Letter from the Director | May 2022

May 2022 Letter from the Director Banner Image with Sun behind the Earth
Wednesday, May 25, 2022 

Remembering our colleagues

The past few weeks have been a reminder of the impermanence of life and the people we hold dear, as two former bastions of Carnegie Science and members of the former Geophysical Laboratory (GL) passed away. First, GL Director and Staff Scientist Charlie Prewitt, on April 28th, then former GL Staff Scientist Marilyn Fogel on May 11th. 

Both Charlie and Marilyn, who worked together as colleagues for many years, epitomized the Carnegie spirit of scientific discovery and excellence, and in nurturing and developing young scientists through exceptional personal example and outstanding mentorship. It is hard to overstate the effect these two individuals had on everyone who had the pleasure to work with them and know them. 

The loss of Charlie and Marilyn has been keenly felt on the Broad Branch Road campus and in their scientific communities, and they will be sorely missed.

In remembering these two, it also strikes me that they would be tremendously excited by the work our scientists are continuing to do at the Earth and Planets Laboratory (EPL), which will always be a part of their legacy as we carry on in the traditions they helped establish. As always, it is such a pleasure to highlight our work, and this month we do so in fond memory of Charlie and Marilyn.

More Signs Point to Disk Instability

Researchers directly imaged the newly forming exoplanet AB Aurigae b over a 13-year span using Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and its Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrograph (NICMOS). In the top right, Hubble’s NICMOS image captured in 2007 shows AB Aurigae b in a due south position compared to its host star, which is covered by the instrument’s coronagraph. The image captured in 2021 by STIS shows the protoplanet has moved in a counterclockwise motion over time. Credits: Image description via NASA Science: NASA, ESA, Thayne Currie (Subaru Telescope, Eureka Scientific Inc.); Image Processing: Thayne Currie (Subaru Telescope, Eureka Scientific Inc.), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

In a classic example of staying the course, EPL’s Alan Boss has held his nerve for more than two decades in the face of the opposition view.

Over the years the accepted model of giant planet formation has been core accretion, whereby gas giant planets, like Jupiter or Saturn, form when a rocky protoplanet within a gas and dust rich disk eventually grows large enough for its gravitational pull to accrete gas from the disk.

While Boss would no doubt extol the virtues of this model, he has long held that there is another way to do it—disk instability. This mechanism may especially hold true in regions of a disk where it is not so easy to create rocky cores, for example far from the host star where there is not enough rocky material for gravity to work with.  Boss contends that gravitational instabilities can form under certain conditions such that the disk can collapse upon itself to form gas giant planets without the need for pre-accretion of a rocky core. 

New evidence from the Hubble telescope of a planet forming in the far reaches of a disk provides the first observational evidence that, at least in this one case and therefore probably in many others, Boss’s patience may just be rewarded after all!

The Path to Polynitrogen

As a society, our tremendous appetite for energy to power our modern lives has led to a host of problems, from the geopolitical to the outright existential. New energy storage technology is critical for reducing greenhouse gases by eliminating the need for fossil fuel generation.

Indeed, developing and implementing next-generation energy storage technologies is a Department of Energy grand challenge, with the global market for energy storage forecast to be more than $100 billion by 2024.

To this end, new types of high energy density materials are needed and Alex Goncharov and colleagues made an important step forward when they were able to synthesize a new ‘polynitride’ compound at high pressure where nitrogen atoms form a ring structure with unusual single pair electron bonds.  More work is needed to discover a synthesis route where this compound, or one like it, remains stable at one atmosphere where it could be used in energy storage or propellent devices. Alex and colleagues will keep chasing this goal so stay tuned.

RickFest 2022

It was a pleasure to celebrate the 42-year Carnegie career of Rick Carlson in an event, colloquially referred to as “RickFest”, that drew Rick’s colleagues and friends together for a multi-day scientific symposium, May 19-20, at our Broad Branch Road campus. 

Themed sessions highlighted the breadth of Rick’s exceptional impact in geochemistry and cosmochemistry — with topics spanning from Moon and solar systems, exploring Earth's oldest crust and mantle, tromping across young basaltic volcanism, and even to field geophysics and the “Carlson Frame”.

Our speakers could not help but fondly reminisce about their time working with Rick, and it became clear that his legacy goes far beyond research to the outstanding mentorship he provided to generations of young scientists and the leadership he brought to EPL. 

Many thanks to everyone who attended and who helped make this celebration possible.

Interns on campus 

Speaking of early-career mentorship, we’re getting ready for some new faces on campus as we launch our Summer Undergraduate Research Internship (SURI) program! The program will officially kick off on May 31, 2022. 

After a two-year hiatus, Johanna Teske, Staff Scientist and program manager, has reworked our internship model from the ground up to focus specifically on DC-regional undergraduates with the express goal of reaching new audiences and enriching the local community of young scientists. 

During the 10-week program, these students will work alongside world-class scientists to experience hands-on research in topics including astronomy, geochemistry, geophysics, material science, and planetary science. In addition to research experience, the interns will participate in a professional development program covering topics and skills specially designed to prepare them for a career outside of the classroom.

We look forward to giving our interns a warm welcome to campus!  

Putting the Science in SciFi 

Finally, I want to invite you to our upcoming Neighborhood Lecture.

Postdoctoral Fellow, astrobiologist, and podcast host Michael Wong will boldly take us where no neighborhood lecture has gone before! In his talk, “The Science of Star Trek,” Wong will examine how scientific discoveries underpin the science-fiction franchise's 55-year history and how some scientists at EPL are leading the way to make science fiction a science reality.  

Due to our current COVID restrictions, we have planned this as a virtual event. You can register for the Zoom webinar here. 

I hope to see you there! 

Michael Walter
Earth and Planets Laboratory

Carnegie Institution for Science