North Platte native documents the work of a pioneering astronomer – North Platte Telegraph

Astronomers have long searched the universe for planets, and in his new book The Lost Planets, North Platte native John Wenz discusses the account of Peter van de Kamp, who was one of the first to claim discovery of exoplanets.

Wenz is digital producer at Knowable Magazine, a science magazine based in Palo Alto, California. His writings have appeared in publications including Scientific American, Discover, New Scientist, Daily Beast, Vice Magazine, Wired and the Atlantic.

Wenz said he has always been interested in science, especially with both the planets of our solar system and those beyond it.

I can distinctly remember poring over the various science magazines at the North Platte Public Library and St. Patrick High Schools library just for any morsel of news coming out of space, Wenz said. Its always just been something thats captivated my interest going way, way back, even into childhood.

After graduating from St. Patrick in 2002, Wenz went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he received a degree in English in 2007.

I lived in Philadelphia for a bit, Washington, D.C., back to Philly and then to Madison, Wisconsin, for a couple of years, Wenz said. Ive kind of been all over the board.

He had been writing freelance articles for websites and other publications, but his focus shifted when he started freelancing for Popular Mechanics.

In 2013, it was when I started writing for Popular Mechanics that I connected that this is a way to channel my obsession with keeping up with space and science news into something that I could actually make a career out of, Wenz said. That both led to me working as a full-time contributor to Popular Mechanics for their online team, as well as branching out into other publications.

His work has appeared in most of the big science magazines, he said.

It kind of really opened the door from there, Wenz said. I started working on the book proposal while I was an editor at Astronomy Magazine.

The discovery of planets outside Earths solar system has long fascinated Wenz.

In 1995, we confirmed the first planet outside our solar system that orbited a star like the sun, Wenz said. That, obviously, had a lot of history leading up to it, but a lot of books Id read didnt really talk about the missteps along the way.

He said they would briefly mention it, but mostly in passing.

It was as if it didnt have its own history and its own importance, even if the people trying to discover these planets werent correct, Wenz said. They were certainly on to something, and thats something I certainly hope shows through in the book. These early efforts werent nothing they were helping point things in the right direction.

The problem, Wenz said, was that the technology to do the research well didnt come into maturity until the 1980s.

The astronomer Wenz features in his book announced in 1963 that he had identified a planet around Barnards Star, the second closest star system to the sun.

Van de Kamp was an astronomer at the Sproul Observatory at Swarthmore College, Wenz said. He had devoted his career to studying double stars and binary stars, oftentimes looking for a dimmer star that you cant quite make out because of the light of another star, but you can kind of tell that its wobbling in place in the sky.

From there, van de Kamp tried to move toward finding planets, especially around smaller stars where a planet would make a more profound effect on a star.

A planet doesnt just do a clean orbit around a star, they kind of tug on each other, Wenz said. Theres a little bit of a tug of war where the star is actually pulled slightly off its center position by the presence of a planet.

Thus, the wobble van de Kamp saw was something he used to claim his discovery. However, the planet that van de Kamp thought he had discovered does not actually exist as verified by subsequent research by other astronomers.

Still, Wenz, wanted to tell van de Kamps story, and tell people about his work in the development of astronomy. Since van de Kamps time, technology has improved and scientists have discovered about 4,000 planets.

The book is published by MIT Press and can be found on most online book stores, as well as in some brick and mortar stores, Wenz said.

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North Platte native documents the work of a pioneering astronomer - North Platte Telegraph

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