March 29, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 13

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    Brown dwarfs, extrasolar planets to be explored at 53rd Compton lectures beginning March 31

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Learn how scientific advances have led to the recent, long-anticipated detection of failed stars called brown dwarfs and giant planets orbiting distant stars in a series of free, public lectures at the University beginning Saturday, March 31.

    The 10-lecture series, titled “Brown Dwarfs and Extrasolar Planets,” will be held on Saturday mornings from 11 a.m. to noon through June 9, in Room 106 of the Kersten Physics Teaching Center, 5720 S. Ellis Ave. There will be no lecture May 12.

    Edward Brown, an Enrico Fermi Fellow at the University, will deliver the lectures. Brown conducts research at the University’s Enrico Fermi Institute and Center for Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes. He earned his doctoral degree in 1999 from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was named the Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor in 1994. He received his bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, in 1993 from Ohio State University, where he received the Outstanding Senior Undergraduate Award in Physics.

    Brown dwarfs and extrasolar planets–those orbiting stars other than the sun–are not massive enough to fuse hydrogen into helium within their cores, as happens in the sun and other stars.

    “Before the discovery of other planetary systems, conventional wisdom held that our solar system was typical: smaller, rocky planets close to the central star and massive, gaseous planets further away,” Brown said. But some of these newly discovered planetary systems have Jupiter-mass planets with orbits smaller than that of Mercury, which is closest to the sun.

    Brown will review both the discoveries and their implications. He will discuss the techniques astronomers use to detect these objects and the distinctions between a planet and a brown dwarf. He also will describe the challenge these objects present for theories of the formation and evolution of planetary systems and prospects for future discoveries of even smaller extrasolar planets, perhaps as small as Earth.

    The talks are the 53rd series of the Arthur Holly Compton Lectures, sponsored each fall and spring by the Enrico Fermi Institute. Compton was a physicist at the University and a Nobel laureate, best known for demonstrating that light has the characteristics of both a wave and a particle. He also organized the effort to produce plutonium for the atomic bomb and directed the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University, where Fermi and his colleagues produced the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in 1942.

    Of the 52 previous Compton lecturers, nine are now faculty members at the University and many others hold faculty positions elsewhere. In addition, at least two books have grown out of the series: Robert Wald’s Space, Time and Gravity (1977), and Nickolas Solomey’s The Elusive Neutrino: A Subatomic Detective Story (1997).

    The lectures are intended to make science accessible to a general audience and to convey the excitement of new discoveries in the physical sciences. Previous topics have ranged from breakthroughs that led to the hot big bang model of the universe to such revolutionary technologies as adaptive optics. All of the lectures are free and open to the public. For more information, call (773) 702-7823.