Wild Imagination

Astronomer Stephen Kane on telescopes, teaching and the effects of a zombie apocalypse

Stephen Kane looks up at hanging models of planets. Photo by Steve Babuljak

STEPHEN KANE PUBLISHED two widely discussed papers this April, including a blockbuster report on his discovery of Kepler-186f, a new rocky planet outside our solar system that might have liquid water at its surface. The other paper? Well, that one was about zombies.

More on the zombies later, but for now let’s consider them as an example of how Kane likes to shake up a profession that he says suffers from “typecasting with a telescope.” Astronomy “is really all about a fascination with the natural universe – and looking at it and letting your imagination go wild,” he explains. “And then through your imagination, that’s when you start to ask questions.”

Kane, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, is one of the world’s most prolific planet hunters. He uses a variety of tools to track them down, such as looking for tiny variations in the speed at which a star moves toward and away from Earth, pulled by its orbiting planets, or capturing the slight dimming of those stars as planets orbit in front of them. As head of NASA’s Kepler Habitable Zone Working Group, he is hoping to identify more Earth-like planets detected by the Kepler telescope mission.

His work places him within a grand tradition at SF State, following in the footsteps of Paul Butler (B.S., ’86; M.S., ’88), Debra Fischer (M.S., ’90) and Geoffrey Marcy, adjunct professor of physics and astronomy – the first team in the nation to discover planets beyond our solar system in 1995.

“The field of exoplanets has become very exciting, and it’s a field that was practically invented here at San Francisco State,” says Professor Maarten Golterman, chair of the physics and astronomy department. “We have a strong reputation in the field, and we like to keep that reputation going with Stephen.”

Planets have long been a part of Kane’s career plan. A sixth-grade trip to the planetarium, along with the stunning photos of Uranus and Neptune sent back to Earth from the Voyager spacecraft missions, ignited his interest. “What really struck me about it was this was a frontier of human knowledge, that we were just now seeing things that no one had ever seen before,” he recalls.

When he started his doctoral work in 1996, he assumed he would be studying planets within our solar system. But another frontier was just taking shape. “That’s when the first extrasolar planets were being found, and I thought, here is a limitless source of new planets that I can explore.”

Each of his 100+ planet discoveries has been as exciting as his first, Kane says, and the thrill is one that he tries to share with his students, especially those who may be intimidated by the math involved in astronomy. “The fact that we here, from our little vantage point on Earth, can measure the size of things that are hundreds and hundreds of light-years away is incredible, and I try to make that as much a part of the excitement as I can,” he says.

“What stands out the most to me about his teaching is how pumped he gets about his lectures,” agrees Charlie Showley, an astrophysics student who is working on his master’s project under Kane’s supervision.

“His ability to scale the physics side, the technical side, to the level of who he’s speaking with is really phenomenal,” says Colin Chandler, a junior and president of the physics and astronomy club on campus. Showley and Chandler (who is working on a separate study with Kane) say they have enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate closely with such an active researcher.

Kane’s outreach isn’t limited to teaching. After the public splash made by Kepler-186f, the creators of the video game “Civilization: Beyond Earth” consulted him on the new planets they were building for their game. It’s a reversal of roles, he jokes, from the times when journalists have asked him to compare his discoveries with well-known worlds from science fiction. “It may be that the next generation of directors like George Lucas won’t have to make up places like Hoth and Tatooine. They can use real planets that we know exist.”

Kane recently indulged in a little science fiction of his own, publishing an April’s Fools paper on how the Earth might defend itself against contaminated exoplanets devastated by a zombie apocalypse. For the zombie spoof, he says, “I was using real data in there, and talking about the science, and then I’d have to remind myself at some point that, oh, this isn’t meant to be serious!”

But even when he is at play in his field, Kane sees astronomy as a fundamental human pursuit. “Some people think money spent on space research is non-essential, but I vehemently disagree with that. We are in a fantastic generation that finally has the technological capability to answer the kinds of questions that people 100 years ago could only dream of knowing the answers to.”




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