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James Graham
James Graham. Photo by Hill Peppard

Looking Skyward

James Graham aims for the stars as Dunlap Institute’s first director

Professor James Graham’s office is noticeably barren: There’s no artwork on the walls, and only a handful of texts on his bookshelves. That, of course, will change; he’s only been at U of T since September, when he arrived to serve as the first director of the recently established Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

While his office may be sparse and eerily quiet, the institute itself is a beehive of activity. It is already allied with two facilities pursuing first-rate astronomical research on campus: the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics. “CITA is already world-renowned for theoretical astrophysics,” says Graham, who was previously chair of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. “The goal is to match its extraordinary impact, but focusing on the experimental instrumentation aspects of astrophysics.” That, of course, means telescopes – Graham is an ardent supporter of the planned Thirty Meter Telescope, set to be the world’s largest – as well as the sophisticated devices needed to turn the dim light of unfathomably distant objects into useful scientific data.

Graham is renowned for his work in “adaptive optics,” which allows telescopes to correct for the blurring caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, and for his work in developing instrumentation for infrared astronomy. But he is also a hands-on observer: In 2008, Graham was part of the team that discovered Fomalhaut b, the first exoplanet – a planet orbiting a star beyond our solar system – to be directly imaged in visible light.

But seeing these distant worlds is just the beginning. Graham would like to understand how planetary systems form – a question that has been hotly debated but never solved. “It’s really the simplest question that you can ask about the origin and evolution of planets,” he says. There are at least two competing theories – core accretion and gravitational stability – but which one is correct? The Dunlap Institute, says Graham, is poised to build the telescopes and the detectors that will answer that question. “We have the capability within our grasp of seeing these planetary systems directly, and seeing which of these theories is valid.”

This is also an example of how, for Graham, there is really no way of separating theoretical work from experiment and observation; in fact, they go hand-in-hand. Theory can make predictions, but it also serves as “a springboard to focus your experimental activity,” he says. “[It tells you] what experiments need to be done, what technologies need to be developed to explore these predictions.”

For Graham, the rest of the universe is equally fascinating – and what he’s learning about planets will likely pay off further afield. “The wonderful thing about astrophysics is that it’s intertwined and interlocked,” he says. “Understanding how planets form is very closely related to the problem of star formation; the problem of star formation is very closely related to how clouds of dust and gas in the Milky Way form and disperse. And I don’t think you can be curious about one of those questions without being curious about the others.”

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