Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dr. Jonathan Fortney (Conversations at the DPS, profile 6)


Dr. Jonathan Fortney enjoys a field lecture and the start of a life in Planetary Science near Dry Falls, Washington State in 2002. Photo by Jason Barnes.

Well folks, we've come to the end of our journey. I'll have some additional insights from DPS to post later in the week, but for now please enjoy the short blurb below of Dr. Jonathan Fortney, the last of the DPS interviews. In some ways, Jonathan is our most distinguished guest, as he won the DPS's Urey Prize as the top early career researcher this year. You'll have to forgive him if his voice sounds a little raw - I snagged him right after he gave his lecture! Even though Jonathan got his PhD at the University of Arizona, I can't say that I knew him well while he was there. His last year and my first year were the only ones that overlapped, so in some ways we were only ships passing in the night.



However, I've learned about him over the years from his friends who remained in Tucson. He was well liked by all who knew him and who kept up with his progress after graduation. First this was at NASA-Ames, where our first speaker - Jason Barnes - also completed a postdoc. Later, Jonathan went on to work at UC Santa Cruz as an assistant professor, where he remains to this day. In addition to these social updates, Jonathan was building quite the reputation for himself. Like three of our other interviewees (Jason, David and Dave) he was a Kuiper Award winner and has been no slouch when it comes to publishing. Additionally, he has a full-fledged role on the Kepler mission as a participating scientist.

What fascinates me most about his work is that the sheer difficulty of obtaining the data sets on the subject he studies, namely exoplanet atmosphere, reminds me of how much we can find out from a few photons. Exoplanet detection, in and of itself, is a matter of isolating a one-in-one hundred or one-in-one thousand signal, and the atmosphere is another one-in-one hundred on top of that! Who would have thought, so few years after the first discoveries, that we would be able to actually get a feel for these places, as worlds, and not just objects with a mass and an orbital period?

I'm happy to recall that I had a very small part to play in the research that Jonathan does, or at least in his publicizing of that work. Several years ago, I was working on a project that was attempting to provide broad-spectrum simulations of the Martian illumination. The eventual goal of the equipment I was working on was to test astronauts to see how their circadian systems would behave under long-term exposure to light on Mars. Once I got the optical system up and working, my advisor and I discovered that it would be a simple matter to produce any spectra we wanted in our integrating sphere. Jonathan answered my call for interesting spectra, and with his help I was able to reproduce what an exoplanet would look like to someone living inside the atmosphere. In return he got photos of the colour produced by the setup!

It was a fun collaboration, one I'd happily do again. It's also interesting to note that without Jonathan's help, I would not even have been able to attend the DPS meeting, let alone get all the great interviews that I was able to achieve. You see, the AAS (the DPS's parent organization) requires that new members be sponsored by an existing member, in the tradition of that grand old scientific society, the Royal Society of London. I hadn't realized that I would require this, since all the geoscience conferences I'd attended (AGU, LPSC, etc.) are happy to let in anyone who can come up with the registration fee. With only a few days to go, Jonathan agreed to sponsor me for membership, and I was successfully able to submit my abstract. So thanks to his intervention, I was able to attend, to learn and to report back to all of you here, and on Astronomy.fm.


The colour of the sky of HD-209458b, a hot Jupiter, based on spectroscopy by Jonathan Fortney and reconstructed in an Integrating Sphere using a full-spectrum optical system designed and built by John Moores. Photo by John Moores.

Jonathan's interview runs tonight at 8PM EST on Astronomy.fm's "Live at York U" program. I will be there tonight to close out the Conversations at the DPS series, so send me your questions about any of our speakers. From myself and the rest of the crew at Astronomy.fm and "Live at York U," once again we would like to express our deepest thanks to our interviewees! Recapping, they are Jason Barnes, Catherine Neish, David Minton, Britney Schmidt, David Choi and, of course, Jonathan Fortney. Look to this space in a few months, when I report back from LPSC in Houston, and talk a little about the then-to-be newly-announced Planetary Decadal Survey!

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