Other worlds – the birth of a new solar system

Update: November 2014. Astronomers have captured the best image ever of planet formation around an infant star, using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s (ALMA) new high-resolution capabilities. The image reveals in astonishing detail the planet-forming disk surrounding HL Tau, a Sun-like star located approximately 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

Continue reading

Other worlds

As a teenager I was fascinated by astronomy and cosmology and read voraciously as well as spending many hours outside at night with my telescope and Norton’s Star Atlas. During my brief years as a physicist in the 1970s, I kept up with the literature and was aware that some astronomers were attempting to detect planets around other stars by detecting the gravitational jiggling of the star around which the planet was orbiting. But these movements were slightly beyond detection by the technology of the day.

Headlines with messages like “First Planet Found Outside Our Solar System” appeared in newspapers dozens of times, at least twice in the New York Times, and once on the front page. But all these announcements were subsequently found to be wrong. And in one notorious incident, it was later found that the astronomer had detected not movements in stars, but movements in the telescope itself. So I was stunned to discover on reading the book “The Stardust Revolution” that new detection methods combined with space-based telescopes had resulted in the proven discovery of nearly 2000 exoplanets.

Continue reading

Origins — the fascination of ancestors — recent, ancient, extreme

I have had an interest in the history of my family since childhood, when I wrote a short history of the Mathers family that drew heavily on documents and recollections of family members, particularly those of a great-uncle and great-aunt born in Scotland in the 19th century. When I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as a teenager, I was fascinated by the genealogical charts in the Appendices to the Lord of the Rings. For some reason, I find the tracing of connections to a larger history deeply satisfying. Over the last ten years, I returned to researching my ancestry using the powerful tools offered by the Internet, with access to databases and historical records that I would not have dreamed possible before.

Continue reading