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The Kepler Science Conference Part 3

This guest post is by fellow Planet Hunter and frequent contributor on PH Talk, Kian (Kianjin)  who attended the Kepler Science Conference. Some photos courtesy of Tom (Tom128)

For any exoplanet junkie, sitting in a packed room with over 500 planetary scientists geeking out over light curves is probably asking for an OD. And If I thought that the Planet Hunter community was full of obsessive compulsive nerds, then it was reassuring to find that professional Planet Hunters were just the same, but even more so. These are exceptionally smart people, much more intense and driven, and very fond of bad Star Trek jokes. These are the people I like. Our kind of people. We should be totally at home here.

Obviously there is a lot of planetary science here. In fact there is so much of this that they had to keep each session short. But that’s not so bad, all the details are in the paper which you can download, the change in scene every 15 minutes was welcome too, and the brisk pace kept people engaged. The concise nature of each talk meant fewer equations and graphs, capped off by a one slide take-home message – all very well for noobs like me.

Apart from the science, and there was a lot of that, I was quite thrilled to be here among the scientists, all of whom I knew only from their names on the papers they wrote. Sitting near me on the very first day were Jack Lissauer, Wiliam Welsh and Sara Seager. I would have asked for autographs but I didn’t really want to be that much of an exoplanet groupie. Instead I logged onto on my laptop (and would you believe that half the scientists at the conference also had laptops and were also feverishly typing into them?), found a few new light curves being discussed by fellow Planet Hunters and marked them for discussion. Light curves are like holy icons for planetary scientists. Walk up to one and show them an unusual light curve and they’ll drop all banter and get extremely serious. I managed to get a few priceless interpretations of some of the funkier ones, like the giant EB that TonyJHoffman found, a humongous 5-day eclipse that Jon Jenkins thought was not a data artifact.

Me With Jon Jenkins

Some personal highlights of the past few days:

Bill Borucki talking about the history of the entire mission, all the setbacks and the desperate fight to get it approved; how it was originally named FRESIP, but it took Carl Sagan to coin the wonderful name Kepler for it. And of course, he ended with the announcement of Kepler-22b. After his talk, the entire room broke out into a long and sustained applause in appreciation of the man who made it all possible. I think he must have been quite moved.

Bill Borucki announcing Kepler-22b.

Spotting Frank Drake all by himself during lunch drinking a cup of green coffee, and I wished I’d worn the t-shirt with his famous equation, but I dragged Tom and Daryll over for a photo op. For Dr Drake I’m willing to let my inner groupie come out.

With Dr Frank Drake. 

Meeting our very own and very talented Meg Schwamb in person and being there for her talk on the Planet Hunters Project. Yes, that’s finally our 15 minutes of fame among the rocket scientists. Meg’s a lot more feisty and formidable in real life than online, seeing the way she handled some pretty vigorous questioning at the end of her talk.

Meg introducing Planet Hunters

Finally, the most unexpected experience was to find myself standing in the line for the bathroom when I realized that the youngish man before me was Andrej Prsa. I started some small talk but realized it would be too inappropriate to ask him about some of the more bizarre EBs I’ve seen on Planet hunters. That will have to wait until after his talk on Thursday. See photo below!

Andrej Prsa looking at a light curve

So all in all, it was a very exciting and memorable event for everyone. Great science and talks by some of the best minds on planetary science all in one place. You should make an effort to come the next time. And bring those t-shirts for the autographs.

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