Featured Profile

Dr. William Herbst
Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy
Wesleyan University

Professor Herbst is the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy at Wesleyan University and chairman of the Astronomy Department. He received an A.B. degree in Astrophysics from Princeton University in 1970 and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Toronto in 1974. Prior to his arrival at Wesleyan in 1978, he was a Fellow at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. In 2003 he received a Binswanger Award for Excellence in Teaching presented by the Alumni Association of Wesleyan University.

Professor Herbst is the author of ~250 papers in scholarly journals and has received continuous support for more than 25 years from NSF and NASA to carry out his research program on young stars. He has used telescopes on the Wesleyan campus and around the world to study the earliest visible phases of a star's life -- a time when planetary systems are only beginning to form. In 1995, he and his students discovered an object, designated KH 15D, that is known as the "winking star". It blinks on and off in regular fashion on a 48-day cycle. We now recognize it as a young, double star surrounded by an opaque disk which blocks the starlight during much of the stars' orbits. An animation of the system may be seen at this URL:  http://www.wesleyan.edu/newsrel/kh15d_animation.html.

An international research team, led by Professor Herbst and his former Ph.D. student Catrina Hamilton, now a professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, has recently published an article in Nature, demonstrating that the disk surrounding the winking star is composed of sand-sized grains. This is interesting because such grains are believed to be the first step in the formation of Earth-like planets but have never been directly observed by reflected light. This discovery affords the possibility of learning more about the earliest phases of the formation of the Earth and Solar System.

For more information about Professor Herbst and his research activities, please visit the home page of Wesleyan University's Astronomy Department at http://www.wesleyan.edu/astro/ 

Recent Contributions by Dr. William Herbst