Astrophysicist from Edmonds discovers planet

  • Tue Jul 17th, 2012 6:57pm

By Katya Yefimova Herald writer

EDMONDS — Eric Agol’s office is hidden in a maze of identical doors in the University of Washington’s physics and astronomy building.

Inside, an old-school blackboard hangs along one wall with formulas written in chalk. An Amish-style quilt made by Agol’s mother decorates another wall.

This is where, surrounded by stacks of books, family pictures and a bicycle, Agol explores the universe.

Agol, 42, is an astrophysicist who discovered a planet last year. He lives in Edmonds with his wife, Lea, and two young sons.

The planet is called Kepler 36b, after the spacecraft that collected data allowing Agol to find it in the first place.

The planet originally escaped the eyes of NASA scientists.

It’s about one and a half times the size of Earth and similar in composition. It moves so close to its sun that during the day it gets hot enough to melt aluminum.

Kepler 36b orbits a star in our galaxy. It is about 1,200 light-years away.

“We don’t actually see the planets. We see their shadows,” Agol said.

The Kepler spacecraft records light coming from different stars. When the light dims at regular intervals, it often means that one or more planets are orbiting the star.

Scientists pore over Kepler’s data looking for new things. In this case, NASA scientists found another planet in the same solar system called Kepler 36c.

But they missed Kepler 36b, because the light fluctuations were so irregular. It turns out that Kepler 36b and 36c are so close together that gravity makes them bounce off their orbits slightly each time they pass each other. They are closer to each other than any other two planets known to scientists.

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Astrophysics is not exactly a common conversation starter, but people at dinner parties do ask Agol about his work.

For example, people frequently ask his opinion on the Pluto conundrum, Agol said. In 2006, the world’s scientists voted that Pluto is technically not a planet.

The subject can lead to heated discussions among scientists and non-scientists alike.

“It’s something you learn from when you are a little kid, kind of like Santa Claus,” he said. “And when some kids find out there’s no Santa Claus, they are crushed.”

Another thing people often ask is whether Agol’s job conflicts with his faith.

Agol and his wife, who is a seminary graduate, attend North Sound Church in Edmonds.

The answer is “no.”

“The beauty of science is that it’s a way to discover something about God’s creation,” he said. “It can be a spiritual thing sometimes.”

Agol, who studied physics and math, didn’t get interested in astronomy until he was in graduate school.

His identical twin, Ian, is a math professor at the University of California Berkeley.

The twins were born in Hollywood, where their father worked as a sound engineer for the movie industry. They even starred in a series of Kodak commercials as babies.

Agol’s mother always stressed the importance of education. Both brothers earned scholarships to one of the best prep schools in the country and later to colleges.

“Every kid in love with science and math wants to grow up to be Einstein, and I did suffer from that a little bit,” Agol said.

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Agol teaches undergraduate and graduate classes.

He usually gives out lecture notes in class but with the important equations and scientific terms left blank, said Jason Dexter, who wrote his doctorate in black hole astrophysics under Agol’s supervision.

That practice motivates students to go to class and pay close attention.

“Eric is fantastic to talk with about science, in class or informally,” Dexter said. “He has a talent for quickly understanding the important idea and asking excellent questions.”

Those qualities came in handy last summer when Agol was conducting research at Harvard University. He met Joshua Carter, a Hubble Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

They got to talking about the Kepler spacecraft and whether it might be missing planets. Agol said he wanted to take a closer look at the data.

He started crunching numbers and quickly figured out he was on to something.

Agol worked really hard in the next few months.

“Nobody has a patent on the universe,” he said. “I wanted to make sure no one beat me to it.”

NASA’s data becomes available to the public after a proprietary period. Getting scooped on discoveries is a major frustration for folks in Agol’s profession.

It later turned out that another team of scientists was working on the same thing, but Agol and Carter were first. The paper with their findings was published in June.

Agol said he couldn’t have done it without the support of his family.

“I told my kids that Daddy had found a planet,” he said. “They seemed really excited.”