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The Depths of Space
Many young children grow up with ever-changing answers to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" They change from professional athlete to firefighter to astronaut to lawyer. But one UF astronomy professor always had an unwavering answer to this question.
"My mother says that I wanted to be a scientist since the day I found out that there was such a thing as a scientist," said Stephen Eikenberry, UF professor of astronomy. "I think that astronomy, in particular, became an interest for me based on a lot of space-oriented fiction books and TV shows (both fictional and documentary) -- especially Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' series."
Eikenberry boasts an impressive resume, from his academic training to leading research to mentoring doctoral students. He received two bachelor's degrees in physics and literature from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1990.
"In college, I found that (the literature and physics) combination seemed to exercise different parts of my mind in a way that neither one could do alone, and that was very stimulating and refreshing for me," Eikenberry said. "If you can't communicate your scientific discoveries to others, they don't really matter much."
He did his graduate studies in astronomy under Giovanni Fazio at Harvard University. In 1997, Eikenberry completed his doctoral thesis on infrared instrumentation and pulsar studies.
Eikenberry then moved to Southern California and completed his postdoctoral studies in physics at California Institute of Technology whereupon he switched coasts again, and took a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy at Cornell University. In 2003, he moved to Gainesville to become a professor in the Department of Astronomy at UF.
His research interests include studying black holes, neutron stars, and massive stars that create them, with a special interest designing and building imaging systems to locate black holes.
In fact, he recently built a new infrared camera system, called FLAMINGOS-2. It is considered to be one of the most powerful astronomical instruments of its kind ever built. Cameras he has built have already produced more than 100 scientific articles and his recent designs, like the FLAMINGOS-2, are some of the most anticipated and promising astronomical tools in years.
"I hope that this work can excite and inspire the general public with the general awesomeness of the things that happen (in space), like warping spacetime, tearing holes in the fabric of the universe, and blasting out jets of material at the speed of light," Eikenberry said.
His work has appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records 2008 edition for his discovery of LBV 1806-20, a star believed to be the biggest and largest ever found.
"The Guinness Book of World Records was definitely a neat and completely unexpected thing," Eikenberry said. "Of course, my bet is that there may be even bigger beasts out there, waiting to be found."
Here, at one of the largest astronomy departments in the country, one of his other roles is to mentor Ph.D. candidates. Eikenberry mentors anywhere from three to six students in various projects at a time.
"Since the whole point of the Ph.D. is to signify that a person is now a competent independent researcher in the field, my job is primarily providing advice and guidance," he said. "I usually play a pretty important role in helping a student select and define their thesis topic, one that is sufficiently challenging to be of real scientific interest, but not so hard that they will spend decades in graduate school trying to solve it."
His students are working on a range of projects, mostly related to black holes and using infrared camera systems to study them. One student is working on studying relativistic jets, a question of how black holes produce particle streams moving at nearly the speed of light. Another student is working on how massive black holes form in the centers of galaxies, such as the Milky Way. And, another student of his is studying the use of micro-satellites to study black holes and search for Earth-mass planets around nearby stars.
One of Eikenberry's past students actually moved with him from Cornell to UF to complete his Cornell Ph.D. studies here at UF in 2004. That student was Joseph Carson. Despite not having a degree from UF, his ties with UF are undeniable.
"I consider myself very fortunate to have worked with Professor Eikenberry in a world-class astronomy research environment," he said.
Carson was part of an international team that captured a direct image planet-like object orbiting around a sun-like star. This is the first image of such an object with a temperature most similar to our solar system's warmest planets ever seen around a star much like our sun. The discovery was listed as one of Time magazine's "Top Ten Scientific Discoveries of 2009."
"Achieving a snapshot of a planet around a star is exceptionally difficult," Carson said. "One might compare it with trying to study the light of a firefly circling a distant lighthouse."
To better understand the commonness of our own solar system and agreeableness to fostering life, scientists need to be able to explore sun-like stars with orbital separations similar to our own solar system planets, he said.
"And, the discovery of GJ 758 B is a significant step in trying to achieve this goal," Carson said. "My present work in extra-solar planet imaging is essentially a next-generation version of the Ph.D. thesis work that I conducted under the supervision of Professor Eikenberry."
Eikenberry thinks that Carson's discovery has implications for astronomy. According to him, it is a big step toward finding "habitable" planets.
"The key issue here is that previous objects detected around sun-like stars have been pretty hot -- far too hot for things like liquid water to exist under normal conditions, which means they are unlikely to be hospitable places for life to have evolved," he explained.
Eikenberry also points out that this discovery shakes up theories about the planet-formation process. It's too close to the star to form by "core accretion" and too far to have formed by "gravitational collapse."
Scientists don't really understand what is happening in this system, but it is definitely not what is expected based on our current theories.
In addition, other researchers within the UF astronomy department have recently made several discoveries.
In September, a team including several UF astronomers pinned down the unusual orbit of HD 80606b, a Jupiter-sized planet located about 200 light years away. The find came from the Rosemary Hill Observatory -- a modest teaching observatory located less than 140 feet above sea level in nearby Levy County.
Also, Professor Jian Ge and his team constructed a computer simulation to show that rocky moon-sized proto-planets could form after about one-million years. The project was started due to questions over the Alpha Centauri dual-star system and its formation through turbulent conditions.