Age: 17Scarsdale, NY
Project Title: Tatooine Found! Discovery and Characterization of the First-Ever Circumbinary Planet Detected Using Doppler Spectroscopy
Tatooine, the home planet of both Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, has captivated the minds of many science fiction aficionados ever since the release of the original Star Wars movie in 1977. Although this unique desert world, orbiting around its two parent “suns,” certainly resembles many of the terrestrial planets that we know of today, none were thought to exist at the time of the movie’s release. In fact, the first discovery of a so-called “circumbinary planet,” a planet orbiting around two stars, would not occur until 16 years later, in 1993. To date, 23 of these planets have been discovered; mostly through the Kepler Space Telescope, which made the discoveries through measuring the dip in brightness of a parent star when the planet crossed in front of it. Through a different technique known as Doppler spectroscopy (or the Radial Velocity method), which takes into account the movement of a star to and from the observer as a companion plays a gravitational game of tug of war with the star, Brian was able to discover another circumbinary planet, the first of its kind using Doppler spectroscopy. Subsequently, because this was the first-ever circumbinary planet detected using this particular method, Brian developed an innovative confirmation system to prove that the planet is real. This confirmation system pioneers the use of synthetic spectra using novel software capable of generating synthetic spectra of any custom star system specified by the user. Brian’s work in advancing the field of Radial Velocity astronomy will greatly increase the number of stellar companions discovered using this method. This is of critical importance because Earth’s potential uninhabitability is imminent due to human activities – to preserve our existence and continue to thrive into the future, we must become an interplanetary species.
Brian Wu is a 17-year-old rising senior at the Horace Mann School in Bronx, New York. Even before he could talk, one of the things that Brian’s parents knew about him was that all it took for him to calm down was to bring him outside to watch the night sky. It wasn’t until 4th grade, however, when his family took him down to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of the Curiosity Mars rover in person, that Brian really began to appreciate the power of aerospace engineering and astrophysics to answer some of the most difficult questions in the history of humanity. How do scientists direct a car-sized rover to a planet millions of miles away? What kinds of interesting discoveries would the technologically-advanced rover make on our nearest planetary neighbor? True to its name, the rover, representing the curiosity of scientists from around the world to understand whether Mars was capable of supporting life, made many critical discoveries that enhance our understanding of the planet today. Back on Earth, Brian channeled his inner curiosity through initially working on suborbital rocket designs from scratch, and subsequently entering the world of astronomy. His passion and appreciation for the wonders of the universe have catapulted him to today, where he applied innovative computing techniques to discover a unique, Tatooine-like circumbinary planet (a planet orbiting around two stars), the first of its kind detected using the Doppler spectroscopy technique. Brian is extremely grateful and humbled to be selected as a Davidson Fellow and would like to thank Mr. Bob Davidson and the Davidson Institute for Talent Development for their mission of recognizing the accomplishments of the top scholars of America and preparing them to become the leaders of tomorrow. As a member of the Davidson Fellows community, Brian seeks to continue developing and applying innovative technologies toward the discoveries of potentially habitable planets elsewhere in the universe in hopes of searching for a second home for life on Earth.
Brian’s project represents a major breakthrough in both the fields of Radial Velocity (RV) astronomy and exoplanetology through proving that RV instruments have the ability to detect not only rare circumbinary planets (CBPs), but also low-mass terrestrial planets located within their stellar habitable zones as well. For the past three years, he has been applying the Radial Velocity method (also known as Doppler spectroscopy) to search for low-mass giant planets and brown dwarfs within the Milky Way galaxy. As a society, we have made significant leaps in learning about the various components that make up the universe, but the search for habitable planets, as well as circumbinary planets for that matter, has proceeded relatively slowly, quite possibly due to the fact that not many of these objects have been previously detected. Brian initially aimed to fill in some knowledge gaps relating to short-period giant planets and brown dwarfs (a stellar companion that is more massive than a giant planet, but not enough to sustain the process of nuclear fusion, which is what makes stars glow), but after the serendipitous discovery of the Tatooine-like circumbinary planet, he decided to look further into this rare world. Firstly, he developed a novel confirmation system for planets detected using Radial Velocity, which involved coding a synthetic spectra generator. This was the first time synthetic spectra have been applied to the confirmation of planets detected using Doppler spectroscopy; furthermore, Brian’s novel technique will not only serve as an improved and more efficient method for exoplanet confirmation (especially concerning planets detected using surveys with unexpectedly high instrument systematic errors, stellar contamination, & noise), but as a calibrator for future high-precision exoplanet RV surveys as well.
A large proportion of the issues faced by Brian throughout his research was that he was exploring in an area of astronomy where few had previously set foot. For that reason, he embodied the true spirit of science – collaboration. Brian sought critical advice from experts in the field and held lengthy discussions with his mentor in order to determine a plan of action. Furthermore, he sat in on many research lectures and scoured content across a wide range of academic disciplines to further his understanding of the techniques he was applying in his research. One other significant obstacle that Brian overcame was that the RV data that he examined was quite noisy; this resulted in a lot of “false positives” – in other words, there were planetary signals popping up in locations where there shouldn’t be planets in the first place. Through developing statistical techniques to eliminate these false signals, Brian was able to realize that sometimes, unexpected results in research can lead to many novel discoveries, as was the case with the subsequent detection of the first circumbinary planet discovered using Doppler spectroscopy. In addition, through presenting research at various conferences and competitions, Brian has been able to receive critical feedback which led to significant enhancements in his work. Brian was mentored greatly by Dr. Jian Ge from the University of Florida, who assisted in providing literature and data resources to help him complete this project, and, most importantly, teaching him the values of persistence and courage. Dr. Ge was more than just a mentor to him. Not only did he learn the basics of research in astronomy from Dr. Ge but discussions between them commonly encompassed important life skills that further strengthened their relationship, as well as hilarious and intriguing anecdotes from Dr. Ge’s personal life. In addition, he is also grateful to Mr. Kevin Willis of the University of Florida for providing computational resources in relation to this project.
Earth is undoubtedly heading down towards the path of uninhabitability. Cities are becoming shrouded in industrial smog. Water levels are rising uncontrollably near coastal areas. Extremely weather is also plaguing residents of remote regions. The effects of climate change and other human-related activities have already caused extreme devastation towards the Earth’s ecosystem, and it is highly possible that the Earth will no longer be able to support life in a matter of centuries. Many have raised questions regarding the future of humanity, and personally, Brian believes that it is critical that humankind gains the ability to efficiently search the galaxy and beyond for habitable terrestrial exoplanets, while simultaneously developing the technology that allows them to travel there in a time-efficient manner. Through the discovery of one out of 24 known circumbinary planets (also the first of kind detected using the Doppler spectroscopy technique and one that lies within its binary habitable zone as well), Brian has demonstrated that Doppler spectroscopy is an extremely reliable and efficient technique for the detection of a wide variety of stellar companions. Moreover, his research also proves that, if RV instruments were to be refined in the coming years, a large number of habitable planets within a reasonable distance could potentially be detected by these instruments, thus providing humankind with a lot of possible “second homes,” should Earth end up becoming uninhabitable.
Beginning in the fall of 2019, Brian will be a senior at the Horace Mann School, located in Bronx, NY. He credits Horace Mann as one of the biggest catalyzers of his current success, as he was able to access virtually unlimited resources in both STEM and humanities, study under the guidance of instructors who are passionate about their fields of expertise, and become friends with some of the brightest scholars across the Tri-State region. At Horace Mann, some of Brian’s most influential teachers include Mr. Charles Garcia, Mr. Charles Worrall, Mr. Oleg Zvezdin, who instilled in him a love for mathematics, physics, problem-solving, and, most importantly, inquisitiveness. Brian would especially like to express gratitude to his Head of School, Dr. Thomas Kelly, for offering his full support throughout his research journey. In college, Brian aspires to major at the intersection of aerospace engineering and business, in hopes of understanding more about the universe and answering questions philosophers and scientists have raised for millennia. Brian sees this intersection as the core of a major turning point in human history, where humankind begins to venture out of the confines of Earth and are eventually dispersed throughout multiple habitable worlds in space. He is excited to be part of this revolution and to introduce the world to all the wonders and possibilities in space science and aerospace engineering. He strongly believes that the search for habitable planets, as well as the technologies required to travel to them, is of utmost importance to continuing the existence of humanity well into the future.
Since a young age, Brian has been actively engaged in bringing his love of space exploration and aerospace engineering outside the confines of the classroom. In 2019, Brian founded Apextial Innovations Inc., a startup aerospace engineering company focused on researching cutting-edge rocket engine techniques, as well as multi-purpose small satellites designed to operate in Earth’s orbit and beyond. Apextial’s first project is “THINK BEYOND,” a commemorative additively manufactured payload dedicated to inspiring and empowering the next generation to use STEM to solve the problems society is facing and engraved with the names of all 1,842 Intel ISEF 2019 finalists. This is scheduled to launch on the maiden flight of the Firefly Alpha project in December 2019. Apextial Innovations is the product of his four years of experience on APSIS Aero, his school’s aerospace engineering club, of which he currently is Co-President. In addition to his role in APSIS Aero, Brian is the managing editor of Spectrum, the science magazine, and has also founded the F=ma Physics Olympiad club. Brian’s research has also led to his recognition as a SIEMENS Competition Semifinalist in 2017, as well as a two-time Intel ISEF finalist (2018-2019). At the 2018 Intel ISEF, Brian received an Academic Excellence 4-year Renewable Scholarship to West Virginia University. At the 2019 Intel ISEF, Brian was presented with the top award of $5,000 from the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA), and he was subsequently invited by NASA’s Office of the Chief Scientist to present his research at NASA Headquarters in July 2019. In October 2018, Brian was selected as one of 12 speakers out of almost 300 applicants to deliver a TEDx talk at the 2018 TEDxJacksonville “Exchange: Conversations for the Curious” conference. Furthermore, Brian has also presented his research on behalf of Intel ISEF and Society for Science & the Public at the 2018 World Science Festival, where he appeared on a panel highlighting science and technology outreach to young students. Some of the other outreach and community service initiatives he has participated in include teaching entrepreneurship and healthy living classes to elementary students from the local Bronx community, teaching English to Japanese students in Sendai, Japan affected by the 2011 Tokohu Earthquake & Tsunami, and hosting an aerospace engineering class in his local community. Outside of the classroom and laboratory, Brian is an avid multi-season varsity athlete for various school teams; he also plays squash outside of school. Not only that, but he is also a budding hip hop artist who taught himself the basics of music production through fiddling with the equipment of his school’s recording studio. In his free time, Brian enjoys going out on long runs, making music and learning to play different instruments, skiing, taking apart electronics, and creating articles and trip reports for his online aviation blog, FlightLevel360.net.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? In 10 years, I hope to find myself where no man has ever gone before. Astronomers have discovered many potentially habitable terrestrial planets, and I aspire to be one of the first humans to set foot upon the surfaces of those extraterrestrial worlds, explore the foreign landscape, and collect scientific data that will further astronomers’ understanding of our universe. Hopefully I’ll be able to meet some Aliens as well!
If you could have dinner with the five most interesting people in the world, living or dead, who would they be?
Elon Musk (I want to fly in Starship one day), Neil Armstrong, Richard Feynman, Johannes Kepler, and Dr. Kendrick Kang-Joh Jeong aka Ken Jeong
If you could be on any TV show, which one would it be?I’ve been doing a lot of core and upper body strength training this summer, so I’d say American Ninja Warrior without a doubt. Salmon Ladder is my favorite obstacle, and I’ve been dreaming about actually doing that sometime! (If I can get featured on the show of course)
In the News
Brian Wu to be awarded $10,000 as a 2019 Davidson Fellow Scholarship Winner
Yonkers, N.Y. – The Davidson Institute for Talent Development has announced the 2019 Davidson Fellows Scholarship winners. Among the honorees are Isha Puri, 18, of Chappaqua; Vishnu Akash Polkampally, 17, of Ossining; and Brian Wu, 17, of Scarsdale. Only 20 students across the country are recognized as scholarship winners each year.
Wu’s project, Tatooine Found! Discovery and Characterization of the First-Ever Circumbinary Planet Detected Using Doppler Spectroscopy, identified a planet very similar to Tatooine from the Star Wars movies, and he developed a confirmation system to prove the planet’s existence. His work in advancing the field of radial velocity astronomy will increase the number of stellar companions discovered using this method. Wu, a rising senior at the Horace Mann School in Bronx, N.Y., feels strongly that finding planets capable of supporting life will be critical should Earth become uninhabitable, and plans to continue his work in astronomy.
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Started in 1999, the Davidson Institute for Talent Development is a 501(c)3 private operating foundation. Our mission is to recognize, nurture and support profoundly intelligent young people ages 18 and under, and to provide opportunities for them to develop their talents to make a positive difference.
Profoundly gifted students are those who score in the 99.9th percentile on IQ and achievement tests. Read more about this population in this article.