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Interview withGuillem Anglada

Radio - TV


G. Anglada


  • Source: Noticias UB
  • Context: Award ceremony of the last edition for the Awards of the UB Board of Trustees and Bosch i Gimpera Foundation in December 2017


Guillem Anglada Escudé (Ullastrell, Vallès Occidental, 1979), currently professor of Astrophysics at the Queen Mary University of London, studied Physics at the University of Barcelona, where he got his doctorate in 2007 with a thesis related to the Gaia mission and supervised by Professor Jordi Torra. His field of study is the exoplanet detection precision techniques. He led the research group that discovered the planet Pròxima b around the closest star to the Earth, Proxima Centauri. In late 2016, the journal Naturechose him as one of the top ten scientists of 2016 worldwide. Anglada took part in the award ceremony of the last edition for the Awards of the UB Board of Trustees and Bosch i Gimpera Foundation in December 2017.

What does the discovery of new exoplanets give us regarding the knowledge of our planet?
There are several aspects: one is the pure knowledge on how planetary systems and their involved physical processes are formed, such as fluids dynamics and astrophysics: this is the strictly scientific part of pure knowledge. Then, there are other factors, such as answering big doubts to know how common our planet is in the context of the Universe, about the origin of life and the necessary conditions for this life to appear. So far, we know about the sufficient conditions to have life in our planet, but we don’t know about the necessary ones. Knowing how extraordinary Earth can be makes us value it even more.

At the moment, we know about 3,500 exoplanets, the closest one being Proxima Centauri b, located about four light-years, and recently they discovered another one, at eleven light-years. What can we know now about these exoplanets?

So far we have detected them in a basic way. This consists on determining whether the planet is there, and defining its orbital period and its mass. These exoplanets have a similar mass to our planet’s, and their distance from the star makes them to have a temperature which is also similar to ours. These features make them special to be potentially similar to ours. However, like I said, we know about the necessary conditions for a planet to have life and these are so far, but we have a long list and we have to check each one of them.

Do you think we could reach these planets?
If we ever reach another planetary system, Proxima b will be the first planet to reach. Four light-years is very far but this is the closest one we’ve got.

The idea of reaching other planetary systems and look for evidence of life appeared in the seventies with Frank Drake and other researchers, in the context of programs such as SETI. Then, they calculated and thought about some technologies, such as nuclear fusion, but it never worked out.
The new work line, led by investors in Sillicon Valley, is to miniaturize probes. Instead of sending machines that weigh tons or hundreds of kilograms, the idea is to build small probes based on mobile technology.

For instance, creating a solar sail driven by a laser could reach higher speeds than a big probe and go up to a 10-20% of the light speed. With this speed, it would take around twenty years to reach the planet and therefore it would allow researchers to conduct the experiment in the same generation. Without further technical details, it is estimated that this technology could be available in twenty years.

This proposal would allow us to make more than a launch, hundreds, actually. The paradigm is quite different, we need fifteen years to develop a probe and “cross our fingers” so that everything works out fine. Also, there is not much technological iteration; everything is done for the first time.

One of the topics Nature highlighted the most was the discovery of Proxima b, the public campaign called Pale Red Dot project to monitor the search of the exoplanet. What was that about?

This was an important part of the project. With the means of the campaign for the detection of the planet around Proxima Centauri we carried out a communication campaign.

Using a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter profile, we told people about the steps we were taking, despite not knowing whether there was a planet. Also, the project had to last two months, enough time to carry out such an announcement. We published articles by known scientists; we explained the technical details of science and promoted debate. The discovery of the closest planet to Earth was already relevant but this campaign favoured the understanding and promotion of our work.

This communication part was carried out by professionals from the areas of communication and dissemination from the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) observatories, and the joint work worked fine when uniting the image and uses of social networks.
Although it was first aimed at a general audience, it did not work out exactly well for that, but we got many scientific journalists, scientific writers from journals, etc. to follow us.

What was the aim of this campaign?
These topics, which are popular in science, have to be used so that people understand what to carry out an experiment is, what scientific evidence is.
Moreover, scientific communication is a global topical subject, since we are in a moment of crisis regarding credibility (anti-vaccines, climate change denial…). In this context, we have to make an open science and to make it understandable so people see how an experiment works.
In my opinion, science has to be society’s third sector. We should be present in TV series such as La Riera or in debates that appear in the media –to get to separate scientific topics from others such as faith.

You think this is ignorance.
This is not about ignorance, but critical thinking training. In England, for instance, people are adding a communication budget to spend in research projects. Some funding entities require a communication and dissemination plan with a certain budget and communicating hours. Having three students publishing tweets, like we do now, does not work. The tendency is that about 2-3% will take a budget for communication. Like in companies, communication is part of the strategy; it has to be inside the scientific project from the very start.

Regarding the FBG awards, they honor cases of returning acquired knowledge to society. Do you think your research is one of these?
Not all basic research ends up returning, but if only one out of ten basic research projects ends up with a disruptive improvement, that is enough to justify these investments.

To do science, you have to set some goals but we understand that when you carry out some research, there will be mainstreaming with different disciplines, technologies, and society. And this is the sense of basic research.

You carried out a research in the UB as part of the Gaia project. Now that Gaia is about to publish a new catalogue, how do you think its data can help the research on exoplanets?
Gaia Mission is about astrometry: measuring distances, orbits… and this is one of those tasks that have to be done. There are branches of astrophysics ─such as the study of galaxies─ which need these kind of data to do science. In our case, understanding the planet depends on the understanding of the star. That is, the more data we have on the star, the better we will understand its orbit exoplanet.
In fact, Gaia is for everything, it gives you the standards to measure the universe.

It’s been almost four years you have been carrying your research out in the United Kingdom. How can Brexit affect the world of research?
I don’t know how yet. There is a lot of uncertainty. Regarding universities, for instance, they are non-profit entities in England, and the finance they receive depend on the amount of students they have, and many of them are European.

Regarding research, they are now finding that having an English researcher leading an international project is quite risky. Projects do not get results after three or four years and now the Government cannot guarantee their budgets.

Are you considering coming back?
I am not ruling that option out, although there aren’t many grants for young researchers. Programs like ICREA seem to be aimed at senior researchers.

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