Have you ever wondered how the world was formed? How the earth, planets and the billions of stars that light up the night sky were molded? Dr. Sean Brittain, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, is head of the Creative Inquiry Characterization of Planet Formation and he and his team are working to answer these very questions. Brittain’s team is working together to collect information from already available resources and to create their own models to figure out how the earth and other planets were developed. Brittain explained his goal for the group, “I want them to learn how science works. When you are doing real research, there is not a pre-determined answer. It’s a real challenge to solve open-ended questions with no definite answers.”
The group has studied many images of stars at different stages of their evolution. By observing this information from an international archive, the students have found patterns of black space among the billions of stars. This space is where a solar system and planets are formed. Although invisible to the human eye, this empty space is composed of gas and dust, which continue to accumulate. As dust and gas build, the space begins to collapse, formating the disks around a centralized star. But, how do you go from a disk to a solar system with many planets? Currently, the Creative Inquiry team is focusing on how to answer this question using rotational-vibration spectroscopy. They believe if they focus on the carbon monoxide emissions from the disks and observe the levels of carbon monoxide present, the temperature and how it is disturbed, it will allow them to measure the movement of mass around a centralized star. The vibrational levels reflect ultraviolet light, while the rotational levels reflect thermal output. By studying the changes of these levels, the group can observe the evolution of planet formation. The emissions correspond to changes in density in a certain area, which is representative of planet formation.
“When you are doing real research, there is not a pre-determined answer. It’s a real challenge to solve open-ended questions with no definite answers.”
This Creative Inquiry used measurements recorded over 12 years and created models that represent the changes over this period. The group is broken up into two teams. One team analyzes the raw data received from Interactive Data Language®, a programming language used to analyze large sets of data. These students assist in breaking down the data in the rotational-vibration spectroscopy study. The other team takes the raw data and creates models using C programming language. Once the data has been modeled, it is organized using Palmetto cluster, a supercomputer at Clemson University. The software used in this Creative Inquiry encourages students to learn to analyze raw data and create organized models that others can use. “I hope my students take away a more realistic picture of how science works as far as research practices and development,” Brittain clarified.
The students have presented their research at several conferences which not only provides the opportunity for students to present their work but also to network with peers, graduate schools and potential future colleugues. “This Creative Inquiry project provided a strong basis for me to build a strong portfolio of undergraduate research that has earned me acceptance in some of the best physics graduate schools in the world,” John Farmer, a senior physics major, explained. As this Creative Inquiry continues to collect and analyze data there will be more opportunities to showcase their findings and continue to work towards discovering exactly where planets