Exoplanets a “high priority” for G&G Department

A new astronomy seminar focuses on exoplanets, planets that exist outside our solar system.
A new astronomy seminar focuses on exoplanets, planets that exist outside our solar system. Photo by Daniel Bethencourt.

The Astronomy Department’s newest seminar is the University’s first course offering to undergraduates in a rapidly developing scientific field.

The spring semester class, “Exoplanets,” studies planets that exist outside the solar system and marks a growing collaboration between Astronomy and Geology and Geophysics — two departments that have had increased reason to work together since the first exoplanet was discovered in 1995. Since then, the field has gained momentum and now represents a “high priority” for Geology and Geophysics to pursue over the next few years, department chair David Bercovici said.

Astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets since 1995, said Shun Karato, a professor of geology and geophysics who will teach a portion of the new seminar. Moving forward, Bercovici said his department will emphasize exoplanetary science when hiring faculty. But Bercovici said his department has not yet written formal proposals for additional positions, and new hires have been limited since the recession hit Yale in 2008.

“Exoplanet discovery is some of the biggest science happening,” Bercovici said. “It’s a booming field.”

The study of exoplanets has grown in importance over the past decade because recent observations by scientists show that some of these exoplanets exist in a “habitable zone” in orbital systems, which increases the chance of life existing outside the solar system, Karato said.

During that time, research into exoplanets has increasingly united astronomy with geology and geophysics, said Debra Fischer, director of undergraduate studies for Astronomy and an instructor for the new seminar. Astronomers gather information about an exoplanet, such as its mass and position relative to a star, while researchers in geology and geophysics create theoretical models that explore whether the exoplanets could hold life, Bercovici said.

“[The collaboration] is being driven out of a need, because we have a hole in our knowledge in astronomy,” Fischer said. “It’s a convergence of two different fields to create something new.”

The new seminar is open to both undergraduates and graduate students, who will work in small groups to write an original research paper based on Fischer’s research and other data available through NASA. Nine students were listed as shopping “Exoplanets” as of Tuesday night.

Fischer said she plans to teach the course next in the spring of 2014 and it will likely be offered every other year. There are no immediate plans to create additional classes on exoplanets, Bercovici said, given current faculty commitments, though he noted other routinely offered classes could be expanded to include exoplanets in their curricula.

Before the Astronomy Department opened its new seminar to undergraduates, those students could study exoplanets by enrolling in a two-part joint Geology and Geophysics and Astronomy graduate seminar that met in the fall of 2010 and spring of 2011, Bercovici said. The graduate level course was not offered this academic year, he added.

Matt Giguere GRD ’15, who is studying exoplanets for his doctoral thesis in astronomy, said he enrolled in the new seminar because he wanted to learn more about past attempts to research exoplanets, and hopes to use principles of geophysics he had not previously studied.

“This will help capture a big picture of what you’re trying to achieve and see what’s been done before,” Giguere said.

“Exoplanets” meets at 9 a.m. on Monday and Wednesday.

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