Scientists / The Sunday Times

Prof. Ray Jayawardhana: The Search for Extra-Solar Earths

Prof. Ray Jayawardhanawas 27 years old when his first research paper made the cover of Newsweek. As a graduate student at Harvard, he led one of the two teams that discovered a dusty disk around an adolescent star.Their findings were published in a 1998 paper titled “A dust disk around the young A star HR 4796A”. Penned in collaboration with five other scientists, it studied the large inner hole in the disk and put forward a hypothesis that this was the result of planet formation processes.

Deeply fascinated by the birth and lives of stars and planets, Ray would become a hunter of extra-solar “earths” — planets with liquid surface water that might conceivably support life. Using telescopes in Chile and Hawaii, the young astronomer also began studying another phenomenon — brown dwarfs. You probably never heard of them in your physics class, but these failed stars, too small to be stars and too big to be planets, made headlines when they were discovered — they’re also the subjects of Ray’s most recent papers. This year, Ray made news again when he was included in the ‘Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 list’. His work was also recognized with the 2009 Steacie Prize for Natural Sciences and a Steacie Memorial Fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

It’s not surprising then that he has become a celebrity at the University of Toronto, where he is an Associate Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics and goes by the moniker “Ray Jay”. He also holds the Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics. Young and dynamic, Ray has devoted himself to nurturing an interest in and appreciation of astronomy in ordinary people. In January this year, he organised a campaign that placed advertisements in 3,000 buses, streetcars and subways in Canada. The ads all lead to the website where the science behind them was explained.

One reads: “Thank those dead stars. Without them you wouldn’t be here. The calcium in your bones, the oxygen you breathe and the iron in your blood were all cooked up in stars that died billions of years ago”. The idea was to intrigue commuters and give them a sense of being intimately connected with the universe. “I call it in-your-face outreach,” says Ray, revealing that the campaign reached nearly a million people. “Science is an integral part of culture, just like painting or music, and I would like people to share in it too,” he adds.

The idea of people being made of “star stuff” is vintage Carl Sagan, a US astronomer. It makes for a particularly effective gambit when you want to get your audience’s attention, says Ray. He has always been particularly passionate about teaching — he received a distinction in Teaching Award (four times) from Harvard University — and has delivered more than a hundred lectures in his career. He remembers being awed when, as a graduate student, he met Sagan, the author of the iconic ‘Cosmos’. But even before Sagan there was Arthur C. Clarke and Prof. Cyril Ponnamperuma — both men were the heroes of the children who belonged to the Young Astronomers Association of Sri Lanka, of which Ray was himself an ardent member.

Such encounters were few and far between. Growing up as young boy in Hambantota, Ray dreamed of being an astronaut and was fascinated with the night sky. He didn’t own a telescope, and still doesn’t, but trips with his clubs and plenty of extra reading propelled him on.  He was so enthusiastic, that as a 17-year-old, he launched a one-man campaign to get Sri Lanka to issue a stamp to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the lunar landing. In return for doing all the leg work, the unveiling ceremony would be held in his school, Royal College. He succeeded, and the four stamps are now framed and displayed carefully in his Toronto office.

In an attempt to nurture a like fascination in young readers, he published a book called ‘Star Factories’ at the turn of the millennium. “I love what I’m doing, and I love sharing it to the extent that I can,” he says, adding that a second book, “Worlds Beyond”, is scheduled for release next year. In the meantime, he continues to write for magazines like Scientific American, New Scientist, Astronomy and Sky and Telescope.

In fact, if it weren’t for an intriguing research project and a beautiful telescope in Chile, Ray might never have gone into research. For his first summer job at Yale, he wrote for the Science and Technology section of The Economist and considered becoming a science journalist full time. But then he realised that he really enjoyed research, and that looking out at the universe through the eye of a fine telescope was a pleasure he didn’t want to do without.

It was the right decision. Dramatic discoveries have come thick and fast in his chosen field — the search for planetary systems. In the past 15 years, increasingly powerful telescopes coupled with incredibly sensitive electronic detectors have taken the count of planets outside our solar system from zero to more than 400. “We’ve gone from knowing about one solar system to knowing about hundreds of others,” he says.

Studying aging brown dwarfs has also contributed to the understanding of these planets. When they’re young, their steady contraction allows them to convert gravitational energy into heat and light. But as they age, brown dwarfs get dimmer and more planet-like, exhibiting phenomena like clouds, rain and dust storms. They’re easier to spot because they float alone in space.

When Ray’s team announced the discovery of a brown dwarf in 2006 they were astounded by the public’s response. At a time when the war in Lebanon raged, the article was the most read story on the BBC news site for 24 hours. A similar response greeted their 2008 presentation of the first direct image and spectroscopy of a likely extra-solar planet. At eight times the size of the Jupiter, it was a mammoth find. “We’re seeing a remarkable diversity of worlds….and it’s expanding our notions of what a planet is like — it’s really cool,” he says enthusiastically. “On one hand it’s telling you how infinitesimal your place is in the cosmos, at the same time it gives you the sense of our remarkable ability to know or explore quite a range of phenomena in the cosmos.”

The current year was kind to Ray in more ways than one. He says that for him, as with most academicians, often the line between work and fun gets a little blurry. He added Mongolia to a growing list of more than 50 countries he’s visited. “We conducted the first-ever astronomy workshop there, visited ancient monasteries, stayed with nomadic families in their yurts in the desert, and made a harrowing journey out west to see a total solar eclipse accompanied by a colourful shaman ceremony,” he says.  Experiences like that help remind him to take a break from stargazing and live a little — “there’s plenty more to explore on our own little planet, even as I search for other, distant worlds,” he says.

 Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on December 22, 2009. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Sanka Vidanagama


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