The Asian Scientist Spotlight: Dr. Johny Setiawan Of The Max Planck Institute
By Dyna Rochmyaningsih | Editorials
August 12, 2011
We talk to Dr. Johny Setiawan, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, about his discovery of exoplanet HIP 13044 b which originated in another galaxy.
AsianScientist (Aug. 12, 2011) – In Indonesia, where very few people have a serious interest in astronomy, Dr. Johny Setiawan stands out of the crowd.
A successful Indonesian astronomer, Dr. Setiawan now works at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg, Germany, observing and analyzing data about the extrasolar planetary system, White Dwarfs, Wolf Rayet Stars, and the phenomena of stellar atmospheres.
Dr. Setiawan’s major achievement was the discovery of HIP 13044 b, the first exoplanet that originated in another galaxy. His discovery, which was published in the prestigious journal Science last year, gives us a tantalizing glimpse of possible fate of our solar system in the distant future since it orbits a star nearing the end of its life.
Born in 1974, Dr. Setiawan is rather young for having achieved so much. He spent his childhood and completed high school in Jakarta, before moving to Germany to pursue an undergraduate degree at the University of Freiburg. Besides being an astronomer, Dr. Setiawan is also a professional cook, a documentary film producer, and the Deputy Director of the International Indonesian Scientist Association.
Asian Scientist Magazine had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Setiawan, who answered our questions on the possibility of life outside earth, the role of basic science in development, and the brain drain phenomenon in Indonesia.
Dr, Setiawan, some people talk about mining comets and the moon for minerals, could exoplanets someday help people on earth?
The current surveys to search for exoplanets concentrate firstly on the presence of exoplanets. However, when the space technology to override the distance between planetary systems is developed in the near or far future, someday people on earth will be able to do explorations on other planets.
Based on the current complexity of our human way of thinking, I believe it will still take a few centuries to get to this achievement.
How do exoplanets differ from other non-earth planets?
Exoplanets found so far are actually pretty much similar to gas or ice giants in our Solar Systems. They do not differ that much from the non-earth planets, except for their orbits. A lot of them have orbits which are very close to or very far away from their parent stars.
In particular, their orbits are in general not circular, which differ from the planetary orbits in our Solar System. It is a great challenge for scientists to understand this phenomenon.
Do you have any new insights to the “final puzzle” of how the host star HIP 13044 could have formed a planet since it contains so few heavy elements?
No, but there is a new scientific paper from Sergei Nayakshin who is trying to explain the formation of giant planets around stars with a very low stellar metallicity.
Meanwhile, we as observers are increasing our targets to detect more such planetary systems. The combination of both observations and theoretical models might provide an answer to this.
Do you think that Gliese 581d, which was discovered at the edge of the”Goldilocks zone” outside our Solar System, could be able to host life?
Gl 581d is a super-earth orbiting the star Gl 581 within the “habitable” zone. Scientists are speculating that this system, especially Gl 581d, could support life. In principle, it is not impossible for Gl 581 d to host life, in the sense that it is similar to the life on earth, if there is liquid water.
My personal concern is actually based on the nature of the parent star itself that does not support life. The star is probably an active star whose activity can affect the atmosphere of the planet, remembering it is located in a close orbit (only 20 percent of the Sun-Earth distance).
Thus, if there were life supporting elements, they are not well protected so that it cannot develop to what we call ‘life-like’ on Earth.
More and more, there is an insistence that science show tangible, economic benefits. For example, the NASA Shuttle Program was shut down due to many reasons, one of which was its financial cost.
The tangible benefit from exoplanet research is likely to be a little ways off. How can basic scientists help orient the public to value the ‘basic’ sciences?
Basic sciences and any kind of research are actually very important for the survival of humanity. These have been developed for centuries or even a thousand of years to overcome catastrophe or repair damage in the world.
It has never been for major economic reasons in the sense of monetary benefit, but to increase the global wealth, which is different. Despite budget difficulties, I believe scientists are still always active in thinking and making achievements, also in the exoplanet research fields.
Note that the United States is not the only country who can go to the space and there are countries which are preparing to take its role in space in the next decades. Once the planet search programs find a habitable planet or perhaps even more than one, I am sure that people by nature will have great interest in understanding the new worlds.
If one remembers the history of how the world became a global economic place between countries, someday in the future, it might be the same story between worlds.
Pertaining to the role of basic science in human civilization, what do you think about basic science in developing countries like Indonesia? Do you think it should be a priority, since some suggest that developing countries require more applied research?
Indonesia should give high priority to the basic sciences as well. We can see clearly in the current situation, that only developing countries who have developed and supported basic sciences (Japan, China, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea) parallel to applied sciences are now already or almost on the same level as developed countries in Europe and North America.
The key is actually easy: basic sciences increase the capability of humans to think more critically, such that it increases the quality of the human resource. The higher the quality of the human resource, the better the productivity of the nation and the faster the development processes. The people will work more efficiently, because they can solve problems by themselves, instead of waiting for others.
It is thus wrong for developing countries to only focus on applied research. It is even perhaps the strategy of other countries to make developing countries depend on them, since these countries are their markets. And of course, if their people cannot think critically, they do not see it happening, and may be abused by the rich countries.
What do you think about “brain drain” phenomenon that occurs in the scientific community of Indonesia? Do you have any suggestions for both the government and brilliant young Indonesian scientists?
The brain drain phenomenon is indeed real, if the home countries of the scientists do not provide sufficient resources the scientists need. Since scientists do have the unique freedom to choose their hosts, they can go anywhere they want and even be able to pull scientists in their home countries away. You can guess, who then are left at home and are elected to govern.
Thus, brain drain is a serious danger with a potentially high impact in the future, in particular if the country does not have good qualified human resources anymore. Such countries will not have a strong economic foundation due to high consumption rates, and finally the whole country will become entirely insolvent or bankrupt.
The government of Indonesia should aware of this potential future danger, and follow the strategy of other countries to pull Indonesian scientists back home by giving them big opportunities and funding support to develop their research. Once the top scientists want to return to Indonesia, they will pull in other scientists to support scientific development.
To read more about Dr. Setiawan’s research:
Dr. Setiawan’s website
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.