Popular writer on the origin and diversity of planetary systems and the formation of stars and brown dwarfs.
"Where do we fit in? How does our solar system stack up against others? It’s a question broader than science, and yet almost within our reach scientifically. The times we live in just happen to be the time in which I can go out and get some partial answers. The frontier is open and you can go out and play."
Ray Jayawardhana is part of a new breed of Canadian scientists. This new breed comes from around the world, collaborates with worldwide partners, and believes that science outreach goes well beyond press releases.
The associate professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto has had a long journey from his native Sri Lanka to Canada. He first became interested in astronomy and space as a young boy longing to fly to the Moon. That soon progressed into a love of the stars, and in 1985 with the return of Halley’s comet he joined a newly formed amateur astronomy club in Sri Lanka. “I had a lot of fun making friends and doing activities,” said Jayawardhana, “plus it kept the interest alive.”
In fact his interest led him to learn impeccable English. “I learned English in school but never had a great incentive to master the language, until at age 13 or 14 when I finished reading all the astronomy books in Sinhala,” said Jayawardhana. “I then realized that there was a huge amount of English literature, so looking up each word with a dictionary I signifcantly improved my English.”
From Sri Lanka he leapt around the world for his undergraduate degree at Yale and a Ph.D. at Harvard and got interested in star formation. In particular, Jayawardhana studies how brown dwarfs form.
If it sounds like Jayawardhana is busy, he is. But, that’s just how he likes it. “In science even the fastest things take a while, so early on I did projects that got quick results,” said Jayawardhana. “Since then, I’ve started a few longer projects, but do the parts that give quick results. I’m quite impatient and like to get things done.”
Perhaps that need to see things done quickly was why he was a science journalist for several Sri Lankan newspapers, the Yale Scientific magazine, as well as the Economist before deciding to pursue research.
“Working at the Economist in London in the science & technology section was great,” said Jayawardhana. “It was neat to talk to to people and lots of fun writing science stories, but in the end research grabbed my interest.”
Yet, he hasn’t given up communicating science to the public. Far from it. Jayawardhana is a contributing editor for Astronomy magazine and writes regular features for the magazine. As well, he is a very active public speaker, talking about his research and astronomy for various scientific and general audiences.
Jayawardhana even organized a series of sold-out talks at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall. The Cosmic Frontiers lecture series was held on Friday evenings in the Fall of 2005 and had nearly 1500 attendees each night. “Canadians talk a lot about film and art, but not science,” said Jayawardhana. “It’s not part of culture and heritage, but it should be.”
And, there are signs that Jayawardhana’s outreach efforts are bearing fruit. “I got these letters from little kids who had to pick their favourite planet and do a project. Some of them picked exosolar planets and wrote to me to tell about their project.”
If inspiring grade school kids to do projects on exoplanets is any indication, then this new breed of engaged international scientists will usher in some tremendous successes.
By Graeme Stemp-Morlock
“The earliest memory of science I can remember was when I was four years old, and my father told me about moon landings, which I thought were really cool. When I was really young, I wanted to be a pilot. But, I thought, forget being a pilot I will go to the moon. It was hard to imagine that people had been there. Space is hard for a kid to understand, whereas the moon was a real place and made a real impression. The adventure side of space, being an astronaut and space, led to an interest in astronomy, archaeology, neuroscience, etc.”
Brown dwarfs are astronomical objects predicted decades before, but they were not observed until 1994. Now, astronomers know of several hundred brown dwarfs. They are 10 times larger than Jupiter, yet still 100 times smaller than the Sun. They exist in a middle ground between stars and planets, and Jayawardhana wonders how they form.
By looking at hundreds of these “superplanets” at various stages of development and comparing them to models, Jayawardhana hopes that it will become clear whether they form like planets or like stars. Currently it looks like they form like stars, but various models are still being tested.
"As well", he asks "How common are these objects? Are they as common as stars or are they rare?" Answering that question requires a survey of the entire sky that can detect objects with relatively low mass (maybe 2-3 Jupiter masses). Currently Jayawardhana and his team are pursuing such a survey using several ground-based telescopes with adaptive optics.
Jayawardhana is also studying solar system formation. “There was great excitement about finding planets around other stars, but how do they form? We are finding a rich diversity of other objects, but how did this diversity come about and where does ours fit in?” asks Jayawardhana.
Answers to that question may come from looking at the places solar systems and planets form, dust disks. These large halos of dust condense into planets, so in a sense they are the cradle of a planet’s life. However, our Universe is filled with many, many binary or multiple star systems which dramatically disrupt to dust disk. So, Jayawardhana is also looking at how or if planets can form in multiple star systems.
“Are we alone and is our solar system typical or unusual? Those are fairly big questions, and I find it interesting not just as a scientist but as a human being. Is life on earth unique, because it seems that conditions for life are fairly usual, so has life originated elsewhere? As a human being I want to know if life has occurred independently elsewhere, and that has huge implications for all parts of human life. The answer will come from science but the implications are for all humanity.”