Art meets science in the search for exoplanets

A still from one of the exoplanet films.

Carolyn rushes home on the train to Helensburgh to do her hobby – searching for planets orbiting other stars, exoplanets. Carolyn doesn't have a telescope but is part of the ever growing band of "citizen" astronomers who search for new planets using their computers...

The search for, and study of, planets orbiting other stars is a rapidly developing field of astronomy, and scientists and engineers based across Scotland are already taking a leading role in this exciting research. Filmmakers have become involved too, working with astronomers to produce two short documentary films to inform and inspire the Scottish public about the search for exoplanets.

‘Into Deep Space’ by Anne Milne and Alberto Iordanov

This film looks at the question of life outside of the solar system, focussing on the work of Dr Duncan Forgan – a theoretical astronomer from the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE) – and Grant Miller, an observational astronomer based at the University of St Andrews. Grant uses the James Gregory Telescope in St Andrews to study exoplanets and part of Duncan’s work involves theoretical calculations and computer simulations – incorporating the latest exoplanet data – to improve our understanding of how and where we might expect to see life appearing in the Galaxy.

ECA student Alberto Iordanov said: “What an incredible journey into space! This film made me appreciate where we stand in the vast universe around us. It was a unique experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

“It's essential for scientists to step back from their research once in a while, and explain clearly to the public why what they're doing is important. Being in this film has really brought home to me the impact of what Scottish scientists are achieving in a very exciting field of astronomy.” Dr Duncan Forgan, Royal Observatory Edinburgh

‘Close Distance’ by Stefano Nurra and Florian Schwarz

This is a comparison of the lives of an amateur astronomer, Caroyln Bol, based in Helensburgh who is participating in the citizen science project, ‘Planet Hunters’, and Dr Martin Dominik, Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews. Martin uses a technique called gravitational microlensing to detect small planets orbiting other stars. The film explores the enthusiasm Carolyn, an amateur, and Martin, a professional astronomer, share for the study of exoplanets.

“We share the fascination about the myriads of pinpoints of light on the night sky. A new era of exploring new worlds not only involves professional scientists, but also amateurs, who love what they are doing, and thereby make important contributions.” Dr Martin Dominik, University of St Andrews

From Hoy to Wigtown

Emma Davie, Programme Director in the Film Department at ECA said: “Our students have had their cinematic brains challenged through searching for ways of telling stories in this hugely exciting collaboration. They've been inspired by what they found: a citizen astronomer – a woman from Helensburgh whose hobby is to sit at her computer and find exoplanets; scientists who believe that some sort of life will be found on another planet in our lifetime. How we define ‘life’ is a deeper question though...”

The films are on tour across Scotland until December 2012, and it is expected they will be seen by over 10,000 people from Hoy to Wigtown. They will be shown at a range of venues and events, from Science Centres and Cafés Scientifique, to town halls and local cinemas.

This project is a collaboration between ROE's Visitor Centre, Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews and STFC UK Astronomy Technology Centre.

The Royal Observatory Edinburgh Visitor Centre

The ROE Visitor Centre is operated by the UK ATC, an establishment of the Science and Technology Centre. The UK Astronomy Technology Centre is the national centre for astronomical technology, designing and building instruments for many of the world's major ground-based telescopes and space observatories.