Youthful fascination leads to early career success

Published: August 15th, 2011

Category: Spotlights

Eric Ford

Eric B. Ford

Associate Professor of Astronomy
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Imagine a school kid who wrote letters to professors asking questions about their research and permission to use government supercomputers.

This was Eric B. Ford, now an associate professor in the University of Florida astronomy department. At 33, Ford is the recipient of the 2011 Harold C. Urey Prize for outstanding achievement in planetary research by a young scientist, one of the field’s most prestigious awards.

Fascinated by Voyager’s solar system exploration in the 1980s, young Ford always wanted to be an astronomer. He earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received his doctorate in astrophysical sciences at Princeton University.

“While my formal education was in sciences, I also learned computer science and statistics. This combination is unique, as I understand how computers work well enough to identify new ways to solve problems we face in planetary research,” Ford said.

Ford’s biggest contribution was a theory to explain the shapes and sizes of the orbits of exoplanets – planets outside our own solar system. Ford explored the possibility that close encounters between planets could eject some of them into space, altering the planetary systems left behind. First presented in 1996, he recalls it was viewed as a “good explanation for a few cases, unlikely to be common.” Now, the theory is widely accepted and recent observations have provided evidence that it may explain other unexpected properties of exoplanets.

Ford joined UF in 2007, coming from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where he was a Hubble fellow.

A good part of his time is devoted to teaching, yet he maintains a rigorous research program. Along with UF graduate student Knicole Colon, he found evidence of potassium in a planet outside the solar system. It was a groundbreaking discovery using the Gran Telescopio Canarias, the world biggest optical telescope, built in Spain’s Canary Islands through a partnership of UF, Spain and Mexico.

Ford said: “Astronomers don’t want to have many distractions. Astronomy is my hobby and searching for exoplanets keeps me awake many nights.”

That enthusiasm might explain why NASA chose him to join the science team for its Kepler mission, an ambitious exoplanet search that has already discovered more than 1,200 planet candidates. Ford has played an important role in several discoveries, including Kepler-11, a system with six rocky planets orbiting a star like the sun, 2,000 light-years from Earth.

Ford created computer tools to measure small timing changes when a planet passes in front of its host star. Tracking these changes, Ford and teammates pioneered a new technique to discover the presence of other planets and learn about their masses and orbits.

He also finds time for the community. “I helped start OASES (Outreach for After-School Enrichment with Space-Sciences), a program that brings astronomy to after schools programs in underserved communities. It’s a chance for children to interact with real scientists and see that science is a process, not just a bunch of facts in their textbook,” Ford said.

Photo credit: Laurie Hice Michaelson — University Photography

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