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We are enjoying Day 1 of my research group’s semi-annual writing retreat, this year at the visually inspiring Wildflower house at the Sundance Resort. Besides finally getting all the papers done we have been meaning to do all year, the retreat also gives us an opportunity to do some group professional development with an outside expert.
This evening, that expert was my spouse and science journalist Genevive Bjorn, who led us through a discussion of the Nature article “Initial sequencing and analysis of the human genome” (Lander et al., 2001, Nature, 409, 860-921). This is the famous “first human genome” paper produced as part of the Human Genome Project. As a group of astronomers dissecting the 62-page foundational article of the field of genomics, we experienced the frequent perspective of scientists outside our field trying to understand our work.
Early this month, we had our first commissioning run of the Folded Port Infrared Echellette, or FIRE, a near-infrared spectrograph designed for the Magellan Telescopes. After a two-week installation period in late February/early March led by the instrument PI Rob Simcoe, FIRE team members John Bochanski and Matt Smith from MIT and Craig McMurtry from U. Rochester, and Magellan engineers (I missed all the action, teaching 250 students Physics 1), FIRE was ready to view the sky for a week-long commissioning run starting March 28th.
Early results have been spectacular. A few of the image frames from the first week are shown below. The high quantum efficiency and low readnoise of the Teledyne Hawaii 2RG detectors, and the excellent image quality of the Baade Telescope, has resulted in higher sensitivity than originally planned. In the echelle mode, Rob has estimated roughly 20-25% efficiency, including telescope and slit losses, and a nearly-flat zero point of 16-17 AB magnitudes (1 count/sec/pixel) across the 0.85-2.4 micron range. In plain language, this means we can observe very faint sources – such as a the coldest brown dwarfs and highest redshift quasars – with the echelle mode’s moderate resolution (λ/Δλ ≈ 6000). The prism-dispersed mode has also proven very sensitive, and we’ve been able to follow-up several J ≈ 19-20 cold brown dwarf candidates from WISE with relative ease. Look for first science results in the literature soon!
This past weekend I attended the inaugural Boston Undergraduate Research Symposium hosted by the Harvard College Undergraduate Research Association. An interdisciplinary conference, undergraduates from MIT, Boston College, Boston University, Harvard, Northeastern, UMass, WPI, Emmanuel & Olin were there presenting their research on a wide variety of topics, from Astrophysics to Sociology. It was heavily science-oriented, but included non-science topics as well (including a interesting comparison of the author of Peter Pan to Nietzsche by Heidi Hirschl of Harvard). The conference was dominated by poster presentations – I guesstimate there were roughly 100 posters, including one from my own UROP student, Daniella Baradalez Gagliuffi. Eight very excellent undergraduates talks were given during the course of the day, including three from MIT students. I was particularly impressed with how well these talks were given, absolutely clear and professional. There were also three “keynote” faculty speakers, Robert Langer from MIT (who runs a humungous lab), Daniel Schrag from Harvard University and Bruce Walker from Harvard Medical.
NASA has just posted a press release on one of my recent results involving the very cold brown dwarf 2MASS J0939-2448. Based on observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope and ground-based astrometry, we find this source to be one of the coldest brown dwarfs known (600+/-35 K) and, because of its overluminosity, an (as-yet) unresolved double. The paper appears in today’s edition of Astrophysical Journal Letters.
NASA Press release: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2008-232
Original paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters: http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/595747
PDF version of result: http://web.mit.edu/~ajb/www/papers/2008ApJ_689_L53.pdf