Monday, May 14, 2012

The Mile High Ad Hoc Science Club

En route from Hawaii to the Indian Ocean I chanced into a crew of astronomers heading to an asteroid conference in Niigata, Japan. Dr. B. Werner, seatmate and seasoned astronomer from Colorado, enthusiastically and lucidly explained how the differential heating of irregular asteroids can lead to an increase in spin rate as they reradiate. And, most intriguingly, he suggested that there is a statistically significant level of repeatability in the alignment of their polar (rotation) axes perpendicular to the ecliptic, the plane where our planet revolves around the sun. Our conversation was prematurely interrupted by Dr. Werner's fortuitous seat upgrade, whereafter he was substituted by UH Astronomy Ph.D. student H. Kaluna, originally hailing from Pahoa, Big Island. From her I learned of the quest for water in asteroids, the techniques for inferring its possible presence, the potential relationship of such bodies to comets, and how they may hold insight on the origin of our Oceans. Her UH colleague and mentor, Dr. H. Hsieh smuggled beverages from first class, but he was chased away by ever-vigilant attendants and their armored carts before we could plumb the depths of his research.

Methinks engaging folks on their way to a meeting is a great way to learn new science: their results are freshly consolidated and they are primed to share them. But what struck me most was the friendliness and kindness of this crew, which triggered fond memories of my days as a stargazer. And I was impressed with the clarity and focus of Ms. Kaluna's planned career trajectory. A new generation of scientists appears cognizant that there may be more new Ph.D.'s being produced that there is a market in academia for them, and that other viable alternatives should also be considered.

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