Professor Bill Chaplin is inviting you to go behind the scenes of the University’s astronomy facilities where you will get the chance to discover the latest findings from the NASA Kepler Mission including new and exciting news on stars and exoplanets and of course view the universe through the solar and stellar observatories. A Professor of Astrophysics in the School of Physics and Astronomy, Professor Chaplin is an avid listener to the music of the stars.
We caught up with Bill to find out more...
What do you do?
I‘m an astronomer. I lead a large international team that is using data from the NASA Kepler Mission to study stars like our own Sun, using a technique called asteroseismology. We are using the natural “music of the stars” to measure their properties and test their interiors in search of any potentially habitable, rocky Earth-like planets orbiting distant Sun-like stars in our galaxy.
What does that mean?
It is plain old sound, trapped within stars, that makes the stars resonate like musical instruments. So my colleagues and I really are sampling the “music of the stars”. We don’t of course listen directly to them, instead, we use Kepler to measure miniscule, rhythmic changes in brightness as the stars breathe gently in and out. The information carried by the sound is “coded” into these tiny variations. Not only does this tell us about the star itself, but we also get crucial information on newly discovered planets orbiting the stars, e.g., the size of the planet, if it is habitable and how old it is.
How do you describe your research to your friends?
When you look up at the sky on a clear night do you ever ask yourself: how many of the twinkling stars have planets, like the planets orbiting our own Sun? And how many of those planets may be capable of harbouring life, like the precious planet we live on? Is there some special combination of properties that a star must possess to elevate the chances of it hosting a habitable planet? Or are some Sun-like stars just too unsafe for their planets? What can we learn about the past, present and future of our Sun, and the puzzle of the variability shown by the Sun on decadal and longer timescales (with implications for global terrestrial climate models)? And can we use seismology of the Sun to help predict solar storms (which, when severe, can wreak havoc on power grids, global communications systems and satellite operations)?
What is the best part about your role?
Doing something that I really enjoy.
What qualities make someone a good teacher?
A good teacher has the ability to instil enthusiasm and enjoyment for the subject and to promote an inquiring mind. Good teaching means that a student has been inspired to find out more, on her/his own initiative.
What inspires you?
I have to begin by mentioning my work colleagues, those in Birmingham and farther afield (both in the UK and beyond). I have the opportunity to work with incredibly dedicated and clever people, who are always teaching me new things. (Recognising ones’ own ignorance is an important thing for a scientist!) Working with enthusiastic students is also very inspiring: I’ve been lucky to witness students working on projects who have found brand-new research results that no one else has seen before. England playing well at rugby is also inspiring (can that happen more often please?)
How do you inspire your students?
I try to introduce as much cutting-edge research into my teaching as I can, across all undergraduate years. Just a few weeks ago we had a group of undergraduate students working with Kepler data in first-year “astrolab”. The students used asteroseismology to measure the properties of a planet-hosting star (Kepler 21), and from their results were able to confirm the size of the small, rocky planet (Kepler 21-b) that was discovered to be orbiting the star. The planet is just over one-and-a-half-times the size of the Earth!
What is the highlight of your life to date?
Professionally speaking, I think I’d have to say being promoted to Professor.
Why should we vote to go behind-the-scenes with you?
If you are inspired by astronomy, and fascinated by the fundamental questions it is seeking to answer.