AAS through the Eyes of a Student and Volunteer

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American Astronomical Society Meeting

January 6, 2013 to January 10, 2013

Long Beach, CA

Meeting host:

American Astronomical Society


Joe Zalesky

SPS Chapter:

SPS Reporter Joe Zalesky stands by a poster of his long time hero, Carl Sagan at a booth in the conference hall. Photo Courtesy of Joe Zalesky.

After a long and cold winter break in central Ohio, it was a refreshing change of climate to arrive at LAX for the 221st American Astronomical Society (AAS) Meeting. After rendezvousing with the rest of my group, which consisted of my high school physics teacher Debbie French and her students, we saddled up and headed down the 405 to the Long Beach Convention Center and the Renaissance Hotel. On the way we saw many astronomers carrying the iconic cylindrical poster tubes. Arriving on Sunday, we had some time to stop and walk around Long Beach and enjoy some food from a local café before the meeting started on Monday.

Upon getting to my hotel room I had a lot on my mind: a schedule that consisted of eighteen hours of volunteer work and an odd mix of anxiety and excitement at being at not only my first AAS Meeting, but also my first national science meeting. I was both thrilled and intimidated to see and perhaps meet some of the biggest names in the astrophysical community only one semester after leaving my small hometown in rural Ohio.

I awoke the next morning and headed out with my group to the convention center where my physics teacher Debbie French introduced me to people working on everything from cool brown dwarfs to hot young stars, from places as different as Harvard and the University of Hawaii. We grabbed our badges and I grabbed my volunteer information before heading downstairs into a large lobby where hundreds of other space geeks like me talked pulsars, exoplanets, and astronomical technology. “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” I remember thinking as we headed down the stairs. Here our group split up, Ms. French heading for information for teachers and instructors and the remainder of my group to pursue their varying interests.

I found my way over the massive NExSci booth which had a large poster of one of my personal heroes, Carl Sagan. While admiring the poster I talked with some of the representatives from NExSci about their research. I was instantly fascinated with the topic of exoplanets, an area I had read a small amount on but never really studied. The wealth of Kepler data pouring in over recent years was amazing to me as was the fact that such objects hadn’t been studied in such a manner ever before. It was on that morning that I decided to devote most of my time at the meeting to finding out more about exoplanets.

After finding my topic of interest, I focused on trying to meet some of the astronomers I had read about and heard about on campus at UC Berkeley. I have to stop here and thank my advisor Ms. French for teaching me the ropes of finding out about undergraduate research opportunities and also introducing me to a variety of people in the field. One such person was Josh Bloom, who works at UC Berkeley and was referred to me by my previous advisors at Cornell University. I got the chance to meet and talk astronomy at Berkeley with Dr. Bloom at the opening reception in the Long Beach Aquarium. Dr. Bloom gave me some advice as to what classes to take along with how to get involved at undergraduate research at UC Berkeley.

Another member of UC Berkeley faculty that I had the pleasure of meeting was Dr. Saul Pearlmutter, who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize for the discovery of the expanding nature of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae. It was a shock somewhat akin to seeing one’s favorite movie star when our group walked into a local pizzeria and saw Dr. Pearlmutter and one of his graduate students discussing the conference. We had the chance to briefly speak with Dr. Pearlmutter about the conference and presentations going on throughout the week.

After the initial receptions and dinners were over, the real reason for the conference began—a  wide variety of talks aimed at bringing the astronomical community together and giving researchers a chance to show off their latest findings to the entire community. While a large portion of my time was dedicated to volunteer work, I also made adjustments to my schedule to fit in talks on exoplanets.

One of the most interesting talks I heard was an analysis of the albedo (the reflective property of an object) of Kepler 10b by graduate students at NASA Ames Research Center. They found that this reflective property of the planet could reveal, given different wavelengths of light, information about the surface and interior of the planet. Another fantastic talk I heard involved the study of multiple planet systems, such as Kepler 36, which aimed to find out why most systems discovered by Kepler consist of only one planet while also giving theories on planetary system formation an experimental testing ground. One of the last talks I saw on the final day of the conference expanded upon the idea of the habitable zone. When usually discussed, the habitable zone is described as an ideal zone for liquid water to be present on a planet. However, Kepler has been finding complicated systems of binary stars with eccentric planets who sweep in and out of the habitable zone. The talk focused on whether these planets should be considered candidates for liquid water depending on a variety of previously discounted factors such as how the binary rotates with respect to these planets that are sweeping in and out of a “moving” habitable zone.

On the final night of the conference, our group headed down to the freezing cold beach so that we could all experience the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately most of the stars were blocked out due to the light pollution of Los Angeles but I thought back to the first night I looked at the Summer Triangle, whose interior is the field where Kepler searches for more and more planet candidates. I stood there, at the end of the ocean looking into the night sky and wondered about the new worlds and ideas we have yet to discover. One of Carl Sagan’s most famous quotes crept into my head, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” No better statement could encapsulate the feeling I had with regards to the future while standing at the edge of a black infinity.

Overall the 221st AAS Conference was an eye-opening and wonderful experience and, if you have the means, I highly suggest going even if you feel intimidated by the complicated talks and ideas. If you are at all interested in astronomy, this is a great place to meet fellow astronomers and hear about the latest research efforts of some of the best experts in the field.

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View of the bay and Long Beach from outside the convention center. Photo by Joe Zalesky.