Have you ever had a moment that changed the trajectory of your life? Maybe you sat next to the right person at the bar and met your future partner, mustered up the courage to send an email that landed your dream job, or attended an event and heard just the right person speak. Few of us, though, have these moments and then shortly thereafter go on to discover the planets of faraway solar systems. But Anne Dattilo did! Here’s how you can create that same magic in your own life!

While listening to a guest lecturer in a class at The University of Texas at Austin, then junior Anne Dattilo heard about a project that would put her on a trajectory to a title that, at 22 years old, few people can claim: Planet Hunter.

Her story is an incredible reminder of how curiosity can be one of our most powerful motivators. It can help us peek through doors and find inspiration, no matter our age or stage. Anne’s story is just one example of what happens when we listen to our curiosity when it sets in! So, let’s go planet-hunting, shall we?

Image: Artist Representation of Kepler Space Telescope

Artist Representation of the Kepler Space Telescope
Source: NASA

“I think it’s in human nature to ask questions.”—Anne Dattilo

For centuries, thinkers, scientists, and armchair philosophers have pondered questions like, “Why are we here?”, “Are we alone?”, and “What is out there beyond our planet?”

For those who have looked out into the universe for answers, technology is giving us an unprecedented understanding of what lies beyond our solar system! But while stars and beautiful images of galaxies and nebulae are fascinating, planet-hunting is helping us understand where Earth fits into the scope of the universe.

In 2009, NASA launched the Kepler Space Telescope. Its mission was to survey our corner of the Milky Way to look for Earth-sized exoplanets in the habitable zone–the area around a star that is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist on a planet. This survey of our cosmic neighborhood was meant to help us get a better understanding of what fraction of our hundreds of billions of starry neighbors could have planets similar to our own. 1

The basics of planet-hunting:

So, how do you go about finding a new planet in the depths of space? Well first, you have to stare at it.

Why? Well, we can’t see it from here, but when a planet passes between us and a star on its orbit, it—ever so slightly—dims the brightness of the star. 2

This is where Kepler came in! Outfitted with an incredibly powerful camera, Kepler stared at one corner of space for four years, taking images of the light from stars in hopes of detecting the dims caused by distant planets. By looking at the amount of dimming and the frequency of the dimming, scientists here on Earth can calculate how big a planet is, and how close it is to its star. So, they can tell whether or not it’s the size of our own planet, and whether or not it’s in that habitable zone.

But, how do you sift through all of that data and start finding planets? And what do you do, as in the case of Kepler, if your telescope breaks just four years into the mission and you’re left with the difficult task of finding planets with blurry data?

This is where we find ourselves back to Anne Dattilo.

In November of 2017, Anne was listening in to a guest lecturer, the astronomer Andrew Vanderburg. Vanderburg and his colleague Chris Shallue–a software engineer at Google–had created a way to use artificial intelligence to detect planets using data from Kepler pre-malfunction. Now the question was, could somebody figure out how to use the messy data Kepler was sending back to continue the hunt? 3

This is the story of what happened when Anne’s curiosity had her step up to the job. Here’s a beautiful short film from Daniel Soares on how she became a Planet Hunter.

To see more from Daniel, check out his Vimeo page or his website. You can also keep up with his adventures over on Instagram.

If you’re feeling inspired and inclined to learn more about Anne’s work, you can dive in deep here!

The Incredible Power of Curiosity!

We live in a time where you can see images from the bottom of the ocean to the depths of space. A time where you can use YouTube videos to educate yourself enough to find new planets! And where computers are powerful enough to make sense of the data we are gathering from all corners of the globe and of space.

Here and now, our curiosity can be limitless. We can learn from world-class professors, be inspired by incredible thought leaders, meet some of the planet’s strangest creatures, and explore natural wonders all with a single click. Think about what this potential to explore our limitless curiosity means from our shared future!

Perhaps few of us will be out there finding exoplanets on distant stars using artificial intelligence–who knows. If you’re interested though, Anne has made her methods and code open source so that more people can get on board–but our curiosity can lead us to our own rewarding ends!

Our curiosity can give us the courage to try new things, go out on limbs we might not otherwise go on, or kick our self-consciousness to the curb and introduce ourselves to strangers. It’s an impulse we all share.

So, maybe the next time you find yourself curious about a new subject, you’ll dive a little deeper. Who knows what new trajectory in life you’ll find yourself on. Who knows how you could have an impact on the world around you! As these folks have:

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-Liesl

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Notes:

  1. “Mission Overview.” NASA, 2011, www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/overview/index.html. Accessed 25 June 2020.
  2. “Identifying Exoplanets with Neural Networks.” Tensorflow.Org, 2019, blog.tensorflow.org/2019/11/identifying-exoplanets-with-neural.html. Accessed 25 June 2020.
  3. “An Undergrad Astronomy Major Helps Revolutionize Her Field – Reporting Texas.” Reporting Texas, 16 May 2019, reportingtexas.com/an-undergrad-astronomy-major-helps-revolutionize-her-field/. Accessed 25 June 2020.
  4. Soares, Daniel. “Planet Hunter.” Vimeo, 25 June 2020, vimeo.com/419873718. Accessed 25 June 2020.

Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

COO of Ever Widening Circles, Founder of EWCed

Since 2015, Liesl has been a writer, editor, and the COO at Ever Widening Circles. She is a life-long camera-toting traveler, a global story seeker, and an aspiring—but more often floundering—outdoor enthusiast. She can be found on Instagram @Liesl.UV