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Feature Story
reed magazine logoSeptember 2010

Ten from ’10 continued

Ryan Lau, physics

  • Hometown: Honolulu, HI
  • Adviser: Johnny Powell
  • Thesis: Exploration of Extra-Solar Planet Properties
  • What it’s about: Using transit photometry to examine tiny dips in stellar brightness that might indicate the existence of orbiting planets.
  • What it’s really about: Finding worlds beyond our solar system.
  • Cool stuff I did: Learned to operate Reed’s 12" telescope and an internet-controlled telescope in New Mexico to take amazing images of celestial bodies many light years away. Learned fencing, which satisfied childhood dream of dueling in epic sword fights. Skated at some of Portland’s most awesome skate parks.
  • Most influential book I read: Professor David Griffiths’ trilogy, Introduction to Electrodynamics, Introduction to Elementary Particles, and Introduction to Quantum Mechanics.
  • How Reed Changed Me: I came to Reed having never lived beyond the confines of a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. As opposed to high school, where the name of the game was passing exams and getting good grades, my “gradeless” experience at Reed taught me how to study and learn, and showed me what it meant to have a solid understanding of a particular subject. Reed helped me mature both personally and academically, and prepared me to take on my upcoming challenges.
  • What’s Next: Pursue PhD in astronomy at Cornell.

Thesis Closeup:

Tracking Distant Planets

Finding planets in distant solar systems is a fiendishly tricky business, because they are far too faint—by many orders of magnitude—to show up on even the largest telescopes.


Click to enlarge the image.

Astronomers have figured out how to put this obscurity to good use, however. If a planet’s orbital plane happens to be aligned with Earth, then its transit across the face of its companion star will cause a temporary but recurring drop in the star’s brightness. One advantage of this technique, known as transit photometry, is that it does not require monstrously expensive equipment.

Ryan investigated the light curve of a star known as XO-2, which lies 486 light years away in the Lynx constellation. The accompanying diagram shows the results for the night of March 22, 2010, observed from a 14-inch telescope in New Mexico that Ryan directed by remote control from Reed. For 162 minutes, the readings show a pronounced dip in brightness, suggesting a transiting planet. Astronomers first identified this planet in 2007; not only was Ryan able to reproduce their results, but he also obtained further readings suggesting the possibility of additional bodies orbiting XO-2 and another star known as HAT-P-12. Further research is required to determine whether these anomalous readings actually represent new planets.—CL

reed magazine logoSeptember 2010