Monday, May 28, 2012

Vastly Different Worlds (WW114 - Season One Finale!)

Season One of Western Worlds clues up tonight with my interview of Dr. Jaymie Matthews (pictured above) of the University of British Columbia. We'll be back on Monday, July 30th for Season Two, starting off with a discussion of the Mars Science Laboratory.

In his work as an anthropologist, the famed scientist Jared Diamond is known to express his fondness for the idea of a "natural experiment." What he means by this is that some systems are so large and complex and the ramifications of changing variables so severe that it would be impossible to simulate these systems in the laboratory or the real world. So, instead, what we do is to look at the world around us and its history. For significant events, if we can determine their proximate and ultimate causes and understand the variables in play we can understand the relationship between cause and effect. For instance, we don't need to go out and remove all the trees from an island to understand what deforestation does to the culture living there - the history of Easter Island tells us this.

Similarly, in Astronomy we are lucky that there are examples of just about every structure that exists both today and, through the finite speed of light, in the past. We didn't have to reconstruct the positions of all the near stars to understand what a galaxy looks like from all angles, there are examples of every type in every orientation out there, just waiting to be observed. And we understand the life-cycle of stars from birth to death even though the process requires more time than life has been on Earth because we can see examples of every stage out there.

Similarly, we can use Exoplanets to tell us what our own solar system and our own planet would be like were the conditions a little bit different. Earlier this year we heard from Nikku Madhusudhan about what might happen if Carbon exceeded Oxygen in abundance. This episode, we explore the full gamut of possibilities from planets both nearer and further from their parent stars than we, some with highly eccentric orbits that give them phenomenal seasons. This tells us about climate in general and its ability to regulate planetary temperature and weather. For that reason, this episode is entitled "Vastly Different Worlds." And like what we have learned from studying the clouds on Jupiter and, yes, the dunes on Mars, it can improve our understanding of our own planet and the processes that affect the world we experience.

It's a great way to cap off our season! And like the interview with David Southwood, there's a little something for everyone in the work of Dr. Matthews. As usual, my on-air intro is under the cut. After you listen to this episode, be sure to head on over to our Survey and help to pick out what episodes we'll air over the summer. Have a great couple of months and don't forget to make World Enough and Time for us again the week before Curiosity lands on Mars 10 PM EDT on Monday, July 30!
The Laws of Nature create vastly different worlds with the tiniest of changes. You’re listening to Western Worlds!

Hello and welcome back for another conversation here on Western Worlds, an AFM*Original show heard right here on My name is Dr. John and I’m coming to you this week, as every week, from the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at Western University, located in the home of David Suzuki, London, Ontario, Canada.

I’d like to welcome you to the season one finale of Western Worlds. With us tonight to finish off these first fourteen episodes is none other than Dr. Jaymie Matthews from the University of British Columbia. Dr. Matthews is the principal investigator of the MOST Space Telescope, the first space-based platform designed to look at the small-scale oscillations of stars. Before there was Kepler, before Corot there was MOST whose 15-cm aperture earned it the nickname “The Humble Space Telescope.”

But this is one case where outward appearances can be deceiving. You don’t need to gather a lot of light to observe bright stars, but you do need sophisticated electronics to detect changes in brightness as small as one part in ten thousand. Those small changes can give insights into stellar structure can also be used to observe extra solar planets via the transit method.

Ultimately, what MOST represents is a Canadian Space Success Story across the entire space sector – built and flown for a fraction of the cost of other space telescopes using technology made in Canada for a Canadian science team. Nearly a decade after its launch, the spacecraft continues to take valuable observations. As well, many of the students trained by the science team have gone on to positions on American and European extrasolar groups; spreading our expertise far and wide.

While Canada spends less on its space agency than NASA or ESA in both absolute and per capita terms, we do specialize in designing innovative, low cost microsatellites, as Dr. Matthews professes. Such satellites can be extremely successful if their objectives are sufficiently focused, as was the case with MOST.

These days, Dr. Matthews is considering the bigger picture. As you have heard over the past fourteen episodes, there is now an unprecedented wealth of knowledge on extra solar planets with new information continuing to pour in every day. What can these other solar systems teach us about our own world? It’s an intriguing question with a surprising answer to which Brian Cox’s opening quote alludes.

While we are going away for a little bit, I’m looking forward to more conversations here at Western Worlds in a few months time, so fear not! Just like MOST, I hope that our first season is but a harbinger of what is to come. As such, I have selected “Harbinger” from the compilation “Music of the Spheres” and composed by Mike Oldfield as our music tonight. Without further ado, let’s transition to my interview with Jaymie Matthews.

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