Professor Eric Mamajek, who was awarded his Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Arizona in 2004, joined the UR faculty in 2008, and while currently on leave, works as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
At UR, he has taught courses such as Astrophysics and Formation of Stars and Planetary Systems.
Mamajek grew up on a farm in Bethel Park, Pa., just south of Pittsburgh. His interest in science started at the age of five when he visited Mount St. Helens about one year after its big eruption in 1980.
Mamajek began to question how the world worked, which led to a lifelong interest in the physical sciences, astronomy in particular.
Recently, Mamajek led a team to discover a Saturn-like ring system in the constellation Centaurus.
Why do you study physics and astronomy, and how do you relate the two fields?
My main interest is in astrophysics, but the study of celestial phenomena requires knowledge of physics, mathematics, optics, planetary sciences, etc.
Physics and astronomy are deeply interrelated, with astronomy requiring physics to understand how the universe works. But, astronomy often takes the lead in trying to understand new physics, for example dark matter and dark energy.
This is simply an amazing time to be an astronomer, and the field has changed considerably in just half of a generation. Only 20 years ago we knew of no planets outside our solar system and we didn’t know the age of the universe to better than 50 percent accuracy.
We now know of over 1,000 planets orbiting other stars, many unlike any we have in our solar system. And, now we are close to detecting planets similar to Earth.
Also, it appears that astronomers can now constrain the age of the universe — 13.8 billion years old — to better than one percent accuracy.
What will we know in 10, 20 or 100 years about our universe? The surprises never seem to run out!
You led a team to discover a Saturn-like ring system in the constellation Centaurus. What is it that makes this discovery so noteworthy?
This complex ring system appears to be the first of its type ever seen to pass in front of a star like the sun. The fact that there are gaps in the rings strongly suggests that there are tiny planets — or possibly moons — that are dynamically sculpting their shapes. Professor Alice Quillen [of the Department of Physics and Astronomy] has been working on calculations to investigate this possibility, and I was lucky to have one of the world’s experts on planetary dynamics right down the hallway at UR!
Are you currently working on any research?
We are obviously following up on the weirdo star with the eclipsing ring system that we found. The big question is: What is the nature of the object at the center of the rings? This will take a variety of astronomical observations on different large telescopes to help constrain the possibilities, and it will probably take at least a few years to get a definitive answer.
I am also working with students on projects related to understanding the formation and evolution of young stars and their protoplanetary disks, and on characterizing new clusters of young stars within a thousand light years of Earth.
Would you consider yourself a tough teacher?
I would prefer “helpful” rather than “tough,” though you would have to ask my former students!
Have you now completed everything you’ve hoped to achieve in your field?
No. Someone once asked me if I was close to being “done” with my research. I laughed. There is no “done” when the universe is your playground.
Yang is a member of the class of 2015.