New EAPS Gilman Exoplanet Research and Education Fund to support collaborations in exoplanet science
With the creation of the endowed Gilman Exoplanet Research and Education Fund, MIT alumnus and solar physicist Peter A. Gilman SM ’64, PhD ’66 (XIX) looks to help EAPS researchers bring the universe, and particularly exoplanets, closer to Cambridge for years to come.
“The pace of progress for exoplanet research is astounding, and not just the number of planetary discoveries, but just how fast it’s broadening out into different topics,” Gilman says. “If a really big, important subject is immature, then your discoveries will come faster and I imagine it’s exciting, especially for the students; there’s just no end of thesis projects in this.”
Gilman’s interest in the skies and his bright career studying the sun began as a young graduate student at MIT. Under the direction and encouragement of thesis advisor and MIT professor Victor Starr—in Course XIX (Meteorology), which merged with Course XII to later become the current MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS, Course XII)—Gilman studied fluid dynamics, differential rotation, and magnetic patterns on the sun. After graduating, he joined the faculty of the Astro-Geophysics Department of the University of Colorado, then moved to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), where he stayed and made many seminal contributions to the field of magnetohydrodynamics and understanding of the solar dynamo. In 2006, the American Astronomical Society honored Gilman with the George Ellery Hale Prize for “his unique insights and substantial scientific achievements in understanding the dynamics of the solar convection zone and the mechanism of the Sun's magnetic dynamo and for his leadership and support of solar physics research programs.”
Gilman has dedicated his professional career to studying the inner workings of our solar system and the sun; now, with his financial support, EAPS scientists have more resources to look outward—past the edges of the solar system and make new discoveries in systems around distant stars: i.e. exoplanets. The endowed Gilman Exoplanet Research and Education Fund, launched with a gift of $100,000, will help EAPS scientists to advance exoplanet research, for example through collaborative symposia and meetings with partners outside of MIT. In creating it, Gilman is looking far into the future to ensure EAPS and MIT are leaders in exoplanet research. “This subject will be very active for potentially hundreds of years—we’re talking centuries here, not just decades—so an endowment is the right way to go.”
Gilman traces back his interest and support for extending a research idea to other areas of investigation to Victor Starr’s influence. “He [Starr] had a fundamental concept in mind that he was applying in a lot of places, and that spirit has never gone away.” In 2017, Gilman made his first generous gift of $100,000 to then-postdoc, now EAPS Assistant Professor Julien de Wit’s participation in the Search for habitable Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars project (SPECULOOS). This gift for exoplanet research at MIT helped EAPS to acquire and install its own telescope and to build the soon-to-launch SPECULOOS Northern Observatory in Tenerife, Spain. Looking to the future, Gilman sees great potential in exoplanet research. “There will be whole new subjects within this that will crop up that people haven’t really thought about and MIT has this unique connection to the earth sciences that brings in all the expertise that you could ever want.”
When EAPS spoke with Gilman after de Wit had been named the MIT Technology Review’s "Under 35 Innovator of the Year (Belgium)" in 2017, he said he “felt like a venture capitalist.” Now as a more seasoned investor in EAPS research, he advises other alums to think outside the box when seeking out new opportunities to support. “A department like EAPS, with all that expertise in earth sciences and the solar system, is perfectly positioned to understand what measurements mean for the atmospheres or surfaces of exoplanets,” Gilman says. “Frankly, I think EAPS is better equipped that way than a lot of astronomy and astrophysics departments. This is an area where everything is groundbreaking, and growth in new, exciting areas can be encouraged by an early gift.”