Sci&Tech Editor Georgia Brooks interviews Aumery Triaud to discuss his research into exoplanets, the role of science in society, and astronomy in Antarctica.

Written by Georgia Brooks

Professor Aumery Triaud is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Birmingham, who has discovered and characterised over one hundred exoplanets, and is a recent winner of the 2023 Fernand Holweck Medal and Prize, from the Institute of Physics and the French Physical Society.

Can you describe what it is that you research?

I search for exoplanets, planets that orbit stars other than our sun, although we also see that there are in fact some planets without stars. There are several goals for why I want to do that – ultimately, as a physicist, I want to understand the physics: how do we go from dust and gas to a planet, and the idea behind that is to complete the story of our origin. The other big theme is the search for life. I’m really curious about this and I want to find out not just if there is life, but how frequently it happens and under what conditions – are they conditions that we would call habitable or not? Does it always start on young planets or can it start on older planets? On earth, life started very early on in its history, but we don’t know whether that was a fluke or if it is normal.

You have detected many exoplanets. What happens to that information next – do you continue working on it or do you pass it on to another team?

A bit of both – typically we find a planet and begin to write a paper on it, and then aim to have it peer reviewed (where other people check our data and our methods to make sure nothing is wrong with it). Then its fair game for anybody to take the paper and continue the research. Sometimes we do it ourselves, sometimes others take that data, sometimes we compete with others. We can move on to do more work, such as characterise the planet a bit better: take more precise measurements on its parameters such as the radius and mass. We can start investigating its atmosphere, which some teams specialise in. Often the reason that we look for these planets is to study their atmospheres and eventually find life, although our team is not specialised to do that. We can feel a bit put out when we’ve fought hard to find a planet, and then another team swoops in to investigate its atmosphere, but that’s the game!

I want to find out not just if there is life, but how frequently it happens and under what conditions


How did you get into exoplanet research, and why does it interest you?

When I was a kid, I heard on the radio not the first exoplanet discovery but the second, and I remember calculating the distances to these worlds. Fast forward a few years and I was an undergrad in St Andrews, getting more and more excited about the nascent field of exoplanets. The university was part of an experiment called WASP – Wide Angle Search for Planets – just a prototype at the time. There was a big question around how to find out if certain astronomical signals were actually planets or not. My professor at the time presented the early results and I stuck around and said this summer, if you want, I can go and find out. They were thinking of doing a collaboration with the Geneva observatory, and so we applied for funding, they sent me to Geneva, and there I was, sucked in. When I began my PhD, (with Didier Queloz, who I had worked within Geneva), I was basically given half of a telescope in Chile. Didier told me ‘Find me planets’ and we became the most successful team, before NASA beat us, with 1 billion dollars.


I’m really interested in your work as a public science communicator and your collaborations with artists. Could you tell me a bit more about that?

Whether you’re an artist or a scientist, ultimately what we want to do is to explain the world, and give our interpretation of it. Data rarely speaks for itself, you need to understand how to read and interpret it, and the same goes for the arts. Ultimately we are also trying to find out about ourselves. Astronomy is like a big mirror: We’re finding out how alone we are, how special, how not special. And physics has and continues to affect society and arts, and good art also reflects what is going on in society as well. We have often matched our political institutions to the cosmology of the time, and where physics was very institutionalised for a while, it is now freer and more interpretative, which corresponds with the idea that we have about our society. Artists are more and more interested in science, it is such an important part of our society, and similarly as a scientist, I can see that the arts are a great way for us to reach more people, and to show that ultimately, science is also just human expression. Its not just a job, its our attempt to show the changes of the world, just as an artist tries to portray the state of the world through their art. We work differently, but ultimately our work is the same. So why not work together.

Ultimately, science is also just human expression. It’s not just a job, it’s our attempt to show the changes of the world, just as an artist tries to portray the state of the world through their art.

How can engagement in the sciences be improved, within exoplanets research, or within science more widely?

What’s weird is that people are, for instance, happy to say that they’re bad at maths, but I don’t think that anyone would be happy to say that they’re bad at music, or that they don’t know anything about music. There isn’t the same sense of pride, and you don’t feel like you’re missing something. I feel like this is too bad that people can be proud not to know something, because everything is interesting. Sure you might not understand the maths, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t understand what it is that we discover. The maths is needed to make the discovery, but that’s like me not knowing how to write an opera but I don’t need to say Im bad at writing music – I can still enjoy the opera. In the same way, you don’t need to say that you’re bad at maths and disengage, you can still be excited by these discoveries. Curiosity is anything that you want to make it. And engage with it – I think that you’ll find that scientists are very open and happy to discuss their work. And if there is too much jargon, or it gets too technical, just tell us! Finding planets, how big and different they are from the earth – you don’t need a science degree at all to be interested in that. If we go into more technical fields like quantum technology, even the fact that particles behave weirdly should be interesting to everyone, because its part of our world.


And finally, what’s coming for you in the future?

At the moment I’m getting more and more interested in Antarctica – a weird place, and I think it would be the absolute best astronomy location in the world. If we were to build a small telescope there, it would have the same capacity to detect as some of the largest telescopes on earth, and that really excites me. If that telescope sees the light of day (or stars…) then I would be so proud to have made a major mark on astronomy by giving it a new place to observe from, and a cheap one too. It would open a lot of doors, and I’m excited by that potential. Its such an incredible place, and I hope to go back.


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