Campus & Community

Publications recognize three CfA astronomers

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Three astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) were recently recognized for their innovative work by three leading national magazines. The trio was selected from hundreds of scientists across the country for their leadership and achievements in their respective research fields.

On Nov. 5, Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Astronomy David Charbonneau was named “Scientist of the Year” by Discover magazine. Discover looks for the researcher who has made the most important contribution to science in the past year.

Charbonneau was chosen for his outstanding contributions to astronomy, which enhanced our understanding of the worlds beyond Earth. His research focuses on the development of novel techniques for the detection and characterization of planets orbiting nearby Sun-like stars. In 2007, Charbonneau and his colleagues succeeded in making the first crude temperature map and obtaining the first infrared spectrum of an extrasolar planet.

“For the first time, we can compare planets orbiting other stars to the planets of the solar system, and in so doing we’ve gotten to know all their individual personalities and quirks,” said Charbonneau. “It has been a sheer delight to be part of these discoveries.”

Additionally, in its November issue, Popular Science magazine designated CfA scientist Gàspàr Bakos as one of the year’s “Brilliant Ten,” which highlights “young geniuses who are shaping the future of science.” Bakos was recognized for creating the Hungarian-made Automatic Telescope network, or HATnet, on a shoestring budget using telephoto lenses and powerful computer software. Bakos employs HATnet to find planets orbiting distant stars. HATnet has discovered six planets in its three years of operation, including one that established a new class of “puffy” planets — worlds so swollen that they have the density of cork or balsa wood.

“These worlds are not at all similar to the ones we find in our solar system,” said Bakos. “Nature never ceases to surprise us.”

In October, CfA researcher Lisa Kaltenegger was honored as one of “America’s Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences” in Smithsonian magazine. The publication picked 37 people under the age of 36 who are helping to shape the world, including scholars, singers, writers, scientists, musicians, painters, and activists.

Kaltenegger was chosen for her work modeling the spectra of hypothetical planets orbiting distant stars. Her research will guide astronomers when they analyze light from extrasolar planets for evidence of habitability.

“We are living in an exciting time, where the detection of another ‘pale blue dot’ in our night sky is only a few years away,” said Kaltenegger. “Once we find and characterize that alien world, we will answer a thousand-year-old question: Are we alone in the universe?”

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., CfA is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe.