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Spec interview with Christine Wilson

(The following article is reprinted courtesy of The Hamilton Spectator, McMaster University’s partner in the Research in the City Lecture Series.)

Mac Professor has eyes on a young star

Steve Buist, The Hamilton Spectator
January 18, 2016 

In Christine Wilson's line of work, scale takes on a much different meaning than it does for most of us.

As one of Canada's most accomplished astronomers, Wilson routinely measures time and distances by the millions and billions and trillions.

"Astronomy is a science where the concepts we deal with are relatively straightforward — things like time, distance and math — but they're on these incredible scales," said Wilson, a McMaster University professor. "I think that gets people really excited."

On Jan. 21, Wilson will give a lecture titled "New Eyes on the Cold Universe" at McMaster Innovation Park on Longwood Road South.

Her talk, which is free and open to the public, is part of the Research in the City lecture series, a joint partnership between McMaster and The Spectator.

Wilson's talk will focus on the latest findings from the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) observatory, located high on a plateau in the Chilean desert.

Between 1999 and 2014, Wilson was part of the worldwide team involved in the design and construction of ALMA, an array of 66 radio telescopes joined together to receive and interpret signals from the depths of the universe.

Unlike optical telescopes, which measure the very, very short wavelengths of light visible to the eye, ALMA measures radio waves with lengths between 0.3 to 3 millimetres.

By pointing the telescopes at very specific regions of the sky, waves radiating from very distant objects can be plotted and turned into images.

"Part of the attraction of astronomy for me is the fact it's this very visual science," Wilson said. "You do measurements and you do very careful observations, but often you find yourself sitting there staring at a picture or staring at a graph and trying to figure out what does this mean?

"For any scientist, I think it's the chance to learn new things and to see things that people have never seen before and to look at a system and figure out something about that star or that cloud or that galaxy that we didn't understand before."

Wilson will also talk about ALMA's most exciting breakthrough to date — the discovery of a young star named HL Tauri in the Taurus constellation that appears to be in the midst of forming a planetary system.

When stars form, material, such as dust and gas, falls in toward the centre and as it spins, the material flattens into a disk, like a rotating dinner plate.

Along the way, planets can sometimes form, much as they did in our solar system.

The ALMA discovery shows there are rings around HL Tauri, similar to the rings around Saturn. There are also six to 10 gaps between the rings and evidence suggests the gaps exist in the spots where planets are forming.

Wilson earned her PhD from the prestigious California Institute of Technology, the same university featured in the hit sitcom "The Big Bang Theory."

Sadly, she never had a chance to meet Sheldon Cooper.

"He was after my time," she said with a laugh.