National Treasure #103: Walker and Campbell

With the announcement of seven planets just found around one star, exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) have been in the news recently.

In 1988, Canadian astronomers identified, tentatively, the first exoplanet – Gamma Cephei Ab (I’m sure you’ve heard of it.  At only 45 light years away, it’s sorta in our neighbourhood.) using a technique they developed: radial velocity.

In 1992, however, one member of the team withdrew the claim, worrying that the data wasn’t clear.  

In 2003, the Gamma Cephei Ab exoplanet was confirmed.  Meanwhile, others had laid claim to identifying the first one, even though, of confirmed exoplanets, our was the one identified earliest.

Dagnab it.

You can read the whole sad story here, and here, but here’s the bottom line according to one commentator.

There are three messages to take away from this story.

First, Berkowitz in his article points out that Canada failed to have faith in Walker and Campbell’s research at the time when just a little more support would have made them first to discover an exoplanet. Funding for long-term projects is difficult to obtain and it’s even more difficult if the project doesn’t produce results before it’s really done. That can be an unfortunate hurdle for discoveries.

Second, it is in hindsight difficult to understand why Walker and Campbell’s colleagues were so unsupportive. Nobody ever really doubted that exoplanets exist, and with the precision of measurements in astronomy steadily increasing, sooner or later somebody would be able to find statistically significant evidence. It seems that a few initial false claims had a very unfortunate backlash that did exceed the reasonable.

Third, in the forest of complaints about lacking funding for basic research, especially for long-term projects, every tree is a personal tragedy.

Unable to get a tenure-track position, one member of the team left astronomy and became a personal tax consultant.

With the Avro Arrow so recently on my mind, this story reinforces the point that Canada could do a better job of valuing and supporting our national treasures.

So here’s to Gordon Walker and Bruce Campbell.  Whether they get credit for the first confirmed sighting, at least they’re generally credited with developing the search technique that has since been used to great advantage.

Geoff Marcy, a University of California at Berkeley astronomer and the world’s leading exoplanet hunter, has helped to find 170 of the approximately 360 exoplanets discovered so far. And he says the Canadians “invented the technique that we stole … if it wasn’t for Bruce Campbell, you wouldn’t be talking to me.” – Globe and Mail article, 25 Sep 2009

If you’re in Canada, you can watch the CBC’s video on planet hunters.

Planet Hunters follows the astrophysicists – many of them Canadian – at the forefront of the search for Earth’s twin, and tells the little-known story of the two Canadians who invented the technique that made modern planet-hunting possible. Gordon Walker and Bruce Campbell also detected the first exoplanet ever discovered. But that’s not what the history books say.

Sigh.

 

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