Several times a year I travel with my advisor, Dr. John Thorstensen, to the Michigan Dartmouth MIT (MDM) Observatory outside of Tucson, AZ, where we study a specific type of binary star system called a cataclysmic variable (CV). These star systems are similar to our solar system, but instead have two stars, one orbiting around the other like the Earth around the Sun. The orbiting star is similar to the Sun, but considerably less massive (meaning it has less matter). The one at the center is a small, dense core of a star like the Sun (left over after such a star has burned all of its fuel) called a white dwarf (WD).
When the stars are close together, the WD’s gravitational pull is strong enough to rip some of the outer layers of gas off of its companion. As it eats this gas, the WD’s brightness changes, hence the “variable” in CV. The “cataclysmic” part comes from the fact that once it eats enough gas, the WD burps out a nuclear explosion, one that is roughly one sextillion times more powerful than the most powerful bomb humans have ever built. For those not up to date with their “tillions”, a sextillion is a one with 21 zeroes.
These systems are fascinating, and studying them has been a fulfilling endeavor. Current observations tell us that at least 50% of the stars in our galaxy come in binary pairs, and that on average there is at least one planet per star. Observing CVs continues to yield a wealth of information about the history, evolution, and characteristics of our galaxy’s stars, and it will not be long until we find a planet orbiting a CV. To do so, however, we must observe them.
To that end, it is incredibly convenient that Dartmouth has partial ownership of MDM (along with Michigan, Ohio State, Columbia, and Ohio universities), meaning we can essentially sign up for observing time without too much bureaucracy. While this ability is incredibly liberating, as most major observatories require detailed proposals to even be considered for telescope time, it may become unsustainable. We do not need much financial support to do our work, but funding is required to fly back and forth across the country multiple times each year – an endeavor which would quickly break the bank on a grad student salary.
In the past, Dr. Thorstensen has been able to successfully secure grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to cover the costs of our program. However, between 2005 and 2014 the funding rate for Mathematical and Physical Science (MPS) proposals has declined from 29% to 26% – a trend mimicked in several other directorates, or subject areas. This is not a huge decline, but the situation gets worse when one looks at Astronomical Sciences (AST) funding in particular, which dwindled from 32% in 2001 to just 20% in 2011. These falling award rates can be traced to a combination of increased competition and stagnant funding: the number of AST proposals almost doubled between 2001 and 2011, and yet federal funding to MPS lagged behind inflation by 3% in that time period. In fact, in the past decade inflation went up by 21% while MPS funding saw only a 3% increase.
In 2014, the NSF accounted for a meager 0.3% of the Federal budget. It is a shame that this is the state of science policy in America today. If a statistic like that bothers you, then get involved – write your Congressperson, write your Senator, join Dartmouth STEPS (Science Technology and Engineering Policy Society). If we can create a discussion about this disparity that informs the public, perhaps we can start to make a change in our priorities as a nation. And maybe we can learn more about the universe in the process.
This article was originally published in 2015.