Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Kepler Project

Dr. Gibor Basri focused his well-attended lecture on the Kepler Project, designed to answer the question: how many earth-like planets might we reasonably expect to find in our galaxy?

The instrument will be fired into space on a Delta rocket c/o NASA, presumably in 2008 although the schedule has already slipped for bureaucratic reasons.

The space platform, nowhere near as expensive or sophisticated as The Hubble (will Hubble get that last upgrade before it dies?), consists of CCD panels focused on a star field near the Northern Cross and Vega.

The idea is to stare, unblinkingly, at all these stars, for about 4 years. Periodic dips in brightness, caused by planets partially eclipsing their parents, will show up upon filtering the continuously downloaded data. The word "planet" is built in to the etymology of "wanderer" by the way.

The mathematics will tell us how many of these planets are earth-like i.e. in some habitable zone that would in principle allow for liquid water on the surface. Whether there actually is any liquid water, let alone life, on these particular planets is not something Kepler will reveal.

During the Heathman Dinner (I sat next to Glenn Stockton, retired cryptographer, and Jon Bunce, musician, plus David Feinstein, mathematician, Don Wardwell, boat captain, Nirel, web wrangler and Larry, retired chemist, were at our table), I asked whether solar systems ever form directly in the wake of exploding stars.

Dr. Basri said yes, that two of the first earth-sized planets ever discovered beyond our solar system were both in orbit around a pulsar, the remains of a gas giant's exploding and collapsing.

Thanks to the Mentor Graphics Foundation, a lot of high and middle schoolers get to attend these lectures, which would be too expensively inconvenient for them otherwise.

Our regular attenders have built up a lot of appreciation for contemporary science and engineering over the years. Portland's average dinner table conversations are probably pretty sophisticated, public policy wise, compared to those in many other towns (even Washington DC's I'd hazard).

Before the lecture, Glenn and I joined Patrick and Diane Barton for dinner at a McMenamin's brew pub (the one nearest the Art Museum downtown). The Bartons, a Wanderer couple, used to work at Sandia (a national lab) in connection with supercomputer modeling. Glenn used to work for the NSA. And I'm a Fuller Schooler.

Yes, I realize that's two dinners in one night. That's why I just got a hummus plate the first time (plus Hammerhead -- the beer, not the shark). And Glenn had ahi twice (a taste of heaven).