Monday, March 23, 2009

Thoughts on the cataclysmic variables conference

As I mentioned in previous posts, last week I was in Tucson for a conference on cataclysmic variables, systems where a white dwarf is pulling material off of a companion star.

Cataclysmic variables (CVs for short) are not my area. If you'd like to read a great summary on the conference from somebody who works in the area, check out Mike Simonsen's posts on the conference. But, as an outsider, here are some of my personal take-away points from the conference.

  • We know where CVs come from. Early last week I wrote our current hypothesis on the origin and evolution of cataclysmic variables. This story is very well supported by the observations. Evidently this is not news to the CV people, who told me they knew all of this 10 years ago. This isn't what I learned in grad school in the late 1990s, but then again we didn't have any CV researchers locally. But so many details of the CV story are supported by observations, it shows we probably have the basic story right.
  • The big questions need to be advertised. As an outsider, I come away from this conference wondering what the big questions in the field are. I had hints of some of the questions, like the space density (how many CVs there are in a given region of space), searches for "pre-CVs" (systems that are not CVs yet, but will be in the next few billion years), and other such things. But I didn't learn what I should be working on, if I were a CV person, nor how such work impacts the science outside the CV world. Though perhaps I just missed the questions, or I didn't recognize them as the big issues.
  • Amateur astronomers are indispensable. I already knew this from my interactions with amateurs (one of whom saved my current observing run yesterday), but so many of the talks and posters used data from amateurs in their analysis. The amateurs are willing to look at stars almost every night, while professional observatories need to ration time. Plus, amateur equipment is so advanced these days that they can obtain measurements as accurate as professional scopes. If they see anything interesting going on, we professional astronomers get notification and can turn the "big glass" (large telescopes) on the systems. Amateur astronomers really deserve a title like "semi-pro."
  • CV researchers are a very amiable crowd. Even when people disagreed or are in direct competition, they remain on good interpersonal terms (or at least are very good at hiding any tensions). This isn't the case in all fields of astronomy. I really like the camaraderie. There's really little reason, other than egos, to get upset with each other in astronomy. It's not like fortunes will be made or lost based on the findings of a given research project.
  • Some things remain completely mysterious. One of the more interesting talks of the conference was by Michael Shara, who was discussing the origin of the strange outburst of the star V838 Mon (which resulted in this gorgeous series of Hubble images). Shara and another astronomer, Howard Bond, disagreed on almost every aspect of this object, including what the star is, what caused its brightening, whether the other stars in the field are related, and how to go about learning more about the system. Bond and Shara are both very intelligent and well-regarded, and they also respect each other quite a bit, so if they can't agree, then we truly have a mystery for someone to solve.

All in all, I learned a lot, had a good time, and enjoyed talking with colleagues I hadn't seen in quite a while. I'm not about to switch research areas, but "wild stars" are quite interesting!


  1. This article has been added to the Astronomy Link List.

  2. Hi, I'm currently a Masters student at the University of Capetown very interested in these "wild stars", I would like to do my thesis on the accretion processes that leads to outburst, and superhumps, and basically all things explosive wrt the stars, and feel that the points you raised are really worth considering. There's so much to learn in the explosive processes that occur in these stars that many people are not aware of and I cant wait to start on my project.