a very interesting article by Brugamyer et al. that touches on the inferred chemical and mineralogical structure of extrasolar planets. The authors of the paper make a detailed examination of the relative oxygen and silicon abundances of stars known to host extrasolar planets.

The context comes from work back in 2006 by co-author Sally Dodson-Robinson which indicated that stars with high silicon abundances relative to iron show increased planet fractions at given metallicity:

Silicon-Planet Correlation

The expectation was that stars with high oxygen abundances relative to iron would also show increased planet fractions at given overall metallicity. Oxygen is a key component of the core-building materials for giant planets, and so it stood to reason that the more water available, the more Jupiter-mass planets one ends up with. Remarkably, this turns out not to be true. Here’s the relevant diagram from the Brugamyer et al paper:

Statistically, it appears that an excess of oxygen relative to iron has no influence on the likelihood of a given star hosting a readily detectable planet. The silicon effect, however, is statistically robust and readily detectable in the Brugamyer et al. analysis:

So how does one explain the unexpected result? Brugamyer et al.’s hypothesis is that icy grain nucleation on silicon-rich dust, rather than the subsequent growth of the icy core-forming particles, is the key bottleneck in forming giant planets via core accretion.

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“Goin’ Rogue”

June 11th, 2011 3 comments

An all-time classic of the literature is Alar and Juri Toomre’s 1972 ApJ study of colliding galaxies. With an exceptionally simple physical model — the restricted three body approximation, in which test particles orbit in the joint potential provided by two massive bodies on a conic 2-body trajectory — the Toomre brothers were able to construct startlingly plausible explanations for bizarrely irregular galaxies such as the Antennae.

One is hard-pressed to think of a better example of seeing the essence of a manifestly complicated phenomenon so precisely nailed by a simple model. The take-away lesson seems to be: Keep an eye out for situations in which glorious non-linearity has had of order one Lyapunov time to unfold.

ApJ 178, 623 also presents some of the finest astronomical diagrams ever. They are masterpieces of visual scientific communication. Every single detail conveys information, and nothing is superfluous.

In 1998, when I was a post-doc in Berkeley, my working routine was considerably less hectic than it is now. On the foggy morning of May 29th of that year, I remember buying a copy of the New York Times, and settling in at a Cafe on Telegraph Avenue for a relaxed 11AM coffee. A picture and a slew of familiar names jumped off the front page:

The story, which became a huge media event — even President Clinton made a passing mention of it — stirred up a uniquely unsettled, uniquely urgent feeling of being completely involved and completely left out all at the same time. A runaway planet clearly would have formed via gravitational instability, and I had spent several years studying gravitational instabilities for my PhD thesis. I gulped down my coffee, scooped up the paper and ran to my office in Campbell Hall. The phone was ringing when I got there. Doug Lin was on the line, buzzing with excitement. “It’s a tidal tail! Look at Alar’s ’72 paper!”

There was not a moment to waste… Doug called the editor at Science and informed him that we had an important interpretive result in the works. I stayed up all night putting together SPH simulations. It seemed completely feasible that one could explain the observation with a collision between two protostellar disks, in which the runaway planet formed via gravitational collapse in the tidal tail. We got the paper off to Science in short order, and boy was it exhilarating!

The Toomre brothers’ influence soaks right through the figures that I made for our paper. Thirteen years on, they remind me of listening to a cover of Sympathy for the Devil done by a competent Stones tribute band.

Sadly, a year or so later, it became clear that the TMR-1c runaway “planet” is, in actual fact, an unfortunately placed background star, and the TMR-1c fiasco is commonly used to illustrate the flaws in the publication by press conference model. Our Science paper has languished in obscurity, to the point where one can extract it from behind Science’s formidable pay wall with only a modestly compromising registration agreement to receive e-mail and no money down…

But hope springs eternal. Like everyone else in the community, my eyes lit up upon reading the recent microlensing result that the galaxy is teeming with of order 200 billion rogue planets. Processes like the one that we outlined in our paper may well be operating after all…

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One year out

June 5th, 2011 3 comments

It’s Sunday afternoon here in Santa Cruz, meaning that GMT-wise, it’s already June 6th, and the next transit of Venus is exactly one year away. Seems like an appropriate moment to recall a quote by astronomer William Harkness from 1882 (by way of Stephen J. Dick’s Sky and Ocean Joined: The U.S. Naval Observatory 1830-2000).

We are now on the eve of the second transit of a pair, after which there will be no other till the twenty-first century of our era has dawned upon the Earth, and the June flowers are blooming in 2004. When the last transit season occurred the intellectual world was awakening from the slumber of ages, and that wondrous scientific activity which has led to our present advanced knowledge was just beginning. What will be the state of science when the next transit season arrives God only knows. Not even our children’s children will live to take part in the astronomy of that day. As for ourselves, we have to make do with the present.

There’s something oddly appealing about the nonintuitive spacing of Venusian transits, a 243 year repeating pattern, with transits occurring eight years apart, then a gap of 121.5 years, followed by an eight year interval and then a 105.5 year spacing. I’m certainly looking forward to June 6th 2012, when a healthy fraction of the transit will be visible from Lick Observatory on Mt Hamilton. For updates, be sure to bookmark the Transits of Venus Project website, which launched today.

I can’t help feeling uneasy, however, thinking about the state of affairs on Dec. 10-11 2117…

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