“How many of you read the main Nature article?” Dan Fabrycky asked this morning. He’s a charismatic speaker and one of the lead authors on the scientific paper that announced the discovery of Kepler-11, a six-planet star system, splashed on the cover of Nature the first week of this past February. Hands went up all around the dim lecture hall, many of them belonging to scientists who study astronomy and exoplanets for a living.
“And how many of you read and understood all of the supplemental materials?” he continued, referring to the paper’s appendices in which the nitty-gritty, mathematical details of the techniques used to discover and analyze them were outlined.
Only a handful of…well, hands, stood above a sea of silent scientists. “A few of the co-authors,” Fabrycky dryly noted, and the audience roared with laughter.
These are strange and exciting times for astronomers studying exoplanets. As an outside observer, it’s thrilling to watch, for the tools they’re bringing to bear on Kepler’s data are not tried-and-true algorithms that can be dug up out of textbooks like numerical recipes. Nor are they techniques that scientists have learned to do as students and perfected and polished throughout their careers until they’re like second nature. Instead, we have the pleasure of watching scientists in the prime of their careers doing brilliant work and writing the textbook on these techniques as they invent them—literally. No, really, I mean, literally. Here it is:
Published only last December, it’s a collaborative effort from the elite group of planet hunters to bring their techniques to the scientific masses. Remarkably, it sells for a mere $26 at Amazon, a price point subsidized by NASA in an attempt to get the book into the hands of as many students—and scientists—as possible.
The point is that this is a fast-moving field, and even professional astronomers are unfamiliar with many of its newly-minted tools. Fabrycky sensed this and told the crowd that his goal in his talk was to “get you feeling comfortable with these techniques”.
The specific technique Fabrycky was referring to in this morning’s session on the architecture of exoplanetary systems at AAS—and one of the buzzphrases for the entire conference—was “transit timing variations“, or TTVs, a phenomenon that arises in multiplanet systems.