Giants of Eclipse, Day 2

What happened to Day 1, you may ask? Unfortunately, a canceled flight happened. To make a long story short, AstronoMerrdiff finally maxed out her travel karma and got to spend an extra day in San Diego. It worked out okay, though – I worked on my talk for Thursday, and had a great impromptu meeting with my old advisor at San Diego State.

By arriving at the conference in Monterey some 24 hours later than intended, I missed a couple of overview talks, a session on VV Cep stars (a special kind of eclipsing binary), and a particularly interesting-sounding theory session. This apparently featured red giant atmosphere modeling, red giants in eclipsing binaries (!), and working out how triple systems (three stars orbiting one another) may have formed.

Let me back up a step…

This conference is all about big stars that orbit other stars so that one routinely passes in front of the other. That’s why it’s called GIANTS of ECLIPSE! It also happens to be precisely what I’m working on right now. In particular, I’m working on a project that involves red giants in eclipsing binaries. A red giant is a huge, bright red star that has run out of hydrogen fuel. Our Sun will become a red giant near the end of its life. An eclipsing binary is a pair of stars orbiting each other that pass in front of one another as viewed from Earth. As it turns out, the talk I missed yesterday about red giant eclipsing binaries was originally scheduled for Wednesday, and got moved at the last minute. Neither the speaker nor I knew this until we each arrived.

A recurring theme at the conference so far has been “this person was going to come and give a talk, but wasn’t able to.” There have been at least four cases of this, and there are fewer than 40 people at the conference to begin with. Sometimes an absent presenter is able to Skype in and/or pre-record a talk to be played back. In other cases, they ask a colleague at the meeting to give their talk for them. And in many situations, the talk is simply withdrawn. These cancellations and substitutions are what led to schedule shuffling. Why this all has to be so last-minute and offline is beyond me.

So, this brings us to today. Today’s theme was Epsilon Aurigae (usually pronounced or-EYE-jee, with “jee” sounding like “jeans”). This funny name belongs to a particularly mysterious eclipsing system. As best we can tell, Epsilon Aurigae is a cooler F-type star and a hotter B-type star orbiting each other, with a critical twist – the hotter star is embedded in a dark, dusty disk. Epsilon Aurigae is a particularly hot topic right now among stellar astronomers because it just completed an eclipse: the dark disk hiding a hot star inside just finished passing in front of the cool star. This only happens every 27 years, so lots of people were excited to observe it and begin to understand it.

Artist's impression of Epsilon Aurigae.
Artist’s impression of Epsilon Aurigae.
Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epsilon_Aurigae.

The best part of a small conference like this, however, is meeting people whose names you know from papers – in person. The under-40 group is rather under-represented at Giants of Eclipse, which is unsurprising given budget woes. (Grad students and postdocs are generally hit hardest when it comes to travel funding. In my case, I’m only here because I could afford to pay out-of-pocket, and that simply isn’t possible for most early-career astronomers.) So: the few of us young folks automatically meet and shake our heads as some of the more senior astronomers use overhead projector sheets (yes, really).

Thankfully, it isn’t all slide rules – there is lots of great science being done. I’m looking forward to the next couple of days, where the talks will venture further afield than just Epsilon Aurigae. Giants and binaries and eclipses, oh my!

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