By Nana Karikari-apau, CNN
Editor's note: The Science Seat is a feature in which CNN Light Years sits down with movers and shakers from different areas of scientific exploration. This is the fifth installment.
Sarah Dodson-Robinson is an assistant professor in the astronomy department at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a member of the American Astronomical Society and recently won the organization's Annie Jump Cannon Award for her work exploring how planets form.
Dodson-Robinson says she enjoys discovering new things and coming up with new pieces of knowledge, no matter how small. She describes it as a “wonderful feeling.”
CNN Light Years recently chatted with Dodson-Robinson about her research. Here is an edited transcript:
CNN: What is the main goal of your research program?
Sarah Dodson-Robinson: My main goal is to answer the question, “How do planets form?” I’m interested in almost any type of planet, but my work so far is best known for its focus on supergiant planets, which are much more massive than Jupiter. I also study stars that host planets in order to figure out what chemical elements are most important for forming planets. Lately I have been studying small stars, which may form in a similar way to large planets, in order to get insight into supergiant planets.
CNN: What is the importance of your research?
Dodson-Robinson: By studying planet formation, I help answer some of the most fundamental questions that confront humanity. Humans wouldn’t be here without planet Earth, but there was a time when Earth didn’t exist. It formed relatively recently in the history of the universe, only about 4.5 billion years ago. Earth isn’t alone, either - astronomers have discovered over 2,000 planets outside the solar system. Planets are everywhere in the galaxy, so it’s important that we understand how they grow.
CNN: Tell us about some of your results.
Dodson-Robinson: My best-known result is that supergiant planets on wide orbits must form by gravitational instability, which is the sudden collapse of a gas cloud in a disk orbiting a young star. That’s a very different process from how giant planets usually form, which is by sticking asteroid-like pieces of rock together till a massive solid core forms, then gravitationally attracting an atmosphere.
I also made a discovery that silicon is a particularly important element for forming planets, which we know because stars that have planets are rich in silicon. My hypothesis for why silicon is important, which my student, Erik Brugamyer, is testing, is that silicon is a limiting reagent in the formation of the tiny dust grains that are the first planetary building blocks. More silicon means more grains and more raw material for planet building.
CNN: How do you study planet and star formation?
Dodson-Robinson: I have several ways of doing it. For stars, my student and I are working on discovering new stars that formed by top-down collapse. We are looking for small dwarf stars orbiting large, giant stars. It’s a challenging observation to do since the giant star is so much brighter than the dwarf star. It’s like looking for a firefly in the glare of a big stadium lamp.
My students and I also make computer models of the disks of gas and dust where planets form. One of our new models shows a piece of a disk near the star going unstable, possibly forming a planet by top-down collapse. Another of my students runs computer models of the chemistry of planet-forming material.
CNN: What tools do you use to conduct your study?
Dodson-Robinson: My tools are supercomputers, grids of connected desktop computers and telescopes. In my group, we do lots of computer programming, even the students who use telescopes. The general process is that we acquire data - either from a computer simulation or a telescope - then we sit down and write computer programs to analyze it.
CNN: So how does a planet form?
Dodson-Robinson: There are two ways of forming planets. In the first way, bottom-up growth, tiny grains of dust stick together to form pebbles, then the pebbles collapse into rubble piles under the force of gravity. The rubble piles are called planetesimals, and today’s asteroids and comets are leftovers from these early planetary building blocks. The planetesimals then begin to collide with each other and stick due to gravity, eventually becoming an Earth-size planet or even larger. If the forming planet reaches 10 Earth masses or more, it can attract an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium and become a giant planet. Jupiter and Saturn started in the same way as Earth, from sticking together tiny pieces of dust.
There’s a second way of forming planets, top-down collapse, where a cloud of gas orbiting the star spontaneously collapses. This type of planet formation is not very common, but it happens sometimes.
CNN: What interesting facts can you share with us about planet formation?
Dodson-Robinson: The first step in planet growth is forming tiny dust grains of about one millionth of a meter in size. Those tiny dust grains stick together electrostatically, which is a fancy word meaning they form dust bunnies. The same physical process that makes annoying dust bunnies under your bed is actually responsible for the growth of worlds.
Tiny dust grains don’t just float around quietly in the gas of protostellar disks. These little grains actually control how heat flows through the disk. They’re very good at absorbing light that’s trying to leave the disk. The grains might actually stall planet growth by top-down collapse, preventing supergiant planets from forming.
I wanted to test (this hypothesis) because we don’t know how common these planetary behemoths are. It seems like they might be rare, and if they are, we want to know what’s inhibiting them from growing.
CNN: How did you come up with that hypothesis and why?
Dodson-Robinson: I was just thinking about how planets grow, and I wanted an explanation for why supergiant planets on wide orbits are so rare. The dust grains were a natural suspect since they stop heat from leaving the protostellar disk. In order for top-down collapse to occur, the disk has to get very cold.
CNN: You’ve made a lot of new scientific discoveries. Which one are you most proud of and why?
Dodson-Robinson: I discovered that silicon is a particularly important element for forming planets. If you look at the stars that have planets orbiting them, they are almost all rich in silicon. That was the first big discovery I made, so I’m very proud of it. I also helped discover that some supergiant planets formed by top-down collapse, rather than bottom-up growth. It was exciting to learn that the galaxy has at least two different ways of forming planets.
CNN: What are you working on now, and what should we expect from you in the near future?
Dodson-Robinson: Right now I am working on discovering stars that formed by top-down growth, the same way supergiant planets form. My preliminary research, with my student Kevin Gullikson, indicates that top-down growth is rare among stars, but so far we have only studied a small sample of stars. We’re working on putting together a bigger set of stars to study - 300 or so - to finally answer the question, how common is top-down star and planet growth?
CNN: How would you define 'planet'?
Dodson-Robinson: “What is a planet?” seems like it should be an easy question, but it’s not. The International Astronomical Union voted on the definition of a planet in 2006. It’s a spherical body that’s large enough to be the dynamically dominant member of its orbit (meaning it doesn’t share an orbit with other similar-size bodies), but small enough not to burn deuterium (heavy hydrogen) in its interior.
Since I study planet formation, I favor a slightly different definition. A planet is any dynamically dominant member of its orbit that grew from the bottom up, starting with dust grains colliding to form pebbles. If such an object gets large enough to burn deuterium (about 13 Jupiter masses), it should still be called a planet. Stars and brown dwarfs form from collapsing gas clouds or disks in quite a different process.
Are you involved in any volunteer work?
I made up an interactive activity called “Cassini Collage,” where I show pictures of Saturn and its moons taken by the Cassini spacecraft and the audience uses the pictures to figure out whether Saturn has seasons, why its icy moons have cracked surfaces and how Saturn’s rings are sculpted. I have done my Cassini Collage activity for UT’s first-year honor students and for a Unitarian fellowship. I have done other presentations about planets for student clubs and groups of retirees.
What advice would you give people interested in pursuing a degree in science?
There are lots of things you can do with a degree in science. It’s a good starting point for many different careers, a lot of which involve making new discoveries. If you want to keep on learning all your life, then being a scientist is a great career choice.
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I heard from a reliable source God did all this.
pedophile priests are not a good source of information.
Versus the ignorant small minded person like you? Your safe dude, obviously you don't have a mind for anyone to try and control.
You should find a new, more reliable source.
She is missing one key element in planet and star formation that deserves inquiry. Gravity, although a key player, is not the only force responsible. Electrical effects are key in the early stages of star and planet formation, and astronomers are unwilling to explore this force in any meaningful way. Hannes Alven, the Noble Prize winner in Physics describes these processes in detail, yet astronomers have been reluctant to explore these concepts.
You're right. She has probably expressed the sum of her knowledge in this interview, and therefore anything missing is something she doesn't know about. You had better send a note to the editors of her last journal article.
She did mention the electrostatic effect in the formation of larger bodies from dust grains.
the core and become very luminous and bloated. The outer layers of the sun will actually reach the Earth, and so the oceans will evaporate and our planet will be fried. Sorry! Fortunately for us, this won’t happen for several billions of years. Hopefully, by then mankind will have developed the technology to leave the Earth and emigrate to a new planet with a very young sun. Our space program is already hard at work trying to identify candidate planets. So, I remain optimistic for the human race.
By then humankind as we know it will be extinct. Either died off with no future generations or evolved and replaced.
the prediction that I would make is that we humans will not make it to another world. We are in a destruct
mode. The causes and effects are obvious. I see no way that man will or can reverse this sad course.
I disagree. By them we will have developed super insulation that will protect us and our homes from fire.
The stupid is strong here... If these comments are anything to go by, it's no wonder America is low on the list of anything worthwhile.
In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.
Isn't the Truth fantastic? 🙂
How do you know...were you there?
And I believe in unicorns and flying pigs. Just because you haven't seen them, doesn't mean they aren't real. Right?
Why all the needless capitalization? What is this, the 17th Century?
Let's say God did for the heavens and the earth. Why wouldn't God go about doing it using the basic principles of physics that God Itself created? Why, in your view, is it necessary for God to have created everything as we see it in the form in which we see it now? Doesn't seem like the action of a being noted for working in mysterious ways.
This is such cool research. It helps to better understand how we all came to being from a very fundamental sense. Have read that several of our outer planets are thought to have silicon (rock) cores too. Life as we know it to exist does not happen unless there is a big rock (silica dominated planet), lots of carbon and a big dose of water.
Then there are multiple star systems, where so much hydrogen was available to form gas giants (instead of a silicon dominated planet) that had sufficient internal gravitational pressure to ignite the thermonuclear furnace. No life possibly in such an accretion process.
Certainly a "cut off" as to possible outcomes must exist during the formation of these solar systems.
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What a briiliant interview to read international women's day – an inspiring young scientist contributing in such a meaningful way to our collective knowledge. Thank you for publishing this important interview, it is a positive message of research, hard work and tenacity that is so uplifting.
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How to make a planet ? Ask Captain Kirk of Star Trek Enterprise whose wife created "genesis" to create a planet in 6 minutes! So Mr. Spock would say "fascinating" 😀 lol
Yeah but to really count, it has to last longer than 6 months, so Carol Marcus is a fail in that category. So in the end Genesis not only cost the destruction of that planet but it got the Reliant and the Enterprise killed, a triple failure. C- work at best.
easy to explained ,why interested this is bad if the human knows how to build the planet,,, needs to remve first the human alien or hybrid,, this are dangerous virus
Too many tinkerbell dumb atheist around lately.
isn'y that the pot calling the kettle black?
But if the creation of the universe, planets and all, was a one time act by god then how is it that we still see planets and stars forming?
Some would say...he's not done.
IF THE FACT OF FORMING A NEW PLANET IS A PROCESS OF DISINTEGRATION OF THE PEBBLES AND RE-ASSEMBLAGE OF THE COLLIDED PARTICLES WHY THE SAME PROCESS IS NOT TAKING PLACE WITH THE OTHER PLANETS AGAIN????
Wait a minute... I thought God did it! What?!? What am I gonna do now?!? I've taught my son that God created the "heavens and earth" and now I'm gonna look like a total liar to my son. Thanks a lot CNN... 😀
That's how I felt with Santa Claus.
I didn't catch where she indicated how the matter came into existence or what creates the laws of physics that brings everything together. Maybe Darwin did it.
I don't think she did, but you know what they say: "teach a man to fish, and he'll troll forever."
Are122: Those who don't know or aren't willing to wait for real answers are content to attribute natural phenomena to the "god" of their choice. Humans seem to have always invented gods in an attempt to control the unknown.
In the 23rd Century we will eventually create our own planet through the Genesis project, though it will be unstable. Captain Kirk will find an alive and well Spock there, shortly before the planet collapses. It's all written, just watch Star Trek II and III.
But now that we know it is going to happen we should be able to keep the NCC-1701 from being blown up, the taxes to build that thing were murder.
Here's what Europeans think of Sarah Palin...
If anything is a threat to the national security of the United States of America, it is this screaming, unrefined oaf with as much class as a searing release of flatulence followed by hysterical giggling at a state banquet. Is this what the people of the USA deserve?
To attack the President of the country at a time when the USA needs to close ranks and stand together to consolidate the enormous strides his intelligent and respectful approach has achieved in building bridges, when her party's period in government bombed them, Sarah Palin comes across as a pitifully inadequate anachronism from the times of the Far West.
The United States of America has evolved. She has not.
You're exactly right. It's not just Palin though, so many people say stupid things that get reported in the news... people overseas will definitely generalize a whole population based on the words of the few extreme people out there with warped views.
To Rick, listen I think Buck Rogers is a Moron too, but don't attack the Bible or religion, that just makes you look like the intolerant small minded idiot that you really are. Religion has been around for a long time, and so has science. Seeing as science once believed that the twelve signs of the zodiac controlled everything, and that the 4 elements made up the universe, why don't you just stick it. More people believe in the bible than anything else, you alienate them when you attack them, you don't like to have your beliefs challenged, don't challenge mine. The truth is somewhere in the middle, always has been.
" More people believe in the bible than anything else"
More people DON'T believe in the Bible than any other religious text.
Anyway, science continuously tries to prove itself wrong where as religion gives an answer and relies on wilfull ignorance or just blantant ignorance to survive and perpetuate.
In correct I suggest you Googe the Facts, Christianity, which follows the Bible, is still the largest religion in the world. Islam is second. Therefore my comment that "more people believe in the bible" is correct. As for Science constantly changing, so has religion in general and Christianity specifically. The western Nations, again Google before you argue, are generally Christian, they have evolved to the point where Science is very much accepted and encouraged, it's part of our lives. Somehow you act as if science and religion must be at odds, perhaps for someone like you and Rick. Most other people are tolerant. I can go to Church and still come home look at the internet and dream of reaching Mars and the Stars. If you can't then that is your choice, don't force your beliefs (religion) on me and I won't force mineon you.
You grossly misinterpret the facts.
Christianity is practiced by roughly 33% of the worlds population. So again, most people (66%) DO NOT believe in the Bible
And yes, Christianity is incompatible with science. I'll make it real easy for you......
Religion = Faith and absence of logic
Science = Evidence and logic
LOL people like you are so easy..... My qoute was " More people believe in the bible than anything else", that is a correct statement, your own numbers prove that, 33% of the world population, the rest are spread over a number of different beliefs, but non greater than Christianity, therefore "More People believe in the bible than anything ele". English language, I know it can be hard somethimes.
As to your second piece;
"And yes, Christianity is incompatible with science. I'll make it real easy for you......
Religion = Faith and absence of logic
Science = Evidence and logic"
Albert Einstein said "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind."
He also said "Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe-a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble."
Go ahead and Google that, since your mind probably can't accept that. Also unless you are smarter than Einstein, I thinkyour opinion is just that.
I'll make it real easy for you;
According to Einstein.....You are Lame, and Buck Rogers is blind.........either way you are both Handicapped.....go Figure.
Science doesn't equal facts science uses theories if you look at the fossil records there is to many holes for it to be correct. The bibles message has stayed the same though they false Christians keep changing their beliefs the true Christian faith does not conform to the worlds desires. The bible said the earth was round long long before a non Christian scientist said it was round read Isaiah a sphere like shape that hangs on nothing. Science gives us many great things but science isn't just bound to evolution those are mostly physicists that believe in evolution. You fail to realize that believing everything you see everyday was created by accident takes huge amounts of faith compared to a supreme being creating everything we see if you opened up your heart you would see it one only has to look at the condition of our world to realize the bibles prophecies are right. The difference is this if you choose not to believe in God and his son Jesus and Jesus shows up what will you do those that believe in Jesus when he does show up will have known he was coming.
Reading many of these posts just is disheartening. I graduated with a BS in Nuclear Physics in 1978 and went on to graduate with advanced engineering and nuclear physics degrees. There is no conflict between religion and Science. There is conflict between closed minds and science. I could easily interpret genesis to precisely explain how the sun and earth and planets were formed. How nuclear fusion turned night into day. I could also interpret parts to totally disagree with science as well. The battle is in the minds of those who choose to make this an anti religion batttle as well as those who wish to turn this into an anti science battle. Why does it have to be either? I pity any of you who just cannot be facinated with man's gift to learn, and figure things out, to create a theory and then prove it right or disprove it and if right move on to new theories. I pity those on both sides who find the battle of wills for who is right more important than being intellectually stimulated.
Just couldn't resist so I thought I would add this little part for the sake of Sybaris who said "And yes, Christianity is incompatible with science. I'll make it real easy for you......
Religion = Faith and absence of logic
Science = Evidence and logic"
Albert Einstein-no intro required: Jewish (That’s a Religion)
Georges Lemaitre-Proposed the big Bang Theory: Roman Catholic Priest (Actively preached a Religion)
William Phillips-won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics: Christian (That’s a Religion)
Francis Collins-Director Human Genome Project: Christian (That’s a Religion)
Charles Darwin-you know him Right?: Protestant/Christian (That’s a Religion)
Ibn al-Haytham-Developed optics, Mathematics, and theory of Vision: Islam (That’s a Religion).
LOL you are as close-minded as the right wing religious people you rant about, thank God, most of us are in the middle and Tolerant.
Einstein did not believe in the Judeo Christian od. His definition of the god he did believe in is very different from your definition of god. Einstein said he believed in Spinoza'a god that manifests in the order and beauty of the universe.
Please read up on Einstein's views before you use him to validate your literal interprtation of Genesis.
Nissim Levy, please read my post before you make an absolutely incorrect assumption, where did I say I believe in the Genesis Creation Theory, also Einstein was a Jew, he attended Synagoue and received, at his wish, a Jewish Funeral. Try again, only this time do not try to rewrite the World to fit your blinkered and narrow viewpoint, also for the record I am a Science Professor at Colorado State, do not presume to know me or my beliefs. Also beforeyou qoute Einstein to me make sure YOU know what you are talking about.
I do like to have my ideas challenged but in a coherent and logical way. Religious fundamentalists do not offer cogent, logical arguments. why shouldn't I challenge the ridiculous assertions made by bible literalists? Astronomers still see planets and stars forming so obviously the whole universe wasn't created at once, six thousand years ago.
As far as science believing that the universe was made up of four elements, that was hundreds of years ago. Science makes progress, religion does not.
Again you have no idea what you are talking about. Planet formation is an ongoing cycle, the material is provided by free floating matter in the Universe, the impetus or energy (since you may have difficulty with that word) comes from stellar death, i.e. a Nova. That is why you can see Stellar Nurseries out there, i.e. The Magellanic Clouds. Read the post, no where did I defend the Genesis Theory, the argument was over the fact that another little mind like yours attacked Religion as incompatible with Science, incorrect. I abhor religious extremist, of any religion, but people like you are something worse, you are the type that rewrite history and presume to know the mind of your fellows.
When you have more than half of the population believing in the Creation myth it is no wonder the U.S. doesn't even rank in the global top 10 of academic achievement.
If interested in a custom planet, please send all requests to slartybartfast@Magrathea.com.
you mean a "mormon"?
They have their own set of 'dupe' as well, but they do have a great choir....
How to make a planet;
1) Scientist make up corny astro-evolutionary theory (everything 4.5 billion years old, Bible not 'true', man evolved from monkeys, moon orbits backwards, etc etc).
2) NASA and Soviets fake 'spaceflight' to use scientists as astro-evolutionary pawns.
3) NASA hires artist to come up with 'image' of planet formation, send to scientists.
4) Scientists write astro-evolutionary article on 'planet formation', CNN publishes, everyone duped.
Buck Rogers...you are a complete retard.
And JAXA claims to have deployed a "hopping robot" on an asteroid.....
You sir, are a moron.
You mean NASA really 'landed' on the moon inside that comical tin-can packed with 'hot dogs' and 'grape drink'? And then 'reentered' the upper atmosphere at hypersonic 25,000 mph (or mega 35,000 mph according to astro-actor Schmitt) w/o vaporizing like a meteor and used "special plastic" to protect the pilots? Fantastic.... if I don't buy into all of NASA's outlandish and comical claims, then indeed, call me a 'moron'....
Buck...YOU ARE A MORON! There!!!!!!!!!!
Then there are ID!OTS like you that can't think for themselves and believe in a freak'n ancient BOOK! So going with that.... superman must exist too right? Maybe READ something other than that book written by drunks in order to control others.
So you're telling me that the monkey-to-man diagrams are true and the moon is actually in reverse.... I gotcha....
and then they want us to believe in this thing called the "internet"...what a joke. Does the government really expect us to believe in the existence of that?
Hmmmm. Sometimes it's obvious that someone's a troll – the "no one could possibly be that stupid" scenario. Sometimes it's obvious that the author genuinely believes the nonsense they're spewing. This case is a bit on the troll side, but I'm not entirely sure.
The bar is so painfully low...
lol well said, people are constantly resetting the bar, you just hope its set higher, not lower, oh well Darwinism tends to take care of this problem over time......By the way Sybaris, look I can qoute Darwinism and still be Christian, its called not being close minded.
Get a load of this troll! Your attempt at trolling is bad and you should feel bad.
Trolling at its finest. Bravo.