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Black History Month Feature: Discussion With John Johnson
02.15.2012

Photo of John Johnson
John Johnson, scientist at NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena
February is Black History Month, and to mark the occasion, we recently sat down with John Johnson, scientist at NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Johnson discussed his research and recent discoveries, and the path that led him to the work he's doing today.

Q: Can you tell us about where you grew up?

A: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and I went to college at the University of Missouri at Rolla. It is now known as the Missouri University of Science and Technology. It is a small engineering and science school like Caltech. There I studied physics and earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, and I applied to graduate school only in California because it was my goal to only live in California, having lived in Missouri all my life. I was accepted to the astronomy school at U.C. Berkeley. There I studied astrophysics and earned my master’s degree in astronomy and eventually earned my Ph.D. in astrophysics, studying with Professor Geoff Marcy searching for planets around other stars.

Q: What is your job at NASA?

A: My job is to conduct research into the discovery and characteristics of planets around other stars. I use telescopes to observe the universe and nearby stars, looking for planetary systems.

Q: Tell us about your recent discovery?

A: Our recent discovery is very exciting, of a compact system of very small planets around a small red dwarf star. The discovery was originally made by the NASA Kepler team. They made their data public, and we were able to refine and revise the properties of the star in the planetary system. We found it was much smaller overall than we thought. It is a compact system of Earth-sized planets around a very faint red dwarf star.

Q: You found three planets?

A: We found three planets orbiting one red dwarf star. All three planets are smaller than the Earth. The smallest of those three planets is the size of Mars, making these the smallest planets found around another star. This is actually a solar system in that the central object is a hydrogen-burning star like our sun. But that star is not a G-type star like our sun, often referred to as a red dwarf.

Q: Have we found something like Earth?

A: In one respect we have found something like Earth. The planets are so small that the only conceivable concept of these worlds is they are rocky like our Earth. So they very much resemble Mars, Earth, and Venus much more than a giant gas planet. However, because they orbit close to their star, they are too hot to be in the habitable zone, which is the region where liquid water and life could exist.

Q: How does it feel to discover a solar system that is sort of like ours?

A: It is absolutely thrilling. When I started studying planets in graduate school, we were studying Jupiter-size planets. To me that was just amazing, seeing Jupiter-sized planets in unusual orbits around other stars. I couldn’t believe it. It was an exciting time to be a researcher. It is a testament to how quickly the field is advancing. It is happening because we have dedicated instrumentation that is targeting nearby stars, looking for tiny planets. When you put resources into this one purpose, you achieve your goals. It is exciting to see that unfold in front of my eyes.

Q: What made you more confident to pursue stuff no one else has done?

A: I lacked a lot of confidence when I started studying astronomy. It was most challenging thing I have ever done in my life. I had an easy time in high school. In college, I found my way and figured out how to get my A’s. When I got to graduate school, it was the first time that I encountered questions no one on Earth knew the answer to. There was no answer in the back of the book. There was not a right way to answer that question. I was looking at a difficult problem and trying to devise the method for reaching the answer. Because I was faced with the challenge and I could not do it overnight, it actually decreased my confidence initially. But fortunately I had a strong support network. I eventually accepted the fact it is okay to be stuck. To be a good scientist, you spend a great amount of time being stuck. Because that means you are doing something interesting. That means you are at the cutting edge. When I finally reached the answer, the pride restored my confidence, meaning I can actually do this. So I have been riding off that moment for the past 10 years as an astronomer. It is what helps me wake up in the morning and what keeps me going in my very busy days, are discoveries like these where there was no answer in the back of the book.

Q: What is your advice to young people?

A: A lot of young people believe the only way to be successful in this world is to go through school and get those grades, to go out and get a high-paying job and do your 9 to 5. There are people who are not satisfied with that. If you are not satisfied with that, then science is where to go. This is a field that is flexible enough where you can define your job. You can go out and find out how to investigate the universe. A lot of people don’t consider astronomy, chemistry or astrobiology a career. This is a great job to understand the universe. I can’t think of a better way to earn a paycheck. If there were a young person who came to me because he or she were really curious about the universe but feeling pressured to go out and earn a big paycheck, he or she should consider other paths. Academia and science are really fun places to work.



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