Thursday 30 May 2013

A Trio of Asia-Pacific Scientists

As promised, here is my tribute to lgbt scientists of Asia-Pacific heritage who are trying to discover more about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Keeping with the Ology of the Month and providing the Molecule of the Week I’ll start with Dr. Benny Chan, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the College of New Jersey. The reason I haven’t done a Molecule of the Week illustration is because the molecule in question has such a long name that it won’t fit – dodacapotassium hexaniobium pentatriacontaselenide, or K12Nb6Se35.3 (don’t bother trying to pronounce it unless you’re into chemistry!). This molecule or compound, along with hexacaesium tetraniobium docosaselenide (C6Nb4Se22), was discovered by Dr. Chan in 2007.

Chan’s research involves looking for superconductors that operate at room temperature, and it was while doing this research that the two new compounds emerged. Studying the compound’s crystal structures may hold the key to creating room-temperature superconductors.

A scientist I mentioned in January during my astronomy series is Dr. Martin Lo. He is an astro-mathematician who discovered gravitational superhighways through the solar system created by the sun and planets which make it easier to plot and operate space probe missions.

NASA’s Genesis mission, a probe sent to collect solar wind particles in 2001, used Lo’s superhighways to get to a point in the Earth’s orbit where gravitational forces between the planet and the Sun balance each other and kept the probe in place. This point is called a Lagrange Point and all planets and moons have them. Using his research Lo was also able to explain some of the unusual orbits of what are called the Jupiter family of comets.

Speaking of Jupiter and Lagrange Points brings me to my third lgbt Asian-Pacific scientist – Mike Wong.

Planets like the Earth have 2 Lagrange Points – one which precedes us and one which is behind us. They are roughly 60 degrees in angle from the Sun. The diagram shows what I mean. Both of Jupiter’s Lagrange Points are populated by hundreds of asteroids. Astronomers name these two asteroid groups after soldiers or participants in the ancient Trojan Wars. The asteroids orbiting in the Lagrange Point in front of Jupiter are members of the Greek camp, and those in the Trojan camp orbit behind Jupiter – except 2! Before astronomers decided to divide the two camps one asteroid in the Greek asteroid camp was named after a Trojan – Hektor. To balance things out astronomers decided to name one of the Trojan camp asteroids after a Greek – Patroclus. I’ll probably treat the whole groups of asteroids separately in a future Star Gayzing post. But for now I’ll concentrate on asteroid Hektor.

What Mike Wong and his colleague Frank Marchis discovered in 2006 while working with the University of California, Berkeley, was that Hektor was not one but two asteroids! Occasionally asteroids have their own moon orbiting around them, or rather orbiting around each other in what astronomers call a binary asteroid. Mike’s discovery that Hektor was actually one such binary was the first discovery of it’s kind among the thousands of Trojan/Greek asteroids.

Mike’s main research is on Jupiter itself, and in the course of his post-doctoral work at NASA he discovered the presence of ammonia ice in Jupiter’s atmosphere.


  1. Hi Tony, there are 5 Lagrange points (I expect you were trying to keep things simple), be seeing you, John

    1. Yes, John. I only mentioned the ones that were relevant to the Trojan asteroids.