Sunday, October 30, 2005

New Worlds in the Making: Origins of Planets and Brown Dwarfs

This afternoon I attended Ray Jayawardhana's lecture at the University of Toronto, New Worlds in the Making: Origins of Planets and Brown Dwarfs. The lecture is part of the Royal Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Science free Sunday Science Lectures -- and was co-sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. The abstract of Jayawardhana's lecture is as follows:
Until recently, we knew of only one planetary system, our own. During the past decade, astronomers have detected nearly 150 planets around other Sun-like stars, ending centuries of speculation. Over the same period, they have also discovered hundreds more of so called "brown dwarfs", which are too puny to light up as stars but which do not fit the traditional definition of planets either. Intriguingly, some brown dwarfs themselves may harbor planetary companions around them. The apparent ubiquity of both planets and brown dwarfs poses the question of their origins. I will report on how astronomers are deciphering the birth and early evolution of planets and brown dwarfs using a combination of remarkable new observations and sophisticated computer simulations.


Jayawardhana outlined the prevailing theories of planetary formation -- stuff I already knew, from when I actually studied Astronomy in school. Planets formed with stars when molecular clouds coalesced. First the star would form, then from the material remaining from the star formation -- in a disc around the star -- the planets form. In the details, things get more complicated of course. There are different theories on how the planets can actually form, based on what the material around the star is composed of. The size of the star -- and whether it has enough mass to ignite would also impact planet formation. Jayawardhana spoke of all of this, and with the latest findings of numerous extrasolar planets, the science of planet formation has gained a lot of new interest.

Jayawardhana was an OK speaker. He wasn't entirely engaging however, choosing to use quite a number of graphs to explain his topic. I was OK with much of them, although some I just couldn't understand in the few seconds they were up on the screen. For a generalist audience, this wasn't so good -- and for a Sunday afternoon lecture -- it could very quickly lead to boredom. Which is too bad, as the topic is very interesting.

A final word on an observation and annoyance from the lecture ... the annoyance first: no one seemed to have been able to pronounce Jayawardhana's name. He's referred to as Doctor Ray Jay by his students apparently. How difficult is Jayawardhana? Let's see: Ja-ya-ward-hana. Duh! And the observation: my friend and I who attended the lecture were in the minority. The audience was predominantly old, white men that had lost most of their hair. Not that that is really a problem. I applaud them coming out on Sunday for science. What I have a problem with is being in the minority. Where are the young people? Is interest in science so low?

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1 comment:

  1. Uh man!
    Way too hard to understand, and they use big terms, and math equations and everything. You need to love that stuff to begin with and be ... ummmmm ... a space geek? to get it. As an artsy, it's way above my head. count the students in Toronto who graduate with an astrophysics degree, then count them again, seeing how many can make a living off styaing interested in it. sorry, it's just too confusing for me.
    ~Vanessu

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