Monday, August 22, 2016

The Observatory Blues

HD189733, a star with a particularly deep transit, as seen by the York Observatory 60 cm telescope. Giang, who joined us in May from McGill University, is obtaining a dataset for our Planets and Planetary Systems (PHYS 3070) students to use in class this fall.

By Tue Giang Nguyen

In preparation for the upcoming term, I was tasked with observing a transit of an exoplanet across a star in the constellation Vulpecula, known as the “little fox”. This is not my first time observing a transit and I cannot help but think that this would not be my last. Accompanied by Jake, a warm-hearted space enthusiast, we set out to take a series of images of what seems to be a tiny sliver of the vast darkened sky.

Forecasts leading up to the transit had not been promising; the hot humid air created a risk of thunderstorm. With the transit expected to last for two hours, the fear of poor visibility occurring during the transit loomed over my mind. My previous attempt at observing this particular transit had been foiled by rolling clouds high above. Whether it be frustration or sorrow, I can relate to the feeling of being inhibited by forces beyond our control, especially on the subject of astronomical observation.

A particular piece of astronomical history that resonates in my mind comes from who else but Albert Einstein. His theory on general relativity had caused quite a stir in the scientific community but it lacked validity and would need to be tested.  One of the ways to do so was to see whether or not the light that came from stars could bend around a massive object such as the sun. With the sun so bright, the only option available to Einstein was to take an image of the sky during a solar eclipse in order to gather the appropriate data. So, during the year of 1914, two main parties took up the task to verify Einstein’s theory: the German astronomer Erwin Finlay-Freundlich and the American astronomer William Wallace Campbell.

The solar eclipse expedition was to take place in Russia; Campbell would test his luck near Kiev while Freundlich would head to Crimea to make the observation. The goddess Fortuna did not smile upon them as the expedition resulted in failure. Having a clear sky in Crimea, I can imagine that Freundlich would be delighted with such perfect condition. However, I doubt that he would anticipate what were to happen next. With Franz Ferdinand of Austria assassinated leading to a succession of war declarations which would ultimately be known as World War I, Freundlich suddenly found himself in a war zone. Russian authorities would stop his expedition, going as far as arresting Freundlich making him a prisoner of war. The neutral American, Campbell, was cleared by the Russians and allowed to perform the observation but atlas, he was foiled by clouds.

In the end, it was the British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington that took the famous photograph of an eclipse in 1919 that would be used to verify Einstein’s theory. Whenever I see that image, I also see the struggles and failures that precede it, the pains that came from meticulously generating an adequate picture; the fact that this is accomplished a whole five years after the expedition of Freundlich and Campbell had cause me to develop a sense of appreciation of how easy some things are today.

Jake and I had small bouts of franticly trying to do/find something and long periods of doing not a whole lot. With a limited amount of opportunities for observing the transit, I can’t help but remember the history behind the quest to test Einstein’s theory. Of course, the stakes are much lower for me and the transit occurs way more frequently than a solar eclipse but I like to think that Campbell and I both rely equally on our luck for good weather.

Sitting in the observatory, I had an uneasy feeling that partway through the transit, clouds would appear and all of our work for that night would have been for naught. If that were to happen, I would even be angrier at why the clouds had not appeared earlier to save us some time. That being said, I would not be totally dismayed with failure seeing as Campbell finally got an adequate image three years later than Eddington in 1922. With this, I was instilled with a sense of optimism and it reinforced my belief that for many things in life, there’s always next time.

Tue Giang Nguyen is a new MSc graduate student in our lab. He comes to us from McGill University where he obtained his BSc in Atmospheric Science.

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