When it comes to firing the human imagination, space surely provides the biggest bang with its impossible black vastness, its untouchable sparkly bits, its unknown goings-on.
Perhaps this explains the spartan aesthetic of Room 222 in the University of Toronto's Astronomy and Astrophysics Building, where a trio of planet hunters made a historic, world-beating discovery recently. A scant two storeys above ground and redolent with the bookish aroma of academe, the office is astronomical only in its dullness.
Apparently there's no point in decorating when your dusty Dell monitor serves up images as impressive as the one making new stars out of U of T astronomers David Lafrenière, Ray Jayawardhana and Marten van Kerkwijk: the first-ever picture of a planet in probable orbit of a star similar to our sun - 500 light-years away.
Dusty offices - "That's where the work is done these days," Dr. Lafrenière, 30, said this week from Montreal, where he sat at another run-of-the-mill desktop monitor to observe the night skies.
Such is astronomy in the Internet age. Rather than travel to Hawaii or Chile, where the best telescopes sit, researchers can tell astronomers at those facilities where to point them, then follow along on their screens from wherever they happen to be.
On April 27, it happened to be Dr. Lafrenière - a rookie just months into a postdoctoral stint under Dr. Jayawardhana, a hotshot Sri Lankan-born professor known as "RayJay" - who was sitting in Room 222 when something interesting came in from the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii.
Follow-up research over the summer confirmed the object to be a planet eight times the size of Jupiter, apparently circling a young star with the inscrutable name of 1RXS J160929.1-210524. When the image became public this week, international media lenses turned on U of T, whose astronomical achievements, while well known in the field, are most often lost amid the earthly hubbub of the city.
A recent case in point: Just this week, J. Richard Bond, a veteran U of T astrophysicist, went to Boston to accept the $500,000 Gruber Cosmology Prize, co-sponsored by the International Astronomical Union. His achievement? No less than enabling scientists to understand how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, from nothingness to a structured realm of galaxies and stars and planets.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, nobody noticed.
Dr. Jayawardhana, a luminary in his own right at the age of 37, has been doing his part to change that since U of T lured him from the University of Michigan in 2004. A year later, he organized a public lecture series called Cosmic Frontiers and managed to sell out Convocation Hall, capacity 1,500, over four Friday nights.
As U of T gathers momentum in the astronomy field, it has become an international magnet for top talent. Part of the draw is the chance to study with the likes of Dr. Jayawardhana, whose science reporting and subsequent stellar feats made the name RayJay a familiar one to aspiring planet hunters. The man himself, however, seems bemused by his own unlikely trajectory, from stargazing kid from a small town in Sri Lanka to international authority on what they call "extra-solar" planets.
It started when he was a boy of 3 or 4, outside the family home in Hambantota, a small town on the island nation's south shore. "I was outside in the garden with my dad, and I remember him saying that people have walked on the moon," he said. "And it just sort of struck me like, wow, if people can walk on the moon, they can do anything."
Later, as a teen in the suburbs of Colombo, he joined a young astronomers' club sponsored by Arthur C. Clarke, the famed British sci-fi author who penned 2001: A Space Odyssey and had settled in Sri Lanka in the 1950s. He went on to meet Sir Arthur several times and paid him a visit a few months before his death in March.
In 1989, at the age of 17, the star-struck high-school student launched a one-man campaign to get Sri Lanka to issue a stamp to commemorate the first lunar landing by American astronauts 20 years earlier. Despite the country's utter lack of involvement in the mission, he succeeded, and today, he keeps the stamps in a frame in his Toronto office.
When asked where he found the chutzpah to take on his country's philatelic bureau, Dr. Jayawardhana smiled and gave an answer that could explain his boyish exuberance and that of his colleagues.
"When you're a kid, nobody tells you you can't do it," he said. "You've got much less to lose, so why not try it?"
Educated at Yale and Harvard, he had an academic record that was impressive enough, and included the 1998 discovery, while still a grad student, of a "planetary construction zone," as Newsweek dubbed it in a cover story. But it was his knack for conveying the oft-abstract wonders of the cosmos to the masses, as a former science journalist and an engaging speaker, that made RayJay an irresistible get for Toronto. "As a department, we saw it as a very big benefit," said Dr. van Kerkwijk, who met Dr. Jayawardhana at a conference in Sydney, Australia, early this decade and commenced wooing him.
For his part, Dr. Jayawardhana found Toronto more livable than many of its U.S. counterparts, which he had come to know during his 14 years as an academic south of the border.
He also arrived to find a Canadian astronomy community that "punches above its weight" by world standards. Research papers by Canadian space scientists have been cited more often than those of any other country during the past 10 years, according to ScienceWatch.com.
Within Canada, Toronto stands out as home of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, which U of T won the right to host in 1983. Funded by the federal government's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the institute is boasts 24 postdoctoral researchers from around the world.
With any luck, these top-flight researchers will add their own luminous discoveries to the growing list at U of T, drab offices notwithstanding.