Big Scientist on Campus

Big Scientist on Campus

In a modest laboratory at Southern Connecticut State University, across the hall from his spartan office with its white cinderblock walls, Dr. Elliott Horch is conducting big science. His research is helping fellow astronomers to see the universe more clearly. In recent years they have discovered hundreds of new planets, some quite similar to Earth, not to mention many solar systems sporting two stars — yes, a la Star Wars.

The NASA Kepler space telescope, whose mission is being aided by a device invented and built by Horch that improves ground-based telescopes, has documented 1,019 new planets and has more than 4,000 likely suspects under surveillance. Combining forces, Kepler and earthly telescopes have verified new worlds and solar systems in deep space, as far as 5,000 light years away.

To put this in perspective, 25 years ago the only planets we could see were in our own solar system. We knew little more in this regard than another telescope tinkerer, Galileo, who died in 1642.

This recent spate of planets galore, and myriad binary star systems, is the kind of scientific news that crosses over from periodicals like The Astrophysical Journal, which published the findings of Horch and his far-flung colleagues last fall, to mainstream media like The New York Times.

And the tally of distant planets is just beginning. Horch and several of his SCSU students are working on the next generation of telescopic turbochargers. In almost total anonymity outside of his field (no Wiki page at this writing), he is making the world's best telescopes better in their ability to produce clear images of stars and planets. Horch explains that his previous invention (soon to be passé), the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument, was "like putting eyeglasses on a telescope." The goal now is to perfect his new device, whose mission is "remaking the whole eye."

Horch's latest creation, funded by a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, is expected to be fully operational next year, at which point Horch and his colleagues will install his Portable Multi-Channel Intensity Interferometer onto mega-telescopes in Arizona and Hawaii to help Kepler verify what exists in deep space.

Horch explains that his new device doesn't correct image distortion caused by atmospheric turbulence, as his current one does. The new instrument, customized and installed in each of two telescopes, employs a technique that makes them insensitive to atmospheric distortions. It's sort of like laser eye surgery for the telescopes.

"Dr. Horch has been involved with the Kepler mission for over five years during which time he has had a large impact on its success," says Steve Howell, Kepler project scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. "His work for the Kepler mission has led to numerous verified exoplanets [planets outside our solar system] and has shown that approximately half of all the stars that host an exoplanet are really a binary star pair, not a single star like our sun. It is essentially only through this high resolution imaging technique that alien planets, similar to our Earth in size and orbital period, can be observationally verified."

The point of all this big science is not simply counting planets. Better and better images will reveal more and more about these newly discovered worlds: their size, mass, orbits, and parent stars. At bottom, the work is about finding answers to big questions, the really hard ones that have stumped humankind so far, including: are we alone, unique, a freak occurrence in the incomprehensible vastness of lifeless space?

Maybe not: thanks to Horch and company, several dozen earth-like planets already have been verified in "habitable zones" of distant solar systems.

Horch, 49, sports the slightly rumpled look of a provincial professor: casual brown pants and matching sensible shoes, a red sweater obscuring a blue and white striped dress shirt. His no frills office (capacity maybe four people) is enlivened with posters of deep space and a Star Wars film (he's a big sci-fi fan), as well as a print of Van Gogh's "The Starry Night." He is tall, engaging, articulate, and patient with his scientifically challenged visitor. The good professor is from the Midwest.

Indeed, Horch took a peripatetic path to putting down roots in New Haven. It wound from the University of Chicago (B.A. physics), to Yale (M.S. astronomy), to Stanford (Ph.D. applied physics), to teaching positions at the Rochester Institute of Technology, UMass Dartmouth, and eventually to SCSU in 2007. He is also an adjunct astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Horch grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where both his parents were public school music teachers. His father drafted him to play the tuba in the high school band (he still plays and loves music), but it was his mother who catalyzed his scientific odyssey. "My mom was probably my biggest influence," he says. "She would get me and my two brothers out of bed at some insanely early hour so we could look at an event in the night sky, like a planetary conjunction. I remember her telling me that one of her favorite courses in school was physics, and thinking 'What's physics?' But when I took it in high school, I loved it, too, right from the start."

Horch's passion for his field, his groundbreaking research, and his scholarly papers earned him tenure in 2013 at SCSU as a full professor. He dismisses the notion of being lured away by another institution. His wife is a professor in the Spanish and Portuguese department at Yale, and SCSU is building a new science building that is slated to open this fall. He might even get a bigger office and certainly will have access to larger and better lab space, and some new telescopes and other equipment (thanks to various grants he has helped secure). He clearly enjoys what he does at a rising if unheralded university, where he is more, it turns out, than a crackerjack scientist.

By all accounts, he is a consummate teacher, too. As many as 100 students a year take his courses, and they give him high marks on the website Rate My Professors. Horch was the driving force three years ago in establishing the university's Masters Program in Applied Physics, which he oversees. Dan Nusdeo, a SCSU senior, has taken four courses with Horch and is assisting him with his research. "I had professor Horch in the large introductory lecture course, with about 60 students, and he made a point of learning everyone's name and giving all of us personal attention," says Nusdeo, who plans to pursue a science career. "It's clear how passionate he is about science and that he wants us to feel the same way. He's probably the best teacher I've ever had."

Horch doesn't just love his work: he is fond of the universe, which he doesn't view as a cold and impersonal void, but rather as something beautiful and mysterious that is ruled by elegant laws, some of which we don't comprehend just yet. He believes solutions will be found to some of the really big questions.

A practicing Catholic, he believes that our planet is not unique: "I do believe there is life out there. We don't know for sure, obviously. But in the past three years we have made the first detection of planets that are like Earth. They are about the same size, and orbit at the right distance from a parent star. So it is likely that some of these planets have an environment like ours. I bet you that in our lifetimes we will know, for example, the rough content of their atmosphere. Technology will probably allow us to do that, through very sensitive observations."

It would be a good bet, too, that Horch and his students will be helping to solve those tantalizing cosmic questions.