- Stephanie Mitchell / Harvard University
David Charbonneau, a professor of astronomy at Harvard, grew up in a family of scientists. He was always interested in astronomy, he told Business Insider. Even as a kid, he would carry star charts with him on scout trips.
So, it seems natural that he would pursue a career in science, studying math and physics as an undergraduate student and then entering the astronomy program at Harvard for graduate school.
Now, Charbonneau’s work in detecting exoplanets has earned him a place as one of three 2016 Blavatnik National Laureates, an award given by the Blavatnik Family Foundation and administered by the New York Academy of Sciences to honor “the nation’s most exceptional young scientists and engineers.” As a laureate, he won $250,000, which is the largest unrestricted cash award given to early-career scientists.
“The public has kind of a complicated relationship with science,” he said. “Having an award like this really celebrates science. I hope it gets young people excited about getting into science and I hope it also makes science fun and maybe even a little bit glamorous.”
Maybe it was fate, but just as Charbonneau began graduate school, astronomers indirectly detected a planet orbiting a star for the very first time using something called the Doppler method. So, Charbonneau decided to jump in the field, he said, and he never looked back.
“It seemed so concrete and practical compared to a lot of astronomy,” Charbonneau said. “These were very straightforward questions that no one knew the answers to. Are there planets around other stars? Are there planets similar to Earth? Could we ever develop the means to study them in detail?”
Charbonneau’s work in the field led him towards making the first direct detection of a planet transiting (passing in front of) its star. Instead of simply learning that planets existed, he said, we could suddenly begin to actually characterize them and measure their properties.
“Once we had a planet that traveled in front of a star, we could figure out its size from the amount of light it blocked,” Charbonneau said. “We could figure out its mass by how much it tugged on the star and so we could do a very simple calculation to figure out density. And once we knew its density we could have a clue about its composition.”
Charbonneau said that a theme in his research has been a desire to create new methods to measure transits and study the atmosphere of planets. “I’m delighted that a few of these methods have now become standard techniques in some of the fields.”
He is especially excited about the possibility of inferring the existence of life on another planet. He thinks that the way we’re going to be able to do this is by thinking about how aliens would study all the planets in our solar system. These alien astronomers, he says, would notice that something is really different about Earth.
They would see that Earth’s continents are green, instead of brown (like they would be if only bare rock). Also, they would also see strange gases, like oxygen and methane, in Earth’s atmosphere – chemical fingerprints that signal the presence of life.
Humans have thought about whether we were alone in the universe for a long time, Charbonneau said, but we’ve never had the technological ability to actually find out. But now, he thinks, we might finally be able to to pull it off.
“If you look back in written history, even the Greeks were writing about whether we were alone in the universe and [about] whether there are other worlds we could come into contact with,” Charbonneau said. “And certainly over the last 500 years, there have been a lot of writings about whether there are planets around other stars. I think that the most exciting thing is that moment of discovery is when you are the first person to see something that people have wondered about for a long time.”