Some of the greatest discoveries are the most surprising, meaning that they were made by people who had no reason to expect to find them. This is why some fraction of basic research has to be made by people trying the impossible, the new, and the crazy, because a very small part of the time it pays off in big way. One of the best examples is Christopher Columbus, who was told (correctly!) by all of the experts of the time that the Western Ocean was far too large to cross with a vessel of the time. He managed to swindle Queen Isabella into financing it anyway, and got really lucky that the Americas were just barely within reach of his ships.
The National Science Foundation funds Research Opportunities for Undergraduates (REUs), where undergraduates looking to go on to graduate school in science research get to go to an actual laboratory or observatory and learn how to conduct research at a professional level. The Very Large Array in Socorro, NM offers such a program (you may know the VLA from such films as Contact).
Graduate student Edo Berger was one of 4 graduate students working with the undergraduates, showing them the ropes and looking for something to point one of the most sophisticated and powerful radio telescopes in the world at. Someone suggested a brown dwarf, a member of a class of objects detected only 5 years earlier.
Now, there is no reason to expect that brown dwarfs would have detectable radio emission. Quite to the contrary, the best estimates all said that in the best case scenario any emission would be thousands of times too weak for even the VLA to detect. Anyone suggesting to a Time Allocation Committee that precious VLA time be spent on such an endeavor would probably get a very low grade and the program would not be scheduled.
But this was not a properly scheduled program, this was a learning experience for some excited undergraduates, so off the VLA went to look at the lack of radio emission from a brown dwarf. This press release tells the story from there:
Berger, who had experience processing VLA data, worked alone in the same room as the other students, who were working together on another computer. Berger finished first and was shocked at his image.
“I saw a bright object at the exact position of the brown dwarf, and was pretty sure I had made a mistake,” Berger said. He waited for the others, who were working under the guidance of another NRAO astronomer. Ten minutes later, their image appeared on the screen, also showing the bright object at the brown dwarf’s location.
It turns out the best theories of this new, poorly understood object’s radio emission were wrong.
“They got very lucky,” Frail said. “The thing flared during their observation. Other astronomers had looked for radio emission from brown dwarfs and not found any. This one flared at just the right time,” Frail added.
There are a few lessons here:
- You gotta look
- You gotta look, even if other people have looked before
- Re-read Dale Frail’s quote: even though it was a crazy thing to do, evidently TACs had scheduled it in the past. As conservative as the TAC process is, there is still room for “cowboy science”, as Prof. Alex Wolszczan put it to me once.
Which brings me to Prof. Wolszczan’s latest trick. Matthew Route is a Penn State graduate student working with Dr. Wolszczan on detecting radio waves of a different sort from exoplanets. These are radio waves that would be associated with strong magnetic fields, like those on Jupiter and Saturn. I’ll let Matt describe the work in his own words here, but the bottom line is that despite the doubters, it turns out that very low mass brown dwarfs have this kind of radio emission too, and not just any emission: this is one of the strongest circularly polarized sources ever detected.
Just another day in the life of a cowboy astronomer.